The Defilement and Profaned Symbols in Extreme Metal

Matthew P. Unger
Matthew P. Unger

Ricoeur’s interpretation of symbols allows us to analyze symbols as structuring elements in the expression of our worlds of meaning. Defilement is an exemplary expression of this nature of symbols since it is through the demythologization of symbols and understandings of fault that allows an aesthetic resonance to develop within the genre. Therefore, people are able to employ certain symbols within the genre in myriad ways precisely because these symbols are (always) already profaned.

The current era flattens symbols, but in this flattening, symbolic meaning arises. The varying resonances and effects of symbols for different people is what allows people to create, experience, and interpret this music positively.

Ricoeur had moved from a phenomenological approach attempting to understand the conditions of the experience that conditions what Ricoeur calls the “limit experience” of evil. This engagement with symbols forced him to re-evaluate the significance of symbols for the constitution of the human subject.

Influenced by Heidegger’s linguistic ontology, Ricoeur subjected phenomenology’s tendency towards the first philosophy to a hermeneutical analysis of symbols that express possibly fundamental social experiences that always already exceed the reach of a phenomenologist.

As Ihde suggests as well, Ricoeur moved in his analysis of language and symbols towards a social ontology of meaning that incorporates a hermeneutics of existence (Ihde 1974 ).

The experience of evil — the symbolic expression of doing and experiencing evil — can only be expressed symbolically, and as such, remains opaque to direct philosophical analysis. As a limiting experience that presents an aporia to direct analyses of the formal phenomenology, Ricoeur uses evil to explore the symbolic and mythical foundations of philosophical thought.

Only through a long and careful hermeneutical analysis starting from within the myths and symbols themselves can we begin to think through the significance of confession of evil culminating in the theme of the servile will found in both Luther and Spinoza (Ricoeur 1974a ).

In ‘Symbolism of Evil’ (1960), Ricoeur analyzes the symbolic consciousness of the confession of evil as existing at the foundations of scientific and speculative interpretations of fault.

Ricoeur is concerned about those social conditions that reflected Nietzsche’s ([1882]1974) formulation of “the death of God.” Ricoeur believes that this pronouncement signified a profound cultural event, reflected in language, symbols, and ethical relations.

For Ricoeur, Nietzsche’s famous phrase describes not merely a philosophical condition but rather a profound change of the conditions through which we use symbols. That is, Ricoeur understands the death of God to be a symbolic condition. Before the critical age, religious symbolisms and discursive structures formed the foundation of our thinking, explanations of the world, and ethical relations.

Now, however, critical thought and the ideas from the famous hermeneuts of suspicion — Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx — have transformed religion irremediably. For Ricoeur, the death of God is primarily constituted by the death of the God of morality ( 1974e ) wherein what has passed are the meta-narratives that structure our relationships with others and the world.

The critique and collapse of meta-narratives dictated by religion, cultural traditions and authoritative social structures have transformed irrevocably structures of meaning, rationalities, and ethical relations. For Ricouer, the result has been a profound change in the way symbolic meanings and ethical norms are stabilised.

Within Ricoeur’s early analysis of religious symbols is the use of a dialogue between two different registers or types of hermeneutics.

The first form is that of a regressive analysis of an archeology of desire exemplified by Freud. Regressive modes of analysis, beginning with Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, depend on a critical reading of the potential and ostensible motivations that underlie an event, expression, or social fact.

The exemplary form of this mode of analysis is psychoanalysis. In order to understand the contemporary significance of religious symbolisms we need to reveal the psychosocial functions, condensations, compensations, and archaic resemblances of various social discourses, such as religion as an archaic mode of interaction with the world, or even a false consciousness.

In an age of critique, this revelation of underlying motivations allows for the deconstruction of what Ricoeur calls “the corrupt parts of religion” (Ricoeur 1974 , 437). For instance, to use Ricoeur’s example of defilement with ‘The Symbolism of Evil’, if it exists today, then it would merely be a regression to archaic (cathected) social patterns at odds with modern thinking and rationalities.

Embedded within this regressive analysis, however, is a second manner of interpretation in which a regressive analysis points towards the “infinite” aspects of human experience.

On Ricoeur’s reading of Freud’s theory of culture, the significance of religious meanings, history, and symbols is not a mere analogical formulation of an individual psychological model, but rather an explicitly social understanding of the psychological and language.

Ricoeur sees Freud as suggesting that culture, art, and religion are not purely symptomatic, reflecting merely a psychological condensation and compensation, but also signify simultaneously a kind of creative repetition.

The second form of interpretation is that of a phenomenology of spirit influenced by Hegel, whereby Ricoeur employs a dialectics of human experience that allows him to move towards the treatment of significant symbols in human history as representative of the movement of consciousness in history.

In deconstructing the necessity of the Hegelian absolute spirit as well as the realism of Freudian regressive analyses, Ricoeur suggests that consciousness follows the circular movement of symbols and thought, in which the hidden meanings embedded within symbolic expressions are revealed through interpretation.

Symbols allow the abstraction of experience, including the possibility of speculative and reflective thinking, which then transforms our experience of the world that conversely works upon symbols.

New symbols and structures of thought do not replace the old symbols, but rather, they sublate the previous depth and weight of these symbols such that they find expression within the new contemporaneous experience of the world.

For Ricoeur, this methodology justifies a theory of symbols from what Ricoeur sees as revolutions of consciousness that occur in the transformation of symbolic expressions. Revolutions of consciousness can be seen, for example, in the movement from defilement in the magical conception of the world, to an experience of sin and being “before God,” to the interiorization of fault within an experience of guilt (Ricoeur 1969, 1974a , 1974b ).

This is a point where it seems that Ricoeur also invokes a temporal theory of symbolism that intertwines his understanding of history, the present, and the future. This archeology is exemplified within the regressive/ progressive synthesis within ‘Psychoanalysis and the Movement of Contemporary Culture’ (1974).

In this synthesis, regression and progression do not reflect two diametrically opposed psychological or cultural processes; but rather, they are, in Ricoeur’s terms, “abstract terms deduced from a single concrete process whose two extreme limits designate (pure regression and pure progression)” (Ricoeur 1974b, 137).

Ricoeur continues to characterize this synthesis in question form: “Do not the most innovative forms an artist, writer, or thinker can generate not have the twofold power of concealing and revealing, of dissimulating the old, in the same way, dream symptoms or neuroses, and of revealing the most incomplete and unrealized possibilities as symbols of [humanity] of the future?” (Ricoeur 1974b, 138)

Ricoeur suggests that what is foundational to human existence, broadly speaking, is the interminable dialectic between the finite and the infinite aspects of our experience. Indeed, within an analysis of the economy of desire these artifacts also represent a teleological desire for a beyond.

Thus, the significance of symbols exists not merely in an analysis of the implicit motivations found within archaic forms of desire, but also in what Ricoeur deduces through a critique of the God of morality in the fallible foundations of our desire and effort to exist.

For Ricoeur, the only way to gain access to this is to enter into dialogue with the symbols of the religious that appear to us in both their contingency and their historical significance. Ricoeur writes, “we are never certain that a given symbol of the sacred is not also ‘a return of the repressed;’ or rather, it is certain that every symbol of the Sacred is also simultaneously a return of the repressed, the re-emergence of both an ancient and infantile symbol […] There is always some trace of the archaic myth which is grafted to and operates within the most prophetic meanings of the sacred.” ( 1974b, 329)

These statements mark Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenological method that forces one to move slowly towards an ontological understanding of our social and linguistic being. To think of the underlying motivations, archaic significances, and overarching dogmas is for Ricoeur to think positively through this destruction of metanarratives, which in the end, points toward the possibility of authentic living or thinking.

Ricoeur’s ideas of symbols changed throughout his career reflecting a progressive shift towards discourse and narrative. The early Ricoeur, however, offers a model of great utility in examining the manner in which contemporary symbols reflect hidden and opaque experience that is often difficult to analyse.

A fundamental point that I take from Ricoeur is that symbols function differently in a post-metaphysical time such that they are separate from their dogmatic origins in a naïve, social experience.

The symbol, therefore, Ricoeur understands as “any structure of meaning in which a direct, primary, or literal sense designates in addition another sense which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can only be apprehended only through the first” (Ricoeur 1974 , 12). This statement of symbols allows Ricoeur to propose the methodological question of hermeneutics.

The interpretation of these symbols then takes on a specific function. “Interpretation,” he continues, “is the work of thought, which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding levels implied in the literal meaning” (12).

Ricoeur argues that symbols are comprised of several different registers, the Oneiric, The Nocturnal, Cosmic, and Poetic levels, each of which serve to capture a holistic conception of the profundity and depth of symbolic experience.

The Cosmic aspect of language comprises the transcendent aspects of religious discourse and symbols. Oneiric means “of dreams” and relates to the echo of symbols deep within the individual.

Finally, poetic language is the creative reconstitution of symbols within the productive imagination. For Ricoeur, these do not reflect strict, historical, or structural separations, but rather phenomenological distinctions that modulate throughout time and are constrained by contingency.

I argue that the interaction of these aspects and registers of symbolic significance can be seen as a kind of aestheticization of symbols. As such, through an aesthetic analysis, we can uncover an understanding of the resonance between the various disparate aesthetic choices. I argue that aestheticization takes the route of the poetic aspect of language; symbols are always in an abstraction of the experience they attempt to signify.

Symbols, Ricoeur writes, are always in the process of demythologization. This demythologization in a critical era lifts symbols out of their etiological origins towards a creative repetition of more fundamental symbols such as defilement.

The previous significances and meanings of more primary symbols are not necessarily destroyed with each contemporaneous repetition for each new epoch, but are rather animated by it within the present. A more current term, virtual, comes to mind here where the putative origin is both constraining and constrained. The profanation of symbols — their abstractions, transformation, and opaqueness — allows people to use symbols in myriad ways.

Ricoeur would argue that the current age is one of forgetfulnesses and the flattening of symbols, but flattened symbols gain aesthetic meaning as symbols even when we have forgotten the true significance of symbols. For these reasons, musicians can use symbols for purely evocative reasons, for the sake of atmosphere, or for other generic reasons. The dispersion of meaning also allows the condensation of political, transgressive, horrifying themes for the purpose of edification.

The nature of symbols is such that they enter the world of discourse as abstractions wherein various social discourses become interdependent, influencing and constraining each other. Ricoeur writes that the primary symbols of fault (such as defilement, guilt, and sin) have broad ramifications in the cosmic, the ethical, and the political (Ricoeur 1969, 11).

In other words, social discourses such as aesthetic, religious, political, and judicial discourses are not autonomous but ground and constrain each other. The inherent abstraction of symbols allows their discursive constitution to function as floating signifiers, wherein discourses have resonance with each other because they refer to similar phenomenological experiences.

Essentially, the ambiguity, enigma, and mystery of symbols allow the interaction of many different social discourses. I contend that this is one reason why atmosphere, especially a dark atmosphere, is so important with some genres of extreme metal but interpreted and experienced sonically and symbolically in many different ways.

Ricoeur would argue that myths function in this way. For him, myths enter into discourse not through their ability to become translated into clear language as in allegory (as a tenet of wisdom), but rather through the enigma of symbols and what they reflect.

They reflect an ability to say something about the universal condition of human existence expressed as a narrative — an ability to tie human experience not to merely present, but to a “human” history through symbols.

This narrative also reflects the ability for myths to express an “ontological bearing” (Ricoeur 1969, 163). When he speaks of demythologization, Ricoeur is careful to distinguish the term from “demythization,” signifying not the destruction of myths, but rather the emptying of the explanatory powers of myth. In my estimation, extreme metal reflects this demythologization very nicely: extreme metal explores many different stories, myths, and symbols in expressing the particular aesthetic experience of defilement.

Within the poetic function of language, Ricoeur discovers a teleology inherent within symbols. This teleology of poetic language effectively situates aesthetic judgment since symbols allow us to think and experience the world; symbols animate our lives and condition what we find significant. The poetic imagination, according to Ricoeur, is the “welling point of language” (Ricoeur 1969, 11).

I believe that extreme musics tend towards marginal beliefs, identifications, and ideology because of the teleology of poetic language — any aesthetic as a possible symbolic confluence may point toward something beyond itself, which forces thinking.

In commenting on this aspect of Ricoeur’s work, Helenius writes further: “This becomes possible when the relationship between a word and its context are seen from the viewpoint of polysemy. With polysemy, Ricoeur means certain semantic elasticity or expandability of discourse…Language, Ricoeur argues, is semantically elastic” (Helenius, 153).

From early on, Ricoeur maintains the idea that symbols are inherently creative lifting the initial and conventional meaning of a sign to a process of metaphorisation or equivocisation wherein poetic images rest on the polysemic capacity of language that allows for figurative speech.

In much the same way symbols give pause for thought and, as such, aesthetic expressions always point towards some concept, social act, or kind of verisimilitude, such as identity, belief, history. The tendency within some extreme metal towards an aesthetic of purity can make sense with this kind of framework; purity and authenticity exist as the corollary defining points in a discourse of defilement.

People such as Derrida ( 1998 ) have made this connection between purity, the search for origins, and the contemporary collective consciousness of identity. I argue that this abstraction amounts to a kind of aestheticization of symbols for Ricoeur; symbols become narrated.

Ricoeur argues that symbols follow a movement of demythologization, yet they retain elements of each layer through which they have progressed. As we have seen, the movement of defilement includes a movement towards the increasing interiorization of experiences of fault through which our conceptions of causal relations find expression.

For Ricoeur, defilement has moved inwards from a system that attempts to expiate the tension and feelings of dread and fear derived from the violation of a divine command towards more ethical understandings of fault reflected in the symbols of guilt and sin. In the end, these symbols reflect a deeper symbol that all these abstractions revolve around.

These expressions of fault become a kind of historical repetition of a foundational experience of fault. Ricoeur suggests that these three symbols of fault (defilement, sin, guilt) express a contingent confession and experience of evil. Therefore, with each new context, these symbols find themselves at once transformed and transforming by what Ricoeur calls the evolution of an essential experience.

Understanding aesthetics through a theory of symbols allows us to understand how Ricoeur’s writing suggests that symbols never exist autonomously from the subject or from history, rather there is an ineluctable phenomenological component to symbols — symbols, at once historical and contingent, are also clues to the meaning of our existence.

What this means for me is the manner in which aesthetics can be a certain kind of structuring discourse that privileges certain forms of information, who is or is not a part of the community, and the symbolic distinctions that lay the boundaries of the community itself. In relation to the different extreme metal communities, this is a particularly salient point: Bands make aesthetic decisions that are constrained by the genre in which they are writing, in relation to a community, and a world. At the same time, each aesthetic decision constitutes a creative repetition of the community and the genre.

An important aspect of symbols within secular extreme music is that even though the music is transgressive and explores the abject, they are not fundamentally obscure since the genre participates within broader frameworks of meaning and significant market flows that depend on shared intersubjective understandings of consumerism and technology.

In other words, the music is still understandable. Extreme metal also depends upon discourses that come out of these contemporary frameworks, such as the predominance of authenticity and identity erupting from the contradictory tendencies of globalization (Wallach et al. 2011 ).

Hebdige ( 1979 ) argues that subcultures generally express a certain level of transgression and resistance but still reflect predominant values in many ways. The “noise” that subcultures represent is still expressive “noise” and is symbolically interpretable. What is significant about the way in which extreme metal uses these symbols is that they “are already profaned” and that people experience and evoke them according to a certain kind of historical resonance and aesthetic sense that extreme metal, as a genre, has privileged.

As will be seen, Christian extreme metal also employs the aesthetic sensibilities and privileged conditions of judgment of extreme metal while at the same time reacting against the genre to create an inverted aesthetic, often ironic, but more often devotional, ideological, and evangelical.

The progenitors of the metal genre, those who came afterwards (especially extreme metal), and other related underground music genres use these symbolisms to create an atmosphere or aesthetic that evokes “darker”, sinister, mysterious, and mythical aspects of the human experience.

A dark aesthetic is discursive, cultural, and historical and as such open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

All aspects of the music express this dark aesthetic such that a homology exists between most aspects within the musical genre of extreme metal, from art, lyrics and sonics, to scenic behaviours.

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp


Recommended reading


Community contributions


Comment on article
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Table of Contents

01. Cover

Special Edition

02. Editorial

Editor's Letter

03. Blogs


04. Popular


05. Regulars


06. Specials


07. Covered

Live Reports

08. Agenda

Published Events


Academic Blogging

09. Pressroom

Press Releases

09. Instagram

Recently Shared

Limited Time Promotion

Up To


Stay up to date in history, music, literature, cultural and other studies such as theatre and performance, health, lifestyle, philosophy and religion and get early notice of new content, invitations to exclusive events and special offers and promotions.