Extreme Metal Modernity, Transgression, and the Grotesque

Matthew P. Unger

Matthew P. Unger

Because transgression always exists within a certain horizon of values, it can serve as a significant sociological term that highlights the privation of values that animate this genre. That is, the experience of fear, dread, horror, and humour (such as in the grotesque) comes from the experience of transgressing the limits of frameworks of meaning and seeing the dissolution of those frameworks.

Indeed, one theorist of horror film suggests that the genre exists as a “modern defilement rite” that seeks to “bring about a confrontation with the abject” (Jancovich 2002 , 75). As well, this rite of defilement “works to separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability” (Jancovich 2002, 75). Chris Jenks ( 2003 ), another scholar of popular culture and transgression, suggests that transgression and the desire to transcend the limits of our empirical existence within a modern framework becomes the contemporary exemplary state.

Jenks concedes that, “modernity has unintentionally generated an ungoverned desire to extend, exceed, or go beyond the margins of acceptability or normal performance. Transgression becomes a primary postmodern topic and a responsible one” (Jenks 2003, 8).

The first step towards understanding the significance of extreme metal is to show the historical lineage of transgression, its affiliation with other discourses of the grotesque, and the way in which it represents analogous issues to discussions on the grotesque in the work of literary theorists Wolfgang Kayser (1957) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1965).

Foundational discussions of the grotesque explore the way in which the grotesque images and performances through history were transgressive of classical genres and the philosophical privileging of high art forms over popular culture art forms.

Wolfgang Kayser, for instance, attempted to formalise the grotesque as an aesthetic and pseudo-transcendental category for the experience of a dark, otherworldly, ominous, and foreboding mode of lived experience represented through artistic practices. He understands the grotesque represented within literature and art as expressions of the “nightmarish and ominously demonic” and located its philosophical depth in images of the world going to pieces, or the “estranged world” (Kayser 1957, 181–182).

For Kayser, the grotesque represents a foundational significance of the estranged and alienated world and “our failure to orient ourselves in the physical universe” (Kayser 1957, 185). Kayser’s contribution to the study of the grotesque is his understanding of it as a quasi-ontological structural necessity with implications for “serious philosophical discourse” (Barasch 1995 ).

In this way, Kayser understands the structural elements of grotesque art and performance as something that exists deeper than literary tropes. These elements are indicative of a trans-historical relation and drive towards the darker elements of existence expressed through fantastical themes and unconventional rhetorical tropes. For Kayser, the grotesque begs questions of the place of aesthetics in ontological and experiential categories.

An implication of this kind of thinking is that aesthetics evokes issues of individual choice, but in that choice, there are implicit concerns relating to ethics, identity, and broad social values that allow the expression of historical and experiential concerns. This is explored poignantly by Mikhail Bakhtin (1969).

In his famous text on ‘The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel’ by sixteenth-century novelist, Rabelais, Bakhtin explores the significance of the carnival and the grotesque of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance prior their increasing social, political, and legal control.

He believes that grotesque realism is a mode of embracing and incorporating the ambivalence of the social order through exaggeration and inversion, a focus on the visceral, the bodily, and dark humour. For Bakhtin, carnival festivals such as the ‘Feast of Fools’ of the medieval ages were important creative rituals that inverted the mores of the time using grotesque imagery and revelry.

The carnival also functioned to resolve temporarily ambivalences related to the paradoxes and difficulties people experienced of the social order. The carnival functioned as a sanctioned violation of all social norms, which combined and flattened conceptions of the sacred and the profane.

Within the grotesque realism of these early French novels, Rabelais describes lives and adventures of the giants Gargantua and his son Pantagruel in lurid, visceral, and obscene terms.

For Bakhtin, these texts, and by extension grotesque art, represent the “totality of life,” since grotesque art’s fascination with orifices and bodily openings expresses the creative potential of life through basic visceral experiences such as laughter and shock (Bakhtin 1969, 240–255).

French critic and avant-garde social theorist, Georges Bataille (1985) also explored these aspects of social and psychical life with his novel ‘The Story of the Eye’ (1977), his theories on excess and the economy (1985, 1988), and his writings on surrealism (2006).

Bataille theorised the critical significance of disgust as a tool for lowering, a fundamental precept of the grotesque for Bakhtin. In criticising different forms of metaphysics, and specifically Marxian political economy, Bataille used the notion of formless (informe) to make things base or mundane.

Initially using the term scatology to describe this kind of thinking, Bataille thought that: “Base materialism has the job of de-classifying, which is to say simultaneously lowering and liberating from all ontological prisons, from any role model. It is principally a matter of de-classifying matter, of extracting it from the philosophical clutches of classical materialism, which is nothing but idealism in disguise. Most materialists have situated dead matter at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of diverse types of facts without realising that in this way they have submitted to an obsession with an ideal of matter, with a form that approaches closer than any other to that which matter should be.” (Bois and Krauss 1997, 53)

So then, for Bataille, the formless is a manner of critical engagement with metaphysics as a way of bringing things back to a state of heterology and difference.

In my mind, Bataille’s theories have strong affiliations with Bakhtin’s whereby the grotesque expresses a visceral opening to the totality of life. According to Breton, for Bataille “horror does not lead to any pathological complaisance and only plays the role of manure in the growth of plant life, manure whose odour is stifling no doubt but salutary for the plant” (in Lechte 1995, 118).

The social issues that Bakhtin describes in sixteenth-century Rabelaisian France, as well as those signified by recent censorship debates, both relate broadly to understandings of the world, hopes and fears of the social order, and implicit conceptions of causal relations.

However, I believe an experiential contrast exists between past ideals for the social order, the social and juridical control of grotesque revelry, and the seeming rebelliousness of extreme metal.

An analysis of this historical chasm between these discourses shows that the grotesque elements of extreme metal do not come out of nowhere (as it now possibly seems), but are grounded in past social-cultural forces, experience, and the need to embrace ambivalence and difference. That is, I see the control of this kind of music forgetful of the ways in which the grotesque had a distinct social function that brought people together, flattened the social order, and provided new world images out of the old. In this sense, the grotesque, as an aesthetic category, is instrumental in the critique of reason and faith as transcendental categories.

Joyce Carol Oates, author and commentator on grotesque aesthetics, writes regarding our continuing fascination with the irreducible sense of grotesque: “if we were not now, in this Age of Deconstruction, psychologically and anthropologically capable of deciphering seemingly opaque documents, whether fairy tales, legends, works of art or putatively objective histories and scientific reports, we should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough — emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs — though immeasurable.” (Oates 1993 )

This quote exemplifies a major preoccupation of the contemporary theory of the role of aesthetics: namely the opaqueness of meaning and the significance for aesthetic categories to express the relative indeterminacy of human experience. Expressions of the grotesque as shown in aesthetic popular culture phenomena then cannot exist as purely nihilistic, asocial phenomena; rather, they make apparent structures of meaning by transgressing the boundaries of implicit value systems.

The significance of the grotesque as a critical discourse suggests that the role and significance of aesthetics in human experience is important for understanding contemporary ideas.

Extreme metal’s relation to broader historical trends of grotesque art tell us that the absurd and offensive themes within extreme metal do not arise out of nothing, but they point to a potentially transhistorical drive to darker, more flamboyant, or absurd elements of existence. However, we now need to take this argument further whereby the conceptual relation of the specific (extreme metal now) to a universal (grotesque aesthetics) requires an understanding of the intentional aspects of these symbols.

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