Black metal is, to use Kant:
frighteningly sublime partly because it is obscure, for the imagination works harder in darkness than it does in bright light.
To analyze it in terms of a continuation of themes that spawned the Romantic era is to see it as an extreme of the cultural turn that began then, and concerning the concept most essential to it - the sublime. This connection to the notion of sublime is not only an effect of the object’s obscurity but essential to black metal itself.
Black metal is willed sublime-making, and shares its ambiguous relations with death, religion, morality, and metaphysics with the concept of sublime itself. The explicit intention of being the most extreme, can't be realized by a mere shock of common sense, to be extreme, one has to disturb it. Antecedent extreme music forms embraced realism and made the aesthetic turn towards a brutal realism and posed the negative in reality as a negation to fantasy of negation of the previous counter-culture art-forms. We can see black metal as the completion of this series, that affirms the fantasy constitutive of our reality in order to negate it as reality.
Themes of death, destruction, eternal damnation, despair, hopelessness, the Antichrist and total annihilation of the world are not new, nor is their use as an attack on the moralizing of Christians original to black metal, Kant has already done so in his short text The End of All Things, that we take as our starting point. Kant's use of dark imagery and themes is grounded in theory, as they are, according to him, most appropriate for the feeling of sublime, and can be used to induce more universal moral feelings, lacking in common sense.
Black metal and its practical antagonisms are the explorations of the concept of sublime beyond the limitations of religion and morality that philosophy still retains under the faculty of reason, that combines pure knowledge and morality. To elevate black metal into a concept is, therefore, to reflect on the concept of sublime free of reason. Sublime has to do with thinking the unthinkable and the unthinkable in thought, for this reason, it is a fundamental concept of philosophy. This outline of a theory of a dark sublime will pursue a concept of sublime beyond the Kantian sublime grounded on the self-evident clear and distinct idea of freedom grounding Reason, a sublime grounded on the coinciding darkness of ideas and concepts. We use the term term dark sublime, not to elucidate a particular kind of sublime experience, but rather a different kind of theory of sublime experience in general.
Kant's attempt to subvert moralism in The End Of All Things has its proper grounding in his famous conception of sublime found in his third and final Critique, where he connects his theoretical and practical philosophy into a systematic whole. It is here, that we see how Kant falls under the spell of reason and binds all the other faculties to it.
Kant takes the idea of sublime as analyzed by Burke, for whom sublime is a consequence of terror that fills the subject. This terror produces a negative kind of pleasure, different in kind from the normal positive pleasures. The object produces astonishment by fear of pain or death and obscurity. This kind of sublime can be summarized as an effect of a great power that has no dominion over us. In more civilized times, this kind of experience was connected with refinement and culture and consequently man's transcendence.
Kant criticizes Burke's conception as merely descriptive but retains his notion as central in the conception of the dynamical sublime, however, the immediate consequences of the experiences are presented as inverse. Burke thinks experiencing the sublime makes us aware of our own insignificance, for Kant on the other hand, the subject feels power over all nature.
Following Kant, the proper explanation for the feeling of sublime must therefore be sought in the mathematical sublime, the immense, the lack of measure felt by our power of imagination when confronted with the magnitude that exceeds our sensibility, for it is there that the subject would appear to be the most acutely aware of his insignificance.
To quote The Critique of Judgment:
The feeling of the sublime is, therefore, at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law. It is, in other words, for us a law (of reason), which goes to make us what we are, that we should esteem as small in comparison with ideas of reason everything which for us is great in nature as an object of sense; and that which makes us alive to the feeling of this supersensible side of our being harmonizes with that law. Now the greatest effort of the imagination in the presentation of the unit for the estimation of magnitude involves in itself a reference to something absolutely great, consequently a reference also to the law of reason that this alone is to be adopted as the supreme measure of what is great.
It is the immeasurable in nature that orients the mind towards another type of measure. The sensible negation of sensibility - cruelty - shifts the subject's futile search of a relative measure towards an absolute measure.
The lack of imagination is, because for Kant aesthetics is free of concepts, filled with the ideas of reason that provide it with an absolute measure, and because this is a measure of all things, it is itself, following Kant from The End of All things, a moral end poised immediately beyond all aesthetic use of ideas. The feeling of this shift is felt as sublime and is an analogy of reason in intuition, that required moral judgment as the standard. What for Burke was an extrinsic practical intersubjective effect of the sublime experience, is for Kant constitutive of it.
Sublime is then a feeling of this totalizing force, and reason the name of this totality as such. We can think of reason as this totality as similar to the conception of death, which presents the end of a life, and therefore the totality of a life to the thinker. It is at the same time a negation and the whole. The question is whether this totality of reason is intrinsic to sensibility or not, translates into the question whether reason or imagination is transcendental. We regard both questions as irrelevant, to ask a more important question: is there really a totality or only a representation of it, are there any transcendental faculties at all?
Of course, death is unthinkable, in the sense that it is not fully representable, however, how the unthinkable is thinkable is a more fundamental question. The answer to this question means the decision between either a moralistic or a nihilistic world-view.
The moralistic world-view is based on the essential unity of the ground of the world and subject. This kind of fundamental idealism is present in all moral world-views, it does not matter whether their content is materialist or idealist, theistic or naturalist - they remain world-views of the same type because this unity itself is an idea of a moral type.
This idea achieves its greatest philosophical illumination in transcendental philosophy, where either subjectivity or inter-subjectivity is affirmed as the ground of the world as reason. It is this ground of freedom that is immediately connected to the concept of sublime, and it is this ground that we must abandon to unbind the concept of sublime.
To escape this error of moralism conceptually is easy, we substitute reason for its negation and follow the consequences. This means the determinate reason of the will is extrinsic to the will, which we experience as the positive fact not of un-freedom but of un-spontaneity, and forget about the concept freedom in the domain of thinking in general.
The coincidence of freedom and spontaneity is grounded on the autonomy of the subject, that is ultimately grounded in pure reason. When we cease to believe in the ontology of reason, there is a disconnect of freedom and spontaneity that can no longer coincide in practice. Spontaneity as the ability of self-determination can never be perfect and is itself dependant on causal powers extrinsic and intrinsic to the subject. The fact of consciously experiencing our autonomy of determining ourselves is a fact limited to the realm of consciousness, that itself depends on the multitudes of determinations extrinsic to it. Spontaneity becomes porous and impure.
Sublime must therefore be considered in terms of causality, i.e. as powerfulness/powerlessness of the subject in relation above all to itself as empirical spontaneity, making it thematically distinct from the themes of intersubjectivity, morality and politics. Instead spontaneity is immediately connected to artistic processes of desubjectivation and immersion explored in extreme music as music, not within its lyrical themes that are, when used well, merely an expression of it, and the high concepts of philosophy, religion and morality become just another instrument.
Phenomena are appearances as appearances, the representations of things in our subjective experience. They are the given in the mode of representation, however, they are not given as representation but are merely reflected as such. Things appear to us, not as appearances, but as things, and as things they are foreign to us. In the absence of reason, the soul and its guarantee of a perfect autonomy of the mind, the subject becomes empirical and permeated with particular disharmonies and harmonies alien to itself. Its innermost intuition must therefore no longer be considered appearance as appearance or conscious ideas that are always clear, if not always distinct, but as the world of ideas beyond sense and beyond clarity immersed in the darkness of their own existence.
Destruction and deconstruction have both lead to a similar project, however because of their reliance to the Kantian framework, they have remained conceptually bound to the world of sense. It is exactly in the analysis of the relations of sense and nonsense in the lowest types of intuition and aesthetic phenomena, that we must find the difference between nature and culture or the artificialness of the artificial and other most fundamental philosophical distinctions.
Instead of being pure forms of intuition, time and space become general properties of all processes and objects both in and out of intuition, that require not only the analysis of the relation between the subject and object but between each type of particular syntheses producing both. With the inclusion of noise, aesthetics at the same time become more Kantian and more rationalist, as the objective mechanisms provide grounds for analysis of objective, measurable and calculable relations, and the faculties must be thought of as more abstract and diversified by their respective syntheses. When there is no pure subjectivity, the boundaries between the subject and it's other become dynamic, imperfect and fragile. A dark phenomenology becomes necessary, as a study of non-appearance in appearance as appearance: as the phenomenological negation of phenomena and the negation of phenomena as phenomena.
There is no darkness lurking beneath some grand order of representation, rather the darkness permeates it through and through. Not only are ideas not clear and distinct as their content, but also as ideas. The closest to this study of dark ideas is the work of Leibniz and the rationalist of the early romantic era that provide us with a concept of the non-Freudian unconscious.
To quote Leibniz:
… our confused sensations result from a really infinite variety of perceptions. This is somewhat like the confused murmur heard by those who approach the seashore, which comes from the accumulation of innumerable breaking waves. For if out of several perceptions, which do not harmonize so as to make one, there is no single one which surpasses the others, and if these perceptions make impressions that are about equally strong and equally capable of holding the attention of the soul, it can perceive them only confusedly.
- Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters, p. 325
In lacunas of sensibility, the measure of sensibility is broken, in such phenomena, the empirical criterion of judgment is felt as inadequate, because sensibility relies for its measure on clear ideas of sensibility and therefore fails to produce it when trying to use them on dark ideas. When the criterion of sensibility can't be produced, a non-sensible criterion is needed, and the mind is pleased to discover that it can produce a criterion of a different type, an absolute one, but not the absolute one required by Kantian reason. Reflection discovers that with its use, even a dark idea can be made clear, that even a singular object can be made into a type and by this activity feels itself limitless. By dark ideas, we do not mean the darkness of their representational content, but rather of ideas themselves. In the feeling of sublime, reflection, not reason discovers its own power. However because the darkness of undifferentiated ideas permeates consciousness in general, any object can become sufficiently dark to serve as the origin of sublime.
Immersion requires the dissolution of the mode of reason in the sense that it must disturb the constitutive exclusion of the immeasurable lacunas that produce distinct ideas of subjective experience, or at least simulate it. However, if the immeasurable is to be affirmed without reason, how can the feeling of sublime experience sensibility as elevated? What can it elevate sensibility at all, when no such independent and autonomous faculty exists? What can facilitate the shift from a relative to an absolute measure? Where, if not in the pure subjectivity, can we find the pure moment needed for our understanding to use the idea as an idea, and to feel its affects as the feeling of sublime?
Empirical powers of cognition do not suffice. Passive receptivity of a dark idea requires recognition of phenomenon's lack as phenomenon, a recognition of our lack in representation of things, however when this lack is observed in practice (as an optical illusion or breaking of a tool), it creates another object for attention, and the original dark idea remains as dark as before. No relative measure and no absolute one can be found for it empirically. There is no empirical criterion to represent the singular thing as a type, if that was the case, types would have to be given as categories, and with them the pure subject, instead of a natural one. For a naturalist type of explanation, our ability to pose an absolute measure must be explained. How do we use an idea as an idea, or a representation as representation, not merely as representing? How is it, that the mechanisms of our representation are not completely opaque to us?
When we rid ourselves of a belief in a supernatural reason which ideas could imitate in aesthetics, we must break with the Kantian doctrine that excludes concepts from the domain of aesthetics. The problem of free harmony collapses, there is neither the determinism of law nor the freedom of the subject in conflict. The free play on the stage of sentience in its highest forms is a play of sentience and sapience where determinations of nature are at play with the determinations of concepts on the stage of the subject's spontaneity that lets itself be determined by it. Aesthetics requires that ideas must be unbound from the determining mode of concepts in order to differ in type from reflection. This does not necessitate the absence of concepts, but rather the inversion of reflection, where the use of concepts remains reflective (lacking a criterion), providing the distinction required for a faculty of contemplation.
This faculty of contemplation, like reflection, uses the higher ideas produced by concepts, and like reflection entails a reflective use of ideas. It is the same type of use, the same subjective activity of reflection, marked only by ideas of harmony or disharmony that it uses. Considered so broadly this faculty is not limited to aesthetics in the narrow modern sense of the theory of art but includes it. Contemplation uses ideas to create a harmony/disharmony of sense and ideas without a determinative conceptual criterion.
Not only is then the sensible lacking a measure or a criterion and gives way to the use of concepts, the concepts themselves fail to provide it in a reflective use. What concepts produce in contemplation is not a concrete measure but mere form, that in turn requires a criterion of intuition. The absolute measure is therefore given only as a negation and made possible only by a specific use of concepts that aligns the lack of intuition and concept, and therefore produces a unity of the concept and its sensible context. Because the immediate intuition is lacking this criterion, the sense that was made into a distinct idea through the concept must therefore expand.
The singular sense is therefore expanded and its extension now includes more than just the singularity of its origin. The singularity of the idea as felt is extended over the ideas of proximate and compossible ideas. It is therefore not the totalizing being-towards death, but rather being towards a special particular and singular totalizing sense, that produces higher-order emotions, moods, that have no place in the natural world and of which sublime is the extreme and therefore most clear example. This pulsion between two nothingness of sensibility and concept is not unlike the Freudian death-drive, a harmonious discord of faculties that cuts the life-history into an artifact of an atmosphere, yet the artefacts or our lives are many and their effects are temporal. They decay and mutate in the empirical subjectivity and become a part of it. In art that is compossible with our taste, we find a missing piece of ourselves that wasn't missing before the encounter with it had taken place.
When the sensible produces a new idea, this newfound unity of sense elevates the sensibility that produced it on another level of abstraction. The object indifferent to sensibility produces in sensibility an idea indifferent to sensibility, a kind of cruelty, but although the idea shines as the new non-sensible sense, it can not exist anywhere else but in the contingent sensibility that had produced it. As an ethereal presence it rises this content towards its pure criterion and by doing so changes it. No two feelings of sublime have the same origin because a presence of a monstrous magnitude itself does not suffice for it. Not only must the empirical criterion of quantity be felt as useless, in its place a new more abstract criterion must be posed as lacking, and by it, a new sense must be produced.
This is most easily achieved by the darkest ideas of our sentience that make an object out of an idea of sense considered as background and towards which apperception is habitually indifferent. When these dark ideas are enlightened by the reflection of apperception, our sensibility can not but feel itself inadequate, and another, higher power must complete its task. The sublime feeling is not a lack in sensibility that serves as an analogy of the ideas of reason, but the allegory produced in sensibility immediately by the force of the idea of understanding, it is not the analogy of the feeling of good or beauty, but the potentiated and purified pleasure of knowledge itself.
Sublime, as Longinus puts it, is the echo of a noble mind, and the same sentiment has always accompanied theories of sublime. Already with Burke, and then more so with Kant, this nobility of sublimity has been reduced to morality, however judgments of sublime do not express the moral character of a subject, but something much closer to the judgments of beauty that express taste. Sublime expresses a specific culture, it's distinct mood, but also culture in general and its intrinsic universal character. The experience of sublime elevates the mind, and by it alienates it from the habits of life and common sense. Objects that prevent reflection by demanding more attention, because of their magnitude or danger are just the most common ways of immersing the mind.
A genre proper develops on empirical faultlines formed by deviations in a flux of continuous change, it reinforces its own singularity, without representing it. A genre proper is discovered within invention. The conventions of black metal as a genre provide the grounds for the experience of sublime by confronting the subject with an experience where negation of concepts and senses coincide. This coincidence of negation is achieved by lyrical themes affirming the various negations of common-sense like evil, mysticism, metaphysics, and sonically by affirmation of noisiness, distortion, and dissonance. Black metal reinforces its mood of grimness and its success on achieving the sublime experience is a question of compossibility of the listener at a time with the mood of the genre and the skill of the artist. Sublimity is always in danger of collapsing into the beautiful or the comic, when received by reflection instead (or along) contemplation, which are the two dangers for any genre based on producing the sublime, which is why there is no place for humor, irony or other types of cognitive distance of reflection in black metal, and no place for virtuosity, typical of other metal genres as both destroy the possibility of a sublime experience in advance.
The concept of a dark sublime illuminates the required rigor of distinction of contemplation against reflection and the imperative of an inverse distinction of reflection from contemplation. There is no justified analogy between judgments of knowledge and judgments of taste, which means that the conditions of knowledge must be considered stricter than they were for Kant, as without a tamed notion of sublime, bound to morality, the unity of belief and knowledge decomposes. Analogies used as knowledge by common sense are revealed as mere judgments of taste disguised as knowledge, aesthetics, on the other hand, includes much more, as it includes the conceptual, albeit under a different type. A rationalist aesthetic becomes necessary, and the romantic notions of genius and the domain of subjectivity beyond understanding must be left behind. The ineffable quality of a work of art is not ineffable because it eludes concepts, but rather it is constructed as a sense that can't be exhausted in a determinate meaning because its sense is limited to the singular meaning of the art.
In the experience of sublimity, the subject uncovers within itself the universality of the principle of sufficient reason as grounded in the creativity of reflection, that for everything there is, understanding can create an idea, a reason. Humanity is epistemologically flawed, as the pleasure of knowledge affects us regardless of its truth. This is not a fault of our finitude, nor a particular character of our species, but rather an epistemological necessity of factual knowledge as such, a consequence of an existing subject, a process of knowledge extrinsic to its own criteria. This practical confusion between contemplation and reflection has no a priori solution, but rather requires continuous labor of rigor of differentiation on the side of reflection, a struggle against entropy, a war against the nothingness inherent in all things.
Kant I., "Religion and Rational Theology", Cambridge University Press, 1996;
Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, New York, Hafner Pub. Co., 1964;
Leibniz G.W., Philosophical Papers, and Letters: A Selection, Springer Science & Business Media, 1975;