Death Metal and the Power Over Life
This post is not making claims or coming to conclusions, but setting up a line of inquiry for further research. I have a pretty good sense of the overarching idea, but I need some more firm evidence to back it up, and I still have some questions that I need to think through. If you have any suggestions for either of those, I’d love to hear them.
For the last year or two I’ve been trying to find, in musical practices, an example of specific techniques for subverting neoliberal biopower. What I mean by neoliberal biopower is this:
1. It’s not about content, but about formal relationships, particularly relationships of rate, frequency, amplitude, meter—what Deleuze and others (like Jeffery Nealon, Jasbir Puar, etc.) call relationships of “speed and slowness.”
a. So, for example, while classical liberalism cares about your identity (the ‘content’ of your true inner self), neoliberalism cares only about things like your test scores, your BMI, or population-wide rates of mortality and morbidity, etc. In short: frequency not truth.
2. It’s not about exchange and conquest, but competition and intensity. See my previous post on “pushing it to the limit.” In short: maximalize everything, as long as you don’t ever touch the upper or lower asymptote. Or: you can tweak the frequency, but not the amplitude—or, you can tweak the frequency only to the extent that it doesn’t thereby affect the amplitude.
3. It’s a power over life: the object of the logic of intensification is the lifeof privileged groups. “I want more life, fucker,” as Roy says at the end of Blade Runner.
a. If it promotes hegemony by intensifying the life of privileged groups, then death is biopolitical neoliberalism’s unassimilable outside. Foucault makes this clear in Society Must Be Defended.
b. So death is subversive only for some privileged groups; death is not at all subversive for those groups already left to die (“bare life” etc.).
So how do you subvert neoliberal biopower, the metric, frequential intensification of life?
I’ve been chewing on this question for a while. I’ve come up with a few suggestions: Martha Rossler’s work on “Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained,” the Guerilla Girls’ use of statistics, even the concept of a hangover. Puar suggests that such subversion is “non-metric.” Now, I actually disagree with Puar here. The ‘non-metric’ is an attempt to escape meter/frequency/the logic of intensity; I agree with Foucault that this idea of escaping power is really a misunderstanding of how the power over life works. The point is not to liberate ourselves from meter. It’s to fuck with meter so that it works in unexpected ways: meter has a differently-metric effect, or something like that. There has to be some musical example of this differently-metric meter, right? And I’ve been looking for examples, and even found a few. So, when Deleuze is talking about pure relationships of speed and slowness in 1K Plateaus, he could just as easily be talking about Steve Reich’s process music (the small-scale details and large-scale form unfold simultaneously, etc.). So something like “Violin Phase” or “It’s Gonna Rain” are examples of this differently-metric meter.
So while I had been able to find a few examples of differently-metric musical practices, I hadn’t been able to find ones that connected this metric tweaking back to the issue of life. Until I was walking my dogs yesterday and Genghis Tron’s “Board Up The House” came on the internet radio:
Notice around 1:20-2:20 (where the vocals first come in): between their use of mixed meters and their obscuring of the downbeat, this sounds non-metric. It’s not; it’s actually highly regular, and the musicians are being scrupulously attentive to timing.
I know this song isn’t exactly death metal proper, but it did, at times, remind me of death metal. So, in what might be loosely called death metal, we have an example of exactly the sort of differently-metric subversion of “meter” I was looking for. So the metric practices are explicitly related to death. Death metal—and again, I’m being very loose with this term; there are a bazillion subgenres and related genres that also use this practice—combines the Deleuzian side of my theory of neoliberalism (the speed and slowness, the logic of intensity) with the Foucaultian side of my theory of neoliberalism (biopolitics, the power over life). Duh, right? I can’t believe it took me this long to think of this. But now that I’m here, there’s plenty to think more about, such as:
1. Verges on the non-metric. It’s actually hyper-metric, extra-perfectly quantized, metered music. To play in a group with that much complexity within an individual part, and among different parts, requires some very expert, attentive playing. And, this quantization actually surpasses the limits of electronic/digital instruments: human players can push beyond the parameters of a particular synth, patch, effect, etc. The human players can tune themselves to 11 or 15 or whatever.
a. Posthuman implications of this: humans are more machine than machines
i. Subversion by hyperperfection; too-perfect repetitions of the frequency
b. In contrast to humanist liberty-in-imperfection/analog
i. Subversion by imperfect repetition (Butler)
2. This hyper-quantized metricality is actually more perfect than our ears are capable of perceiving. The performers have surpassed the sonic point where we can distinguish among individual sounds—we just perceive one continuous sound bloc, in the same way we see still frames projected at a rate of 24per second as continuous motion..
a. So it sounds like nonsense, when in fact it is very rigorously ordered. It’s the logic of intensity pushed past the limits of our perceptory faculties (if not the limits of the logic itself).
b. This is not liberation; it’s not doing whatever you want, it’s not autonomy, it’s not chaos.
c. In fact, it’s very highly coordinated interactivity.
3. So why is this musical/aesthetic strategy connected to DEATH? If you’re writing a song with an explicitly death-focused aesthetic and lyrical content, why choose thesemusical practices to express that aesthetic and that content?
a. In a way, the metric practice I identify in this post is characteristic of most “hardcore” musics: hardcore punk, ‘ardcore, jungle (think of how the Amen Break gets broken down and reconstituted in really abstract, nearly unrecognizable ways).
b. So the question is: what’s the specific relationship between this musical practice or aesthetic and the idea/aesthetic of “death”?
i. Is it that this subversively-metric practice expresses/parallels is white guys’ attempts to not live an appropriately intensified life? What I mean is: Death metal is a largely white, largely male genre. Neoliberal biopower is very interested in intensifying their lives, in giving them more and better lives (especially if they’re straight or homonational). So for them subversion involves not intensifying their life, or at least not intensifying it in the appropriate ways. So maybe this metric practice is an inappropriate logic of intensification? And its inappropriateness gets registered as death? (I.e., you’re not living the right life, you’re not working hard enough on improving your human capital, so you might as well be dead?)
Readers, help me find a super-great example for my book. What death metal/tech death/grindcore/cybercore/etc. tracks or bands should I be listening to?
I’ll be working on these ideas and questions for a while, and you should expect revised versions of this post in the future.