‘Multilingual metal’: does metal have an own cultural-historical language?

Doubtless, metal music studies with its accelerating sequence of scholarly events, also its intensification of publication streams, is an emerging discourse in academia. Within these debates, an upcoming conference in London on 20th and 21st September 2018 will be devoted to the topic of ‘Multilingual Metal’.1 The information on the event states:

(…) the purpose of our multi-disciplinary conference is to explore further the textual analysis of heavy metal lyrics written in languages other than English. In cases where the primary language of the lyrics is English, loans or elements from other languages can be the topic of investigation.2

From a cultural-historical perspective, this is a very interesting approach to metal history. Seeing metal as a a multilingual discourse, at least in its lyrical and textual qualities, logically implies that this is a multilingual history. And, seeing metal as a multilingual history forces us to think of metal history as a transnational and transcultural history, whose defining character also is to be found in processes of translation. That said, historical research on metal has to apply a genuinely transnational approach, taking inspiration from discourses such as world history, entangled history, and – probably most important – postcolonial history.3

This need of thinking of metal history in a postcolonial perspective is urgent and reflected in current research.4 It leads to new, maybe fundamental questions on the history of metal. Conceptually, having to theorize metal as a discourse which hybridizes myriads of different, multilingual histories, narratives in their own languages, can we historically make sense of it in a single discourse in academia? Does metal have an own cultural-historical language? Something like a global cultural code which enables it to work in Birmingham and New York as well as in Borneo and  Malaysia?5

I guess, at this point of research we cannot seriously answer these questions definitely. But we have some serious hints in current research where we could go to better answer them. Already in 1991, Deena Weinstein identified metal as a cultural ‘bricolage’ having a more or less conservative ideology at its core.6 More recent research also stresses the transgressive traits of metal history.7 In 2010, Dietmar Elflein published his important book ‘Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal.‘, which already in its title hypothesizes that metal does have an own musical language.8 However, ironically the book was published in German language which does not work globally.

Concluding, asking for multilingual metal leads to a very important historical research perspective. It forces us to ask whether metal is a cultural phenomenon which developed its own historical language of a gobally working ‘bricolage’ of texts, riffs, music, sounds, practices, institutions, clothes, places, sites etc. To ask for the lyrical aspects can be just the beginning. Future research should strategically employ this conception of multilingual metal to get a better historical understanding of its subject.

  1. https://www.facebook.com/events/166129170755040/?active_tab=about, accessed 01/05/2018. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. J. H. Bentley (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011; D. Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; P. Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; K. Hock and G. Mackenthun (eds.), Entangled Knowledge. Scientific Discourses and Cultural Difference, Münster: Waxmann, 2012; J. McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. 

  4. J. Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Around the World, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011; A.R. Brown e.a (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies, New York and London: Routledge, 2016. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. D. Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, New York: Lexington Books, 1991. 

  7. B. Gardenour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 

  8. D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

Homo ludens metallicus? On Huizinga, the historian’s gaze and sonic knowledge in Metal Music Studies

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) was one of the pioneers of modern and postmodern cultural history. His narratives, overflowing with colourful, metaphoric and anthropologic plots of history, still inspire today’s scientific historiography.1 Originally being a scholar of Indo-European languages and linguistics, he turned to history around 1900. He became a professor of General and Dutch history at Groningen University in 1905, and finally of General history at Leiden University in 1915 (until 1942).

There in Leiden, he was resistant to antisemitism during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Huizinga’s most famous work is ‘The Waning of The Middle Ages’, first published in Dutch in 1919.2 In this classic book, he described the 14th and 15th centuries as an age of decline, metaphorically expressed in the picture of the season of fall; for Huizinga, they were the ‘autumn of the middle ages’.3 Other famous and influential works are ‘Erasmus and the Age of Reformation’ (1924), ‘Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century’ (1941), and ‘Homo ludens: a Study of the Play-element in Culture’.4

Methodologically, all of those books were highly innovative. They focussed on art, theatrics and discourse – long before the dawn of the New Cultural History at the end of the 1980s.5 One could go as far as describing Huizinga’s cultural history as ‘proto-constructivist’ or ‘crypto-constructivist’, at least in his deep understanding of the metaphorical and aesthetic constitution of culture.

In this blog post, I want to take up the methodology and questions Huizinga treated in ‘Homo ludens’. In this study, the author states that basically all culture has a an element of play. Play and playful elements, elements of game, are present in knowledge and science, law, art, languages, warfare.6 He gives  a reading of Homo sapiens as Homo ludens. This is his operational definition of play:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.7

This definition of the plays Homo ludens is playing in constructing culture is (proto-)constructivist and relevant until today in several ways: it stresses the own space and time of plays which basically says that plays have their own discourses; it emphasizes that plays in culture follow fixed rules which is a core feature of discourses, according to Foucauldian theorizing, too.8

Finally, the closing remark on the formation of social collectives is nothing less than the thesis that plays have a fundamental role in cultural identity construction; by defining the differences between the collective ‘self’ and the ‘other’, in processes of ‘othering’.9

These are the kinds of plays which Homo ludens played and plays in the course of cultural history. Already Huizinga observed on several occasions in his book that music and its reproduction is play, too.10 Applying Huizinga’s key theorem of play on Metal culture, I want to ask whether in Metal Music Studies Homo ludens is to be defined as Homo ludens metallicus. In the following, I want to show that Huizinga’s perspective opens up the theoretical space of cultural history in Metal Music Studies.

Using the metaphor of Homo ludens metallicus, this post wants, on the one hand, to summarize my (so-far) results of research in this blog, in conceptual ways, showing that Metal Music Studies is a field on the brink of becoming an own discipline. Yet, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and a scientific community which know that they have a past but which do not know this past in professional, scientific and cultural-historical ways – an argument to be proven.

As current discourse shows, there still is a lack of a self-reflexive theorizing of Metal and Metal Music Studies, as an emerging discipline, giving or at least aiming at giving answers to the question what Metal and Metal Studies are.11 This is where my current and future research comes in. It wants to help introducing the historian’s gaze to this flourishing discourse.

On the other hand, I also want to concretize this new perspective, already starting to apply it to Metal and research on Metal. I do so by introducing my theoretical notion of ‘sonic knowledge’.  Using this notion, I want to help starting a historian’s narrative of Metal music and its study. Directing the historian’s gaze to Metal and Metal Studies, the notion of sonic knowledge wants to give a genuinely historic reading of its object, connecting it to large- and small-scale historical processes of world history. In some cases, Metal harks back to the Age of Enlightenment since the 18th century, but also to 19th century Classicism and Historism. In other cases, Metal even takes up the roots of ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian and other oriental discourses of culture and knowlegde.

‘Sonic knowledge’ means that I tread Metal music and all its surrounding networks as a form of (sub-)cultural knowledge which emerges predominantly from acoustic communication: music. This takes up the perspective of the recent discourse of ‘sound history’ which asks for the role of acoustic phenomena in history.12 From my point of view, the rather neutral term of knowledge already describes the formation of a specific discourse of Heavy Metal (from c. 1970 until the mid-1980s) as something new; but also as something new which only was innovative in its ways of connecting the fresh aesthetics of the ‘heavy riff’13 with rather old historic elements of culture.

Just to mention some historic discourses being already there in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, until today, which were picked up by Metal history: dark lyrics and atmosphere (this can be traced back, for instance, to Gothic novels and many other forms of literature); rebellion and revolution (rebellion is a key topic of any broad history of Europe and the world, like the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the struggle for Scottish independence and many others; there are countless examples).

Other discourses would be: violence and war (the fascination with violence and violent behaviour, for example, is a key topic in the development of the modern state which should canalize and prevent not-justified violent force; history is, basically, in many cases structured by wars, like the 20th century as the ‘Age of Extremes’ of two world wars); satanism (satanism, i.e. embodied by figures such as Anton Szandor LaVey or Aleister Crowley, was long there before Metal); the virtuosity of the musician (a core topic in the 19th century and its cult of the ‘genius’); the cult of the male (which is there since Ancient times) …

Introducing the historian’s gaze

So, what’s that, the ‘historian’s gaze’? Since poststructuralist theorizing, we know that every scientific discipline has its own discursive strategies and framework, leading to an own construction of its subject, also in theory. This can be charaterized as a discipline’s gaze on its subject. This, of course, is true for history, too. The historian’s gaze is different from the sociologist’s perpective, also from the philosopher’s or the musicologist’s views. This is, must be the case in Metal Music Studies, too – so the historian’s gaze on Metal also should be fruitful for this emerging discourse, if applied conseqently.

What is particular of this view on Metal? When thinking of current research on Metal, in all introductory texts, the history of Metal and Metal Studies is of utmost importance. For instance, Andy R. Brown (a scholar in Media and Cultural Studies) wrote a genealogy of Metal Studies;14 Deena Weinstein (a sociologist) wrote a social and cultural history of Rock and Metal in America;15 Brian Hickam (being a librarian) described the emergence of Metal Studies as ‘amalgamated anectodes’;16 Nicola Masciandaro (a scholar in English studies) authored a ‘personal archeology of headbanging exegesis’;17 a group of social psychologists led by Nelson Varas-Díaz gave a social-psychological reading of the history of the Puerto Rican scene.18

There is nothing wrong with these histories, and also similar ones – yet, they are written by culturalists, sociologists, librarians, linguists, psychologists and so on. In a nutshell and put consciously provocatively: from a historian’s point of view, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and its study which know that they have a history but which yet do not know this history in scientific and self-reflexive, in historic ways. This is where the historian’s gaze comes in.

‘Sonic knowledge’ as a cultural-historical notion

So, what is then ‘sonic knowledge’ and how does it bring in the historian’s gaze? In a pioneering text from 2011, Dominik Schrage (ironically a sociologist again) wrote in a special issue of Studies in Contemporary History on the sound history of the 20th century:

The musical mode of hearing enables us as subjects to comprehensibly experience the effects of sounds and rhythms, be it contemplatively or expressively – plunging into music or dancing to it. Like images sounds cannot be transfered to linguistic meaning without fractures; but, both are experienced as being in harmony with each other, and correspond with moods, affections, and emotions in the experiencing subject. Sounds, melodies, chords and rhythms share a fundament across cultures; but in different musical cultures they are encoded, systematized and linked to harmony theories in different ways.19

Linking this core statement of sound history to the genuine interest of a historian working in Metal Music Studies, implies we have to write a history of the sound of Metal – connecting it to the overall history of the world; to our current era of postmodernity, but also to other eras like the 20th before ‘1968’, the Age of Enlightenment since the French Revolution, the Early Modern period since about 1500, sometimes also to Medieval and Ancient epochs. The key is to see today’s Metal as a historically formed set of elements of cultural knowledge – formed predominantly in acoustic musical communication. We can start introducing the historian’s gaze to Metal Music Studies by seeing it as sonic knowlegde in that sense.

Using the notion of sonic knowledge, we can historically ask how the acoustic encodement of sadness, darkness and gloomy atmospheres in Gothic Metal music is linked to the history of the ‘Gothic’ culture of the Victorian Age of the 19th century.

We can historically ask how the identity of the metalhead as a rebel in a social revolution, acoustically encoded in Metal, is connected to historical narratives of revolutions, such as the French, American and Russian Revolutions in the 18th and 20th centuries, but also the cultural revolution of ‘1968’, or the history of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ – there are myriads of historic interferences.

We should historically research how the representation of and fascination with violence and war, especially with World War II and Nazi Atrocities, in Thrash and Extreme Metal music since the mid-1980, retells the history of the 20th century. Already the influential British historian Eric Hobsbawm called it ‘The Age of Extremes’.20 It do not think that the genre name of ‘Extreme Metal’, surfacing in the 1980s and 1990s, came out of the blue – rather this was part of the final phase of the ‘Age Of Extremes’.

Furthermore, historians should explore how the image of the ‘guitar wizard’ or even ‘guitar hero’, which is prominent in Metal culture, continues writing the history of the musical virtuoso of classical music in the 19th century, with figures such as ‘violin wizard’ Niccolò Paganini, or ‘piano heroes’ like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. This is, as known, a thought already to be read in Robert Walser’s seminal book on Metal from 1993, but – again – this book was written a musicologist.21 The historian’s gaze would look for a deepeer historical contextualization in the overall history of the ‘Long 19th Century’ (1789-1914).22

Also, we ought to take a historic look at gender roles in Metal music. There is a lot of ongoing research on gender in Metal Studies.23 However, it also should be deeply connected to concepts like historian Wolfgang Schmale’s theory of ‘collective performative speech acts’, as developed in his recent book ‘Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History’.24

This is what I imagine the notion of sonic knowledge to do and to be. It should approach Metal and Metal Studies historically, seeing it as a contingently formed set of elements of cultural knowledge, constructed in the sound history of Metal. In this understanding of the term, knowledge is not only seen as a purely cognitive phenomenon but also as a discursive, praxeological, physical and sensual, most of all acoustic phenomenon in history.

Finally, taking Metal as sonic knowlegde probably enables us to think new inter- and transdisciplinary research options in Metal Studies. So far, the most prominent disciplines in our field are social and cultural studies, philosophical reflections and musicology. Seeing Metal as such a form of knowledge opens up gateways to other discourses of knowledge, which are deeply linked to sociology, philosophy and musicology, for instance law and politology.

The perspective of law is especially important because the philosophical and sociological foundations of law are intrinsically linked to key topics of Metal such as rules, norms, rule-breaking and law-breaking. For instance, it would be extremely tempting to do a discourse analysis of the representation of law, human rights and the rule of law in Heavy Metal lyrics –  just think of Judas Priest’s classic anthem ‘Breaking The Law’ from 1980, which often is refered to as defining Priest’s identity. Another well known example is Metallica’s album ‘…And Justice For All’ from 1988, whose cover portrays the Roman figure of Justitia as a blindfolded statue.

In a nutshell, taking up the perspective stemming from Huizinga’s Homo ludens, we should use the historian’s gaze in the concept of sonic knowledge to ask whether Metal is a game historically played by a Homo ludens metallicus – a probably new figure in Metal Studies, playing all his way through history, creating new heaviness by combining it with quite old narratives of human history. This is what I want to do in my upcoming monograph on Metal history and also in a proposal for a four-years research project on the history of Metal in Graz, Styria and Austria, in a European and global context.25

  1. For a short portrait of Huizinga see C. Strupp, ‘Johan Huzinga’, in: L. Raphael (ed.), Klassiker der Geschichtswissenschaft, 1, Munich: Beck, 2006, 190-211.; also see W. Otterspeer, Reading Huizinga, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. 

  2. For the English version, first published in 1924 see J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages: a study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, London: Folio Society, 1999. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Idem, Erasmus and the age of Reformation: with a selection from the letters of Erasmus, New York, NY: Scribner, 1924;  idem, Dutch civilisation in the seventeenth century, and other essays, London: Collins, 1968; idem, Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, London e.a.: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949. 

  5. L. Hunt and A. Biersack (eds.), The New Cultural History, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989. 

  6. Idem, Homo ludens

  7. Ibid., 13. 

  8. A. Landwehr, Historische Diskursanalyse, Frankfurt: Campus, 2009. 

  9. For a recent example see M. Wintle, ‘Islam as Europe’s Other throughout History: some discontinuities, History , 101, 344 (2016), 42-61. 

  10. Huizinga, Homo ludens, 42, 158-162, 187-8. 

  11. See for introductory books and texts F. Hösch and A.-K. Höpflinger (eds.), Methoden der Heavy Metal Forschung, Münster: Waxmann, 2014; Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.) Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham, NC: Duke Universtiy Press, 2011; A. R. Brown e.a. (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture. Current Directions in Metal Studies, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016;  B. Gardernour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; also this special issue on ‘Metal Studies? Cultural Research in the Heavy Metal Scene’: Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011). 

  12. See for an introduction to the field, especially in German discourse D. Schrage, ‘Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. Eine soziologische Perspektive auf die auditive Wahrnehmung im 20. Jahrhundert’, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 2, 8 (2011), online, URL: http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/2-2011/id=4691. Accessed 26.02.2018; also see G, Paul and R. Schock (eds.) Sound der Zeit. Geräusche, Töne, Stimmen – 1889 bis heute, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013. 

  13. For an in-depth analysis see J.-P. Herbst, ‘Historical development, sound aesthetics and production techniques of the distorted electric guitar in metal music’, in Metal Music Studies, 3, 1 (2017), 23-46; idem, ‘Heaviness and the electric guitar: Considering the interaction between distortion and harmonic structures’, in Metal Music Studies, 4, 1 (2018), 95-113; also see D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

  14. A. R. Brown, ‘Heavy Genealogy: Mapping the Currents, Contraflows and Conflicts of the Emergent Field of Metal Studies, 1978-2010, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 213-242. 

  15. D. Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

  16. B. Hickam, ‘Amalgamated anecdotes: Perspectives on the history of metal music and culture studies ‘, in Metal Music Studies 1, 1 (2014), 5-23. 

  17. N. Masciandaro, ‘Metal Studies and the Scission of the Word: A Personal Archaeology of Headbanging Exegesis’, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 227-250. 

  18. N. Varas-Díaz e.a., ‘Metal at the fringe: a historical perspective on Puerto Rico’s underground Metal scene, in Gardenour Walter e.a, Heavy Metal Studies, 99-129. 

  19. Schrage, Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. My translation. 

  20. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age Of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London: Michael Joseph, 1994. 

  21. R. Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Hanover, NH: New England University Press, 1993, 57-107. 

  22. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962; idem, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975; idem, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. 

  23. For example, see F. Heesch and N. Scott (eds.), Heavy Metal, Gender and Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. 

  24. W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. 

  25. P. Pichler,  Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe, 1970 to the Present: a Cultural History,  Emerald Publishers, forthcoming, 2019; the working title of this project is: ‘Sonic Knowledge in Heavy Metal Music. A Basic Research Project on the Cultural History of a Global Subculture in Styria, Austria and Europe, from the 1980s to the Present.’ 

Between scholarliness and fandom: on distance and closeness, objectivity and subjectivity in Metal Music Studies

In my last post, I reflected on the identities of Metal scholars, in terms of the transgressive potential of Metal Music Studies, as an academic discourse. This discourse is constitutively interdisciplinary and breaks disciplinary boundaries. I stressed that this situation of  an emerging filed of study requires its scholars to work self-reflexively. We have to construct our subject and our ‘Metal scholar-identities’ between and often in conflict to traditional disciplines.

These conflicts make the emergence of our field a deeply ambivalent and ambiguous process. On the one hand, we need to employ the theoretical approaches of ‘conservative’ academic fields (in my case again the theories of cultural history) to find our own subject and areas of research; on the other hand, at least in the long run, we have to build our own ‘toolbox’ of theories, at least of own theoretical approaches which fit our interests of research.

This ambivalence of an emerging field of scholarship is the reason why we should put a strong focus on theorizing in our work. Of course, there is theoretical work in Metal Music Studies1 but most of it follows modes of thinking which try to adapt successful and established theories from other fields on Metal music. However, our discourse as an emerging field ought to find its own theoretical tools – at least in a long-term perspective.

In this respect, I want to put forward the hypothesis, or to be more precisely, the hypothetic thought that the identitary situation of most Metal scholars is an important source of reflection, maybe even of theorizing; or at least, a point from which to start theoretical self-reflection. Most Metal scholars are both: ‘Metalheads’ and academic researchers and/or teachers. In their hearts and in their heads, there are, usually, both identities which regularly come into conflict.

Why do they come in conflict? This identitary situation is very ambiguous: we have to find a balance between scholarliness and fandom, between closeness and distance to our subject of research. We have to find identitary ways  to balance the fan’s subjectivity and the scholar’s objectivity. I think, this situation – as complicated, conflictuous, ambivalent and even paradoxical it may be – actually favours theoretical progress in our discourse.

This situation forces us to find theoretical and formal language to express the newly found balance between the fan and the scholar. In most cases, this new formal vocabulary to describe our own transgression from subjective interest to ‘objectified’ scholarly work is nothing else than a theory.2 In a nutshell, the identitary situation of scholars in Metal research drives them to formalize their language; thus, what we ought to do is not to come up with brand new or unprecedented abstract vocabulary but just try to find  formal language which suits our reflection and thoughts; vocabularies which create the Metal Music Studies scholars inside us.

  1. Cf. Stephen Hudsons blog ‘Metal In Theory. Sourcebook for Scholarship on Heavy Music’ at: http://metalintheory.com/about-metalintheory-com/, retrieved 9.7.2017; also, cf. the distinct and own discourse of a blog and journal of ‘Black Metal Theory’ at: http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017; another fine example is this article: Martin Morris, Extreme Heavy Metal Music and Critical Theory, in: The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory  90, 4 (2015), pp. 285-303 

  2. For instance, again the example of ‘Black Metal Theory’ can be seen from this angle; again, cf. http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017 

A short conceptual note on ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought in Metal Music Studies

Today, Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), as a theorist of post-structuralism, is one of the most well-known sources of conceptual reflection in cultural history. In current cultural-historical debates, his notions of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’ are amongst the most freuently used ones.1 They are used to tell the ‘histories’ of very different subjects and topics, from a broad variety of  perspectives.

All those  seemingly Foucauldian macro-, meso- and microstories of historical reality share, despite their different narratological subjects and objects, the ontological background of post-structuralist theory. However, we have to be aware that today’s common understanding of a ‘Foucaldian’ methodology in cultural history,  is not exactly and ‘originary’ Foucauldian, strictly clinging to the philosopher’s intentions. Foucault claimed himself to be a ‘positivist’2 who examined discourses as positive and empirical formations of performative ‘speech acts’ in history.

In the context of current historical theorizing this seems to be an ironic or even awkward claim. We construct Foucault to be the main ‘hero’ of constructivist and deconstructivist cultural history. This, frequently projects an ontology of constructivism onto the discursive ‘screen’ of Foucauldian thought and concepts; yet, the French theorist himself , especially during the development of his core-framework of ‘discourse analysis’ int the late 1960s, saw his work as one of an empirical positivist.3

Thus, when telling cultural history by using Foucauldian concepts and methods, such as ‘discourse analysis’, ‘archeology’ or ‘genealogy’, we have to be aware – and honest to ourselves – that we use and re-use, hence modificate these notions, depending on our own specific interests of research. So, maybe it is unfortunate to speak and write of ‘Foucauldian’ thought in cultural history. Probably, to define current theorizing in cultural research as an ‘Neo-Foucauldian‘ framework would maybe be more accurate: we overworked Foucault’s theories by projecting our own historiographical demands upon his work.

Supposedly, Foucault himself, a strongly pragmatic and non-systemic thinker, would not mind. He wanted his theoretical notions and concepts to be seen as a ‘toolbox’, from which everyone should take the tools and notions she or he needed; adapting them to her or his needs in analysis.4 Exactly, this is the actual and strictly Foucauldian approach: it is not an approach that glorifies (de-)construcitivism but an endless play and re-play of rethinking theoretical terminologies.

The actual ‘constant’ (Foucault would strictly avoid this notion) in Foucauldian thought is a pragmatic and ontological one,  a specific ‘flexible’ perspectivism. All through his professional life, his work was an examination and cyclic re-examination of the theorectial notions he had used before. So, actual Foucauldian cultural theorism is one which puts terminoligical self-reflection into his main focus. It is a perspective which, again and again, returns to its core notions, re-works and over-works them, making them better suitable for its relevant empirical needs.

Hence, we could define actual Foucauldian thought in cultural-historical theorizing as one which has the endless modification, the constant critique of its own terminology as its conceptual core. To think in Foucauldian ways, therefore, means to lead a discourse of terminological critique. In Metal Music Studies, as a specific research field in cultural studies, Foucault is a frequent point of reference, too.5

Taking up my differentiation between ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought, could be a way of making theorizing in Metal Music Studies more accessible and clearer – by being more exact and self-reflexive, taking the self-critique of terminology as a more important point. When speaking of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’, we should exactly define how we use these notions; maybe giving an exact point of reference in Foucauld’s own texts, clarifying which phase of Foucauld’s own self-critique of theory we intend to operationalize.

  1. For an introduction to Foucault, cf. Leonard Lawlor/John Nale (eds.), The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, Cambridge: University Press, 2014; Clare O’Farell, Michel Foucault,  London: Sage, 2005; Sara Mills, Michel Foucault, London: Routledge, 2003; Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1988; for a broad introduction to Foucauldian thought in history, cf. Paul Veyne, Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008. 

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011;Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

Getting naive in Metal Music Studies: can (Metal) music change the world?

In my last post, I reflected upon cultural-historical tendencies and processes in the year of 2016. I tried to elaborate on the question how this year, with its seemingly fundamental political ruptures, in a global and European perspective, could be told in scientific historical storytelling. Already this essay, as I ‘dared’ to measure the relevancy of one year in history without the advantage of temporal distance (I wrote my post on January 1st 2017), did not lack a certain degree of naivety. In this post I want to take, so to speak, ‘naivety as an epistemic tool’ and reflect upon a seemingly highly naive question: can (Metal) music change the world?

Yet, I think this a question, if our theoretical and methodological  prerequisites of cultural history are presented and used self-reflexively, being aware of the fundamental limits  inherent to them, can be elaborated on in a scientifically serious way. I suggest, trying to think of a conceptual answer to this question might add ‘ontological awareness’ to the research agenda of Metal Music Studies.

Getting naive…

Our starting point is a very simple thought: in the year of 2017, having in mind the first weeks of the new Trump administration and its policies, the coming important elections in France and Germany, the overall global network-like atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, even fear and panic, we could want to live in a better world; culturally, socially, legally, politically and economically. All the frictions and tensions of discourse in early 2017 – i.e. terrorism, migration, political radicalization, war-like conflicts – could make us long for a better world. And, this  being the decisive fact, wanting concepts from science to get into such a world.

So, the question, leigitimized culturally and morally, we have to think about, in ontological and discursively structural terms, is: can science provide us with ways to get into this ‘better world’? And, for Metal Music Studies, and cultural history in this subfield of academie, that question is to be modified to its specific subject of research: can Metal music change the world?

As mentioned above, this question seems to be one of purest naivity, even if taking it as ‘innocent’ naivity. How should music, even Metal music as subcultural field of popular culture, be able to change the world for the better? I think, on the very contrary, this naivety could be a good starting point for ontological reflection in Metal research; namely suggesting this naivety as an epistemic tool which enables us to open up for fresh perspectives.

…in Metal Music Studies

When we see this question as a a legtitimized one, this opens up a series of questions which penetrate into the deepest layers of the discourse of Metal Music Studies, its ontological prereqisites . Asking whether Metal music can improve the world’s current historical condition, we ask for a new evaluation of the theoretical core notions of cultural history in Metal Music Studies. These questions include the following: (1) what is Metal music in cultural history?; (2) how does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?; (3) does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

What is Metal music?

I address these very serious ontological questions (they basically define the subject of cultural history in Metal Music Studies as a field of research)  in exactly the order mentioned. Ad (1): trying to give a definition of Metal music in cultural history, means to give a preliminary description of a conceptual and empirical field of global history, since at least the 1970s. Starting in the early 1970s (having roots in the decades before), bands like Black Sabbath created a new, ‘heavy’ sound. Since then, this ‘heavy’ discourse emerged as an own cultural discourse. It developed its own narratives, imaginaries, style of clothes, gesticulation and networks to institutionalize them.1.

So, from the broadest possible perspective, Metal music can be understood as an own and distinct cultural discourse of popular culture. Today, it has its own history (and self-narratives of  this history) since over four decades.2 It is a structural sphere of culture, having its own rules of creating meaning, in its styles of clothes, music, practices, marketing and performing. In a nutshell, for cultural history Metal music is a discourse which globally creates meaning in an own way – according its protocol of the new cultural style encoded as ‘heavyness’.

How does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?

Now, we can address the second question, again rather globally. Ad (2): The core argument of my ontological definition of Metal music is the adjective of ‘global’. This adjective, indeed, is of utmost importance for the second question. Here, we want to find an answer to the question how Metal music does interfere with global discourses of culture – the ones like politics, media, society etc. The adjective ‘global’ gives us the ontological key to find an cultural-historical answer.3.

This short word, ‘global’, implies that Metal music itself spans around the world. It is not only a product of this world, or a by-product of discoures lying hierarchally above it, but an own and, scale-wise and hierarchically, equal discourse. Metal music acts globally, therefore, it has the same and exactly equal rights as other discourses – such as politics, media, society etc. It may not have the same ‘discursive power’ but from a structural perspective it is global, and thus has the equal rights: to construct meaning, to construct the world. In a nutshell, aiming to formulate an answer to this second question: Metal music inteferes with global discourse of culture on an equally-righted base. Its demands of identity and narratives are no less important than any other – but not more important either.

Does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

Ad (3): our third and final analysis is, probably, the most important one. Taking Metal music in global history as an eually-righted one, this leads us to formulate an answer which is promising and disappointing at once. It is promising because, when conceptualizing Metal music as an equally-righted sphere of culture, that implicates that it is on same hierarchical level as other discourses; hence, it, logically and normatively, can influence the world. The disappointig aspect is that, because it is one discourse among myriads of others, is potential of influencing the world is limited.

So, our answer to the third point is: Yes, Metal music has the potential to change the world; to be more specifically: it has the potential of changing its world. As an emancipative discourse, it can create (and indeed does create)4 its own visions and utopias of a better world. To me as a cultural historian, the most challenging task of examining these questions is to reflect upon the limits of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: where does the influence of Metal discourse meet its imits? Which limits and boundaries are the ones, maybe imposed by other discourses, which restrain its influence? How are these limits and boundaries, identities and non-identities, negotiated and fixated?5


  1. Cf., for instance, Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011; also, cf.  Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen: Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011; finally: Rolf Nohr and Herbert Schwaab (eds.), Metal Matters: Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Münster e.a.: Lit, 2012.  

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. cf. ibid. 

  5. Source of the title image of this post: http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/d2/d2c1e23ecee906584f0a6844db58aa2070bf0666afe7407a7df27caf07937087.jpg, retrieved 6.2.2017. 

Narrations, narratives and emplotment: is Hayden White’s narratological theory of history a suitable source of research in Metal Music Studies?

American historian Hayden White (born 1928) is one of the most influential theorists of narratological theory and pilosophy of history since the 1970s. His widely read (and citicized) Magnum opus ‘Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe’ (1973)1 provided historical research with a thoroughly self-reflexive theoretical account of its subject, the classic European historiography of the 19th century.

Applying the theory of ‘tropology’ to history, White intended to show  that historiography is always a kind of narrative and linguistic discourse. According to him, historiography is at least as much art as science – it is a kind of ‘protoscience’ which gains its theoretical legitimization from only narrativism.2 Thus, he put the theory of ‘tropes’ and, most of all, ‘emplotment‘ (which means the narratological modelization of explanation in any historiographical narration)  into the centre of his book.3

In this theoretical framework, historiographers can use only four ‘archetypes’ of plot structures which White defines as the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy and satire.4 These types of plot construction correlate to four positions of ideological discouses which White defines as anarchism, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism.5 Alltogether, White’s theory can be summarized in a table which is the visualization of Metahistory’s analytical and descriptive of core:


This visualization shows how Hayden White, as a somehow post-structuralist, somehow yet structuralist theorist of the historian’s language,7 imagined historiography to be:  the first place, according to him, it is a narratological structure, a narration. Hence, it is part of broader cultural discourses and contexts. It is part of contemporaray social, cultural and political life (i.e. ideologies such as anarchism, liberalism, conservatism or radicalism). White provided us with a deeply-grounded theoretical argumentation that historiography  is never ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ but has to be seen in the context of contemporary cultures.

However, this argument has become a commonplace in historico-theoretical debates8 but, still, discussion is open-ended – and, probably, cannot come to an end.9 At this point, our summary is (and this cannot be emphasized often enough) that history  is always a kind of narration. We do not have to follow White in his full implication, calling history a ‘protoscience’,10 but with Metahistory we gain a lot of theoretical ground in historical theory, concerning the nature of any historical narrative. In short, today, we also have to always ask for history as narration and narrative, too.11

Historical narrations, narratives and emplotment in Metal Music Studies: gaining more clarity

To deal with historical narrations and narratives is not new in Metal Music Studies: many recent works ask for narrations or narratological backgrounds of historic lyrical motives or aesthetics in Metal music.12 But, from a cultural historian’s point of view, current discourse lacks a sense of clarity: the terminology of ‘narration’ but, most of all, of ‘narrative’,  is usually used in more implicit than explicit ways.13

What I want to reflect upon in this post, is a mode of ‘going back to the roots‘ of White’s theory in Metahistory. The metaphor of ‘going back to the roots’ is a common topos in Metal culture, bringing to the fore associations of conservatism but also of going back to the authentic quality of excellent music. I intend to go back to White’s definitions of ‘narration’/’narrative’ and, in the first place, ’emplotment’, to gain more clarity in Metal Music Studies. I want to help to find out whether White’s theory is an atheoretical way of analyzing historical representation14 in Metal Music Studies.

To do so, we have to re-read his book. The core text of White’s theory is found in his introduction to Metahistory, his ‘poetics of history’.15 This barely more than fourty pages contain a theory of historical narrativism which became highly influential since the early 1970s,16 the era when Metal Music itself emerged in post-1968 Great Britain with bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon amongst others.

White develops his theory in these introductory sections. The most important one among his theoretical notions is the one of ’emplotment’. Defining this notion, he describes the techniques historians use (in the case of Metahistory, the great historians of the 19th century) to construct the meaning of their narrations as part of their disciplinary discourse. And this is the key to understand this theory: to construct something means to perfom an act of composing, in more or less concious ways. Therefore, the first important parameter to read White’s book is to read it as theory of historical perfomance and agency. Historians act, poetically and concstructively, in their writing of history.17

The terms of ‘narration’ and ‘narrative’ depend on this parameter: they describe the result of the historians’ agency as writers of history. Narrations and narratives are the performative result, the way and form the construction of meaning  takes in history (i.e. in a text or other forms of statements, such as in a historically themed song in Metal Music) .

According to White, historical narrations and narratives are the cognitive form the production of meaning takes when historians (or other historical ‘storytellers’, like artists in Metal music) perform their acts of emplotment. Thus the second parameter to read this theory, is to see historical narrations and narratives as performative results of the agency of historians. They are contigent forms of coherence, constructed at a certain point in space and time, out of the contemporary world of culture. The author of Metahistory develops this theory in the mentioned introductory section but its most concise formulation is found in the book’s preface:

In this theory I treat the historical work as what it most manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse. Histories (and philosophies of history as well) combine a certain amount of ‘data’, theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of set of events presumed to have occured in times past. In addition, I maintain, they contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic (…)18

This theoretical and ontological position enables White to characterize the historians’ agency in their performative acts of emplotment:

Explanation by Emplotment

Providing the ‘meaning’ of a story by identifying the kind of story that had been told is called explanation by emplotment. If, in the course of narrating his story, the historian provides it with the plot structure of a Tragedy, he has ‘explained’ it in one way; if he has structured it as a Comedy, he has ‘explained’ it in another way. Emplotment is the way which a sequence of events fashioned into a story is gradually revealed to be a story of a particular kind.19

This citation contains White’s definition of the historians’ work and task: they produce, as the results of acts of such ’emplotment’, a historical (hi)story whose ‘effect of explanation’ relates to its mode of plot structure. In short, a historical narrative’s form and meaning depend upon how it is told. Emplotment is the theory of a ‘performative speech act’ that describes this process.20 Going ‘back to the roots’ in Metahistory means to understand historical storytelling as an act of agency of performative emplotment. Now, we can the address the question whether this theory of historiography suits the demands of Metal Music Studies, and in particular those of a cultural history of Metal Music.

The questions of ‘materiality’ and modality: approaching historical emplotment in Metal Music Studies as a ‘sonic historical emplotment’

Dealing with historical storytelling in Metal means to deal with (hi)stories that take the shape of music. At a first theoretical stage, we can define this as a ‘sonic discourse’ – however neglective such a description should be. But, this first approximative argument already contains, in an implicit way, the characterization of a theory of historical emplotment in Metal Music. It consists in the modal question of the ‘materiality’ and the ways of the modalities the narratives are presented to the audience.

The audience of Metal Music consists of listeners. The ‘material’ form, the modality that is decisive, strucurally and cognitively, in Metal is its  sonic shape. The narratives the music contains may be a composite of visuals, lyrics, stage performance and the music itself, but the definition of this discourse is that it is a music discourse. Thus, we have to ask whether Hayden White’s theory of emplotment is suitable for the demands of a music discourse.

There are a number of monographs and articles which deal with the narratology of Metal Music.21 However meritorious these works are, they do, as a rule, approach narratives in Metal from a musicological perspective, combining it with a cultural perspective.

Asking for the suitability of Hayden White’s theory for Metal Music Studies, requires  us to concretize and specify this theoretical question: we have to go a step further  in theory by, first, shaping these narratives as historical narratives; and then, second, to go ahead by asking for these historical narratives as historical emplotment, perfomative acts of agency in the construction of meaning, that takes place in the ‘material’ form and modality of music.

For cultural history as a starand of interdiscliplinary Metal Music Studies, we can take up the discourse of the history of sound(s) that emerged in recent time.22 The theoretical foundations of ‘sound history’ enable us to approach the ‘materiality’ and modality of sonic discourses.

Now, we can answer the question whether Hayden White’s theory of history is suitable for research of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: yes, it enables us to understand historical storytelling in Metal music. However, we have to understand it as emplotment in a sonic discursive culture – we are required to develop a theory of ‘sonic historical emplotment‘ in Metal Music Studies.

  1. Cf. Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 3rd printing 1980. 

  2. Cf. ibid., most of all, pp. 1-42, 426-434. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. ibid.  

  6. Figurative table of Hayden White’s theory of narrativism in 19th century historiography; for the text in the book itself, cf. ibid.; especially White’s own figure, p. 29; table: Peter Pichler. 

  7. Cf. Frank Ankersmit, Narrative Logic. A Semantic Analysis of the Historian’s Language. The Hague: Martinus Niijhoff Publishers, 1983. 

  8. For instance, from the German discourse, most recently, cf. Jörn Rüsen, Historik. Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft, Köln e.a.: Böhlau, 2013; for recent debates, as the most read research journals, cf. History and Theory. Studies in the Philosophy of History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1960 ff; also, cf. Rethinkin History: The Journal of Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 1997 ff. 

  9. Cf. White, Metahistory, pp. 1-42, 426-434. 

  10. Cf. ibid. 

  11. Cf. ibid.; Ankersmit, Narrative Logic. 

  12. For topics of the research debate, most of all, cf. Metal Music Studies, Bristol: Intellect, 2014 ff; also, cf. Jeremy Wallach, Harris M. Berger and Paul D. Greene (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. 

  13. Cf. ibid.; for an ‘essay’ in this direction, also, cf. Peter Pichler, The Power of the Imagination of Historical Distance: Melechesh’ ‘Mesopotamian Metal’as a Musical Attempt of Solving Cultural Conflicts in the 21st Century. Metal Music Studies, forthcoming. 

  14. For the discourse on historical representation, cf. Frank Ankersmit, Historical Representation. Stanford, CA: Stanford Universoty Press, 2001. 

  15. Cf. White, Metahistory, pp. 1-42. 

  16. Discussing White’s reception, cf. Richard T. Vann, The Recption of Hayden White, in: History and Theory 37, 2 (1998), pp. 143-161; and, also, cf. Frank Ankersmit, Hayden White’s Appeal to the Historians, ibid., pp. 182-193. 

  17. Cf. ibid. 

  18. White, Metahistory, p. IX. Emphasis in the original. 

  19. Ibid., p. 7. Emphasis in the original. 

  20. Cf. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History. Stuttgart. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 

  21. Cf. Méi-Ra St. Laurent, Finally Getting out of the Maze: Understanding the Narrative structure of Extreme Metal Through a Study of ‘Mad Architect’ by Septicflesh, in: Metal Music Studies 2, 1 (2016), pp. 87-108; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: Transcipt, 2010. 

  22. From the German discourse, cf. R. Murray Schafer, Die Ordnung der Klänge. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Hörens. Mainz: Schott, 2010; Gerhard Paul and Ralph Schock (eds.), Sound der Zeit. Geräusche, Töne, Stimmen – 1889 bis heute. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2014.