Header_DenigrataA Lecturer in Popular Music at a British Higher Education institution, Denigrata Herself is undertaking her PhD in women in extreme metal. She is also the front woman/guitarist in Denigrata, an experimental black metal collective. Denigrata have coined the term noir concrête for their music, meaning the avant-garde dark noise initiated by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen finds a different rhizomatic existence within their contemporary black metal performance space.

Denigrata Herself is a gender theorist whose research and publications to date focus on body performativity, reclamation of female space, tattooing, graphic novels, death metal and black metal. She is part of the International Society for the Study of Metal Music (ISMMS) and sits on various academic and equal rights boards in the UK.

For over a decade she was a lead guitarist in British death metal bands, she was signed to and worked for various independent record labels and now devotes her time to lecturing, researching and performing. She is choir master for her departmental chamber choir and presents annual post-modern renderings of canonical classical pieces with her choir, a string quartet, a contemporary band and Ableton performers.

18 November 2014
Metal and Cultural Impact Conference, Dayton, Ohio November 6-8 2014

I have just returned from the University of Dayton, Ohio where I delivered a paper from my PhD at the Metal and Cultural Impact Conference, organised by Bryan Bardine, PhD. The reason why I want to blog about this experience is because it has raised a number of very interesting engagements.

Firstly I was incredibly proud to be part of this. Metal studies is an emerging paradigm that engages with musicology as well as philosophy and anyone involved in popular music pedagogy will know the significance of the relationship between these ideas. It also creates a space where philosophy can be taught at undergraduate level in the form of cultural theory and it provides valuable tools for analytical engagement.

As my PhD has developed based on my ten years in the metal industry as a guitarist, it wasn’t until I gave a paper at the University of York back in April this year that I realised the significance of my own subjective experience. Taking the same paper to Dayton, I found that the metal scholastic community wanted to hear what I had to say.

There is nothing quite like a metal conference. I have presented at plenty of conferences before, from feminist ones to graphic novels, popular music and film but metal conferences offer a different experience – it is not an imagined community, but a real one. Well, as much as we can consider anything to be real given that I hold to the concept that there is no objective reality!

However I found myself surrounded by scholars of a like mind in terms of our affinity and love of metal but also our philosophical engagements. We come from far flung corners of the globe in many cases but our desire to critically engage with the music in its form, structure and function provides another level through which to understand metal.

As I said in my previous blog, metal heads are the outsiders and this is an ambiguous position to exist within. We, all at varying points, have discovered our own problems with the structure and juridical law of the symbolic order and as such have actively chosen a form of subjective construction outside of this model. We therefore see the subject-substance as self-producing rather than hegemonically constructed and honestly, this is a beautiful thing.

Various philosophical positions suggest that this is not actually possible, Žižek, Lacan and Butler for example; however I refute this for the following reasons. Certain grand theory positions suggest that the subject cannot become a subject until it is an active member of the hegemony, meaning a subject a priori is empty. This may well be the case for those happily existing within the symbolic order but for those who recognise the falsity of the system, we make a decision to exist extra-hegemonically if you will. Once on the outside, we have the opportunity to construct ourselves however we see fit thus enacting autonomy over our aesthetics, occupied space and ideological positions. We re-encode the self to be something workable for us and as Keats quite rightly pointed out ‘that which is creative, must create itself’. And that is what we do, we create ourselves. That is not to say anything like authenticity is claimed, because I do not believe in such a concept but what I am saying is that the subject-in-process occurs more effectively outside of the hegemony and that honest moments of totality, of self-recognition can only happen extra-hegemonically because you are free of the imposition of the symbolic order.

The reason why this connects with metal is because metal has always been the outsider, the sociocultural music form that exists on the periphery and it is just as well that it does. From that vantage point, it can critique the symbolic order and embody the Dadaist aesthetic of ‘Art as Resistance’. So we see an affinity between those on the outside of the symbolic order and creative forms that also occupy a similar position.

The significance of the self in relation to these ideas means that when the self becomes a collective, moments of Hegelian totality can occur, in other words moments of realisation of who we are and what that means. Our ability to produce, create and critique are valuable functioning parts of the subject-self and its associated substance.

So when I met with the other metal scholars at the Dayton conference, I recognised in myself my role within the collective, my subjective within the Absolute Meta-Subject, to quote Hegel. Not only did I hear some very interesting papers and research, I met other metal fans and scholars who, like me, have felt this area of popular music worthy of theoretical engagement. And what a life affirming moment of totality it was. All areas of metal were covered and the intersections of class, race and sexuality were not shied away from, they were met head on with solid academic rigour.

A wonderful end to the conference was a gig in the evening where Alex Skolnick from Testament, who also gave a paper, got up on stage and ripped through War Pigs by Sabbath. Some musicians from these bands (Forces of Nature, Lick the Blade, Engines of Chaos), came to the conference too. What I particularly loved about the collision of academia and the metal community in Dayton is how welcoming and open minded everyone was. I was treated like family and that means something, it is significant.

So one of the main conceptual notions I identify is that of affinity and this functions in a number of ways. It is not just affinity of music taste or philosophical positions; the affinity appears to function as a totalising experience, where everyone is on the same page and there are no immediately jarring boundaries of separation that we experience within the symbolic order. Perhaps because of the nature of the conference and the nature of the Dayton metal scene, any racism, classism or sexism just wasn’t present and I cannot tell you what a genuinely liberating experience this was. A space is created and maintained where people are able to be themselves, and regardless of however clichéd this sounds, it is deeply significant.

In a society where the subject-self is manipulated, interpellated and reconstructed to suit hegemonic structures and agendas, I found a space where, through the shared love and affinity with metal, freedom was acknowledged and performed. In this day and age, that is a precious and rare thing indeed.

Comments are welcome. Denigrata Herself can be contacted at denigrataherself@horizonvumusic.com