Thick Aesthetic Concepts in Extreme Metal

My last post got me thinking about why it’s so difficult to explain the appeal of extreme metal to people that don’t like the genre. Part of me was concerned that this task was not simply hard but perhaps not possible at all. I feel like the appropriate response to someone who asks what there is to like about extreme metal is the apocryphal reply that Satchmo gave  to someone who asked what jazz is: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”. After considering it further, I think there’s something philosophically interesting about the way that people in the scene communicate with each other about their passion that might explain why this problem feels so intractable.

In the mid-80s a philosopher called Bernard Williams emphasised the importance to moral discourse of what he called “thick” ethical concepts. To get a feel for thick ethical concepts, one can contrast them with thin concepts of both a moral and non-moral variety. For example, the concept of size is a thin descriptive concept. If I say that John is tall, I am not passing moral judgement about him or invoking any kind of normative values in describing him as such. However, if I say that something he did was (morally) wrong, this judgement most certainly is evaluative, and my description of it does involve the use of normative values (namely, rightness and wrongness).

Thick ethical concepts constitute an entanglement of descriptive and normative features, they combine a judgement of fact with a judgement of value. For example, if I say that John is cruel then I am passing moral judgement on him in a way that I am not if I simply say that he has a tendency to cause unnecessary harm to others (or, at least, if there is moral judgement in this latter example it is merely implicit and not part of the meaning of the words themselves). However, I am also claiming that he has certain traits or performs certain types of actions. For instance, if John never gave money to charity, that might be reason for thinking him immoral or unethical, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for thinking him cruel, all things being equal. In this sense, cruelty has a descriptive, non-normative element to it that is absent in thin ethical concepts like ‘wrong’ or ‘good’.

Cruelty at its worst.

The notion of thick concepts, however, needn’t be restricted to ethics and can be extended into other areas of discourse that include value judgements, most notably to aesthetics. For example, if I say that a dress is elegant, I am not simply describing its shape or flow, but also voicing my aesthetic approval of it. Conversely, to say that a painting is garish is not only to describe its colour scheme but to condemn it on the basis of this choice of colours. In this way, aesthetic concepts often combine descriptive and evaluative elements.

No less than in other areas of art, metal too contains a myriad of thick aesthetic concepts. If anything, metal probably contains far more than other areas, given that many typical thin aesthetic concepts like beauty just aren’t appropriate for trying to pass judgement on the genre. Whilst the topic of discussion last time was death metal, I think that black metal is probably the sub-genre whose vocabulary is most inundated with thick aesthetic terms.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe this music draws heavily on themes central or related to the genre, which is tied to anti-Christianity, Satanism, Norway, paganism and nihilism: words like “grim”, “necro”, “brutal”, “krieg”, “misanthropic” and so on… Like the term elegance, however, many of these words not only describe the style of the music but also evaluate it positively. For example, to say that a black metal track is necro is, in part, to describe it as having lo-fi production values or a raw feel. However, the term also implies approbation or a sense of approval regarding its sound.

There is a debate within the literature as to whether or not it is possible to separate the evaluative and the normative aspects of thick concepts. Some, like prescriptivist R.M. Hare, believe that one can siphon off the descriptive element of thick concepts entirely, in a way that involves no commitment to any particular evaluative standpoint. For example, if one wanted to describe an action as “brave” without committing oneself to approving of the action, one might simply claim that it was performed without fear in the face of great danger. Since fear and danger aren’t themselves evaluative concepts, one has stripped the original term of its normative content entirely, or so the story goes.

Others, most notably Bernard Williams himself, have claimed that it is not clear that this sort of separation is possible in all, or indeed any, cases. John McDowell explains that the reason why one cannot simply separate off the descriptive element is because any accurate synonym for a thick ethical concept will inevitably bring in other evaluative terms at some point. For example, bravery is clearly not simply doing something without fear in the face of great danger, for this encompasses many stupid actions, or actions performed without knowledge of the danger in question, neither of which are brave. A more accurate description would be an action performed courageously, but of course courage is too a thick ethical concept, so unless this concept can also be explained non-evaluatively then this description fails in its task, for it sneaks value judgements into the extended description itself.

The upshot, according to Hilary Putnam, is that:

to use them [thick concepts] with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that “brave” simply meant “not afraid to risk life and limb” would not be able to understand the all-important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere rashness or foolhardiness and genuine bravery.

To come back to the point with which we began, if this second viewpoint is correct (that it is not possible to separate the descriptive and evaluative elements with any precision) then it will prove to be extremely difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already share an aesthetic appreciation of metal what exactly there is to like about it. Since much of the vocabulary used to talk about the music is thick, any attempt to voice an appreciation of the music in terms accessible to someone who doesn’t already appreciate it will leave out some of the content available in a description using thick concepts.

For example, the album Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone is extremely necro. If I was to simply say this to someone who didn’t enjoy black metal, they wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if I was to explain to someone that I liked it because it had bad production values, this simply wouldn’t capture my reason for liking it at all. Bootlegs of Madonna gigs probably have bad production values, but I don’t like them as a result, and they’re certainly not necro. 

Madonna ist nicht Krieg.

However, I have hope that in the case of metal at least, the problem is not completely intractable. My reason for thinking this is that there are descriptions in purely thin non-evaluative terms that, whilst not fully capturing the content of the thick terms themselves, might help bridge the gap between those who appreciate the genre and those that don’t. For example, if I said to someone that I like Under a Funeral Moon because the low production values help create a dark atmosphere, whilst not synonymous with ‘necro’, this hopefully provides enough information for the person to “imaginatively identify” with my aesthetic “evaluative point of view”, even if they don’t share that point of view themselves.

So that’s it for this post. We’ve gone from ethics to aesthetics to the grim and frostbitten realms of black metal (another topic for a future post: the postmodern irony that pervades the language of black metal fandom). Hopefully you’ve learnt something about philosophy, or perhaps got some insight into metal, or even both! This sort of connection between hobbies and interests of mine and philosophy is likely going to be the topic of a number of posts to come in the future, as philosophy generally tends to pervade how I think about things and I hope it sheds some light on aspects of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.


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