Head already removed, the axe’s swing is a magician’s trick

A follow-up and small extension of my take on black metal as failed dialectic and headless fantasy. This is a subsequent, initial move from the acephale (without head) to the cephalophore (the head bearer), a sort of proposed second step, particularly toward the question of the leaderless collective that escapes blind irrationality or waiting for the messianic potentially fascist unifier of retroactive integrity. (Albeit a move that, as Ben has stressed in response to me, may be necessarily deferred, that pushing in such a way may be to leave its terrain entirely. We will likely forever disagree on this.) Thanks to Nicola, who I finally met in NYC, not only for being one of the severed minds behind the emergent black metal theory crew, symposia, and volumes (thinking that California may need to become the 3rd venue in this circuit: we have enough redwoods here to properly tackle the question of black metal and nature) but also for pointing me toward the figure of the cephalophore and on beheading in general, on which he's written a bunch.

But to speak of beheading, we must ask: what happens to the head? And whose was it to start? For the acephale (the headless) is the ground of black metal, its fundamental and unstable condition, but also what dooms it to both its fascism-in-spite-of-itself and to the lingering sense of the bad faith to not follow through on its convictions. The acephale needs to be taken as a first gesture, not as a permanent condition. Not in order to recuperate or excuse, neither to denigrate nor to valorize, but to see that the act of becoming headless opens the way for the second gesture, that of the cephalophore, the head-bearer, the one defined not by the condition of being without head but by the act of picking the head back up.

“Head” here should be taken in its full range, for the acephalic is a fantasy both of the leaderless (the “body” of the people rules alone, brought about by that revolutionary act of beheading the sovereign, materially or in principle) and of the irrational (headless, the body rules in its singularity and decides on the basis of the affective, and phenomenal, taking on unreason as its shared principle). As such, the acephalic condition of black metal must surpass itself and extend this to a total condition. It isn’t enough to remove the leader and imagine the hard collective – of cold Northern sovereigns to be – merely touched by this act of negation, for the outcome is one of three inevitabilities:

1. Resubmission to the bellicose repetition of the act (which is perhaps fine with black metal, at its most raging-in-place).

2. A slide toward the directionless muddled chaos of a crowd of loners.

3. Most disturbingly and more determinately fascist, the elevation of a new leader capable of both retroactively verifying the absent and deferred integration of the mass, as well as yoking concretely together the necessarily linked and distanced practices of politics and aesthetics.

In other words, the crowd itself must not only sever all. It must also pick up the pieces after. And more than that, to realize that the destructive undercurrent of this is above all an affective stance and an aesthetic tendency. The heads are already severed, reason cast to the ground. Black metal makes appear as decision what is in truth a general state of affairs, not just of its imagined post-apocalypse but of the systemic chaos and non-direction of the contemporary world. Hence the performative theatricality: the head already removed, the axe’s swing is a magician’s trick, tracing the negative space there all along between the body and the head.

For to remain in the acephalic is to rest in one of two unacceptable options, each of which can then go in one of two ways.

There can be an acephalic leader, which means either heterogeneous sovereignty (the elevation of a singular, irrational, decisionist leader to prop up the whole collapsing sphere of homogeneous and ordered life) or that crowd of individuals against rational leadership only because it is the wrong kind of rational leadership (i.e. liberal, plural, “diverse” and contemporary, rather than something more metal, European, singular, and ancient).

And there can be an acephalic crowd, either stuck in waiting for a properly headed leader to emerge and give direction, or caught in riotous, irrational, affective bloodbath, stumbling and flailing around, confusing an attack on totality with an attack on everything and anything within reach, wounding itself as it goes.

But despite its recurrent anti-intellectualism and penchant for uncritical reenactment of stale dark vitalist tropes, black metal is smarter than it thinks. Appropriately for its Satanic grounding, it shares much with the integral atheism of de Sade: to take on abstraction and the generic, you have to do so on its own terms. In other words, you can’t afford to throw away the head. It must be picked up, made open use of. Not to resuture a lost order to the mediated despair of the present, not t0 stitch the head back on. Rather, to make its absence and dislocation visible, to make something better of the inherited atrocity. To be sure, a cephalophoric leader could be no better than the acephalic, now holding up the head as proof of martyrdom (how I’ve suffered for you), reconciliation (I know you were mad when you cut off my head, but I forgive you and come back whole and wholly different, ready for hope and change), or permanence (cut my head off, it won’t do any good, you’re stuck with me, foolish sheep).

And so the requisite fourth here, and the possible way for black metal out of its stalemate of wishing to lose its head even while it won’t let it go, is the cephalophoric group. Headless one and all, they hold heads aloft, not sure to whom each belonged in the first place. Removed, yes, but redistributed: the general intellect and spheres of abstraction are severed decisively from their “natural” connection, and then turned to other ends. Of course, black metal doesn’t reach here. It remains the stumbling din, and the bad faith of a rational proclamation of irrational singularity, of the acephale who knows better. The question held out in front of us, like a disjointed head, is what can be gained and seen otherwise, the sight and praxis to be found in becoming wrong-headed, one and all.


Giovanni said...

I enjoyed this very much. Given the importance of having long hair in the business, I think you should work Samson into this thing somehow.

Benjamin said...

Good reflections, although (flippantly) I kept thinking of Highlander, which was on TV over here recently (as was Cyborg, which looked potentially your sort of thing - too tired to see out JCVD in post-apocalyptic action). Sure you've read the Bataille, but the essays on Visions of Excess, especially on the Psychological Structure of Fascism, offering some usefully anguished thoughts on splitting acephalic sovereignty from integral fascist sovereignty. We are becoming like one of those two-headed creatures who argue with each other...

Also, what did you think of the piece on the California occupations in Radical Philosophy? And are we going to hear your thoughts from HMNYC on 'communisation'?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

A very enjoyable theoretical siege of the cephalophore! Now I see more clearly how, in light of beheading's impossibility, cephalophoria signals the return of the head to itself, the extra potentiality of its becoming the nothing it always was. So I am thinking again of a coming community of haloed whatever beings who wear their heads on their sleeves. Yet the essence of cephalphoria, as opposed to the abandonment of acephalia, is that it overcomes the head by staying and playing in the space of its severing. So it embodies something like unity without unification (Bertran de Born's one-in-two and two-in-one, though the perspective there is on the endless self-lack of the schismatic), i.e. the kind of ontic unity of life that head, as that which stands apart (whether positively as sovereign or negatively as slave), seems incommensurable with.

Turns out Krieg have used the Moreau paiting.

Nicola Masciandaro said...


socialism and/or barbarism said...


ah, there's the question. The cephalophoric haircut of the redeemed heavy metaller, looking at the shorn locks in the hair and the unbearable lightness of no longer being able to headbang properly.

socialism and/or barbarism said...


two-headed indeed. The Bataille work on the psychological structure is exactly what's lying behind much of this.

I'll get the communization stuff up here. However, given that I didn't write a talk but merely worked off 23 pages of scattered notes, I think I will be posting what amounts to a slab of not-very-good autonomist Marxist poetry.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

Also, Ben, I'd be offended by the Highlander comment if not for the fact that like those films so much. I pretty much want to write essays that leave one feeling as if having just watched Highlander. Lofty goals, lofty goals...

socialism and/or barbarism said...


"return of the head to itself": exactly. I think this was what I was trying to signal as a step past the deadlock that Ben identifies, that of the war on abstraction that can never leave abstraction behind. The dislocation of the cephalophoric - and the act of picking up the head - might be taken as a form of acknowledging that the severing is the very condition of abstraction, rather than the condition of its "overcoming."

And I think that's right about the "unity without unification," although I need to think further about how indeed to overcome the other critique Ben raised of me, namely that of fundamental integrity. In this case, the question would be: how much does the integrated aesthetics-politics of black metal begin with the already cephalophoric? Is the arc toward non-integrated negative collectivity already the ground on which it starts, as if the black metal is not the severing itself but, from the beginning, picking up the head (that is, the leader and the abstract) and giving it a new integration, however negatively defined? In which case, our axe has to fall again, hence always resevering, theatrically what was never unified to start. Therein, perhaps, lies the repetition of black metal: how can you stop cutting when there's nothing to cut?

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