Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Moss - Cthonic Rites


From Branden W. Joseph's excellent "Beyond the Dream Syndicate. Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage":

"For Walter Benjamin, who theorized an 'optical unconscious' in relation to photography and film, the camera's ability to capture spaces and events not 'informed by human consciousness,' particularly through its capacity for enlargement (as in a microscope) or slow motion, was a means of revealing previously unseen possibilities for comprehension, interpretation, and action:

Photography reveals in this material [enlarged "details of structure, cellular tissue," and the like] physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things - meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged, make the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable.

On the other hand, film furthers insight into the necessities governing our lives by its use of close-ups, by its accentuation of hidden detail in familiar objects, and by its exploration of commonplace milieux through the ingenious guidance of the camera; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of a vast and unsuspected field of action (Spielraum)."

John Cage understood the dronework of La Monte Young as something like Walter Benjamin's 'acoustical unconscious': "Listening to these pieces has been for me an experience that has changed my way of hearing, of hearing everything. It is like when one sees something through a microscope: afterward, one sees differently, even without a microscope. With Young's music, you can say that you hear in the interior of the sound, in the interior of the action. (..) At that moment, listening reverts to placing a particular object under a microscope so that the object becomes an entire universe, simply because it is enlarged to that extent. It ceases to be an object."


Microscopic music: more contemporary examples are found in Electronica, especially in the 1990's microgenre 'Clicks and Cuts'. The genre zoomed in on sonic detritus, magnified aural decay, enlarged pops, hisses, whirrs, glitches, clicks, scratches, noise until they formed a 'vast and unsuspected' soundscape. The unintended, indeterminate, near-aleatory nature of the sounds used ensure that these soundscapes are 'not informed by human consciousness'. The work of Thomas Köner is a case in point: his music evokes arctic panoramas by blowing up "...stuttering mechanical sounds (imagine the sound of film that has been rewound but hasn't been shut off, the trail of film flapping against the canister)..." (here).

But in a sense, using electronica to magnify sound is facile: computer engineering expedites closing up to the sound. To magnify sound events without the aid of software like Reaktor, Ableton Live, Super Collider and MAX/MSP is much more challenging.

Nevertheless, UK Doom Metal band Moss' manages to coax hidden detail from from its hiding place in waking nightmares on their classic 2005 album Cthonic Rites, released on the excellent Aurora Borealis record label both on cd and magnificent triple vinyl.

Imagine Marduk's 1999 Black Metal album Panzer Division Marduk slowed down so much that the breakneck speed blast beat drums become immense, cyclopean structures; slowed down such much that the headlong rush of tremolo is transfigured into a large, slow-crawling glacier of noise, formed from compacted layers of distortion. For the listener, Moss makes it possible to explore the crevasses, moraines, striations, eskers, ridges, chatter marks, drumlins and cracks in the familiar sound of Black Metal.

Moss' slowing-down of Black Metal reveals a vertiginous musical underworld, where the dimensional relationships are askew, where the proportions are wrong. This should come as no surprise, as the work of HP Lovecraft is a major inspiration for Moss: disproportionality of scales is a constant theme in that horror writer's work. In his 1991 essay "H.P. Lovecraft. Contre le monde, contre la vie", Michel Houellebecq describes the work of the Providence recluse as "...a vertiginous literature; and there is no vertigo without a certain disproportionality of scales, without a certain juxtaposition of the minuscule and the unlimited, the specific and the infinite."

In Moss' Doom Metal, one can discover a warped, nightmarish and barren world.

Post scriptum

Here and here are links to recent interviews with Moss. Here and here and here are links to older interviews.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chen Chieh-Jen

Here is a link to a fascinating article, published on the Artintelligence blog. The article focuses on the work of the artist Chen Chieh-Jen (Taoyuan, 1960), one of Taiwan's most prominent artists. It explores work in which the artist digitally manipulates photographs of the atrocities of colonialism and warfare so that these photographs mimic ancient Buddhist and Taoist drawings of purgatory and hell. The article examines Chen Chieh-Jen's work from a Bataillan perspective.

Chen Chieh-Jen also creates Video Art. In the YouTube video below, you'll find an excerpt of a documentary on this aspect of his work. In it, you'll see fragments from two films, one on the effects of globalization on the marginalized in society, and one on Lingchi or Leng T'che Executions, of which notorious images were reproduced in George Bataille’s The Tears of Eros. Here is a link to an interesting article on Chen Chieh-Jen's Video Art.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Shock Xpress - David L. Hewitt (pt. 2)

DLH: Next was Hell's Chosen Few. A guy named Titus Moody owned a documentary called Outlaw Motorcyclists and someone else had a documentary with the Miss America of that year in it. I said, "If you give me your Outlaw Motorcyclists footage, I'll give you 25% of the movie. If you give me your teenage bride religious film, I'll give you 25% of the movie." I wrote sequences that tied this stuff together and shot it. The father in Hell's Chosen Few (Joe Folino Jr) was a plumber in the original story! I got him back for one day and made him the sheriff. I think the footage behind the main titles is the only motorcycle footage behind it. We shot in in 16mm, blew it up and it looked terrible."

Hell's Chosen Few (David L. Hewitt, 1968)

The Mighty Gorga
(David L.Hewitt, 1969)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Word Composition

Champs de Bataille: upload Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tar Oss to your mobile phone. Attend a public performance of John Cage's 4'33'', wait for about a minute after Cage's composition starts and play Burzum's music. Can Cage's collective, improvisational and deskilled silence envelop and swallow Burzum, or does the Burzumic drama overpower and subjugate Cage?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Birthday Gift

One of my very best friends, known around the 'net as the Great Baarsini, burned a great 2cd compilation for my compilation, with some very nice artwork. Needless to say, I'm immensely pleased! Click on the second picture for the tracklisting.

Other goodies include:
- Georges Duhamel: Civilisation 1914-1918
- Jim Wafer: The Taste of Blood. Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé
- Raymond Queneau: Le dimanche de la vie

Monday, September 22, 2008

Shock Xpress - David L. Hewitt (pt. 1)

The first Shock Xpress book contains an interview by Julian Grainger with exploitation film director, special effects man, production manager, film distributor and exhibitor David L. Hewitt.

DLH: I used to be a magician. I ran away from home when I was a kid and traveled with a magic outfit called 'Doctor Jeckyll and the Weird Show' - one night stands in theatres. Forrest J Ackerman came to see the show in Nevada and when I arrived in California he introduced me to Ib Melchior. Melchior said, "Why don't you make a promo reel with some special effects, using illusions instead of opticals." We shot one day in a little religious film studio in Glendale (that is now a parking lot) called Alpha Omega and showed it to Bill Redlin. He went to AIP and they financed the film and we did the picture. That was The Time Travelers. We shot that for a month or so.

The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior, 1964)

DHL: After that I did something called Monsters Crash the Pyjama Party. It was always shown at midnight; 'A thousand and one thrills' ran the ad. It's thirty-three minutes long and at the end of the movie, monsters come out, go into the audience and carry a girl back into the screen. I got the idea from a magic show.

Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1964)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dancing The Questions

The following citation, from E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classic 1937 ethnography "Witchcraft, Oracles And Magic Among The Azande" would do nicely on Transpontine's excellent "History Is Made At Night" blog:

"A witch-doctor does not only divine with his lips, but with his whole body. He dances the questions which are put to him. A witch-doctor's dance contrasts strikingly with the usual ceremonial dance of the Azande. The one is spirited, violent, ecstatic, the other slow, calm, restrained. The one is an individual performance organized only by traditional movements and rhythm, the other a collective performance.


It is important to notice that witch-doctors not only dance but make their own music with hand-bells and rattles, so that the effect in conjunction with gong and drums is intoxicating, not only to the performers themselves, but also to their audience; and that this intoxication is an appropriate condition for divination. Music, rhythmic movements, facial grimaces, grotesque dress, all lend their aid in creating a proper atmosphere for the manifestation of esoteric powers. The audience follow the display eagerly and move their heads to the music and even repeat the songs in a low voice when they are pleasing themselves rather than adding to the volume of the chorus. It would be a great mistake to suppose there is an atmosphere of awe during the ceremony. On the contrary, everyone is jovial and amused, talking to each other and making jokes. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the success of the witch-doctor's profession is largely due to the fact that he does not rely entirely upon the settled faith of his audience, but makes belief easier by compelling their surrender to sensory stimuli.

We have to remember, moreover, that the audience is not observing simply a rhythmic performance, but also a ritual enactment of magic. It is something more than a dance, it is a fight, partly direct and partly symbolic, against the powers of evil. The full meaning of a seance as a parade against witchcraft can only be fully grasped when this dancing is understood. An observer who recorded only questions put to the witch-doctors and the replies which they gave would leave out the whole mechanism by which the answers are obtained, and even the answers themselves. A witch-doctor 'dances the questions'.


Every movement in the dance is as full of meaning as speech. All this jumping and leaping embodies a world of innuendo. A witch-doctor dances in front of one spectator or gazes intently at another, and when people see this they think that he has spotted a witch, and the object of their attention feels uncomfortable. Spectators can never be quite certain about the meaning of the witch-doctors behavior, but they can interpret in a general way from his actions what he is feeling and seeing. Every movement, every gesture, every grimace, expresses the fight they are waging against witchcraft, and it is necessary for the meaning of a dance to be explained by witch-doctors as well as by laymen to appreciate its full symbolism."

These are immensely important paragraphs: as early as 1937 they bind together issues of embodiment, rationality, movement and meaning. Not only does Evans-Pritchard conceive the witch-doctor's dance as a semiological system, he also allows the witch-doctor's dance to enrich our understanding of rationality and meaning. The dance may mimic the questions: but the questions anticipate and the answers mimic the dance. Discourse jumps, leaps and grimaces, becomes sweat-soaked, smelly, intoxicated.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shock Xpress - John Waters (pt. 2)

From an interview with John Waters by Damon Wise in the first Shock Xpress book:

"And I also went to a bar that was good. You walked in and there was a mentally retarded doorman, a hillbilly, that was, like, chug-a-lugging bags of potato crisps, just ... (makes a gurgling noise). And then you walked in and it was all black people, but they were not young, they were, like, burglars and their girlfriends. I mean scary ones, right? With all rap music playing. But the disc jockey was a 300lb white hillbilly girl and her 500lb mother who had no teeth and looked like the big bad wolf. And they were playing all black rap records. And then they would go over and dance with the scary black older men, these huge fat white women. I thought, what is this? It doesn't mix. And then the door swung open to the bathroom and out came the manager, a raving queen! And I thought, I don't believe this. It was like Last Exit to Baltimore! It was really good."

Hairspray (John Waters, 1988)

Cry-Baby (John Waters, 1990)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Possession (pt. 7)

French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget in "Music and Trance. A theory of the relations between music and possession":

"[In] the famous epidemic of Saint Vitus' Dance (or Saint John's Dance or Saint Guy's Dance) that swept Europe and Germany during the Middle Ages, dance was of course the primary sign of trance. But was it the cause of this trance or, on the contrary, its effect? The second hypothesis would appear to be the right one. These dances did not, in fact, occur without music, and since the music was provided by musicians, the dancers were consequently musicated, that is, their trance was induced. This is clearly evident in a drawing by Bruegel the Elder, the Epidemic Dance in Moelenbeek, which depicts a woman falling into a trance as a result of the music being played for her by a bagpiper. I know nothing in Europe that is as close to a black African possession scene. Except for the costumes and the particular instruments being used, one would think it depicted a ndöp ceremony in Senegal. There, we need not hesitate, the subject is a musicated person, and we are indisputably on the side of possession. But a question does arise. Whereas in Bruegel's drawing we are undoubtedly in Christendom, we are not necessarily within Christianism and transcendence."

Interestingly, Rouget's analysis tallies with that of German physician Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker's analysis in his 1832 book 'The Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages'. Hecker hypothesized that the Saint Vitus dance originated from pre-Christian customs. "Bacchanalian dances, which have originated in similar causes among all rude nations of the earth, and the wild extravagances of a heated imagination, were the constant accompaniments to this half-heathen, half-christian festival." The dire living conditions of the late Middle Ages - natural disasters, the Black Death, famine, social unrest - made Medieval Europeans seek relief in 'the intoxication of an artificial delirium'.

In analyzing Saint Vitus's Dance as a possession ritual - that is: as a cultural phenomenon, perhaps related to Tarantism - Rouget discredits theories which ascribe the Dance to neurological disorders (apraxia, chorea), to ergot poisoning or to mass psychogenic illness.

This has the great advantage of providing an explanation for the long period in which Saint Vitus' Dance was prevalent: it occurred to thousands of people from the the 14th to the 17th century. It seems highly unlikely that rare medical disorders or poisoning with a psychedelic fungus could cause the relevant symptoms on such a massive scale for such a long period. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages the effects of ergot poisoning were well known under the name of 'Saint Anthony's fire': thus, Medieval Europeans were well able to distinguish ergot poisoning (associated with Saint Anthony) from dancing mania (associated with Saint Vitus). The diagnosis of 'mass psychogenic illness' or 'mass hysteria' is a sorry excuse for the want of a better (dynamic sociocultural) explanation and as a 'diagnosis' it deserves to go the same route as female hysteria.

Post scriptum

Here is a video for 'Saint Vitus', performed by legendary Doom Metal band Saint Vitus:

Interestingly, the lyrics to this song make no reference to the possessed dance for which the Saint has become most famous. Instead, the song focuses on Saint Vitus' martyrdom under Diocletian, giving the Saint's story a very America anti-government meaning:

Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus was a young lad
No one knows how old
'till the kingdom took his life
for the things he told
The world is full of wickedness
So Vitus says
"If you believe in god above,
you will all be saved"
Lust can breed corruption
So wash it from your life
Don't believe in the government
Let your soul decide
And so the king grew angry
He saw his end in sight.
Young Vitus must be stopped
The little child must die

Saint Vitus – hear his distant scream
Saint Vitus – died for his belief

So if you're breeding wickedness
Keep this in mind
Vitus' soul is watching you
Through the veils of time
Well, people always stay the game
They never seem to learn
'till they all have lost their faith
and their souls have burned

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shock Xpress - John Waters (pt. 1)

From an interview with John Waters by Damon Wise in the first Shock Xpress book:

"I think the best thing I've done lately, y'know that kind of thing of ultimate voyeurism was... I was just driving down the street and I saw this tiny little church, but I mean really black. Really Southern, where people were speaking in tongues and had 'the spirit'. They had nurses there to help people who were speaking in tongues. I just pulled over and as I walked up I thought, I can't go in. I was like a Martian. And then this nurse came out and she said, (blandly) 'Come in, son. Would you like to witness?' So I went right in and set down. There was a lady right next to me, completely speaking in tongues, like her head was gonna start spinning round. (...) And she was going, like, 'AIIIYEEAAYAIIEE.' It was so great. Then one turned round and said, (softly) 'You're the movie man, aren't you?', and I thought, 'I can't believe I'm recognised in this place!' But it was really great and only in Baltimore, I think, it is that open. I mean, somewhere that you really... it's almost rude to go in. I would never have gone in unless I'd been invited. But once I was in there ... it was like Wise Blood, y'know? There was, like, one old, dirty, crooked sacred hart on the wall. That was the only decoration. It was really poor. But there were people really dressed up. Older black ladies with big hats on. It was really nice. (...) I stayed a half hour. It seemed long. I thought, I just want to get out of here before one person, maybe, doesn't like that I'm here. But I felt throbbing voyeurism! I was so interested I couldn't leave. And I was with somebody who was out in the car, saying, I don't believe he went in there!"

Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)

(John Waters, 1981)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Possession (pt. 6)

In the post about artists as men possessed, which inspired this series of posts, Mark K-Punk wrote about Joy Division:

"The most disquieting section of the Joy Division documentary is the cassette recording of Curtis being hypnotised. It's disturbing, in part because you suspect that it is many ways the key to Curtis's art of performance: his capacity to evacuate his self, to "travel far and wide through many different times". You don't have to believe that he has been regressed into a past life in order to recognise that he is not there, that he has gone somewhere else: you can hear the absence in Curtis's comatoned voice, stripped of familiar emotional textures. He has gone to some ur-zone where Law is written, the Land Of The Dead. Hence another take on the old 'death of the author' riff: the real author is the one who can break the connection with his lifeworld self, become a shell and a conduit which other voices, outside forces, can temporarily occupy."

The Law of Curtis

K-Punk: "He has gone to some ur-zone where Law is written, the Land Of The Dead."

The lyrics of Shadowplay open with the image of a crossroads, which in many cultures is an Interzone, a location "between the worlds", a place where spirits can be contacted, a dangerously sacred place, "No place to stop, no place to go".

Hecate, 'Queen of the Night', who sometimes traveled with a following of ghosts and other social outcasts, was the goddess of crossroads in ancient Greece. Oedipus met his father at the crossroads and killed him there. In Voodoo, crossroads are regarded as a favorite haunt of evil spirits and propitious to magic devices. At crossroads, the most powerful Voodoo divinity, Papa Legba, receives the homages of sorcerers and presides over their incantations and spells. Many magic formulae of Voodoo begin with the words: 'By the power, Master of the Crossroads.' The bluesman Robert Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.

Crossroads are a locality where two directions touch and annihilate each other, a directionless place ("...so plain to see..."), a nowhere, a no-man's land. In anthropological terms, crossroads are a liminal place, a "threshold" of or between two different existential planes, a place characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.

This non-place, which is a non-time as well, is where Curtis receives his stone tablets with his bitter Law.

However, Curtis does not bring back Ten Commandments from the wilderness, from his personal Mount Sinai. The Law he brings back from the Wilderness (Curtis' shamanic Otherworld), it is primarily a descriptive law, not a presciptive law. Curtis' vision quest in the Wilderness aim to describe, understand and predict the cruelties of social life: travelling "...far and wide to many different times...", Curtis brings back visions which underline his proposition that social life invariably, unchangingly is cruel. In Wilderness, the laws of Curtis are statical (not dynamical) laws of social existence.

In Wilderness, prescriptive law plays only an indirect role, showing through in his feelings of indignation, guilt, and shame at seeing moral laws transgressed. Nevertheless, the fact that these feelings show through so strongly indicate that the relation between the two types of law is highly relevant in understanding Curtis' situation. For Curtis descriptive law (the cruel laws governing social life) and prescriptive law are fundamentally incongruous, conflicting: the laws of social life ordain that the laws of morality will always be trampled underfoot.

In fact, I am reminded somewhat of the Marquis De Sade's 1787 novel 'Justine (or The Misfortunes of Virtue)'. In this novel too the descriptive and prescriptive laws are at odds. Justine's morals, the virtuous protagonist's prescriptive laws are confronted with the descriptive (metaphysical) law which makes those who live a life of evil and vice prosper, whilst the morally pure suffer. A Sadean reading of Joy Division - perverse pleasure at Curtis' dejection - is entirely possible, though in all probability quite rare.

Curtis takes an intermediate position between Marquis De Sade and Justine. Justine, though confronted with wickedness, perversions and crimes at every turn, blindly clings to her moral laws, remaining unaware of the evil character of Nature. Marquis De Sade on the other hand is conscious of the monstrosity of Nature, and this consciousness leads him to embrace all evil. Curtis, unlike Justine and like De Sade, is painfully aware of the corrupt nature of social life; but like Justine and unlike De Sade, he does not reject prescriptive law.

What strikes me about the lyrics of Wilderness is that they employ imagery of a Christian nature - surprising for a band which has a nihilist reputation. The lyrics mention saints, the Cross, sin, the blood of Christ, and martyrs. In this context, the 'one-sided trials' seem to refer to Pontius Pilate's trial of Jesus and subsequent trials of Christian martyrs.

In fact, there is something Christian about Joy Division's lyrics, which insistently extol suffering, which present us with a "mortification of the mind". Furthermore, Pilate's executioners may have nailed Christ to the Cross, but the crucifixion was a sacrifice of God. In the sacrifice of Christ the position of the victim is sanctified, while the position of the sacrificer is disavowed. If I examine Curtis' lyrics with the scheme of sacrifice in my mind, Curtis presents himself primarily as the victim, not as the sacrificer. The sacrificers are generally external agents: the leaders of men, the architects of law, the conquistadors who took their share, the figures from the past, the people who pay to see inside asylums with doors open wide, the 'you' in whom 'I put my trust', the 'you' who 'treats me like this'. Like Christian thought, Curtis disavows the sacrifiers.

However, unlike Christian suffering, Curtis' suffering brings him no interior peace, no spiritual joy, no salvation. Curtis is like Benjamin's Angel of History, who also looks backwards and not towards a future redemption: 'His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.' 'No future' means 'No Redemption', means 'No Kingdom Come'; teleology and salvation have slipped from our grasp.

Furthermore, in some lyrics the conflict of prescriptive and descriptive law rages even within Curtis himself. In these lyrics, Curtis no longer disavows the sacrificer, but experiences himself as guilty. Humanity's guilt of killing Jesus Christ assumes an unlimited nature. The leaders of men, the conquistadors who took their share, and all the others are no longer the only actors in the drama of sacrifice, since the fault devolves on all humans. In the end, even Curtis, even Christ himself, is tainted. In these lyrics, Curtis' torment takes on a tragic dimension.

Mother, I tried, please believe me
I'm doing the best that I can
I'm ashamed of the things
I've been put through
I'm ashamed of the person I am

Isolation (3)

But if you could just see the beauty
These things I could never describe
Pleasures and wayward distraction
Is this my wonderful prize?

Isolation (5)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A fascinating and potentially very Bataillesque paper proposal by The Whim's Nicola Masciandaro: "Non Potest Hoc Corpus Decollari: Beheading and the Impossible".

Shock Xpress - Mark IV Prophetic Film Series

Trailers from four Christian fundamentalist films on the Apocalypse, covered in an article by Greg Goodsell in the first Shock Xpress book:

"The views expressed in these moving religious tracts are largely at odds with the readers of free-thinking publications such as this. The secular doomsday drama lures bodies into the cinema with the promised tittillations of 'what will the end of the world look like?' The Mark IV series, available at Christian bookstores in the USA, offers an even more horrific vision. "What does a midwestern American acolyte of Jerry Falwell or Jim and Tammy Baker think the end of the world, or in fact the world, looks like?' You really don't want to know..."

A Thief In The Night (Donald W.Thompson, 1973)

A Distant Thunder (Donald W.Thompson, 1978)

Image Of The Beast
(Donald W.Thompson, 1980)

The Prodigal Planet (Donald W.Thompson, 1983)

Monday, September 08, 2008

Possession (pt. 5)

In his very inspiring post on Mark Stewart, Ian Curtis and Mark E. Smith as possessees by 'other voices, outside forces', Mark K-Punk writes on Joy Division:

"The most disquieting section of the Joy Division documentary is the cassette recording of Curtis being hypnotised. It's disturbing, in part because you suspect that it is many ways the key to Curtis's art of performance: his capacity to evacuate his self, to "travel far and wide through many different times". You don't have to believe that he has been regressed into a past life in order to recognize that he is not there, that he has gone somewhere else: you can hear the absence in Curtis's comatoned voice, stripped of familiar emotional textures. He has gone to some ur-zone where Law is written, the Land Of The Dead. Hence another take on the old 'death of the author' riff: the real author is the one who can break the connection with his lifeworld self, become a shell and a conduit which other voices, outside forces, can temporarily occupy."

In "Music And Trance", French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget distinguishes possession and shamanism as two diametrically opposed spiritual systems:

"Whether we examine menadism in ancient Greece or demoniac possession during the Renaissance, the zār cult in Ethiopia or the rab cult in Senegal, the orisha and vodun cults in the Gulf of Guinea and Brazil, basangu in Zambia or hàù bóng in Vietnam, or any of the various forms of trance to be found in Bali, nowhere do we find any evidence of trance being viewed as a journey made by man into the spirit world. In every case it is interpreted as involving the arrival of a spirit or god in the world of men. This difference is a radical one: in the first case we have shamanism, in the second, possession. Since in both cases the event is experienced from the viewpoint of the human involved, in the first case a journey is taken and in the second case a visit is received - considerable distinction indeed.


I [have] tried to isolate the difference between shamanism and possession and come to the conclusion that it could be expressed by a series of three oppositions: journey to the spirits/visit by the spirits; control over the spirits/submission to the spirits; voluntary trance/involuntary trance. This triple opposition could be further condensed into only one: acting/undergoing. Shamanism appeared to be, if one may say so, essentially acted, possession as undergone.

To use Pouillon's terms ... "the orientation of the relation" between subject and trance appeared to be diametrically opposed in the two cases. ... Moreover, in possession the subject goes into trance because he changes identity; in shamanism he goes into trance because he changes worlds."

In the lyrics to Wilderness, the Joy Division song to which Mark K-Punk refers, Ian Curtis does not change identities, he changes worlds:

I traveled far and wide through many different times,
What did you see there?
I saw the saints with their toys,
What did you see there?
I saw all knowledge destroyed.
I travelled far and wide through many different times.

The same is true for the lyrics to Shadowplay:

To the center of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you,
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.

Ian Curtis' (involuntary, uncontrolled) epileptic fits have defined his image, as if the lyrics to 'She's Lost Control' did not refer to some unnamed female but to Curtis himself. However, in the lyrics to Wilderness and Shadowplay, Curtis presents himself as a mobile agent who actively seeks out his chosen destination. Where the possessee is visited by beings from the invisible world, Curtis goes out to the invisible, liminal world to visit these beings. Curtis is one to “step outside” or “take a ride out”, not one to invite the Other in. Rather than a "shell and a conduit which other voices, outside forces, can temporarily occupy", rather than a possessee, Curtis is like an Inuit shaman, who undertakes his journey "in the depths of the ocean ... to seek out his patient's soul and bring it back to his or her body" (sourced here).

Post Scriptum I: Epilepsy and possession

In Rouget's 'Music and trance. A theory of the relation between music and possession', the author rejects theories that pose that possession can be regarded as 'musicogenic epilepsy', that is epileptic seizures caused by acoustic stimuli:

"In Senegal (...), the first duty of those responsible for ndöp séances is to ascertain, in the case of nonritualized [possession] crisis, whether this is the result of epilepsy or, on the contrary, attributable to possession."

Post Scriptum II: Wilderness

Post Scriptum III: Shadowplay

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Velvet Cacoon - reanimated?

Finally, a sign of life from Velvet Cacoon:

"August 25th, 2008 After close to five years in the making, the master and artwork for our new album "Atropine" is finally being delivered to Full Moon Productions. More info about this expansive doubledisc set can be found in the Music section.

Velvet Cacoon

(Full Moon Productions/FMP051)

Release date: Oct/Nov 2008

disc 1: 1. Candlesmoke (6:24) 2. Funeral Noir (mp3) (9:35) 3. Graveside Sonnet (12:38) 4. Dreaming in the Hemlock Patch (36:44)

disc 2: 1. Nightvines (3:03) 2. Nocturnal Carriage (13:06) 3. Earth and Dark Petals (13:02) 4. Autumn Burial Victoria (27:55)

Recorded between December 2003 and August 2008
All songs by Velvet Cacoon

Atropine extracts of henbane were used by Cleopatra to dilate her pupils to appear more alluring. In the Renaissance, women used the juice of belladonna berries to enlargen the pupils of their eyes for cosmetic reasons (in Italian, "bella donna" translates to "beautiful lady"). Later on, belladonna was used by witches before flight. The juice of the berries was applied to their vaginas resulting in massive and sometimes lethal dosages of atropine. In this state of unbelievable hallucinatory incoherence, they believed they were actually flying on their brooms and as they spoke aloud their spells the results unfolded right before their eyes.
This album was carefully created over a four year period under the closely supervised influence of mandrake, hemlock, datura stramonium, henbane, belladonna and jesaconitine isolate. Most of the drone library was originally recorded to DAT and buried in the ground for two years before reviving them for use. Out soon on Full Moon Productions"

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Possession (pt. 4)


It might seem bizarre to write, as I did in the previous installment of this series of posts, that Mark Stewart was a man possessed by the spirit of the Thatcherite Great Britain of the 1980s, a man communing with the military-industrial entertainment complex, a man in communion with the capitalist, proto-fascist, paranoid, surveillance-obsessed oppressor, a man in unio mystica with Babylon, with the enemy. Bizarre: wasn't Stewart an anti-fascist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist activist?

But there is an interesting antecedent: the West-African Hauka movement. From Michael Taussig's "Mimesis and Alterity":

"Those involved in this rapidly growing movement, begun among the Songhay people in 1925, would dance and become possessed by the spirit of the French major who had first taken the offensive against him, who imprisoned those who had begun the movement, who slapped them around until they said there was no such thing as Hauka. Thus deified as "the wicked major," his spirit got into the first floor of the Hauka pantheon as one of its most violent spirits. Thus possessed, the Hauka would mimic the white men (and sometimes their wives, too) and acquire strange powers.


But in addition to the conscious play-acting mimicking of the European, conducted with wit and verve, there is bodily possession - which is what makes the mimicry possible yet generally works at a less than conscious level with special, even disturbing, bodily effects: frothing at the mouth, bulging of the eyes, contorted limb movements, inability to feel pain. Strange "Europeans" indeed. And surely that's the point - they so clearly are and are not Europeans. It's the ability to become possessed, the ability that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness, if not downright savagery, which allows them to assume the identity of the European and, at the same time, stand clearly and irrevocably eye-bulgingly apart from it."

In the Hauka cult, the Europeans discovered "... the presence of an open dissidence, a society the members of which openly defied the social, political and religious order. It his here that we discover the most original aspect of the Hauka movement: their total refusal of the system put in place by the French." In embodying the enemy the Hauka appropriated his power. In this case, possession was anthropophagy.

Like the Hauka, Stewart embodied the enemy: in his case, the enemy was not the colonial authorities but the grey and hopeless Great Britain of the 1980s, the Babylon that Rastamen denounce, the "wicked major" Margaret Thatcher. And like the Hauka, the fact that Stewart embodied the enemy didn't keep him from refusing all cooperation with the authorities.


Reflecting on a specific moment in "Les Maîtres Fous" ("The Mad Masters"), a 1955 ethnographic film by Jean Rouch (1917-2004), Taussig writes:

"A man possessed by a Hauka spirit stoops and breaks an egg over the sculpted figure of the governor (a little statue not unlike the Mbari shrine of the white man) that presides over the day's events of Hauka possession. Cracked on the governor's head, the egg cascades in white and yellow rivulets. Then the film is abruptly cut. We are transported to a big military parade in the colonial city two hours away. The film hurls at us the cascading yellow and white plumes of the white governor's gorgeous hat as he reviews the black troops passing. Those of us watching the film in a university lecture hall in New York City gasp. There is something immensely powerful released at this moment, begging for interpretation."

Mark Stewart's version of William Blake's "Jerusalem" somehow parallels this moment in Rouch's film. Regarded as the high point of Stewart's career, the song was played on a regular basis by John Peel and constantly being asked for by listeners. Stewart's "Jerusalem" is more than a parody of the patriotic 1916 hymn, written by C. Hubert H. Parry: it is also an anthropophagic appropriation of the affective power of Brass band patriotism and militarism for anti-nationalist and anti-militarist purposes. But "Jerusalem" is even more than parody and appropration: the rough, almost Dadaist juxtaposition of incongruent sonic material (Industrial, Dub Reggae, Punk Rock, Brass Band, Song) mimics the tensions present in the British social and cultural life in the 1980s.

But Stewart's "Jerusalem" is yet more than a parody and an appropriation and mimesis: the song wrests Blake's poem "...away from a conformism that is about to overpower it". In "Jerusalem", Mark Stewart is a "...writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, [he] is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious" (Benjamin).

To paraphrase Taussig's analysis of Rouch's film: the deep Industrial Dub of "Jerusalem", with its ability to explore the sonic unconscious, to come close and enlarge, to frame and to montage, creates in this sudden juxtaposition a suffusion of mimetic poetry. Blake's poetry is allowed to flower in the grey Thatcherite Great Britain of the 1980s.

Mark Stewart's "Jerusalem" is to C. Hubert H. Parry "Jerusalem", what the rivulets of egg are to the governor's hat.

Post scriptum

I've posted Rouch's film before, but feel compelled to watch it. Even though I first saw it several years ago the film is still bending my mind into shapes that are "abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours" (Lovecraft). As Wizard Eibon commented on the earlier posting of the film: "a classic masterpiece you can't forget once you've seen it".

A fascinating review of Rouch's film: here.