Monday, March 07, 2011

Laibach and Neofolk fascism.....a relationship with some responsibility

I like Laibach, the Slovene avant-garde agit-prop band that challenged the Yugoslav state's claim to be democratic and tolerant through reflecting its own authoritarianism back at it. I like NSK, the more physical art oriented wing of the whole thing. Unfortunately, folks who are skeptical of totalizing systems, whether they be corporate capitalist or Communist, aren't the only ones who pay attention to Laibach's strategy of subversion.

****For background to this post, check out the article What Ends When the Symbols Shatter, My Time as a Death in June Fan" by John Eden on the excellent "Who Makes the Nazis?" blog.****

Laibach provocatively uses symbols that resemble far right symbols but are altered just slightly in ways that give them purposely different meanings, the most obvious being the substitution of a black even armed cross inside a gear in places where a swastika would normally be. The black cross in their case goes back to the theories and ideas of Kasimir Malevich, the Russian avant-garde painter from the '20s who brought down shapes to the most basic in painting, squares, circles, crosses, combined with Orthodox notions of iconography. Icons are thought to be a portal where the divine touches the real through the medium of the painting, in the black cross the ugly part of the real touches the apparent reality that surrounds us, that we often cover with very unreal concepts. None of this comes out of my head solely, Laibach, NSK, and fellow artists in Yugoslavia, the former Eastern Bloc, and Europe in general have stated as much. It's verifiable; they were and are artists who actually studied art history and theory, along with late Critical Theory coming from people like Nicos Poulantzas and Claude Lefort, who was a student of Cornelius Castoriadis, a famous post-war Left Marxist (although that may not be the term he'd prefer). The black cross is not a swastika, but is a representation of real oppressiveness; if you confuse the intentional representation for the symbol that it's similar to, you not only don't get it but you also jump to semi-unjustified conclusions. I say "semi" because, after all, it's intended to resemble one of the most offensive symbols out there, so it's not like it's not intentional. However, it's not just a game for some groups that employ the same strategy.

Laibach encourages people to question their own biases while looking at symbols, plus adds positive content beyond simple questioning through the way they manipulate images, but many Neofolk groups take the ambiguous questioning stance originated by Laibach and apply it to their own symbols, their own album covers, and their own songs, with the purpose being to obscure actual fascist and neo-fascist sentiments. Neofolk is a genre of simple music using mostly acoustic instruments that arose from the Industrial Music scene perhaps as a response to the unrelenting harshness of it all. Instead of pure noise, very calm, soothing, rhythms. Instead of dwelling on dystopia and the dystopian nature of society, a celebration of a simpler kind of world. But, coming from a subculture that likes to press limits with regards to expression, the sort of sentiments frequently expressed in Neofolk were and are not so much hippy back to the land as 'neither right nor left' Wandervogel right wing boy scout sentiments, with militarism and paganism added in. No better band illustrates how symbols were changed than Death in June, headed by Douglas Pierce.

Sometimes the cover up in the lyrics is pretty obvious and easy to see through, sometimes it's a little more opaque, but the fascism is always there. "The Brown Book" is probably the least concealed of his works, featuring an a cappella chant of the Horst Wessel song among others. The explanation for the singing of the Horst Wessel song, the unofficial anthem of Nazi Germany, is that he also includes a sample, in German not in English, in the background at one point from a movie where a woman who is Jewish is reflecting on being conflicted about having a relationship with a Storm Trooper. So, because of this sample, wherever it comes from, supposedly the focus shifts from singing the Horst Wessel song to a meta-commentary, even though the CD and LP were intended for an English speaking audience. The Constitutional Court in Germany didn't buy it, and folks outside of Germany shouldn't buy it either. To me, it smacks of including a sample as an excuse to get a copy of the Horst Wessel song out there and in people's hands, putting it in as plausible deniability, as insurance when you're challenged about what you're obviously doing. Unlike Laibach's use of commentary, this one falls flat.

Similarly, the song "Runes and Men", on the same album, has a totally transparent double meaning attached to it. "Runes and Men" features Douglas P. playing guitar and singing over what appears to be a recording of Hitler making a speech, talking about how his "loneliness closes in, so I drink a German wine, drift and dream of other lives and greater times". Simple, right? Ah, but the voice isn't Hitler, it's a Nazi governor who was renowned for sounding so much like him that he was called "The Voice", and the speech is about the Night of Long Knives, where the leaders of the Storm Troopers were killed. Which means that it's a song that praises the Storm Troopers against Hitler, and praises Nazism, while letting listeners have the proxy thrill of listening to a track of Hitler speaking, which they probably don't mind anyways.

Similar contortions followed the Brown Book, ones that also fell flat with Germany's Constitutional Court, for instance the idea that "Rose Clouds of Holocaust" was about something other than Holocaust Denial. "Rose clouds of holocaust, rose clouds of flies, rose clouds of bitter, bitter bitter lies; when the ashes of life fall down from our eyes, Rose clouds of holocaust rose clouds of lies."

All of this would perhaps be academic if Death in June hadn't put out many much more ambiguous songs and hadn't served as an instigator of new Neofolk bands that took on the mantle of obfuscation in order to promote their own agenda.

Ultimately, what these bands do is to mainstream neo-fascist ideas, and they use techniques that were at first used to attack unjustified biases to defend themselves against attitudes that are quite justified. After all, what exactly does this sort of game mean in the end if you're still pro-fascist, only not necessarily pro-Hitler, for example? Not much. You're still a fascist. The only thing I can say, though, and this echoes the John Eden article, is that lots of people at least start listening to the fringes of this stuff without being fascists, without being far right, and if you take everyone who listens to the style of music as being die hard fascists you'll sweep a lot of people up who don't deserve the label. However, you'll also sweep up people who should know better, and who should get a reality check. The end of the rabbit hole doesn't lead to some sort of better, more nuanced, understanding of the world or of politics, it leads to an invitation to join the far right itself. Whatever failings people who have knee jerk reactions to certain types of symbols have, sometimes things are what they appear to be, and the fact that folks can get confused and sometimes pissed off at Laibach is no excuse for dismissing claims brought against other artists such as Death in June.

Yet, while they aren't in the same category, perhaps Laibach does have some responsibility for the use of their artistic strategies by others?


Anonymous said...

A funny thing is Death In June arose out of Crisis - an explicitely far left punk band...

I suspect that Douglas P is a nationalist of sorts - not a Nazi is the sense of the Third Reich, but a fascist and nationalist in the more general sense. Many fascists have a left wing background (the statist left usually).

John Madziarczyk said...

That may be true, but I'm not sure. There are a lot of variables within the range of beliefs that constitute neo-fascism. It would be perfectly reasonable for him to dislike the more bureaucratic super state aspects of the Third Reich yet approve of racism, whether on cultural grounds or racial grounds, as well as anti-semitism, again maybe on some sort of 'cultural' ground.

I'm not sure where he stands, but it doesn't look like a pleasant place.

John Madziarczyk said...

I like the article, but I think it's over argued. I think that the neo-folk scene, and many other scenes from across the spectrum, cut themselves off from reality by pursuing Gramscian strategies of cultural insulation, not to mention apolitea. In a different context from neo-folk, I did much the same thing for a while, buying into a Gramscian paradigm of myself against the rest of the world and literally living in the woods, albeit in an apartment complex in the woods...I can tell you that just from a human standpoint, not even considering politics, that's a pretty sad way to live, pissed off at the world but more or less resigned that you can't do anything about it.

I could say a lot about this, but the point of Gramsci's strategy is to give folks room to explore their own politics without having to deal with a mainstream that's often hostile. But, this can lead to delusions and an interpretation of the world that seriously departs from anything that's really there.

John Madziarczyk said...

That said, whatever the value or non-value of apolitea, I think that folks would be surprised at what Evola has to say in "Ride the Tiger". It goes beyond apolitea and is something other than an apologia for fascism.

John Madziarczyk said...

To clarify, I think that apolitea has no value in and of itself.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it has value either, but the people who constantly defends Neo folk fascism with the excuse of "it's not political" do.

I think the article does a good job of explaining why guys who pepper their albums with sunwheels, totenkopf, and other (clearly political) fascist symbols are so quick to explain away criticism by saying it isn't political.

Götz Waschk said...

It looks like Laibach have covered 'Runes and Man' by Death in June for their latest album. Please listen to it and tell my how they have altered it:

John Madziarczyk said...

The link has been taken down due to Copyright issues. I should note also that since this post was originally written, my thinking has changed somewhat on this subject, moderating quite a bit. I still have no sympathy whatsoever for Nazism or racism, but although John Eden's article was very good, I think the whole reaction against Neo-folk is somewhat overblown.

Michael.S.Johnstone said...

I suppose we should also label Slavoj Zizek a fascist or nationalist for his attempts to advance a sort of European pride, for arguing in favour of eurocentrism? Infact I see some "socialists" on some WSWS website have already done so.
I think the marxist dictum of one being what one does rather than what one thinks is highly relevant here.