The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.

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Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.

Experience, Value, Fortune and Mastery

On the planet of Rinsk lived a diligent, simple set of beings known as the Farfallan. The Farfallan resembled human beings of Earth, and shared many of their aspirations. They desired friendship, love, community and beauty and held a great disdain for cruelty and malice. However, in distinction of humans the Farfallan had a mystical connection with Quotsi, a gem that was mined across Rinsk. If the Farfallan inhaled the vapour that was produced through heating Quotsi over a fire they were able to have any experience that they desired. The Farfallan would simply think of the experience they wanted to have and that experience would transpire. The Farfallan would sometimes use the Quotsi to experience sexual ecstasy, while at other times they would use Quotsi to experience beautiful music, or familial affection. Quotsi enabled the Farfallan to truly have control over the experiences they had. Before the discovery of the potentialties of Quotsi the Farfallan were victims of chance and fortune, now that they had a ready supply of Quotsi they were truly masters of their own lives.

One day two interstellar explorers from Earth, came upon Rinsk, and made contact with the Farfallan. The explorer’s names were Annette and Laura, and both of them were scientists who were sent to other galaxies to investigate the forms of life that existed in other places, to try to assist with solving the problems that human kind faced in the year 2300 AD.

When encountered with the Farfallan, Annette was amazed by them. There was little conflict among the Farfallan. Not only were murders, and thefts unheard of, but also domestic conflict was exceedingly rare. The Farfallan would go to work each day, to make enough money to buy what was required to physically sustain them, and to purchase Quotsi, then they would go back to their humble homes and heat up some Quotsi to make their evening more enjoyable. They were not concerned with honour or glory and did not feel the need to excel over and above others. This of course meant that there were very few artists and athletes among the Farfallan, but that did not matter as the Farfallan had Quotsi, and if you can control the experiences that you have why do you need artists and athletes?

What Annette saw with the Farfallan was a truly harmonious society, and if humankind could develop a way to control their experiences in the way that the Farfallan could with Quotsi, humankind would be better off in every respect. There would be less violence and cruelty in society and people would be much more satisfied with life as any experience that they wanted would be right at their fingertips.

Laura shared much of Annette’s admiration for the harmoniousness of the Farfallan’s society, but as Laura continued to investigate their way of life she became more and more uneasy with certain elements of their lives. She had spoken with several Farfallen during her investigation about the importance of many subjects. However, the Farfallan tended to relate the value of all things to the sensual experience of that thing. They tended to explain their valuation of love purely in terms of the phenomenological experience of sexual ecstasy and emotional closeness. This irked Laura as while she saw these phenomenological elements as indispensable elements of romantic love, she also saw the value of romantic love in terms of the emotional intimacy that develops between persons and their commitment to one another.

Furthermore, it was not merely in the area of romantic love that Laura found the Farfallan’s explanation of the value of things to be troubling. The Farfallan had little appreciation for the value of the creative activity of artists and tended to see little value in the person who could write a beautiful melody, or create a beautiful sculpture. One male Farfallan named Lorkel had rather bluntly said to her “Quotsi allows me to experience beauty. I have no need for artists.”

Laura and Annette had to jointly write a report about what could be learned from the Farfallan. As expected Annette wanted to suggest that humankind invest in technology that would mimic the effects of vaporized Quotsi on the Farfallan so that humans too had all desirable experiences available to them. However, while Laura recognized the harmoniousness of the way of life of the Farfallan, she could not go along with Annette’s recommendation. Laura’s only piece of advice for learning from the Farfallan was the warning that if we follow the example of the Farfallan we may lose our ability to value anything that is not an experience.

Market Economy, Market Society and Economocentrism

In the video above Michael Sandel makes some poignant and insightful comments about how, over the last thirty years, within the post-industrial world, market thinking has begun to enter arenas that have traditionally operated according to non-market norms. Sandel laments this fact as he thinks this entry of market thinking into traditionally non-market oriented social practises has a tendency to corrupt certain social practises by crowding out intrinsic motivation. For example, he points out that some schools have started to pay students to read and this is troubling as it encourages students to read for money, rather than to read for the sheer enjoyment of it, or to learn as much as they can. I am largely in agreement with Sandel that the entry of market thinking into spheres such as education, love, and friendship is deeply problematic.

Furthermore, Sandel characterizes the shift that I have described above as a shift from a market economy to a market society. A market society uses markets as the predominant tool to generate economic growth, whereas a market society tends to see that everything operates according to market principles. Sandel may be right that the scope of market thinking has greatly expanded over the last thirty years in the post-industrial world, however, he seems to fail to adequately address the question of why there is such a tendency for the market to expand into arenas that have traditionally operated under non-market principles. I will argue that once we have a market economy and economocentrism there is a tendency towards for market logic to spread to all spheres of life.

Post –industrial societies tend to be intensely focused on economic growth. Within these societies aside from individual rights and equality, one of the things you cannot question in public life is the need to constantly increase economic growth. In this sense, post-industrial societies are economocentric. That is they are centred around economic growth and work, rather than some other value. Furthermore, for many post-industrial societies economocentrism is nothing particularly new. While writing in the 19th century Tocqueville noticed how dominant the focus on work and the economy was in the American mind. He notes that Americans tend to have little regard for those  who live the life of leisure and view the life of productivity and work as having a great deal of dignity. In this sense, 19th century America already was economocentric.                                                                                                                                                

Now within societies with market economies the focus on economic growth tends to encourage people to want to maximize the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated through the use of market incentives by applying market mechanisms to these practises. The idea being that just as market forces have spurred on technological innovation and material improvement in particular areas that now operate according to market mechanisms, so too will market forces be able to increase the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated according to market principles such as educational or healthcare practises. Consequently, we see the push to pay people to read as this would efficiently maximize the good of people reading.  As a result, within a society that has a market economy and is economocentric there is a natural tendency for the logic of the market to be applied to all arenas of social life.

 To put this slightly differently,  within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, our desire to maximize the things we value leads us to use the tool at hand (market mechanisms) to maximize every good that exists, even if the use of markets to maximize that good compromises the meaning of the good in question.  In this sense the trouble with a market economy paired with economocentrism is that we are ever focused on economic growth and are always thinking in terms of market mechanisms, and thus we tend to lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complex nature of non-market values like love, friendship and education. As we lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complexity of non-market values we begin to apply market rationality to all spheres of life.

I  am not suggesting that people within post-industrial societies are generally unable to reflect and understand non-market values and non-market practises, but rather that in terms of pre-reflective everyday thinking, living within an economocentric market economy will tend to make us think in terms of market valuation and market mechanisms.  People are perfectly capable of understanding non-market values and appreciate practises that operate according to non-market norms when they live within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, but if they do not reflect in such a situation they will begin to understand all values in terms of markets, and thus fail to appreciate non-market values.

Sandel is right to call attention to the way that market norms have spread to all spheres of life, but it is important to also notice that the very structure of the public culture in which we live tends to reinforce the spread of market mechanisms to all social arenas. This encroachment of market mechanisms into all spheres of life was not something that was simply imposed on us by elites, it is something that our own thinking and culture legitimates and reinforces.  Thus, if the culture of postindustrial societies continues on the path it is currently on the marketization of social practises will tend to continue.