British philosopher John Locke in his seminal Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote at length on the subject of essence or that which is immanent in an idea. To give the briefest of primers, ideas, according to Locke, can be classified as simple ideas, complex ideas, and mixed modes. Simple ideas are constituted by what our senses perceive about them in our immediate environment. For example, the idea of something tasting sweet as opposed to bitter is elementary in premise, meaning it cannot be broken down any further. It is atomic of nature, permitting of no constituent parts. Simple ideas such as taste, heat, cold, motion, distance, etc. have a grounding in reality as experienced by us; our mind simply brings its powers of understanding to bear on the information provided to it by the senses, and presents us with an as-is, literal interpretation.
Complex ideas, on the other hand, are a coagulation of multiple simple ideas which the mind makes use of to arrive at a definition of a substance found in nature. To quote Locke’s oft-used example of gold: the simple ideas of weight, the color yellow, lustre, fusibility, malleability, ductility, its solvency in aqua regia, and ultimately its value as currency, constitute to us the complex idea of of gold as substance in the main. Of course, to someone like a chemist, even these simple ideas could be striated into degrees, not to mention the chemist can also be attributed with awareness of a few other qualities usually obscured to the lay observer, but the chief point here is this: take away any one of these qualities from the complex idea of gold, and that idea itself becomes sullied and a little distant from its purest possible conception.
Mixed modes, finally, are those abstract ideas which originate entirely inside the mind as a result of its internal meditations. Mixed modes as such have no direct reference to anything found in nature (see Platonic forms). Take the concept of justice, for example. There is no external stimuli in nature which presents us with a ready and irrefutable instance of this idea, but use the term in daily conversation and its meaning – both hinted and explicit – becomes impossible to miss. Consider this chain of events: A man is robbed. The thief employs his loot towards some unavoidable, even unfortunate circumstance. Or maybe he blows it off during a night of excess. Whatever it be, eventually, the thief is apprehended. The thief is not financially solvent any more to repair the victim’s damages. The society in which both thief and victim live sees fit to punish him in a manner deemed commensurate with the severity of his crime.
Justice duly served, would be the natural reaction of most rational people in the civilized world to this episode. Evidently, then, justice as a mixed mode is an intricate latticework of both simple ideas and other complex ideas. An example of a group of simple ideas in this case would be the recording of evidence, perhaps even the assembling of it in chronological succession as the logical faculty dictates. However, the simple quotient in the formulation of this sum idea of justice is only static or passive or supplementary in nature; justice as a mixed mode hinges on various other complicated factors like intent and culpability, social-cultural norms, the degree of damage caused, etc, perhaps arrived at, at various other times, under varying circumstances. Both simple ideas and complex ideas then combine together to form our complex, composite idea of justice.
But the chain of events described above has not occasioned the discovery of the concept of justice; to the contrary, this mixed mode is already contained inside our mind as a result of our ruminations over time, as individuals and as a species of social, thinking creatures. We merely choose to impose justice as an idea upon those happenings around us which threaten to disrupt the foundation of our social existence.
The essence of any idea, according to Locke, is that which forms the idea’s identity. Or in other words, that which being subtracted from the idea reduces the idea to less than what it originally was. So, the essence of gold in the previous example would be the collection of properties viz. fusibility, malleability, the color yellow, etc. forming the mental picture of gold proper. But to Locke, this was only the nominal essence of gold, as opposed to its real essence, the latter which remains permanently unknown and unknowable to us. To elaborate further on the difference between the real and the nominal would be to digress in unwieldy directions but, in Locke’s theory, it is always the nominal essence of a substance that we refer to in daily discourse, and not the real.
Ironically, the empiricism which Locke prided himself on has made great strides in lockstep with scientific advances in the ensuing three hundred years; we now are a lot closer to deciphering the real essences implied by Locke than was thought possible in the past. But for the purposes of this post and especially its application to art, the distinction between nominal and real will do and even serves a useful purpose in fleshing out the material and the ineffable.
In art, in music, and, what matters to us the most, in heavy metal, the source of confusion between sound and meaning can be traced back to the general human miscomprehension of real essences and nominal essences. Moreover, we are unsure whether art is a substance found occurring naturally, which our senses acting as conduit feed in to our mind for further contemplation. Or might it be a mixed mode that we create entirely inside the confines of the mind?
Art is unique in that it can be demonstrated as a real, physical, sensible object, and therefore is liable to be misconstrued as a substance, much like gold, with tangible, equivalent qualities or, which is to say the same thing, nominal essences. Black metal comes to be defined by such signifiers as violent percussion, rasping vocals, incessant tremolo picking, blaspheming lyrics, and so on. What else is death metal but growling vocals, themes of blood and death, choppy rhythms, and technical playing? Facile denominations of this kind can be applied to every sub-strain of heavy metal, but that is ignoring the complexity of the issue at hand. Well, perhaps facile is the wrong word to use in this context; styles of metal are defined by how they sound, after all, but only that and nothing else?
Other mixed modes like religion, politics, and the foregoing justice, don’t find such ready representation in the physical space. At most, we have the chance to apply their principles to extant situations, and the outcome can be held up as an exemplary demonstration of the concerned mixed mode. But there is no vestige of that mixed mode left behind in nature, except for what is inside our mind, and what we attempt to capture on paper. It can only be witnessed in action when the next event warranting its application comes around.
But complex art, coming out of diverse influences gathered across space and time, still finds its ultimate representation in physically sensible form. Art, then, is a singular instance of a mixed mode, creating as it does a dynamic and interactive relationship between the mind and the natural environment. It certainly cannot evolve in a vacuum; it can’t help but be shaped by what the mind experiences, but neither is it something which can be ranked alongside substances of the natural variety. Art is therefore a mixed mode sui generis and unto its own.
I described the nominal essences which we commonly prescribe to heavy metal. Theme and style of delivery and their many calibrations form the bulk of these. But surely there is a real essence underlying these which we apprehend on a deeper level? John Locke may have considered the real essences of substances to be unknowable, but mixed modes are fabricated inside the mind and are therefore subject only to the mind’s framework of laws. If heavy metal is a special kind of mixed mode, then shouldn’t it be possible to arrive at a closer definition of its real essence, seeing as how most of it is conceived inside the mind, albeit by also taking inspiration from its surroundings?
[To be continued…]