Minimal Techno in The Global City: On The Ethics of Cultural Resistance
ESSAY by J. Peter Siriprakorn
Since the height of its popularity in the late 1990s, urban rave culture has occasionally been valorized by critics as a novel subculture that resists the progressive sanitization of urban space by challenging neoliberal ideals of private property, function and comportment. More often, however, rave has been disavowed as an unwelcome perversion of 1960s counterculture – all drugs and parties without a transformative political project. Raves, self-conceived as “temporary autonomous zones,” have been criticized as foregrounding the spatial contraction of a once global utopian dream into the private, localized space of the rave event. To dismiss U.S. rave culture tout court, however, as merely catering to self-indulgent white middle-class suburbanites (at best) or upwardly mobile cosmopolitan elites (at worst), disregards the ways in which the culture mediates broader issues of socioeconomic difference and works to manage the troubled affective residues of the various traumas that pervade the everyday.
Deeply committed to a counterhegemonic effort to restore an element of contingency to rationalized norms of affective and bodily experience, minimal techno culture is a particular incarnation of rave grounded in abandoned spaces that render visible the violence of post-industrialization. Through alternative (often illicit) consumptive, audile, and performative practices, minimal techno culture strives to disrupt both the quotidian world’s progressive disciplining and deadening of affective experience, as well as intervene on capitalist modernity’s exhausting drive toward routinization and formalization. That this mode of resistance demands particularly violent extremes of affective and bodily experience, however, directs our attention to the ethical dimensions of countercultural life. The New York techno scene’s complex relationship to the global city, a site of continual migrations and endless capitulations (to a ruthless housing market or skyrocketing health care costs, to name just a few examples) calls attention to the way such limits are exacerbated by the incommensurate demands of life under a neoliberal regime. This paper examines minimal techno events in the global city through the lens of performance, treating them as sites of cultural production where unsatisfying ways of being-in-the-world are both challenged and often tragically reinforced by the intersecting spatial and ideological dimensions of techno culture as it is lived.
II. The Specter of Origin
Techno culture maintains a peculiar aesthetic attachment to the detritus of modernity’s industrial past. This is evident from the legendary parties held during the 1990s in Detroit’s Packard Plant, an automotive production facility spanning several acres and abandoned in the late 1960s, to the current global prominence of Berlin’s Berghain, a party venue refashioned from the ruins of an abandoned power plant, to the New York scene’s frequent use of abandoned textiles plants, warehouses, and marooned boats scattered in industrial regions of Bushwick, Brooklyn. These dilapidated landscapes continue to inflect techno sociality, if not with site-specific histories, then with the haunting mythologies left in the wake of modernity’s failed promises of uninterrupted progress, failures made visible and palpable by the spectacle and habitation of these structures.
Arguably, techno culture’s fetishization of urban ruin has its origins in Detroit, the birthplace of techno. The musical form emerged from the ashes of 1980s post-industrial Detroit, a once thriving metropolis devastated by decades of economic decline, racial conflict, and political corruption. Formerly revered as the Paris of the West during the 1920s, Detroit is now often referred to as America’s first third-world city, a testament to the death of big industry. In many ways Detroit figures as a living archive of tragedy, its troubled past inscribed on the very surfaces and depths of its boarded up buildings, empty streets, vacant lots overrun by wild grass and debris, and once majestic houses in such profound disrepair that they evoke eerie symmetries with war-torn cities. The list goes on, seemingly interminably: the long-abandoned Grand Central Station, a towering mass of concrete; the Opera house cum multi-level parking lot where one can still make out the cracked and peeling remains of once elaborate ceiling paintings; and legendary rave venues such as the Packard Plant, the Fisher Industrial complex, and the old Detroit Science Center. Despite recent and inspired revitalization efforts, much of Detroit’s terrain more closely resembles a ghost town than a functional metropolis.
Such was the environment in which techno emerged from the private production spaces of pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. In contrast to Chicago’s thriving club scene, where market forces produced a competitive attitude among DJs and producers to compose and deliver music oriented toward mass consumption, Detroit’s relative isolation allowed techno to develop more independently, one might say strategically, its pioneering artists focusing less on commercial success than on conceptualization.
III. Placing the rave “outside”
Though in many ways grounded in an aesthetics of improvisation, techno culture often insists on a particular configuration of performance space. In contrast to the traditional theater/musical space’s hierarchical divide between active onstage performer and passive spectators, the rave performance collapses spatial hierarchy to enact both a literal and figural network laterality. Typically performing at ground level, DJs place themselves in risk of literal contact, such as when overeager dancers accidentally bump the DJ or their equipment, thereby disrupting the performance. Many DJ’s describe the importance of experiencing reciprocity with the crowd for the duration of their performance, of feeding off their energy, becoming one with it at the same time that they create it. In a similar vein, spectators are encouraged to move and mingle freely, the scene’s utopian ethos deriding social divisions predicated on hierarchies of race, class, and gender, as well as on conventions of affective composure (take, for example, norms of proper workplace demeanor.)
This spatial and ideological erasure of verticality works synergistically to protect the events themselves from the effects of routinization, helping to preserve the rave’s status as extra-ordinary, as always outside. In the immediate time-space of the rave, bodies and beats impress upon and extend one another beyond the finite set of possibilities underwritten by conventional narratives of boundedness: the insular self-possessed “I” of liberal subjectivity becomes dissolved by ketamine, a powerful dissociative anesthetic favored in the scene for its ability to shatter the ego; the sociality internal to rave challenges the (neo)liberal mapping of the world as fundamentally hierarchical, heterosexual and necessarily paranoid.
Such experimentation with sense, affect, cognition, and the social imaginary culminates in the experience of a profoundly existential communitas wherein certain assemblages of bodies, selves, and perceptions of space, time, movement, and rhythm comprise the ephemeral texture, the enigmatic ‘vibe’ of the party that promoters, partygoers, and DJs continually fetishize but can never fully duplicate. Indeed the ‘vibe’ – an oft-circulated term that attempts to represent the unrepresentable contingent dynamism between physical environment, performer, and audience – gives these events their affective singularity, allowing one party over others to later become the object-cause of a vitiating nostalgia when the routine attendance of such parties threatens to subsume their disruptive potential into the banal rhythms of the ordinary. “Vibe” is one instance of how the scene’s particular rhetoric works to preserve the quality of extra-ordinariness in the face of a lapse into the ordinary, as when the attendance of raves, instead of being an occasional indulgence, becomes a way of life, the experience of such extreme intensities formalized and thus evacuated of meaning. Nostalgia for the ineffable synthesis, for a kind of ephemeral collective creative performance, continually replenishes desire.
IV. Challenging/Reinforcing Unsatisfying Ways of Being in the World
Though rave culture actively promotes a putting into play of normative social, bodily, affective, and cognitive boundaries, certain commonalities in phenomenological experience do adhere. In the context of performance, these elements are often manipulated by the DJ to intervene on the audience’s meaning-making processes, effectively recuperating objects and subjects that dominant ideology has disciplined us to hate or fear. What follows is a personal anecdote that illustrates this point.
Several weekends ago I attended a party in the Bushwick-Montrose area of Brooklyn, where a young DJ overlaid the voice of a man reciting the Quran onto a techno set that had, in conventional minimal fashion, otherwise excluded vocals. To the uninitiated, this may register as a vulgar moment of cultural exploitation, a cheap trick to draw attention. What must be taken into account, however, is the force of ongoing-ness present in the musical form as well as the continuous flow of bodily action whose pleasurable quality depends to some extent on a willed forgetting of volition, the experience of being compelled to dance because one “feels it” (the music). The initiated locate pleasure in the activity of becoming-machine.
In such moments, issues of duration and bodily-sonic correspondence intervene in the meaning-making processes. The ‘voice’ of the Quran had emerged during a lengthy period of dub techno – an early sound championed by Detroit in the early 1990s. The temperature of that minimalist genre is most often an unusual amalgam of machinic alienation (one hears the steady and precise throb of industrial machinery, which evokes images of assembly line production) and organic warmth (ambient textures produce a more gentle, soothing sonic palette). Such a genre is a product of the post-apocalyptic landscape of early 90s Detroit; it is an urban musical form that captures the traumatic residues of the transition from a Fordist to a post-Fordist market.
The reintroduction of language within such an affective historical frame elicited from the audience a moment of confusion, an awareness of contextual and aesthetic rupture. This sense of interruption was in turn amplified by the content. The voice of the Quran triggered a deeply seated cultural paranoia about Islam, urging partygoers to pause and examine the bodies in the crowd, interrupting the flow of machinic experience. The voice invited all present to respond to a larger ideological injunction, to vigilantly seek out the fantasmatic radical other, to locate the brown body of difference in the crowd, turn away from it, identify it as the object-cause of fear. Yet the music trailing beneath the voice continued to unfold, the bass throbbing hypnotically, its insistence pulling us along, maintaining the inertia of bodily movement. And the crowd, its collective affect poised somewhere between fear and anxiety, affect both seeking an object (fear) but unsure about whether to seek (anxiety), never stopped moving. Sure enough, a new track soon mixed in whose warm soothing tones further worked to assuage anxiety over (Islamic) difference. The music taught us to be patient, it taught us to suspend judgment precisely by helping us to not suspend our bodily selves. It is precisely an intimate phenomenological relationship between body and musical form that made this intervention possible. After the DJ’s set, a friend pulled me aside and commented about how unexpectedly beautiful that moment was, calling my attention to the ways rave’s structure of experience – its continuous flow of bodies and affects – can potentially re-aestheticize and subtly reorganize our mappings of the world.
As the enigmatic experience of the “vibe” – the structure of feeling utopic through what journalist Simon Reynolds calls a kind of “collective autism” – becomes the continual object of desire, however, it also understandably complicates the private lives of members of the community, particularly those whose quotidian circumstances are practically defined by precarity. As a radical space of permission, raves also allow for the deprivatization of traumatic affects and narratives from more insular, socially sanctioned spaces of affective exchange (such as the psychoanalyst-analysand dyad), engendering experiences of profound and unexpected intimacy, as often between friends as strangers. In theses spaces, one frequently hears heart-wrenching personal accounts of mental breakdowns, incarcerations, suicide attempts, rapes, incest, domestic violence, addictions, lost jobs, evictions, medical crises, deportations, and other legal troubles. Many people whom I have encountered in my 17 years of involvement with the scene (as attendee, harm reduction outreach worker, and occasional organizer) have shared with me the profound divide between the scene’s extraordinary visceral, communal and elating experiences and the alienating experiences of quotidian life, suggesting that the former supplements the latter. Many also espouse an alarming distrust of social welfare institutions, a distrust that in some sense evidences a deeper colonization by a neoliberal ideology that equates the privileged figure of the liberal subject with notions of self-reliance. These people face serious material and affective blockages to anything resembling the neoliberal ideal of the ‘good life’ they do in fact desire, yet refuse to turn to the state as a potential source of assistance. One might argue, following Judith Butler’s account of subjectivation and ideology in The Psychic Life of Power, that on the level of the psyche rave’s operative ‘renegade’ ideal of “temporary autonomous” zoning colludes with classical liberalism’s definition of individualism as total self-reliance to subtly reinforce the subject’s turn away from the state.
Miraculously, many of these subjects do manage to be minimally self-reliant, to ‘get by,’ insofar as self-reliance means survival. A subject named Alyssa, whom I befriended, confessed upon our first meeting a personal history marred by childhood sexual abuse, being abandonned by her family as an adolescent, and difficulty holding onto a 9-to-5 job, along with recurrent substance abuse/addiction problems. In the dim light of an alley behind the warehouse, she showed me the track marks on her arms, admitting, “I used to be a hot mess! But I totally cleaned up in the last few months.” She was high, though, on ketamine. I asked Alyssa what she was doing to get by. She replied that she was a stripper and that she made “good money—enough to pay rent.” She justified this by saying “I mean, what else can I do?” to which I could not respond. When asked about her future, she paused for a moment, either lost in thought or perhaps overwhelmed by a drug-induced absence of thought. Eventually, she said she wanted to be a hairdresser because she thought she’d be good at making the world “more beautiful.” Weeks later, I later discovered she’d been fired from the salon where she’d been apprenticing for truancy on account of her drug use.
Another subject named Irena had recently immigrated to the U.S. from a small town in Russia, claiming to be here on political asylum. Irena described having much difficulty ‘getting by,’ owing in part to a sense of strong individualism that rejects workplace norms of proper composure (she refused to “take shit” from people and as such continually lost her various low-wage jobs). She described feeling alienated by the Russian community, both in her native Russia and in the U.S., on account of their purported obsession with ostentatious displays of wealth. She described a perpetual sense of dislocation and alienation, a sense that she did not belong anywhere. Yet moments after we spoke of this, she abruptly shifted the conversation to her experience at the party, recounting how she had enjoyed wandering through the crowd before picking a spot at which to dance. “It felt so good to find a place for myself,” she said in heavily accented English. I could not help but notice the ambiguity in her words – the minimal difference between locating enjoyment in the destination (pleasure experienced by laying claim to the found place) and locating enjoyment in the being able “to find,” in being able to imagine that a place might exist for oneself at all.
In its most revolutionary moments, minimal techno parties in New York City, which occur weekly and shift unpredictably from venue to venue, call attention to the way attachments and communities are all too often grounded in the state-sanctioned, market-driven zoning of space. Rave’s renegade refusal of a dependence on private institutional spaces (such as bars and clubs) challenges the ideal of property ownership naturalized by neoliberal ideology. It instead encourages subjects to locate pleasure in a lateral mobility by affording members of the community a flexible and highly gratifying form of cultural citizenship. As a mode of inhabiting the revanchist city that challenges neoliberalism’s physical, architectural, and juridical mappings of space, raves enable citizens to make alternative claims to vitiating experiences of belonging. Through its process of (always temporary) appropriation and return of vacant warehouses, rooftops, lots, and even marooned boats (that is, through its aestheticization of spaces baring the failure of neoliberal terraforming), the community distances itself from issues of gentrification brought to the fore when the question of productively inhabiting space becomes bound up with the state’s notions of private property, which confuse inhabiting (and enjoying) space with the protracted, juridical temporality of owning space.
Yet, just as the scene’s nomadic, renegade ethos challenges hegemonic ideals of stability and ownership as prerequisite for cultural citizenship, the scene’s affective dimensions call attention to this model of resistance’s troubled relation to the welfare of its citizens beyond its private (temporal and spatial) zone. Though Alyssa and Irena are hardly representative of the scene as a whole, they are nonetheless an important part of its constituency. For souls like Alyssa and Irena who have no hope of securing the liberal ideal of private property and stability on which the very figure of futurity is based, and in the absence of an alternative, socially sanctioned vision of futurity, the scene continually functions as a site of eternal return. The renegade techno event provides intense experiences of belonging and hope, an ephemeral source of affective plenitude that allows one to endure a difficult present in the face of an inability to even imagine a satisfying future. But one thing the scene precisely does not do is help subjects articulate a future beyond itself.
In response to recent work in cultural studies decrying the privatization of the affects, the question then is whether the ethical dimensions of such public performance habitats, in deprivatizing traumatic affects from (at worst) private personal ritual or (at best) the psychoanalytic encounter, in fact reaffirms a need for contemporary scholars to preserve some aspects of the psychoanalytic account of “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.” What is needed, in the interest of an ethics of the politics of resistance, may be a guide to the minimal disciplining of traumatic affects necessary to ensure that traumatized lives can progress beyond precarity. The scene’s aestheticization of laterality and autonomy along with its intensely rewarding experiences of communitas continually attracts and works to entrap those unable to secure more perduring attachments in a quotidian world where hierarchy and subordination to neoliberal norms is a fact of life. In these instances, the act of performatively making traumas public can prove counterproductive in a more general, pragmatic sense. Such scenes of violent pleasure and utopian optimism coexist with the apocalyptic; they figure simultaneously as a means for those with precarious lives to keep-on-keeping-on, while also working to bind subjects to a circuit of intense feeling whose self-perpetuating extra-ordinariness manifests as its own kind of addiction. The ethical task presented to scholars is thus to find ways to balance the desire for freedom with the need for management, and to find a way to help these subjects imagine a future when the larger structure colludes with the many violences of ordinary life to tell them repeatedly that they do not have a life worth keeping.
J. Peter Siriprakorn (MAPH’08) is a perpetual adventurer in the urban electronic music underground. He is recently transplanted to San Francisco from Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he works at a tech startup that provides online tutoring to families.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge. 2004.
Blomley, Nicholas K. Unsettling the City. New York: Routledge. 2004.
Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 1997.
Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. New York: Routledge. 1999.
Sicko, Dan. Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 2010.