Review Essay: Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture; and Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstasy and Vitality
Author: Simon Reynolds, Ben Malbon
Publisher: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: December 2004
Dance culture incorporates millions of youths across all inhabitable continents and many islands. Herein lies a dual book review elucidating the similarities between the two primary geographies of the dance culture: the English rave and the English club. Simon Reynolds' Generation Ecstasy is a history of the rave culture with an emphasis on the many branches of techno music. Ben Malbon's Clubbing is a participant observational geography rich with biographical asides and informant vignettes. Both Reynolds and Malbon are British rave/club aesthetes who espied and partook in the dance culture throughout its convoluted history. A rave or a club may seem like bizarre places for an anthropological inquiry, but because they both act as spaces where inclusivity and identity exist, they warrant the attention of field study. In Britain, youth cultures are music cultures.
Generation Ecstasy focuses on the people and musical genres that constitute the rave scene. Clubbing looks at the nightclub in light of playful vitality, experiential consumption, and the oceanic sensation. Detractors might argue that the club and rave subcultures are disanalogous. However, if we look at the mechanisms that order and create the subjectivities within, and the genetics of the two subcultures, we can see that they are similar.
It is important to contrast raves and clubs in order to tickle out the demo/geographic differences and material similarities. Raves are massive all-ages, all-night parties. They began in Britain in the late eighties and are now a worldwide phenomenon. Clubs are more selective in the age, gender, and ethnicity of their clientele because they have space and image restraints. Clubs are under noise ordinance laws and have to close at a certain hour. People attend both raves and clubs for similar reasons. Four of the most important reasons are music, atmosphere, dancing, and psychotechnologies. MDMA, popularly known as "Ecstasy," is widely used in each geography. Spiritual experiences and notions of political and social resistance occur in both situations. Clubs and raves are sources of egregious pleasure and are vital for British youth in the formulation of social identities.
There are five constituent similarities between these two works. First, they both emphasize the role MDMA has in formulating the culture. Second, they argue that musical preferences lend to taste-based demographies in the dance subcultures. Third, both books stress the dynamic interface between techno music and psychotechnologies. Fourth, they assert that there is latent and explicit spirituality and resistance within the culture. Finally, the main crux of this dual book review involves illuminating how each author exhibits diversity within the dance culture. Both authors discuss diversity differently. Malbon emphasizes phenomenology, or the individual experience. Reynolds shows us the environment where the individuation occurs. In both instances, the fertile and multifaceted dance culture is revealed.
For example, Reynolds devotes two chapters to issues of social change and cultural dynamics. In the chapter, "ecstasy and rave music," he looks at the role MDMA plays in the rave culture: "In the rave environment, Ecstasy acts as both party-igniting fun-fuel and the catalyst for ego-melting mass communion" (81). MDMA increases the availability of dopamine (euphoria) and serotonin (well-being). It is an entheogen that can
inspire gregarious activities. Dancing is a social event. Within a socially recognized and supported environment, euphoria and well-being often translate into a "free flow of verbal and tactile affection" (84). In conjunction with techno music, MDMA has a uniquely synergist/synesthetic interaction. According to Reynolds, "rave music has gradually evolved into a self-conscious science of intensifying MDMA’s sensation" (85). His theory is that electronic music amplifies the social bonding associated with MDMA. Social bonds bind people to cultures. Similarly, Malbon writes that the use of MDMA can change a clubber's appreciation of music. Rhythm and bass in particular can be heightened through the use of MDMA, almost to the extent of inducing a form of trance (132). In effect, a vitalyst chemical is creating a culture by being widely used and influencing the construction of the music.
In the chapter, "in our angelhood: rave as counterculture and spiritual revolution," Reynolds supports the claims of most scholars when he designates rave culture as a form of "collective disappearance" (239). However, he rejects the idea that the rave phenomenon is purely an escapist solution to post-modernity when he calls ravings, "an investment in pleasure that should not be written off as mere retreat or disengagement" (239). Pursuing pleasure to the neglect of social obligation, states Reynolds, is a salient form of resistance.
Malbon, too, is interested in resistance -- less in terms of political activism but rather as constituting a situation in which an "'alternative conception of the self' may be fostered" (146). Through imaginative pleasure seeking and playful vitality, clubbers are re-defining themselves through the ideal they find on the dance floor. According to Malbon, this pleasure seeking is resistance to the mainstream. As one of Malbon’s informants said, he is "escaping from work, escaping from normal life, escaping from everything, everything in full-stop . . . nothing else matters . . . that whole night . . . is . . . going to be my time" (148). Choosing to refuse obligatory participation in a bureaucratic system that does not represent one's sense of belonging is a robust form of rebellion. For example, the fluorescence of massive raves in the U.K. in the 1990s signified growing disillusionment in Thatcherian capitalism. Clubbers, because of their upward mobility, are more conditioned by mainstream influences, but their venues continue to blossom in popularity in part because of the opportunity for nocturnal and imaginative resistance.
In other words, there is more to clubbing and raving than trance-states incurred by techno music and entheogen consumption. The dance culture harbors latent and explicit political and social agendas. Reynolds offers a few examples:
Malbon also supports claims to club based spirituality. By describing the ecstasis reported by clubbers as "oceanic," Malbon refines the concept of drug/dance-induced altered states. Quoting Freud, Malbon defines the oceanic as "a feeling of an indissoluble bond" (107). MDMA contributes to this feeling of ephemerality and empathy so essential to sensations of the oceanic. Malbon believes that the oceanic is experienced as the clubber fluctuates between an awareness of self-as-individual and self-as-crowd. The nature of prolonged dancing, hyper-stimulation, and entheogens helps to free the individual self into the "oceanic" crowd.
The techno-musical culture schisms as speedily as the techno-gadget revolution evolves. As drugs and politics change through time, so do musical tastes. Subcultures are rapidly morphing from the technological/musical interfaces. Reynolds dedicates most of his nineteen chapters to a different genre of electronic music. He defines different genres of electronic music: techno, house, garage, acid house, ambient, trance, jungle, gabba, turntablism, trip-hop, drum and bass, techstep, minimalism, and big beat. Each musical genre has an associated revelation of cultural effervescence. For example, the jungle vibe is inspired by hip-hop culture and post-apocalyptic urbanity. The trance scene blurs fantasy and cyber-futurism. Looking at musical change in light of social issues, Reynolds outlines the techno-musical genealogy. He also suggests reasons why the various musical "bands" decided to diversify and migrate out in search of new aural resources.
Subcultural identity is based on alterity. When a subculture is exploited by the mainstream, it must find novel collateral from which to define itself. Malbon believes that through continual upheaval and morphism a subculture resists assimilation (146). It is because of dance culture's ability to revolt and refuse the mainstream -- through alternative music, imbibing psychotechnolgies, gender subversions, and the pursuit of pleasure to the neglect of responsibility-- that it continues. By resisting assimilation, dance culture retains many of the traits that make it attractive to its participants: subcultural capital, novelty, and diversity.
Malbon follows Reynolds' precedent by emphasizing the importance electronic musical genres have in constituting club crowds. By exercising musical preferences, clubbers "consume experience" (20). Consuming is generated by and contributes to the sharing of styles, spaces, and sentiments. Individuals who express a taste for a certain musical genre adopt the mental template that music inspires. Clubbers gravitate toward crowds where their desired notions of individuation can find collective resonance. By consuming the experience offered by a particular genre, clubbers find identities and belonging within the crowd.
Techno music is what it says it is: synthetically generated music. It is the folk music of today’s cybernetic generation. The looping swells and shivering mechanics of its symphonies are designed to enhance MDMA’s pharmacokinetics. The "oceanic" sensation of collective identity experienced through dancing, entheogens, and multi-sensorial stimulation lends to a spiritualism that is both archaically romantic and progressively futuristic. With the temporary utopian communitas, as experienced in rave and club culture, comes a fleeting urge to politicize and perpetuate this ideal into the profane life.
In the examples given by Malbon and Reynolds, the ravers and clubbers are often at a loss in quantifying their experiences and even less capable of implementing their dance-floor epiphanies. One of the consistent traits of euphoria is that it is beyond articulation. If they cannot speak of their impulses, how can they implement them? To include dance culture's form of resistance into anthropology's mold of automated-liberation, social researchers will have to do one of two things: either expand their notion of politicizing to include play or write-off the dance culture as being an expression of apathetic disappearance and deviance -- categorizing the dance culture as a sheer refraction of the mainstream. Malbon and Reynolds have chosen the former.
The two books work in tandem. Where Malbon teaches us that individuals find their identities in club crowds, Reynolds shows us the variety of psychoacoustics that influence the individual within the crowd. Reynolds makes known who associates him/herself within each of the many techno musical amphitheaters. Malbon writes about the uniquely personal experience of the individual within that techno-musical atmosphere. Malbon gives us the license to equate the sensation of inclusivity with a music-entheogen-dance synthesis as Reynolds conceives the impetus behind the dance culture.
Both Malbon and Reynolds give us the poetic vibrancy of club music and experience so the reader may see the clubber consuming sensations, vitally playing, and navigating through the oceanic experience. It is obvious that both Reynolds and Malbon are deeply grooved into the dance culture. Their writing is intoxicated with the lights, sounds, textures, and reminiscences of their exalted experience. Illuminated by the club space, the spinning strobes and reverb, Malbon and Reynolds stretch the bounds of anthropological discourse.
Malbon reveals a few thick descriptions that may be difficult for many anthropologists to believe exist within the club. The "consuming" of an experience seems innocent. However, if Malbon is correct, then the crux of the culture is lifestyle fetishism. He may be exercising too much Geertzian symbolism in his reading of dancing as "conceptual language" (86). Many authors who prefer to narrowly categorize resistance as an explicit form of rebellion question playful vitality as a form of resistance, as Malbon claims. To the uninitiate, his theory that the oceanic sensation resides in the transformation from individual to collective consciousness will appear beyond the reach of discursive reflection. However, it is Malbon's insight into these transient states that electrifies the book's acumen.
The contents of Generation Ecstasy were established in a decade of raving. Reynolds mixes cultural studies, interviews with artists, scene reportage, personal experience, aesthetic theory, and speculation. Generation Ecstasy is a subjective partisan history regarding what Reynolds, the raver, saw as influential factors. For this reason some will categorize Generation Ecstasy as a romantic historical fiction. Reynolds overstresses the pharmacological and revolutionary narratives. He has difficulty deferring artistic verve to the need for quantifiable data. For these reasons, researchers must be wary of unquestionably adopting his conclusions.
Malbon's notion of experiential consumption will prove to be an invaluable prop in the study of consumption patterns and material culture. His oceanic experience is a useful comparative model for research into shamanic and religious experiences. With the mainstreaming of cyberculture, techno music is enjoyed by a larger audience. For future readers, Reynold's book will seem prophetic. It will be staple fare for classes in late 20th-century music history. If you are interested in the largest social movement of the past few decades, then Generation Ecstasy and Clubbing will fit nicely into your urban, music, technology, and youth studies.
Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988.
Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
By day, Adam Fish is an archaeologist for Native American tribes. By night, he is a Seattle DJ under a number of false and pretentious monikers. He is the author of over 30 articles, a microfilm, and a few CDs; each blurring the most unlikely genres. He is the Executive Director of the Center for Landscape & Artefact, a nonprofit organization dedicated to merging new media and anthropology. He prays for an impossible post-textual utopia where NSF grants force biochemists to translate their findings into digital dance anthems. <email@example.com>
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