On Raves and Emergent Communities

Douglas Rushkoff makes a number of claims in his recent post on raves and attempts by legislators to control or prevent them.

The problem with consciousness expansion, for government, is not the fact that kids or the poor die from crack use. It’s the fact that people who alter their consciousness become aware of the stultifying reality tunnels (mind sets, ways of understanding the world, fixed perspectives) that dictate so much of human activity.

Rave culture, as it was first exercised, anyway, was about created [sic] an alternative to the mob-run nightclub scene of most cities, and the competitive, coked-up world of late disco.

…[T]hose involved in rave thought they had no agenda, when in fact they did. The agenda was not for the right to do drugs – it was for the right to assemble without involving the record industry, MTV, or the mob-sponsored club scene. It was about freedom from marketing and market-driven culture. It was about doing in public what is only supposed to happen in private.

In other words, rave culture emerged out of the search for an inexpensive, unmediated, and noncommercial form of socializing. This is consistent with what I saw in Detroit in the late ’80s. I was teaching at an art school in the cultural center at the time. A number of my students, such as Adam Miller of Adult, were painting and, at the same time, experimenting with electronic music on relatively simple synthesizers. In an artistic climate where videos and multi-media installations were commonplace, experimental music was treated as just another medium.

Detroit was, in many ways, the perfect setting for raves. It was the first post-industrial ruin — an economically depressed city devastated by its dependence on a single industry that had fallen on hard times. Since the riots in the late ’60s, there weren’t many resources for young people and there wasn’t alot of money in the city. For the young, hip, and mostly white kids around Detroit, the remnants of Motown and the Cass-Corridor rock of the ’60s was irrelevant. And the commercialization of college and alternative rock made it decidedly less intriguing than the new electronic sounds. An additional thing Detroit had — a crucial element for raves — was a large number of abandoned buildings. So the kids took advantage of the situation, crashed the buildings late at night, set up a sound system, and started dancing. Slowly, through word of mouth, information about dance parties began circulating and the local rave scene was born.

The Facticity of the World

Slavoj Zizek’s review of Andrew Wilson’s biography of Patricia Highsmith (Beautiful Shadow) appears in the currrent issue of the London Review of Books. (Subscription required.) In one of his typically brilliant asides, Zizek sheds light on modern art’s capacity to give rise to a kind of existential reflection on the “facticity” and utter otherness of the objective world. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. . .

“This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:

There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.

“The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail.”