Everything Else is Even More Ridiculous – Introduction by Nemeton

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Written soon after the publication of the first and second issues of datacide, Praxis newsletter #12 (1997) states, “With the increased availability of technology that makes it easier than ever to create, produce and distribute independent material, new networks and mechanisms have started to operate in the last decade. We called it techno. But even the phuturistic rigidity of techno was not immune against the counter-strategies of the system. We need new strategies of underground resistance, the beats have to be broken the noises twisted, desires reinvented, the phuture manifesting itself in the present, breaking the rules of the past.” [1] This oppositional call for resistance is one of the myriad collective strategies that inform Praxis, the record label, and datacide, the magazine for noise and politics. Many comrades-in-arms, a million jackals, have explored in theory and practice the potentialities and failures of countercultural, resistant and oppositional currents in hard electronic dance music, culture and politics. What is at stake in making a claim for the possibilities of co-creating transnational countercultures, and is that even realizable in the current economic and political conditions?

Counterculture and subculture as conceptual and historical tools have been defined in often competing and contradictory ways, especially concerning the subversive, resistant and revolutionary potentials, leading to a lot of confusion and uncritical use of the terms in various electronic music scenes. A discussion of the ideas that give these terms meaning is useful in order to focus on the potential avenues for more emancipatory practices and to critique what is hindering present possibilities. In understanding ‘mainstream’, ‘alternative’, ‘subculture’, ‘counterculture’, etc. as reified dichotomous constructs which need to be used critically, analysis is then shifted to focus on historically developing institutions and practices, sets of meanings, ways of thinking and modes of organization of everyday life. This also includes engaging with “the nature of culture, the relationship between culture and politics, the class basis of culture and counterculture, and the broader political, historical, sociological frameworks within which culture, politics, class and dominant institutions may be configured.” [2] Countercultures have been conceptualized as groups, networks, and movements that directly reject dominant society, with strategies ranging from revolution to hedonism to escapism and beyond. Countercultures, broadly defined, attempt to transform everyday life thereby actualizing radical critique of culture and politics. Countercultural tendencies of today often look back at the failures (and some successes) from the 1960s and 2000s exemplified by protest movements, student movements, hippies, travelers, occultists, new social movements, hackers, etc.

Why has electronic dance music largely been theorized by writers, academics and music journalists as subcultural, and only a few, mostly the music creators themselves, have at times positioned hard electronic dance music and noise as oppositional, critical and revolutionary? Electronic dance music culture is often described as largely apolitical – a commercialized leisure activity that operates as a mechanism for self-definition and identity formation as consumerist subjects within capitalism. In this instance, rave and electronic dance cultures are seen as subcultural based on concepts of style, genre, preference and likeability central to lifestyle trends.

This positioning of electronic dance music as subcultural is part of a historiographic development of theories on ‘youth culture’. Rave and clubbing have been viewed as activities of teenagers, thus relegating the politics of dancing and music to a mere visible sign of youthful ‘deviance’. In the 1960s, the American Chicago school of sociology produced several studies on youth cultural activity from the perspective of so-called ‘delinquency’. This analysis argues that youth from working class backgrounds who could not or would not adopt bourgeois cultural values developed amongst themselves a new system of values that were viewed by the mainstream society as ‘subcultural,’ but for the creators gave positive meanings and feelings of empowerment. [3] Chicago school sociologists like Howard Becker conclude that in so-called ‘deviant’ cultures of jazz musicians in the 1940s in which their work was not understood or appreciated but nevertheless controlled by their employers, the social values of distinction, hipness and coolness were used by the musicians to differentiate themselves from their ‘square’ employers. [4] Becker sees those strategic choices as subcultural and not politicized or resistant. General distinctions began to emerge out of these larger debates on youth culture: subculture refers to self described fashion and value identifications that serve as signs of differences based on socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. in relation to the mainstream, while counterculture describes groups that explicitly reject dominant culture and politics.

In the 1970s, academics at Birmingham, England’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies produced several studies on youth subcultures. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s edited book Resistance Through Rituals [5] argues that the multitude of post-war British working class youth cultures were resistant, thereby expressing dissatisfaction with the dominant culture through a subversion of aesthetic values articulated in dress, look, attitude and demeanor. Youth movements typified in the personas of the ‘mod’, the ‘punk’ and the ‘skinhead’ are here viewed to be a way of life, a set of practices in which the individual distinguishes himself through popular culture. The CCCS theorists argue that these youth formations were class cultures, an ideological reaction to the material conditions these individuals and groups experienced, and were particularized within the working class parent culture. Both the sub- and parent- working class cultures were antagonistic and in conflict with bourgeois culture and politics.

Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meaning of Style argues that the strategies embodied in subcultures of middle-class ‘rastas’, ‘mods’, ‘bikers’ etc. are challenges to the symbolic order of dominant culture, but he did not focus on these groups in the working class. Hebdige interprets “subcultures as a form of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections to this ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style.” [6] However, the CCCS theorists strongly dispute the claims of Hebdige and others about middle class subcultures’ revolutionary potentialities. The non-Marxist oriented writers like Theodor Roszak, Frank Musgrove, J. Yinger [7] and Hebdige in one way or another ascribe to subcultural practitioners a countercultural position against the mainstream and political aspirations for social change, thereby blurring the distinctions previously made between subculture and counterculture. This connects to the widespread identification and acceptance of electronic dance music as subcultural.

Despite these authors’ insistences for the centrality of style in defining subcultural practices, they diminish the role of economic processes, especially commercialization. Tensions clearly develop in that on the one hand these commodity centered subcultures attempt to resist incorporation into the capitalist mainstream, yet on the other hand the means for that supposed resistance is through ‘alternative’ uses of commodities. Subcultures and countercultures since at least the post-World War II period are complicit in the niche marketing of their own identities. Subcultural personas such as the ‘punk’, the ‘goth’, the ‘raver’ etc. have become entrepreneurial schemes of the media, fashion and cultural industries. Therefore, it is self evident to state that, “subcultures may service a useful function for capitalism by making stylistic innovations that can then become vehicles for new sales.” [8]

Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital [9] disputes many of the claims made by the previously mentioned authors that subcultures can be resistant and subversive, but expands upon their readings of style and distinction as central to club culture, which are based in part on specific, established venues for dancing and club music. Drawing upon Pierre Bourdieu’s [10] analysis of lifestyles as a means of distinction between classes, Thornton appropriates Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital – signs of distinction like language or dress code, and actions of distinction such as consumption of music – for the term ‘subcultural capital.’ This is used to describe how various mechanisms of distinction based on taste, preference and style are developed to both differentiate clubbers from mainstream culture and at the same time reproduce dominant hierarchies based on ‘authenticity,’ exclusivity and hipness within the subculture. According to Thornton, club cultures are ‘taste cultures’ – club crowds come together based on shared tastes in music, their consumption of common media and their preference for people with similar tastes. Taste cultures reinforce the values and meanings of particular likes and dislikes of a fluid subcultural group. Within various groups, subcultural capital operates by conferring status and importance on the individual in the eye of the beholder. Thornton also views subcultures as developing fluidly. The boundaries that distinguish various taste cultures are seen as porous and participants are constantly classifying and renaming what styles are legitimate. Thus, the development of subcultures goes hand in hand with media discourse: subcultures view themselves as ‘underground’, but they use mainstream media methods and rhetoric to promote and develop their group and to solidify particular notions of subcultural capital. Through the acceptance of the ideology of subcultural capital there is a naturalization of preferences in a subculture – it appears that a particular taste or fashion is ‘natural’ or ‘right’, while competing claims are deemed ‘inauthentic’ or as examples of ‘selling out’.

Praxis Newsletter 1 flyered around London and at the Dead by Dawn party in February 1994 criticizing how electronic dance music is constantly under threat not only from controlling strategies but also from media representations of techno as subcultural style: “In this context of repression and censorship it comes as no surprise (to us anyway) that music that works as an energizer, that wakes you up, is universally vilified in the media. Much effort and money is put into the promotion and hype of styles that in effect are designed to calm you down, chill you out or synchronise you with endless trance sets that would never depart an inch from the lcd. The unity of dancers has degenerated into mediocrity in a culture devoid of challenge, seduction and rebellion. There is an agenda to make one part of the techno underground compatible with business interests and kill the rest off. Not only that: while ‘illegal’ raves scare the shit out of the authorities, what’s being hyped as ‘ambient’ etc. brings the smile back on their faces – they know their youth are sedated in the council flat bedrooms…a bit of trance on the weekend won’t do any damage – its message being that things flow nicely and the world will be ok.” [11]

Thus, the emphasis on style and commercialism to define electronic dance music culture as a subculture is key to the process of its de-politicization. Thornton strongly argues against the idea that clubbers and ravers’ subcultural uses of political rhetoric like “rights, freedom, equality, unity and revolution” are in fact political. She also states unconvincingly that in electronic dance music culture “there is not evidence of the politicization of youth”. Thornton therefore dismisses protests, actions and organizing against the Criminal Justice Act in Britain in the 90s as “hardly constituting a defining moment in club and rave culture.” [12]

But what is ‘political’ and ‘emancipatory’ in music? TechNET describes another way of thinking: “The intensifier uses sound as cultural weapons, inspiring thousands of simultaneous explosions on the borders. Immersing bodies in unpredictable ways, sound enters in several directions at once, producing internal connections and motions, anticipating a desire to interact with others. Through this body/mind motion a building is converted into a space of social inspiration…the intensifier, fused to this psycho-social energy, moves through a space-between. Mysterious and inaudible, no one knows where it is going. Music is the outlet or product of invisible histories.” [13] There are no easy solutions. The tensions inherent in the possibilities of countercultural and inherently political hard electronic dance music are drawn out by TechNET: “What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power. Music as a clumsy self-glorification of musicians and a growth of a new industrial section, the channelisation of desire into commodities to such an extreme as to become a caricature. A subversive strain of music has always managed to survive, subterranean and pursued, the inverse image of noise control. Popular music, an instrument of the ecstatic cult. Music is a locus of subversion, a transcendence of the body. Gatherings of marginals have often at turns been tolerated, offered integration into official culture and brutally repressed. Music, like a crowd, is simultaneously a threat and a necessary source of legitimacy.” [14]

Having very schematically discussed some of the more influential and problematic articulations of youth cultures and electronic dance music as subcultural in Anglo-American publications, it becomes more evident why Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style does not use the concept of counterculture. The only mention is buried in a footnote, wherein counterculture refers to “the amalgam of ‘alternative’ middle class youth cultures – the hippies, the flower children, the yippies – which grew out of the 60s, and came to prominence during the period 1967-70.”15 This definition is in itself problematic since counterculture as a social phenomenon is then restricted by class: middle class, race: white; age: youth, national borders: America, and time: the 1960s.

Theodor Roszak’s book Making of the Counterculture16 published in 1969 is general in its analysis, but it is possible to extract out of this and other texts some key aspects of countercultures. It can be argued that “in contrast to subcultures, countercultures are opposed to dominant culture in an explicitly political and ideological way, that is, by political action and the elaboration of alternative institutions such as underground press, communes, squatting, subnet distribution of music, etc.” [17] Others argue that “counter-culture seeks a fundamental transvaluation of ethics, alternate life styles, and transformations of consciousness.”[18] Countercultures from a historical perspective have been broadly understood as a series of paradigm shifts or caesuras in which the ideological, political, social and cultural preconceptions of the past are contested and revolutionized. Countercultures do not only operate at the level of so-called avant-garde artistic production, but fundamentally seek to call into question and overturn the entirety of social and political relations in capitalism. The enactment of countercultural revolutionary agendas can realize the possibilities of at least a partial breakdown in mainstream/dominant/hegemonic culture and politics.

Praxis Newsletter #11 (1996) raises the stakes: “In this context popular culture can only go through the motions, recycling images of desire and turning them into cash…this is a society of surveillance as well as a society of the spectacle. You are watched and you are supposed to watch. Any sort of underground resistance will have to bear these sort of contradictions in mind, especially if we don’t want to refrain from putting out ideas (making records, writing newsletters) rather than just disappearing. There are no clear solutions: autistic or artistic, armed with a loudspeaker or with a gun, there are innumerable strategies against control…but organization, propaganda, spokespersons etc. are not what interests us here: this becomes too easily part of the game of the old world. Visibility is a trap. We are talking about the invisible insurrection of a million minds. PS – if you can’t figure out what all this is supposed to have to do with underground parties, nameless white labels, mysterious frequencies, connecting levels of sounds and ideas, games of identity, losing oneself in dingy basements, realizing and forgetting the meaning of everything, conspiring to become one with noise, etc., then we can’t help you.” [19]

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Endnotes
1 Praxis, Praxis Newsletter 12 (August 1997), 1.
2 Steven Giles, “Introduction: Culture as Counter-Culture,” in Counter-Cultures in Germany and Central Europe: From Sturm und Drang to Baader-Meinhof, eds. Steve Giles and Maike Oergel (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003), 13.
3 Cloward and Ohlin, Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs (New York: Free Press, 1960).
4 Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: Free Press, 1963).
5 Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds., Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post War Britain (London: Routledge, 1993 [1975]).
6 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London and New York: Methuen, 1988 [1979]), 133.
7 J. Milton Yinger, Countercultures: The Promise and the Peril of a World Turned Upside Down (New York: The Free Press, 1982).
8 Dylan Thomas, quoted in: David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl, eds., The Post-Subcultures Reader (New York: Berg, 2003), 8.
9 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: Wesleyan Press, 1995).
10 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. R. Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
11 Praxis, Praxis Newsletter 1 (February 26, 1994), 1.
12 Thornton, 168.
13 TechNET, “The Intensifier,” TechNET (1995).
14 TechNET, “Noise and Politics – Technet mix of Jacques Attali,” TechNET (1994).
15 Hebdige, 148, fn. 6.
16 Theodor Roszak, Making of the Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition (New York: Anchor Books, 1969).
17 Muggleton and Weinzierl, eds., 89.
18 Lauren Langman quoted in: George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties (London: Verso, 1996), 187, fn. 17.
19 Praxis, Praxis Newsletter 11 (January 1997), 1. This newsletter announced the creation of a new magazine that was later named datacide, with the first issue appearing in March 1997.

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