‘Can You Feel It, Too?’: Affect and Intimacy at EDM Events in Paris, Chicago, and Berlin
s I had mentioned in my last so-sorry-I’ve-been-gone post, I’m still putting the finishing touches on my dissertation ahead of my defense (which will happen in July, it seems). But I don’t want to slip away into another 2-month period of blog-silence, so I’ve given myself a dissertation-related blog project for the next couple of weeks.
Every couple of days, I’ll be posting brief summaries of parts of my dissertation, beginning with today’s overview and then following chapter by chapter. These will be written in plain English and in the informal style typical of most blog posts. These summaries serve three purposes: 1) as reading guides, to help non-specialist readers read my dissertation when it is published; 2) as practice for my defense, since this forces me to review all of my arguments and organize them in my head; and 3) as “reading excerpts” for people who might be interested in reading the full dissertation, but aren’t sure. In any case, my goal is to make these all short and easy to read.
Today’s post is about the dissertation as a whole, and gives you an overview of what the dissertation is about, how it’s structured, what my methods were, and so on. My dissertation project arose out of a relatively simple observation: at the techno and house events that I went to in Paris, Chicago, and Berlin, people interacted in ways that were surprisingly intimate. In other words, strangers and acquaintances on the dancefloors of these electronic dance music (i.e., EDM) events engaged in behaviors that would’ve been unusual or even inappropriate if you had tried to do the same thing out in public, on a city sidewalk; some examples of these behaviors might be: making and holding eye contact, greeting strangers and/or starting conversations, sharing intimate details about yourself and your life with random people, having a heart-to-heart with that random girl waiting in line for the toilets in front of you, sharing your drinks/drugs/smokes, getting excited about an awesome moment in the music and sharing that enthusiasm with the person dancing next to you, hugging people you barely know, etc.
For me, one of the most noticeable areas for this intensified intimacy was tactility (i.e., how you engage with the world and people around you through touch), which makes up the focus of Chapter 2. I found that people (including myself) were more likely to signal social warmth through touch at EDM parties/clubs/raves/whatever, such as: a hand on the shoulder or elbow to get someone’s attention, a hug to say goodbye to the person that you talked to for only a few minutes on the dancefloor, a kiss on the cheek to that person who sat next to you on that couch and bitched about how hot it was in here, an arm around the waist or shoulders as you talk to the person next to you, and so on. Sure, sometimes these gestures were part of a process of courtship and sexual play…but very often they weren’t—at least at the parties I went to. And the question of erotic intent doesn’t really change what’s striking about this scene: people touched each other in ways that would’ve been unexpected and probably unwelcome in any “normal” context.
So, this dissertation is about trying to figure out what’s going on. What is it about people that go to these events? What is it about the venues and how they organize bodies in space? What is it about the music? What is it about the drugs and/or alcohol? What is it about how these party scenes create night-worlds that are separated from everyday “normal” life through a wide array of concrete and conceptual boundaries?
An important analytic concept for my project is affect, which can mean a whole bunch of things in academic discourse. I mostly take my notion of affect from the Spinozan-Deleuzean line of affect theory (which I’ll go into in more detail in Chapter 4). This can be (and often is) confusing, but here’s the short version: affect has to do with feelings in sense that is both embodied and emotional. It’s also about affecting and being affected—how the world impacts your body, and how you impact the other bodies in the world around you. So, for example, its about how an unexpected touch on the shoulder might create an affective spark that feels like excitement but maybe also anxiety or maybe just the intensity of anticipation of what comes next. But it’s also about how a particularly intense moment in the music you’re dancing to hits your body and unleashes an upswelling of something that you can’t quite identify, but it seems like the other dancers around you are feeling it, too. And it’s also about walking into an atmosphere that that is electrified by an affect that immediately impacts the way you feel.
What’s important and useful to me about this idea of affect is that it helps me to understand how certain aspects of an EDM event (e.g., a party, a club night, a rave) can help you sustain a sense of intimacy among strangers in a crowd, even when a lot of the details are uncertain: who are these people? who’s included and who’s excluded? do they really feel the way I do? is this sense of togetherness reciprocal and consensual? do we share the same sense of togetherness? what forms of intimacy are OK and which ones are too much? what holds us together at these moments? will this last beyond the next track, the next drink, the next party? is this friendliness and warmth for real? One of my main arguments throughout this dissertation is that several aspects of these parties—the music, the people, the nighttime, the drugs, the extreme conditions—create the feeling of intimacy or the affective atmosphere of intimacy, without necessarily creating the structural and social relations that are associated with intimacy in “normal,” “proper,” “everyday” life. But what’s interesting is that this sense of intimacy is enough for groups of strangers to behave in intimate ways, even without the supporting social structures.
So how you do study something like the sense of intimacy among strangers? The short answer is: it’s fucking hard. You kind of have to go at it sideways, because a lot of the usual tools don’t work. A survey wouldn’t create very useful data, and conducting the survey is hardly feasible at a techno/house/whatever party. Conducting on-site interviews is similarly full of problems (i.e., the music is too loud, it’s very dark, some people are intoxicated and thus not in a good state to give informed consent, it’s pretty socially inappropriate to shove a microphone in someone’s face and ask them questions while they’re dancing, and club/rave scenes have a long history of being damaged by nosy journalists and scholars, so nobody is going to trust me if I come at them that way). Analyzing what party-goers and organizers say on discussion boards and promotional websites is useful, but only gives you a very partial account by those people who just happen to have access to certain communication channels. And so on. So I ended up doing two things, mainly: 1) I went to a TON of events and just got out there and observed and interacted with people in unstructured ways (and then wrote notes about it as soon as I got home) in order to create a sort of archive of stories to analyze later; and 2) I slowly built up a social network of people who trusted me and then approached them for an off-site interview, where we talked about things in more depth. It was still hard.
OK, this has already gone on for too long, so I’m going to wrap up this overview with the chapter structure. What follows here are titles to each of my chapters, with one-sentence summaries. As I post the summaries for each chapter in the future, I’ll come back here and add links from these chapter titles to their summaries on this blog.
Introduces my dissertation project (much like I did here), gives a quick review of previous scholarship on EDM and EDM cultures/scenes, gives a review of the concept of “music scene” in popular music studies, provides brief overviews of each of the cities where I conducted fieldwork, goes over my methods for collecting and analyzing data in detail, and then gives the structure of the dissertation.
Describes in more detail how touch seems to work differently at EDM events (BTW, “EDM events” is my short-hand for “techno, house, and other dance music parties, raves, club-nights, afterparties, etc.”); analyzes the tactile qualities and aesthetics of EDM to argue that the music itself highlights the experience of touch; examines the ways that worries about sexual touch (especially unwelcome or non-consensual touching) impact women disproportionately; and uses all of these insights about touch to revise the notion of intimacy in order to better describe what’s happening on the dancefloor.
Examines the odd way in which a crowd of partygoers can feel like they’re part of some sort of collective thing, even though it’s unclear what that thing is; in particular, I look at how there’s something similar to solidarity in a crowd, but it’s fluid and vague and always evaporating whenever you look closely at it; I examine and compare how the people I interviewed explain what this togetherness is, noting how all this vagueness about what’s going on actually helps to sustain a sense that there’s anything there in the first place and, in so doing, actually facilitates intimate behaviors between strangers. In other words, this vaguely-defined group of strangers with very few concrete things in common can act as if they were tight because they don’t worry too much about what makes them come together.
Notices how, when people give examples of moments where the crowd/party really “came together,” they almost always talk about “peak experiences” where things got really intense; assesses the role that music plays in creating these moments of intensity, and then how these rhythms of intensification and release also regulate and modulate affect—in a dancer, in a crowd, in the whole atmosphere; also reviews scholarship on emotional contagion, thinking about how a crowd can converge emotionally at particular moments; and, finally looks at how this sense of affective convergence gets read by party-goers as social convergence, where a sense of a burgeoning social something comes out of these shared moments of intensity.
Expands the scope from the dancefloor to the entire ”night out” partying, examining how interviewees’ stories of partying seem to oscillate between moments where shit gets out of hand / crazy / overwhelming / ecstatic and moments where things are smooth / untroubled / chill / effortless; I describe these two modes of experience as “rough” and “smooth,” and then try to figure out what the movement between these two modes offers to partygoers; I come to the concept of “coming undone,” which describes a cycle of unraveling and re-binding, which can create pleasure for you by using “rough” experience to pull yourself open just a little bit without totally destroying yourself; in other words, “coming undone” provides a kind of small-scale release and relief from everyday life that is not as over-the-top as jouissance or radical self-shattering.
Chapter 6. Bouncers and Multiculturalism: Unassimilated Difference and the Stakes of Nightlife
Starts by reviewing the “multiculturalism“ controversies that took place in late 2010 in both France and Germany; then, looks at controversies in the EDM/nightlife communities of Paris and Berlin that also have to do with who gets in and who doesn’t; by examining the debates around bouncers and door policies at nightclubs in these two cities, trace interesting and uncanny echoes between national immigration/integration policies and the practices of inclusion/exclusion in nightlife and local music scenes.
Chapter 7. Afterword
Rather than a big concluding chapter that summarizes everything I already said in the previous chapters, I use the insights from previous chapters to analyze an anecdote from my field work; then, I pick a few interviewees that had been prominent throughout the dissertation and I trace their voices from chapter to chapter; finally, I suggest a few avenues of future research and introduce my post-doctoral project (on techno-tourism in Berlin).