Chapter 3. Liquidarity: Vague Belonging on the Dancefloor


Mutek, Montréal, 2010

Yes, I know that it’s been more than two weeks since I defended my dissertation, and yet this chapter-by-chapter series on my dissertation is not even halfway finished. This is partially due to the fact that I had to take care of post-defense revisions and re-submit a final draft to the university before an immovable deadline. But this is also partially due to the fact that I partied and relaxed and partied and relaxed for quite a few days after the defense itself. I regret nothing.

(NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a series where I summarize my dissertation through blog posts. You can find the inaugural post here.)

So, this chapter expands the analysis of intimacy from the previous chapter to the broader scope of nightclub crowds. Whereas the previous chapter thought about intimacy primarily as contact between a pair of strangers, this chapter focuses on the loose social bonds that hold together a crowd of strangers at an EDM event (a party, a nightclub, etc). I develop a concept that I call liquidarity (I know, I know: no dissertation is complete without at least one made-up word), which stands for the sort of loose and fluid togetherness that emerges at EDM events. It’s a play on the term “solidarity,” combined with “liquid” to suggest a kind of togetherness that isn’t solid and static, but fluctuating and indistinct. This concept emerges out of the ethnographic interviews that I conducted in Paris and Chicago, especially the responses to my question, “When a crowd really comes together at a party, how do you think that happens?” I grouped their explanations and illustrations into two rough categories: additive theories and subtractive theories. Their theories explained togetherness through either the addition or the subtraction of some element, and my own concept of liquidarity emerges out of the subtractive line of theory (more on this later). Many of my interviewees’ theories of togetherness resonate with social/cultural theories that already exist in academia, so I also spend the latter part of this chapter tracing out some of the connections.

The structure of this chapter is an odd one, but it really helped me develop some clarity about the concept I was trying to develop. I took my cue from a lecture by Deleuze on Bergson, where he explained the concept of duration (la durée) by explaining it three times, each time with more detail. So, this chapter has three levels: the first level introduces the concept of liquidarity and describes some of its characteristics; the second level explains where this concept came from by reviewing an additive theory (shared taste) and a subtractive theory (nighttime/anonymity) that were common among my interviewees; the third level compares these theories to sociological/anthropological/philosophical/etc theories of group cohesion; the conclusion considers some of consequences—both good and bad—of liquidarity as a means of sustaining a sense of intimacy among strangers.

Level One: Liquidarity

There’s something interesting about the way that crowds of strangers and acquaintances come together at EDM events and act as if they were already an intimate community. Notably, it’s a form of togetherness that is expressed through actions (i.e., surprisingly intimate interactions, gestures of help and support, and so on) but never articulated explicitly; nobody talks about precisely why we behave the way we do with each other in these situations—or even what sorts of behaviors expected, permitted, tolerated, encouraged, and so on. One of my main arguments in this chapter is that this avoidance of talk about the details of togetherness actually helps fragmented groups of strangers to cohere in a fluid, slippery way. This is liquidarity.

So, vagueness is actually important to a sense of liquidarity among strangers. Vagueness isn’t just a lack of precise knowledge or clarity, it’s a sort of social blurring that allows us to feel loosely tethered to each other, even though we might be very different people with very different ideas of what we’re doing together. These vague and slippery social bonds are affective, that is, they are based on the feeling of togetherness rather than its “objective” reality. In other words, an atmosphere of intimacy, social warmth, informality, etc. is cultivated at EDM events, out of which emerges a sense of togetherness even though these strangers have no clear reason to be in solidarity with each other.

Liquidarity is a potentially valuable mode of group cohesion because its vagueness allows for a kind of belonging that doesn’t depend directly on the mechanics of similarity and difference. In other words, it’s a way of belonging without identity (but without erasing it, either). Liquidarity offers the possibility of solidarity across lines of difference by making the basis of that solidarity vague and evanescent.

But liquidarity also depends on fantasy: in a state of liquidarity, people imagine that they share an idea of how/why they’re together and they avoid talking about it. While this can bring together a diverse group of people, it also has its risks. This vaguely-intimate atmosphere can cover over important antagonisms, differences of politics and status and privilege and wealth and so on; therefore, this means that liquidarity is a situation that also risks perpetuating inequity and exclusion by making it easier to ignore.

Level Two: Taste and Nighttime

This section covers the various ways that my interviewees answered questions like, “When a crowd really comes together at a party, why do you think that is? How does it happen?” Rather than cover all of these answers, I focus on two popular explanations, which come to represent two ways of theorizing group cohesion.

Taste: The first kind of theory is an additive theory, which explains togetherness by positing a common factor to which everyone is attached. Through this shared attachment, everyone is brought together. A lot of the people that I talked to suggested that crowds at EDM events came together around a shared taste in music; in other words, we get along because we like the same music (e.g., house, minimal, dubstep, trance, etc.). This carries with it the assumption that there’s something about this shared taste that makes the personalities and values of music fans compatible with each other. At a more abstract level, this implies that having an affinity for aesthetic object {x} is enough to ensure successful social interactions between people who otherwise have nothing else in common. Of course, if you’ve read your Bourdieu, you’ll know that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that individual taste is actually cultivated socially, i.e., through your social class, your ethnicity, your financial situation, your geographic location, your language, your peers, and so on. In other words, if you do share a taste in {x} with other people, there’s a good chance that you also share a bunch of other life-factors that make you pretty similar.

Nighttime: The second kind of theory a subtractive theory, which points to the removal (or masking) of obstacles to solidarity. So, a subtractive theory of togetherness would suggest that we come together by forgetting/ignoring/removing something that usually would keep us apart. For many of the people I interviewed, there’s something special about nighttime; it creates a sort of “other world” where  the rules are partially suspended, social structures are destabilized, and even the tethers of your own identity can slacken or even come off altogether (through anonymity, for example). This fosters a sense of intimacy because, as one interviewee put it, “A lot of barriers fall at night.” For some people, nighttime also suppresses the layers of protective suspicion we often wear during the daytime, in public, and around strangers. What’s really interesting in subtractive theories such as this, is that there a seeming paradox in its effect: a destabilization of the everyday “normal” order of things allows for a kind of social tightening. It’s from this stream of subtractive theory that I get my notion of liquidarity, which facilitates group cohesion by blurring/avoiding the details of belonging.

Level Three: Additive and Subtractive Theories

These streams of additive and subtractive theory resonate with several academic theories about group cohesion. If we also grouped these scholarly theories along the same lines, we’d get the following list:

Additive Theories

  • Taste Communities: One version of this theory is the suggestion that taste (as a pattern of consumption of commodities) has taken the place of class as a marker for social identity and belonging; e.g., “soccer moms in yoga pants” or “bobo foodies with butcher-block countertops” or “hipsters with fashionably unfashionable eyewear.” Another version is that taste hasn’t replaced class identity so much as provided a euphemistic cover for it (e.g., poor households probably can’t afford butcher-block countertops, so who are these foodies?).
  • Actor-Networks: You might consider this a decentralized kind of additive theory. In a nutshell, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) studies how networks of material and symbolic relations come together and act as a whole. It treats networks of people, objects, places, concepts, animals, etc. as a sort of collective agent (e.g., a school, a city, a body, a nightclub, etc.).
  • Tribal totems, à la Durkheim: In Durkheim’s classic study of totemism among Australian aborigines (and also Pueblo Indians), he claims that totems represent both supernatural entities and society itself. Since members of a society project their allegiance onto this totem, it comes to embody society in a powerful way. This is an additive theory of collectivity in that it posits a symbolically powerful object (the totem) as the thing that holds a group together. This approach tends to see these lines of connection as essentially religious.
  • Group leaders, à la Freud: Freud theorized that groups (e.g., an army, a religious congregation) hold together because of the group’s leader. This usually charismatic character (or, sometimes, an idea or common cause) takes the place of the ego-ideal/superego for members of the group. For Freud, group members feel attached to each other because they share an admiration for / attachment to this group leader. What’s interesting about this is that it is an aspirational additive theory, where part of what brings people together is their desire to have/become this ideal person.
  • Magnetizers, à la Tarde: This is an interesting theory, in that it posits a kind of catalyzing group leader who doesn’t create or direct group action so much as channel and activate the group’s energies. It’s sort of an “affective lightning rod” theory of leadership and group cohesion.

Subtractive Theories

  • Ritual communitas, à la van Gennep and Turner: Although there are plenty of theories of ritual in anthropology, the van Gennep/Turner version is still dominant. This is a model for rituals of passage (i.e., where one or more members are transformed at the end of the ritual, like passage into adulthood, marriage, etc.) with three stages: pre-liminal (separation from society), liminal (transition/transformation), and post-liminal (reincorporation into social structures). Turner describes communitas as a feeling of unstructured community that arises during the liminal phase of ritual, where social structures have been loosened or dismantled. In this sense, this is a subtractive theory of collectivity, since it’s separation from normal social structures that makes this sense of togetherness possible.
  • Anonymity and crowd psychology: Notably, 19th-century crowd psychologist Gustave Le Bon has argued that crowds come together and behave the way they do because individuals lose their identity (and their rational capacities) when they join a crowd. Elias Canetti has made similar (but slightly less pathologizing) claims about anonymity and crowds in Crowds and Power (1960/62). These are hardly positive theories of group cohesion, mostly because both of these theorists were primarily talking about mob violence.
  • “Whatever” belonging, à la Agamben: This is a more general and philosophical theory of belonging that does not depend on identity and difference. The idea is that a “whatever singularity” is a kind of solidarity that doesn’t depend on any kind of shared essence or attribute. This doesn’t mean that your attributes don’t matter, but rather that they always matter, whatever they are. Put differently, “whatever” belonging is a kind of coming-together where the only thing all the members have in common is that they belong. This is rather hard to imagine as a real-life situation, but it represents well the sort of subtractive fantasy of community that I’m describing at EDM events.
  • Subtraction as affirmative negation, à la Badiou: This is probably the most abstract and philosophical (“meta-ontological,” as Badiou would have it) theory in this list. What’s interesting about it in the context of liquidarity is that Badiou’s concept of subtraction is as the affirmative and productive side of negation. To put it (very) crudely: when something is taken away, something is also produced—or something is allowed to emerge. This is essentially the argument I’m making about the importance of vagueness for the operation of liquidarity; the removal (or blurring) of certain aspects of our identities, values, desires, powers, etc., allows for the emergence of a sense of intimacy that is too evanescent to exist otherwise.

Conclusion: The Stakes of Liquidarity

Although I think I’m the first to come up with the term liquidarity as a social concept, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been using liquid metaphors for ages. Baumann claims that we’re living in a time of “liquid modernity,” which is a primarily negative/critical reading of the impact of fluidity on modern people’s lives. Essentially, he thinks that the “solid” forms of early modernity—work, community, time/space, the nation-state, individualism, and emancipation—are being eroded by a tidal wave of rapid, global flows of capital. Everything is in flux, and people have to learn to live their lives in a state of constant motion, uncertainty, and instability. I don’t entirely share his depressive reading of modernity (although it’s an important counterweight to the more celebratory accounts of modern mobility), but I am concerned with how liquidarity also introduces instability, vagueness, and a cover for inequality/exclusion. As I had said above, liquidarity’s vague fantasy of belonging makes it easier to overlook exclusion: if you don’t talk about who’s in and who’s out, you’re less likely to realize that anybody has been left out—or, more cynically, you don’t have to feel responsible for their exclusion. Unlike Bauman, I do point out the “good” things that liquidarity can offer, such as allowing for real-life moments where a diverse and socially-disconnected crowd of people come together and feel united around something, but there’s no denying the negative aspects as well.

Despite these risks (or maybe because of them), there’s definitely an important utopian element to all of this, in that liquidarity imagines what an intimate society of strangers would feel like, even if such a thing doesn’t exist (yet).

Previous in series: Chapter 2, Part 2: Gender, Sexual Touch, and Rethinking Intimacy

Coming up next: Chapter 4: Thickening Something: Music, Affect, and the Sense of the Social

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8 comments

    1. Hey thanks, Peter! You know, I’ve read Foreign Bodies (esp. the stuff on the Levinassian face and imperative surfaces), but I haven’t yet read The Imperative. If there’s explicit reference to nocturnal worlds, even better. Have you read J.P. Ricco’s The Logic of the Lure? There’s some stuff about night, darkness, and the hypnagogic that might also be helpful.

      I have a side-interest in nocturnal worlds, having taught a course on “music and nighttime.” What’s a nightlife? Who gets to have one? How is a nightlife also a world/scene/atmosphere/collectivity? etc. etc.

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