Chapter 5. Smooth Experience/Rough Experience: Coming Undone and the Night Out
rüße aus Berlin! I made it back to Berlin after the AAA conference in Montréal, and lately I’ve been something of a shut-in, mostly shunning the nightclubs (and thus neglecting my fieldwork, in a sense) and devoting my time to catching up with job applications, fellowship applications, conference papers, and so on. Nonetheless, I’m still committed to finishing this series of chapter-by-chapter summaries of my dissertation. More than halfway there!
(NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a series where I summarize my dissertation through blog posts. You can find the inaugural post here.)
My main argument in this chapter might sound a bit obvious to people who do any kind of nocturnal partying, but at the same time it’s surprisingly hard to describe and interpret in a coherent way. Essentially, I argue that, when most people go out—or plan on going out, or remember going out—their notion of what makes “a good night out” seems to involve the combination of contrary desires for things to be rough (intense! memorable! crazy!) and for things to go smoothly. There should be surprises, but not horrors; hijinks but not “drama.” This tension between smooth experience and rough experience also corresponds to the ways in which partygoers seem to want their night out to affect themselves: pleasurable unraveling, but not total shattering; getting fucked up, but not losing your shit completely. Notably, I argue that most “nights out” aren’t narratives of radical transformation or hyperbolic shattering, but instead cyclic processes of unraveling and and snapping back into shape. This process I call coming undone, and part of what I want to do here is to explain how this comes to be an important part of what having a “good night out” means. In closing, I use this to reconsider the kinds of claims we can make about what a night out is and what sorts of transformative opportunities it offers.
This chapter is similar to the previous one in how it works its way from point A to point B (i.e., the methodology and argumentative structure), but the content is quite different. This chapter expands the scope from what happens on the dancefloor to the whole narrative of “a night out” partying—that is, getting ready for the party, getting to the party, partying, dealing with all the ups and downs of that party, maybe going home, maybe going to the afterparty, maybe getting lost on the way, having adventures, etc. etc. So, with that in mind, here’s how this chapter is laid out:
- I gather together a sort of mini-archive of stories about memorable nights out partying, taken from interviews with partygoers.
- As I analyze these narratives, I note that there’s an alternation between two desired modes of experience, which I dub smooth experience and rough experience.
- I shift gears to musical examples, showing how a similar sort of rough-smooth oscillation occurs in four tracks by Ricardo Villalobos. I pay particular attention to how Villalobos treats the human voice in fragmented, dizzying ways that suggest a sort of unraveling incoherence or submerged consciousness.
- I call this process of unraveling (and binding back together) coming undone, which I then trace back to the ways interviewees talk about what they want from a night out, what they don’t want, and how they feel about the risks involved in this sort of experience.
Of all of my the chapters in the dissertation, this one is the most conceptually dialogic. What I mean by “conceptually dialogic” is that the concepts that I develop in this chapter were worked out in dialogue with the people interviewed and hung out with during my fieldwork. By the time that I started conducting interviews, I had already done a lot of passive observation of the various scenes I was studying, and I had already recognized a few patterns. For some of these patterns, I had already already come up with a descriptive name and some preliminary, tentative explanations. During my research interviews, in casual conversation, and sometimes as a pre-condition to an interview, people continually asked me to share my own observations and preliminary theories about my research. Rather than keep these ideas to myself—as if my ideas might contaminate theirs, or as if they might be beyond their understanding—I decided to present my own inchoate ideas up-front and to make them a basis for conversation.
So, during most interviews, I already had smooth/rough experience and coming undone vaguely formed in my head, which I described to my interlocutors and asked them what they thought about it. Some people found it gave them clarity about something they already knew but couldn’t articulate, and they enriched my own concept with examples and qualifications and cross-cutting perspectives. Others were skeptical or saw things differently, and their queries and contestations often ended up transforming my own ideas in helpful ways. On the one hand, this sort of approach to social theory is vulnerable to the criticism that the “data” (i.e., what interviewees say) is skewed by the researcher’s involvement. On the other hand, this a very direct way of developing theory with the people whose lives its supposed to explain; it’s an attempt to take seriously anthropology’s move from “research subjects” to “consultants” and “collaborators.”
A (Good) Night Out
In every interview I conducted, I always asked people to tell me stories about their most memorable night out, best night out, and even worst night out. Here, I pull several of these narratives out of this mini-archive and look at them more closely. You’ll have to read the full dissertation to find out what happens in these anecdotes, as even one of them would be long enough for a separate blog post (and, besides, I need to leave you some incentive to read the damn thing), but what follows is a brief overview. People told stories of excellent and memorable nights out that included: moments of musical climax; losing the party location to a police raid and finding a new place; euphoric drug highs and distressful ones; stress and relief; losing your phone or your wallet; getting lost and reuniting with your friends; going on adventures; and so on.
What really jumped out at me was how the stories people told of these “good” nights out seemed to jump from one crisis to another, passing over the parts where things went smoothly—even though the smooth parts usually made up the vast majority of the night’s timeline. Part of what makes an amazing night out, it seems, is that shit happens: crazy shit, surprising shit, sublime shit, scary shit, melodramatic shit, frustrating shit, hot shit, intense shit. Various forms of intense experience were more memorable than the smoother, low-intensity experiences between them, but both kinds of experience seemed to contribute to what counted as a “good night out.”
Smooth Experience, Rough Experience
I refer to this contrast between jarring shocks and smooth passage as rough experience and smooth experience. Both in narratives of a “night out” and just in the way that people talked about partying, partygoers always seemed to be using contrasting metaphors: intense/relaxed, ordered/chaotic, tight/loose, wild/tame, gradual/abrupt, certain/unexpected, hot/cool, smooth/rough. (Look on pages 227-8 of my dissertation for a list of sample phrases.) None of these metaphor-pairs were dominant among everyone that I spoke with, but I ended up choosing “smooth”/“rough” because I was fascinated by the tendency of my Parisian friends to use the English word smooth (instead of the French equivalent, lisse) to describe the texture of experience: music, a party, a night out, a personality, an encounter—all of these could be smooth in a way that spoke to the contrasting experiences that I want to examine in this chapter.
One of the benefits of using the terms smooth and rough to describe these two kinds of experience is that neither term has an automatically positive or negative connotation. A “smooth” experience can be good or bad, welcome or unwelcome—and the same for “rough.” Smooth experience can involve graceful sociability, effortless passage into and out of nightlife spaces, and a general lack of “drama”—but this lack of drama can also be felt as a lack of excitement, interest, or importance. Rough experience can be pleasant surprises, humorous mishaps, drug-enhanced exhilaration, overwhelming moments of musical transport, or athletic dancing, but it can also veer into harm, social conflict, medical emergencies, or tragic loss. Indeed, nearly all of my interlocutors made it clear that both kinds of experience could be desirable or undesirable, depending on the context.
In comparison to the perceived predictability and limited possibilities of ordinary life, a night out can be powerfully attractive; for those who feel constrained or depleted by daily life, simply feeling proximate to the possibility of something happening may already feel like release or revitalization. But what was interesting was how, when the partygoers I interviewed talked about whether they preferred smooth or rough experience, nearly all of them spoke of striking a balance between both kinds of experience. One interviewee, for example, pointed out that, while rough experience was more fun for him, it also ran a much higher risk of going wrong and ruining the whole night; for rough experience to remain fun, he claimed, everything else had to be running smoothly. In other words, smooth and rough experience don’t oppose each other but manage each other. Smooth experience ensures a certain degree of safety and predictability but risks being boring; smooth experience creates fun through surprise and excess, but risks overflowing into danger and displeasure.
Thus, one of the main arguments of this chapter is that partying/raving/clubbing isn’t aimed only at extreme experiences and radical transformations (even though that is one of the most common characterizations of these scenes), but instead it aims toward more modest goals of unraveling and reassembling—pushing yourself and taking it easy.
Musical Unraveling in Four Tracks by Ricardo Villalobos
Well, you’re just going to have to read the corresponding chapter in the dissertation if you’re interested in this section. Unfortunately, music analyses are hard to summarize in a paragraph or two, and this is even more the case when you’re trying to elucidate some sort of theoretical point while you’re doing it. In any case, all four of my analyses claimed that these tracks make sonic illustrations of unraveling, particularly the kind of gentle pull-and-push stretching that I’ve been talking about in the context of smooth and rough experience.
But since you’re here, why not listen to the tracks yourself and see if you can already guess how I made my analytic argument?
These back-and-forth processes of unraveling and rewinding that I’ve found in musical analyses as well as in discourses of partying, I call coming undone. I take this expression from a reservoir of similar expressions for what happens to the self when you party hard: cutting loose, letting go, letting it all hang out, se mettre la tête à l’envers [to put your head on backwards], se déchirer [to shred yourself], se laisser aller [to let yourself go]. All of these expressions point to a kind of painful-pleasurable experience, where feeling disorganized also means feeling relief or release. For some, coming undone also feels like a mode of resistance against a constricting and over-ordered world—especially when the task of maintaining a coherent and “proper” self is too much to bear. For many of us, it takes a lot of energy to maintain the shape of “normal” everyday.
“Coming undone” describes a process whereby the application of pressure to the self through intense experiences creates openings for a different kind of self to emerge—however briefly. But the self-transformation that coming undone offers, however, is a minimal one: not radical transformation but a gentle unfolding, untangling of the self. We’re not talking about the complete self-shattering jouissance of Lacan or Barthes.
But coming undone is also an experience that is not equally accessible to all partygoers, as the associated loss of self-control poses increased risks for women and other minorities. As fun and relieving as it can be, this sort of unraveling can also make you vulnerable to others (e.g., women dealing with unwelcome sexual advances) or make you seem dangerous yourself (e.g., ethnic minorities being treated as potentially violent instead of simply high or having fun). What this means, unfortunately, is that the potentials and pleasures of coming undone aren’t as easily accessible to everyone. Of course, lots of women and ethnic minorities and otherwise underprivileged folks go ahead and unfurl themselves in all sorts of exhilarating ways every weekend, but they do so at an increased risk to themselves. As one of my interviewees once put it, she wants to have fun, but she never wants to be “that girl” at the party: the one that’s out of control, the one that’s a mess, the one whose story ends in drama (and, more cynically, the one whose drama ruins the party).
Coming undone creates an opening—and nothing more. It involves applying pressure in order to force an opening in the self and to stand in the halo it casts. Maybe you’ll step through it, maybe not. The narrative of “a night out” concerns only the story of loosening the knots in the self. The consequences of this unraveling remain undetermined and sometimes, then, nothing changes. Self-transformation is not a necessary element of coming undone, but the glow of it on the horizon certainly is.
Coming undone is a process of loosening and tightening, rather than one of shattering and radical transformation. In making this distinction, I do not mean to foreclose on the possibilities for change and renewal, but merely to dial back the celebratory discourse of carnavalesque excess and reconsider the impact of smaller, more regular, incremental, and sometimes undetectable change. A self is a messy, complicated thing, after all, and there is no telling what a weekly regimen of unfolding and refolding would do to it, regardless of how gentle it was.
Previous in series: Chapter 4. Thickening Something: Music, Affect, and the Sense of the Social
Coming up next: Chapter 6. Bouncers and Multiculturalism: Unassimilated Difference and the Stakes of Nightlife