Friday, July 25, 2008

A flurry of posts picking up on Sherburne's minimal/malaise article--Fisher@Mire on the genre's lack of fairground thrills; Hatherley focusing on the underlying class factor of Berlin as city of deracinated "creatives"; Fisher picking up on that to address minimal's lack of relation to a sense of place.

Nuum music is daubed and decorated with references to place, specifically London (just-4-U, sumting-dis, it's-a, etc) or specific areas of same (East, mostly), but these take the form of samples or track titles or other peripherals. On a sonic or rhythmic level I don't know if you can tie what's going on in jungle or 2step or grime or bassline to geography in quite the same way. The key factor is being tied to a population, a demographic cohort that keeps on renewing itself but retains a shared history and maintains a certain sociocultural consistency over a period of time, determined by factors of class and race. Vibe-tribalism. Not in a watertight, completely-closed off way, of course: there's an element to dance music tribalisms that is completely elective. Plenty of people became junglists or garagists by a willed act of allegiance (although it felt involuntary, like you'd been seized by the sounds). Through this violent cathexis they were jolted out of what might otherwise have been their "proper" place in the social cartography of music taste. The drugs certainly helped. But these new recruits, these immigrants as it were, from outside could only ever be a minority within the massive. Indeed when it reached the fatal tipping point, you got what happened when jungle became drum'n'bass; the genre was derailed from the Nuum-track when the original population was "swamped" by studenty types. With the vibe-defining majority, I think there's a real sense in which they are almost born into the tribe, through growing up surrounded by Nuum sounds, or (in the earliest days) with the music out of which the Nuum would form itself (sound system culture, Eighties pirate radio, Brit B-boyism etc).

If "population" is the key, then clearly the problem with Berlin specifically and minimal in general is cosmopolitanism itself. By definition, a cosmopolitan milieu is not going to be a fertile ground for tribalism.

Thinking about Gas recently I realised that tribalism in music is a form of quasi-nationalism (a tribe basically is a small nation), something that offers all the excitement of collective singlemindness and patriotic fervour with none of the suspect real-world aspects. It's an idea that rises to the surface of techno-rave's consciousness every so often, with slogans like "Rave Nation" or "Jungle Nation" or "Garage Nation". And as I've noted before, there was a time when I'd have happily put "junglist" on my passport.

What's the appeal of this pseudo-patriotism? Surely it has something to do with globalisation; with the deterritorialising effect of transnational capital; with the erosion of earlier forms of solidarity and collective purpose, e.g. trade unions; the longing for belonging. The music-based or subcultural forms of nationalism offer a softcore surrogate version of what political nationalism offers: identity, community, a sense of values that transcend those of the market. (Think of the role nationalisms of various sorts and extremes played for most of the 20th Century as a sort of "Neither Wall Street nor Red Square" Third Way). Being a genre patriot, a member of a vibe-tribe, asserts a relationship with music that goes beyond simply consuming it, beyond use value. Similarly, just as political nationalism asserts an organic community in order to seal over/magically heal/resoluve/suppress the reality of class divisions, music-tribalism achieves the same kind of effect through aesthetics.

Of course, confusing matters, techno culture has also indulged, especially in its early cyberdelic days, in the rhetorics of globality, border-crossing, world unity of dance, deterritorialisation, etc, very much in line with a Wired magazine type view of "progressive" capitalism. But the Nuum runs contrary to that, always has; it began as a reterritorialisation, an assertion of the local, the "UK" prefix. Perhaps (echo of Hobsbawm) the Nuum is a kind of invented tradition, a tradition that harks forward, to the future. (Actually, it is looking both ways at once--roots'n'future).

I wonder if there is also a question of time involved, a class-based relationship to the experiencing and management of time. Fisher, picking up on a point made by Sherburne, wonders whether the curious peaklessness of minimal (so similar to that other "global underground", Sasha/Digweed-style progressive) relates to "the libidinal cost of distending pleasure over the course of a twelve hour party." It's partly that, but also because the division between the ecstatically heightened timezone of "party" and normal existence is not as drastically demarcated.

"Creatives" have a different relationship to work and leisure than people who work in manufacturing or the service economy. There is a sense that they are rarely fully at work or fully at leisure. Because their jobs are more fulfilling, there is not the same sense of your-time-is-not-your-own, enforced boredom, nothing like the same alienation. The stress in this kind of work is often enjoyable stress: the challenges of solving problems, the adrenalin rush of the approaching deadline, the team-pulling-together-vibe at, say, a magazine when it's closing an issue and everyone's working until midnight. That kind of positive stress is virtually physiologically different to the cororonary-building kind of stress of being at the end of a supermarket or factory conveyor belt, subject to its rigid and inhuman flows (something I recall vividly from a summer spent as a student worker at the Wellcome plant in Berkhamsted, packing aerosols of insecticide into cardboard boxes). Also, if you work on a computer it's very easy to bunk off at frequent intervals, play truant into the web world, exactly as I am doing right now. At the same time, because their media or design jobs often involve aesthetics or some form of cultural information-gathering or semiotic interpretation, or networking, there is a sense that they are seldom completely at leisure. Work and leisure, the workspace and the homespace become blurred.* Especially if you are a freelancer and can manage your own time.

Because of all these factors, the whole explosive tension-release, living-for-the-weekend economy of energy that underpins the more tribal-vibal forms of dance culture is absent in minimal. It is much more about a plateau state of pleasure and pleasantness--the music coming through the speakers at the club not being that different from what you're playing all day through your computer speakers.
The weekend is not the redemption of a week of drudgery, because the work isn't actually drudgery, but stimulating. Because the weekend is not the focus to the same extent, there's no need to brock out, less pressure to release . The last time I was in Berlin, earlier this year, after the Rip it Up reading a bunch of us checked out some minimal bars, including one famous club, Watergate, with glass window walls overlooking the river. It was Wednesday and the place was pretty packed, full of people clearly there to dance until 6AM or later. On one level it was really cool to see people out and partying in the middle of week; on another there was that level, chugging thing to the music, the sense that there wasn't going to be a peak hour as such.

Finally, I wonder if some of this connects to issues addressed in this interesting post by Dan at The End Times. A fundamental transformation in the nature of bohemia. At one point living a bohemian life meant embracing failure, squandering the opportunities and privileges of your class background, a deliberate self-impoverishment that rejected the conventional ideas of wealth and success in favour of spiritual and aesthetic riches. Now certain aspects of bohemianism--a life dedicated to aestheticism, exquisite sensations, "experiences", the exotic; systematic derangement of the senses (albeit as brief forays rather than a permanent condition); an unstructured and de-routinized lifestyle--have become compatible with an essentially affluent and careerist existence.

* One interesting thing in Sarah Thornton's Bourdieu-esque book on dance music Club Cultures is that she notes the rigid divide maintained in 90s UK clubland between work and play, your real-world identity and the nightlife self. She claims that strangers fraternising at raves and club might talk about all kinds of things very candidly, but the one taboo was the question "what do you do for a living?". This probably mainly related to the founding myth of classlessness then still upheld in club/rave (despite the reality of its increasing fracturing into taste niches), a subconscious impulse to keep the real world of production and social divisions outside the club space. But still, I bet nothing like the same taboo maintains in the micro-minimal world. I'm sure it's totally acceptable to talk about your projects or profession in between bumps of K. Because the assumption is, everybody in the place is from the same kind of place, socially.