Thesis 1: My reading of contemporary practices of social music production, especially in the figure of the electronic music DJ, relies primarily on a thorough and on-going reading of Adorno, Benjamin, Kittler, Freud, etc., which makes me capable of assessing the aesthetic, political, and social consequences of these figures in ways that very few club-goers are. It may, then, be incumbent upon me to argue against club culture in so far as I think it promotes the following: sexual violence; capitalism; social conformity; mindless obedience; bad dancing; cultures of exclusion based on hegemonic categories of social desirability; bad taste.
Counterargument I: There are people who know this theory shit at least as well as I do and love clubbing.
Thesis II: The fact that I have always hated this music, and hated almost all forms of clubbing available to me in Berlin, stems not from any particular intellectual conviction, but rather from my own feelings of social and especially sexual inadequacy when I inhabit these spaces and that I therefore invoke my cultural capital in order to distance myself from the aesthetic/social/political possibilities of a kind of engagement that threaten to reveal my own inadequacies to me.
Counterargument II: This reliance on the psychological to respond to what are, essentially, intellectual critiques of certain kinds of aesthetic practices answers none of them and makes future debate impossible; the projection of certain probably unknowable (even by me) psychological connections and literary and aesthetic conclusions makes all philosophical (or philosophicalish) activity a mere projection of certain psychological states.
Thesis III: All of the above.
Counterargument III: All knowledge and conviction about any not purely empirical subject is impossible for everyone always. Cf. Pyrrhonian skepticism.
I am sitting with my friend Lauren outside a café called Pappelreihe, on Kienitzer Straße in Schillerkiez, Berlin, Germany. We are talking about my hatred of techno music. It seems I talk about my hatred of techno music too often now. I do not think I brought it up. I think I have convinced her that the claim, vis-à-vis the Berghain, that we enter into a space designed to preserve our anonymity is dangerous when it’s a widely known secret that a plain-clothes security force patrols the space. But she doesn’t seem to think this argument should concern us too deeply. She says I should do some drugs and go back.
Me– “I think we should be skeptical of aesthetic spaces that take intoxication as the precondition of their appreciation; e.g., that don’t allow for a sober, critical enjoyment.”
Lauren– “I think you’re skeptical of fun.” I wonder why we shouldn’t be skeptical of fun. I bet Romans had lots of fun watching slaves be torn to pieces by lions. I bet Kristallnacht was a lot of fun, if you were a Nazi. Cigarettes are a lot of fun for me. They will probably kill me.
Tom in my head, cites Adorno: Bach gegen seine Liebhaber verteidigt; Adorno & Horkheimer: Dialektik der Aufklärung– particularly the bit about Odysseus and the wax in the ears and bourgeois aesthetic receptivity– and finally, Benjamin: Über Haschisch.
I have been to the Boros Sammlung twice now. It is a short walk from the Friedrichstraße train station in central Berlin. It was built as an above ground air raid bunker during the Second World War. Several works of art hum or clank or tick or drone. The first time, the docent says: “We don’t provide any written information or wall labels about the artwork because the Boros’ like to think of this as their home, and you don’t label artworks in your home.” I try to remember the last time I made an online reservation and paid a 12 Euro entry fee to visit someone’s home. Maybe the Villa Borghese in Rome. The second time, the docent says: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the building was used as a techno club. It was called the bunker. I think maybe this music was important as a music of liberation after the fall of the wall.” My neuralgia is acting up, and the art makes it worse; especially a piece by Alicja Kwade in which she amplified fluorescent lights. The docent says it has something to do with Kwade’s interest in astrophysics and background radiation. It reminds me of school cafeterias; dilapidated offices; hospitals; prisons. It is, after all, only a louder version of exactly the noise that kind of lighting always produces. I should not interrupt the docent. I wonder what Alicja Kwade knows about astrophysics. I should not interrupt the docent, who knows so little, but recites her lines well. My headache gets worse and worse. Alicja Kwade is the soundtrack.
“Contemporary art has always played an important role in Berghain’s identity: Works by Piotr Nathan are mounted on an entire wall of the club’s ground floor, Joseph Marr’s sculptures are installed under the counter of a glass bar and Wolfgang Tillmans’s large-scale photographs hang in the club’s offshoot Panorama Bar. What’s more, many of Berghain’s staff are artists and performers, and most of the nine participating artists in the current exhibition are current or former employees; some have chosen to reflect on the relationship between the club and their own practice.”
The phonograph is at its most musical when it fails because the conditions of its own production become audible in the moments of its technological failure; a hop-skip and a jump (over the usual murky pools of Marxist jargon) to the moments of social failure that might precipitate the revolution, the long-awaited communist utopia. Only when it ceases to provide us with the illusion that we can listen to Caruso in our own home (or Dylan in our car, or Thom Yorke in a corner cafe, or, or, or, or) does the phonograph begin to create music that might pierce the veil of ideology and precipitate genuine social change.
ADORNO: If I had said to my father that mass culture is untrue, he would have answered: but I enjoy it. Renunciation of utopia means somehow or other deciding in favour of a thing even though I know perfectly well that it is a swindle. That is the root of the trouble.
HORKHEIMER: Because the strength you need to do the right thing is kept on a leash. If we formulate the issues just as we speak, it all sounds too argumentative. People might say that our views are just all talk, our own perceptions. To whom shall we say these things?
Julia, lovely Julia, who is quieter and smarter and better than all of us, joins Lauren and me at Pappelreihe. Lauren leaves a few minutes later. Julia asks what we were talking about.
Me: Techno, again. Though I think maybe what’s actually interesting about it is the ways in which people defend their pleasures by accusing you of being incapable of appreciating them. That maybe the essay should be about that, and not about techno at all.
Julia asks what I mean. I try to explain. I fail. I wonder if it is my German, my thinking, her. Though the last seems unlikely.
Julia: Maybe you need to explain your theory about techno to me again.
I tell her that Lauren and I were talking about the Berghain, and states of surveillance, about illusory liberation, about critical versus intoxicated states of reception.
Julia: I think you need to differentiate between the Berghain and underground clubs. Smaller clubs don’t have security personnel in plainclothes.
Me: Sure. But there are still mechanisms of social control in clubs. It’s not like everyone gets everything they want there all the time. And it’s not as though they wouldn’t be stopped if they tried to take it.
Julia: But that’s an argument against everything, all the time.
I wanted to say: “Yes, exactly! But most of the time, we know that.” Cf. Freud, Rousseau, the Bible.
I am sitting in a dorm room at the Interlochen Arts Academy, in Interlochen, Michigan, United States with my friends Paul, Brian, and John. We are talking about a forthcoming party that Paul will DJ.
Me: “I want to DJ a party sometime.”
Paul: “Nobody wants to listen to Belle & Sebastian records all night, Peter.”
We have to start somewhere, so we might as well start here: In 1927, Theodor Adorno writes: “Only when gramophonic reproduction breaks down are its objects transformed. Or else one removes the records and lets the spring run out in the dark.” Or rather, a young Thomas Y. Levin writes that, translating Adorno’s essay Nadelkurven in the shadow of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have to start somewhere, so we might as well start here, where I suspect that Tom, who would later become my dissertation advisor, would start in defending club culture, and the “music” it supports. The essay is Adorno, even if via Levin, and therefore as sophisticated in its argumentation as it is vicious in its denunciations. The précis of Tom’s reading of Adorno, to spare you both: The record player is only capable of being a musical instrument, as opposed to a piece of bourgeois furniture, when it reveals its own material conditions; the most beautiful music the phonograph can make is in the moments of its failure, when the conditions of reproduction become audible.