#122: Energy Flash

I just finished reading Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds’ history of electronic music and rave culture during the ‘80s and ‘90s. At this moment, it’s fairly sad to immerse oneself in the alternate universe where people crammed into crowded spaces and danced together, but the book is nonetheless fantastic, spanning from the music’s origins in Detroit and Chicago to late-90s drum and bass (the book was published in 1999). One thread that runs through the narrative is the dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow culture, and critics’ tendency to overemphasize the former and neglect the latter. Much electronic music, of course, is club music, a functionalist complement to a specific milieu, ephemeral support for having the best possible time rather than self-conscious “art,” and at times closer to engineering (especially as the tracks got harder and faster), a “cool hallucinatory culture of special effects personalities moving at warp speed to nowhere” (to quote technology theorist Arthur Kroker). Throughout the book, Reynolds reckons with his own “rockist” bias, which he overcame in order to embrace this music: “Before I experienced rave culture on its own terrain and terms, I accordingly celebrated groups like 808 State, the Orb, and the Shamen on the grounds that their music made sense at home and at album length.”

For Reynolds, “at home and at album length” refers to a process of decontextualization, the musical equivalent of the modern gallery’s white cube: a belief that any cultural product meriting serious appreciation must prove that it can survive outside of its native habitat by becoming a fungible unit of culture, fitting into the standardized format of Pitchfork album reviews and solitary, focused listening. If music sounds good in a packed nightclub at 3 a.m. but not through headphones on your couch, is it real in the same way that Kid A is real? Right now in quarantine, the contextualizing environments in which culture traditionally incubates are closed off and dormant, so everything has to sound good in the living room whether it’s meant to or not. We live in the white cube now; anything that relies on a specific source of external context is an endangered species. We’re one month into a worldwide experiment to learn whether the internet alone can produce sufficient meaning on its own, or whether we must keep mining our memories of an embodied shared reality to bridge this gap.

The internet is sufficiently robust by now to at least attempt the Herculean project of creating its own rich reality without IRL assistance. One quality of digital space that was always apparent but has become more noticeable in isolation is that there are places online where meaning is created and others where meaning is consumed, as we can observe in the one-way flow of information from TikTok, Reddit, and Twitter toward intermediate platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The musical orientation of TikTok makes it especially comparable to the rave and club spaces that produced their own context outside the scope of highbrow regard: What resonates there doesn’t necessarily translate to the white cube, nor does it need to. And then there are the sites of final consumption where users don’t create any substantial meaning, a category exemplified by streaming services like Spotify and Netflix—algorithmic content flows matched to revealed preferences or a computer’s interpretation of human emotion, only able to repackage or mimic what’s imported from elsewhere. In a sense, these platforms are as post-human as the machinic chirp of a Roland 303—but marking an entropic destination for culture rather than an origin.

Reads:

  • Benjamin Bratton’s 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism. A solid roundup of observations and lessons that are becoming increasingly apparent. “All around us we see camp and bunker switching places. Is the fence keeping you in or out? The barrier that keeps the perceived danger contained (camp) versus the one that keeps it out (bunker) may look like identical architectural forms.”

  • John Palmer on the need for spatial software, an increasingly urgent issue for the largely despatialized internet at a moment when our ability to experience space in more familiar ways is curtailed.

  • Mandatory hourly geotagged selfies as a mechanism of quarantine enforcement.