Beats and Bodies, Posing and Performance
Issue #34, October 1997
BERLIN, SUMMER 1997. While a few hippies and others unschooled in the rules of style and personal hygiene remembered the Summer of Love's thirtieth anniversary with a San Francisco be-in, a million beautiful, scantily clad individuals jammed into Berlin to celebrate love 90's style. In the Fatherland's new capital they participated in the Love Parade, once a small-time celebration of techno and techno culture that has mutated into a multi-million dollar street carnival of beats and bodies, performance and posing. Under the voyeuristic eye of the city and the nation, the ravers shook their booties to one hundred and sixty beats a minute, ingested large amounts of speed, baking soda and MDMA cocktails, ostensibly went at it like rabbits, and, from what I could judge, had a generally good time.
The raving society which comes out of the clubs to dance at the parade prides itself on its representation of everything new in youth culture. Hailed by the mainstream press as the avant-garde of the youth movement, the ravers fetishize youth, fitness and being ahead of the curve from fashion to the latest tracks and the latest drugs. The DJ's, the closest thing the techno world has to legitimate pop stars, are adored and followed not only for their skill at mixing, but also for the promise they embody to present the absolutely latest sounds. For the members of this techno tribe stuck in overdrive and wedded to appearance, the Love Parade is their showcase.
After observing this mass exercise in excess over the years, I think there is something to the ravers' claim that they stand on the curl of innovation. Indeed I am increasingly struck by how well the Love Parade represents what activists, theorists and advertising people alike are touting as our global culture. The ravers, who dance through Berlin's main park, the Tiergarten, leave behind literally tons of garbage and pee on the vegetation, come not just from Berlin and Germany but from all over the world. As an aside, it is estimated that participants in the 1996 parade expelled over 750,000 liters of urine during the festivities. How exactly this statistic was generated, whether, for example, statisticians relied on the self-reporting of those involved or used random spot checks by a panel of experts, is not exactly clear. Not only does the rave attract people from all over the world, but through the new media of the Internet and the old media of television it is followed worldwide by a virtual audience consisting of virtual ravers and the simply curious. But beyond these rather basic facts, I think there are more fundamental reasons justifying applying the adjective global to the Love Parade.
The first reason has to do with the formal qualities of the Love Parade's dominant language, electronic dance music, or, more simply, techno. To my mind, techno is a cultural product without a strong national component to define its identity like Grunge or Britpop. The national minimalism of techno is conveyed through its linguistic minimalism. In the other major forms of pop music the lyrics serve a variety of functions. For example, they are the medium through which the song's message is conveyed. They provide pleasure as they are understood by the listener. And importantly, the lyrics, written as they are in a particular national language, also define the song's origin. They locate the song in national-cultural space. Grunge is American. Britpop is, well, British. Techno, by contrast is more often than not wordless; it has no text to tell us where the song is from. This lack of words does decrease techno's power to deliver a message, but, at the same time, it increases techno's transnational quality by stripping it of the trappings of particular, national identity. What is more, in appreciating techno, you don't need to be a member of a particular national community or possess language skills in a particular national language. Without these national linguistic barriers, the music approaches a non-national language of enjoyment understandable by kids in Berlin, Wisconsin and Japan. No one needs to work hard to decipher techno's words, the beat, they just need a body to feel them.
We shouldn't exaggerate techno's transnationalism, of course. And there is only so far that we can stretch the metaphor of electronic dance as the perfect form of a global commodity, one free of national markers that would impede its mobility across national economic space before it begins to break down. Like Grunge or Britpop, two previous recent commodities distributed and consumed worldwide, electronic dance is still anchored in a particular location and within definable relations of production and consumption. In the raving world this is conveyed by referring to the main urban sites of production of each type of dance music: Detroit techno, Chicago house, Bristolian trip hop and on and on....
The Love Parade is an urban event; its identity is defined much more by the fact that it takes place in Berlin than in Germany. As an urban cultural event, the parade reflects the changing political and economic realities of a major urban center like Berlin which have been brought on by the advent of globalized capitalism and neo-liberalism. This is the second major reason for considering the Love Parade as something more than a national cultural event. In this era of the global economy, cities have come under increasing economic pressure. For the one, they have seen the subsidies they normally receive from the central governments cut as these governments slash their budgets in an effort to make their nation-states more attractive to multi-nationals and their piles of cash. What is more, cities have suffered economically as traditional Fordist industries have declined. Attempting to compensate for these economic losses, cities have reacted by, on the one hand, cutting or privatizing services, including support for the arts and cultural events, and, on the other, finding alternatives to traditional manufacturing jobs. One such alternative is tourism, the industry of appearance and image. Cities have engaged in intense projects of re-design and renovation in the hopes of drawing in hordes of tourists to spend their money like drunken sailors, filling the cities' coffers as they do.
These trends in urban economics are reflected in the Love Parade. For the one, it is a privately organized cultural event and thus for a country like Germany which prides itself on its generous state support of the arts and public culture, somewhat of an anomaly. Pulling the strings behind the Love Parade is the Love Parade Ltd., the company that profits from the event by relentlessly marketing all aspects of the parade from the music to the media images and controls the distribution of national and international licenses for parade products. Love in this case buys money. What is more, city boosters and Berlin's political elite have increasingly come to see the parade as a positive contribution to Berlin's image as a cosmopolitan, exciting city, qualities essential for drawing crowds of young, spendthrifty tourists to the metropolis on the Spree. And come they do. Recent estimates put the amount of cash that flowed into Berlin during the weekend of this year's parade at 200 million German marks. Manna from heaven for cash strapped Berlin and a figure that has made ravers of even the most recalcitrant city leaders. The Love Parade it seems is one of the most efficient manufactures of image and appearance in the city.
While these elements help to define what is innovative about the Love Parade and place it at the forefront of developing forms of transnational culture, not everything about the parade is quite so new. Indeed, if we consider the public discussions that every year accompany the event, we can see how the parade remains rooted in one of the defining conflicts of modern Western culture, namely the conflict over the political content of cultural activities.
As far as newsworthy political and cultural events go, summers in Berlin and Germany are fairly boring affairs. The politicians are on holiday, the theaters and opera houses are closed for the season and around May 31 decent bands stop coming to the country until about the beginning of September. Consequently, the Love Parade, as one of the few large happenings to take place right in the middle of summer, is always a major event in German political and cultural debates. In one fell swoop it manages to fill the summer's news vacuum, giving the journalists and other arbiters of German public opinion something to scribble about for weeks leading up to the event and into the weeks after when the last D-marks of profit have been counted.
German intellectual elites have a well developed ability for discovery the political implications of social phenomena. The honing and use of this ability is an indirect way of atoning for the failure of intellectual elites of the past to anticipate the implications of National Socialism and, what is worse, for wholeheartedly supporting it in some cases. Modern intellectuals in the Federal Republic are quick to subject any number of events, issues and movements to a critical gaze, probing them for hints of recalcitrant fascist tendencies and/or emancipatory hopes. As a popular event, the Love Parade does not escape their gaze and these intellectuals lead the charge in the public discussion of the parade, a discussion that centers around the political meaning of a million sweaty bodies dancing around Berlin.
The focus on the politics of summer raving in the city is strengthened by the particularities of the German law regulating public demonstrations. This law allows the organizers of the event to register the parade as a political demonstration, a status that gives them more freedom in choosing the parade's route. This status also frees the organizers from the responsibility for paying for the parades' clean-up. The obvious misuse of this status, causes critics of the parade to charge the organizers with hypocrisy and deception. For their part, the raverati are inspired into ever more impressive flights of analytical and rhetorical fancy in their efforts to prove that dancing in tight vinyl pants actually defines the very essence of politics in this, our postmodern world.
The critics of the parade include most of the German left and it hates the Love Parade. Old school leftists want rev-o-lution not rave-o-lution, and consequently they see the ravers' avoidance of overt political statements in favor of a celebration of all things fleshy and hedonistic to be an indirect way of supporting the status quo in the Federal Republic. The cultural left has tended to be more sympathetic of the extravaganza, although they have increasingly come to dismiss the parade as another instance of the hegemonic practices of the control society. Viewing the Love Parade through the control society lens, these commentators see an event that mimics the status hierarchies and norms of behavior dominant in mainstream society. Thus, for example, the Love Parade's concentration on bodily beauty exerts pressure on participants to conform to standards of youth and fitness no different from those of wider society.
The ravers' defense of the parade centers on the values represented during the event: love, peace, pleasure, and tolerance. These values they compare to what they see as German society's dominant values: obedience, authority, social coldness and hostility to the foreign other. What is more, they invoke the community that arises during the parade and again compare it to the dominant forms of interaction in mainstream society. The parade's defenders consider the closeness that parade participants achieve even as they pursue they own pleasure as an alternative to the atomized interactions prevalent in German everyday life. It is this articulation of a set of oppositional values and alternative forms of community that defines the political content of the parade for the international dance set.
As the contestants in these public duels hash out what whether the Love Parade is about the love of humanity or the love of money and how politically important this might be, they try to determine the proper place of cultural activity in politics and what such activity can accomplish. As important as this issue is, the debate itself has ceased to be productive. More of a public ritual, than a public discussion, the participants tend to snipe at one another from behind the walls of their respective ideological camps. In doing so, each in their own way exaggerates the meaning of the parade. The left tends to exaggerate the politically damaging effects of the parade, especially its power to quell social dissent. Overdeterming the political nature of the parade in this way, they leave little room for the private enjoyment of the parade on the part of its individual participants. For their part, the raver intellectual elite grossly exaggerates the subversive and alternative aspects of the affair. Insufficiently aware of what is means to construct a 'community,' they mistake the transitory experience of being together as the essence of community and celebrate it with reckless abandon. That the construction of truly alternative social relationships demands more than their symbolic invocation and is the result of long-term struggles within the realm of power politics seems to escape these beat idealists. Thus in their own way the raver intellectuals, too, overdetermine the parade's political meaning.
I think the state of the discussion surrounding the Love Parade can give us pause to think about the underlying debate about politics and culture. Recently a group of young German cultural critics engaged with various manifestations of contemporary pop culture published a volume of essays. In the volume's introduction, the editors astutely noted a crisis of cultural representation. Writing in the post-Nirvana world, they noted how the cultural practices and forms through which a diverse collection of movements and groups had represented their disgust with politics as usual have been co-opted by the culture industry and sold back to the movements' participants as slickly packaged cultural commodities. These angry, subversive minorities have become the mainstream, leaving behind a lack of cultural practices through which new groups might mobilize their anger. In answering this problem the editors do not advocate new political practices or new forms of organizing cultural production, but instead suggest a more vigilant form of cultural criticism. Lacking automatic standards for judging cultural practices of representation and faced with the integrative power of the culture industry, critics need to take a closer look at all cultural practices in an effort to discover which forms of representation contain the seeds of an oppositional consciousness.
This suggestion is remarkable for its lack of daring. Although these critics correctly diagnose the crisis of representation, the antidote they offer remains within the horizons of traditional leftist cultural politics. This politics is enamored with visions of cultural avant-gardes articulating the frustrations of the toiling masses and triggering movements of political and social emancipation. Make no mistake, as someone who when appearing on college/community radio uses the name Hugo Ball and attempts to channel Hugo's dada spirit through the ether, I am more than sympathetic to cultural practices that aim to be overtly political. But at the same time, after witnessing many of the contemporary debates about culture and politics a la the Love Parade discussion, I see the need for a more differentiated analysis, one that breaks out of the old patterns of thought. This new analysis, instead of asking the question, How political is culture?, needs to ask, When is politics not culture?
This is the case because in our attempts to effect meaningful social and political change, we often engage in political practices that have little to do with cultural production. We bargain. We cut deals. We go door to door and pound the pavement in an effort to raise moral and financial support for our public campaigns. We lie, steal and cheat in furthering our causes. We slowly march through society's institutions, making friends and influencing people along the way. On a good day, we engage in political deliberations marked by the free exchange of ideas and with an eye to the common good. And on a very good day, we produce lasting bonds of solidarity for the political future. Through such practices we can cash in on the values of peace, freedom, love and tolerance represented by an event like the Love Parade. An awareness of these political avenues, an analysis of their limits and strengths and importantly an understanding of how they are different from our cultural practices would help us take a more sober view of the Love Parade and similar events. With an understanding of what culture and politics as independent realms of practice can and cannot achieve to guide our analysis, we would avoid the mistakes of dismissing cultural practices as politically meaningless or exaggerating their political import. We could begin to move beyond performance and posing to politics and power.
John Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC-Berkeley, doing work on Turkish immigrant politics in Germany.