Spirituality and Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000
TECHNO AND MYSTICISM
Bernd Herzogenrath, Ph.D., University of Aachen, Germany
Bernd Herzogenrath received his Ph.D. from University of Aachen, Germany. He is the author of "An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster." (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1999). His fields ofi interest are 19th and 20th century American Literature, Literary Theory, and Cultural and Media Studies. He has also published articles on David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and Cultural Pathology, Leatherstocking and Belatedness, Kurt Cobain and "The Great Gatsby", Pynchon and Von Helmholtz, Henry Adams and Chaos Physics. Currently he is working on a project on the Image and Metaphor of Amputation, Phantom Limbs, and Missing Limbs in American Literature, History, Art, and Cinema.
Indeed, you may find that these things are all rather silly. But logic is always a bit silly. If one does not go to the root of the childish, one is inevitably precipitated into stupidity, as can be shown by innumerable examples ...1 (Jacques Lacan)
Quite a number of publications so far have examined Techno either from the perspective of the artists involved, in connection with drug (ab)use, or with respect to the politics of rave culture. 2 By a different framing this paper, however, wants to position the cultural phenomenon Techno within the context of (post)structuralist theories, literature, psychoanalysis and philosophy. As a kind of theoretical background-noise, I have sampled Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze/Guattari, because they – much like Techno itself – are concerned with the limits of subject, author, and representation. In a second step, then, I shall try and link the phenomenon of Techno to the notion of spiritualism and mysticism, again viewed from an admittedly very postmodern perspective. My paper and its title takes its cue from Faithless’ song God is a DJ, in which the community of ravers, on a metaphorical level, is compared to a church. In addition, this very slogan was used at this year’s Deutsche Katholikentag, the German Congress of the Catholic Church, as its motto for the section ‘Church and Youth.’For this paper, I have mainly chosen tracks of Techno/Dance Act The Prodigy, whose album Music For The Jilted Generation shall serve as a kubernetes, as a steering device providing thematic anchoring points in what follows. One might argue that such an analysis of Techno would have been more effective if I had chosen a more underground Techno artist, one whose music has not already been co-opted by MTV. However, for reasons that will hopefully become clearer, I have opted for The Prodigy precisely because their album then marked their precarious position on the cusp between what’s still underground and what’s already commerce, between ‘enacting the ineffable’ and ‘making sense.’
So, I’ve decided to take my work back underground, to stop it falling into the wrong hands... (The Prodigy: ‘Intro’)
Apart from evoking (at least to my mind) a strangely familiar William-S.-Burroughs-feeling, these words – taken from the ‘Intro’ track of The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation – address two issues that will range predominantly in my reading of the phenomenon Techno. On the one hand, I think it is noteworthy that the album is introduced by what I would call the prominent sound-metaphor of modernism: the type-writer. It thus relates Techno to the realm of writing, the realm of the text, of differentiality as opposed to the presence of the voice. On the other hand, it opens up the question of the differentiation of underground and official culture, of the political relevance of Techno, in short: of the position of Techno as an art-form in relation to society as a system of regulations. Rock’n’Roll-culture has always defined itself in terms of phallic sex and:or deviance (to the law, to the common sense and its aesthetics). The last two decades have witnessed a decisive shift, and I will shortly contrast what I consider two of the main traits within mainstream music culture. On the one hand, although the King of Rock’n’Roll (Elvis Presley) and his smudgy, deviant but true heirs (Sid Vicious/Johnny Thunders) have died, the revival of both Rock’n’Roll and The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle nevertheless goes on and on. In contrast to Rock, Hip-Hop or Rap on the other hand do not have an ideal (freedom/peace/love&sex) as either starting or terminal point, an ideal that even in its impossibility might serve as ‘authentic’ music’s signified (as e.g. the suicide of Kurt Cobain). They start from the fact of ghetto (tribe), digitalisation, segregation, a situation that might change to the better, but also – more probably – to the worse. Nevertheless, the discourses of Hip-Hop and Rap still operate on the level of the outspoken signified, on the level of the message, of lyrics3 (hopefully ‘explicit’ and thus labeled with the Parental Advisory). Though their music functions like a machine, it is still the soundtrack to black-and-white videos documenting the need for social change, thus still operating in an oppositional paradigm.
During the last decade, yet another style evolved: Techno, a style even less associated with ‘natural’ instruments like guitar, bass and drum-set, but with segments of the frequency spectrum on the monitor of the analyzer; not with real time and live-performance, but with a step-by-step stratification of rhythms, samples, digital filters and delay effects, a style that has its roots in Chicago ‘(Ware)House’ style and Detroit DJ culture, that takes machines (records, turn-tables, computers) and uses them not the way they where supposed to be used, thus introducing techniques of ab-use (scratching, sampling etc.) - a point where the two different strands of music momentarily touch, since even Punk and Heavy Metal use distorted sounds, sounds, in which the effect of (formerly unwanted) noise was in fact taken as a definians of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Techno’s social relevance was highlighted in Great Britain’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Chapter 33. Thus, the English Law was the first to provide an ‘official’ definition of Dance and Techno Music and to regulate the handling of this kind of music. This Act aimed at the deviant behavior not only of ravers, but of squatters, travelers etc. as well, people whose life-style is not one of conformity/uniformity. The respective section that criminalizes raves and Techno music deserves to be quoted in its full length:
remove persons attending or preparing for a rave.
Section 63. – (1) This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 100 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose – (a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and (b) "music" includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.4
The Law speaks from the position of those who know that one sleeps at night, who know that loud music makes aggressive, and who share the mythical belief that ‘music is (or has to be) natural.’ In contrast, this machinic "emission of a succession of repetitive beats" truly deserves to be put in ironic quotation marks. A deviator from the routines of normality and an adversary against The Law of a ‘natural/organic music’ "commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three month or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale" (CJPO 63.6b). The Law again appears as the instance of Lacan’s nom du père, as the castrating agency, as ‘Daddy says NO!’ The Law has thus branded Techno as deviant, like a father who disclaims any parenthood for this disobedient, machinic child. It is indeed the very complicity of childishness and a machinic logic that will be the central perspective in my reading of Techno.
As a starting point, I want to redirect you once more to the Lacanian epigraph beginning this paper. The very duplicity of childishness and logic referred to in this quotation figures prominently in The Prodigy’s name. What is a prodigy? The OED gives a whole range of possible answers:
extraordinary from which omens are drawn; an omen, a portent.
- An amazing or marvelous thing; esp. something out of the ordinary course of nature; something abnormal or monstrous.
- Anything that causes wonder, astonishment or surprise; a wonder, a marvel.
- A person endowed with some quality which excites wonder; esp. a child of precocious genius.
Derived from the Latin prodigium, which denotes an omen in either a good or a bad sense, the English word prodigy thus combines two opposite meanings: the benevolent wonder and the abnormal monstrosity. Both meanings collide in the notion of the infant prodigy, a curious hybrid that combines the wisdom of a teacher with the age of a pupil. Relevant for my analysis is the possibility to read the notion of ‘the prodigy’ as a nodal point of four discourses: signification ("an omen"); the evil and the abject ("something abnormal or monstrous"); magic ("a wonder, a marvel"); and childhood (in connection with genius).
Following these different traits, I will start with the two oft-quoted infant prodigies of psychoanalytical theory: Freud’s grandson Ernst, ‘inventor’ of the fort/da-game, and the child prodigy in Poe’s story ‘The Purloined Letter,’ as rendered and used by Jacques Lacan. In Edgar Allan Poe’s detective-story ‘The Purloined Letter,’ Dupin gives the example of a young schoolboy who continuously wins the game of ‘even and odd’ by means of a "thorough identification"5 with his opponent. In his reading of this scene, Lacan stresses the fact that there is more at stake than just a mere chance-guessing. Such an inter-subjectivity would remain in a purely imaginary realm, in a relation of "equivalence of one and the other, of the alter ego and the ego."6 Lacan shows that by the infant prodigy’s identification with the opponent’s intellect something else is involved: a recourse to the symbolic register, thus: to an operating principle, a law, and not to something ‘real.’ It is the signifying chain and its laws that determine the effects of subjectivity, because of some kind of inherent machinic "remembering [remémoration]" (Seminar II 185) of the symbolic: "[f]rom the start, and independently from any attachment to some supposedly causal bond, the symbol already plays, and produces by itself, its necessities, its structures, its organizations" (Seminar II 193). By contrasting the real and the symbolic, Lacan situates Poe’s story against the background of combinatorial analysis, when he claims that "[t]he science of what is found at the same place [the real] is substituted for by the science of the combination of places as such" (Seminar II 299): cybernetics, "the fact that anything can be written in terms of 0 and 1" (Seminar II 300) – or: even and odd. Thus, the symbolic itself is binary, is related to the machinic – culture/the law as the automaton – and speaking human beings are cyborgs ‘from the word go.’
The human being’s entrance into the machinic is playfully experienced by another child prodigy, Freud’s grandson Ernst. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud describes his observations of his grandson’s self-invented game. What he did was to hold [a wooden reel] by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive ‘o-o-o-o’. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ [‘there’]. This, then, was the complete game – disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself ... .7
Lacan stresses the fact that in the so-called fort/da-game a rudimentary use of language – a first phonematic opposition – is implicated. For the speaking subject – being constituted by this ‘original’ digitality [fort/da, 0/I) and inscribed into a trans-subjective (rather than inter-subjective) system – an outside of digitality is impossible. It might be argued that there is something in the human subject that is not reducible to pure digitality: its indestructible drive (for a presymbolic state). Lacan highlights the "immortal ... irrepressible life" (Four Fundamental Concepts 198) of the drive energy in his myth of the lamella. The lamella is thus the human being as pre-sexual, pre-subject substance, of a "life that has no need of no organ" (Four Fundamental Concepts 198). Lacan gives a very vivid image of it: "The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba. ... And it can run around. Well! This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep ..." (Four Fundamental Concepts 197). This illustration of the lamella reads like a perfect description of the cover of The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation. It depicts this very balanced moment when the extra-flat lamella gives way to the clear-cut physiognomy of the subject, the (symbolic) ‘body with organs,’ when the unspeakable gives way to and disappears in articulation.
Lacan’s concept of "desire [as] borne by death"8 – and it is significant as well that Freud relates the fort/da-game to the repetition compulsion as a proof of the death drive, a force beyond the pleasure principle – sees desire as inevitably dependent upon the symbolic register (and thus the Oedipus complex and castration/death), even though it is on the other hand exactly that which escapes language, that which is always left over in articulation. Nevertheless, "the moment in which desire becomes human is also that in which the child is born into language" (Écrits 103). Thus, the fort/da-game enacts the very moment in which the pure, real jouissance (of the body of the drives) is subsituted by the culturally acceptable (and thus castrated) phallic, symbolic jouissance of desire (what Lacan calls jouis-sens): a desire that is human by the very act of tying the human subject to the phallic machinic whose oedipal "molar machines"9 function according to the shared hierarchies of Western phallogocentrism. Desire is thus directed to a – however impossible – signified, its metonymic drift propelling forward along the culturally loaded and Law-ful chain of signifiers: ‘Daddy says YES!’ But there is yet another machine, a machine like the one that underlies the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. A strange, disturbing machine always underlying the cultural machine, in the same manner that the signifier always underlies the signified, that reminds "the signified [that it] is originarily and essentially ... always already in the position of the signifier."10 These machines are described by Deleuze/Guattari as desiring machines, which are of a molecular order ...: formative machines, whose very misfirings are functional ... chronogeneous machines engaged in their own assembly (montage), ... machines in the strict sense, because they proceed by breaks and flows, associated waves and particles, associative flows and partial objects ... . (Anti-Oedipus 286-7) Thus, molar machines are molecular machines under "determinate conditions" (Anti-Oedipus 287), two states of one and the same machine. In a similar manner, Derrida shows how the deferring agency of writing as tekhne – as "a machine ... defined in its pure functioning, and not in its final utility, its meaning, its result"11 – is implicitly at work in the very realm that tries to suppress it – the spoken word and the living memory –, by focussing e.g. on the indeterminate ambiguity of the term pharmakon:12 "I got the poison, I got the remedy" (The Prodigy: ‘Poison’). Thus, beside the obvious reading, referring to yet another dis-illusioned youth, the "jilted generation" of the title of the Prodigy album might be (mis)read in terms of the dismissed mode of production (generation) of the ‘pure/desiring machine,’ of the tekhne of writing as an endless signifying chain.
Even if Lacan is more concerned with the subject – whereas for Deleuze/Guattari this is quite an obsolete idea, they are more concerned with lines of force and, ultimately, politics – I think that on a structural level a cautious and tentative analogy can be drawn between the ‘pure/molecular machine’ and the ‘operational/molar machine’ and the Lacanian differentiation between pre-oedipal drive and post-oedipal desire. Underneath the regulated drift of desire, there is the rhythmic pulsation of the drives, constituting what Julia Kristeva calls "the semiotic."13 The drive itself, as a machine good for nothing (like the objects of Yves Tanguy), is described by Lacan in terms of a surrealist collage: "the working of a dynamo connected up to a gas-tap, a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickles the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful" (Four Fundamental Concepts 169) and stops making sense. This visual image, I argue, can be related – via the dadaist sound-collage – to the sampling technique of Techno and Acid House music (or to William S. Burroughs’ sound cut-ups for that matter, as described in Nova Express).
Techno, in its decidedly a-political self-fashioning, thus nevertheless takes part in subversion. Not a subversion as decidedly against The Law, against its mode of communication, but by forcing signification against itself, by foregrounding the signifier against the signified. Achim Szepanski, owner and founder of the labels Force Inc. and Mille Plateaux, has explained that in Techno, "you can hear a multitude of noises, shrieks, chirps, creaks, and whizzes. These are all sounds traditionally associated with madness. ... Techno in this sense is schizoid music: it deconstructs certain rules and forms that pop-music has inflicted on sounds, on the other hand it has to invent the rules that subject sounds to operations of consistency."14 By thus concentrating on the unreasonable sounds beyond meaning, in Techno the polymorphous drive reacts against repressive, phallic desire, pre-oedipal childhood – and this is exactly how want the term ‘childhood’ to be understood in the following: as the pre-oedipal realm of unrestricted freedom and bodily pleasure – opposes against post-oedipal adult-hood: the pure Techno/tekhne-machine of "the horns of Jericho" (The Prodigy: ‘Jericho’). It is thus a ‘Rage against the machine’ not from the (however illusory) position of an non-machinic other,15 but a ‘Rage of the (pure) machine against the (oedipal) machine,’ a "rage against the Symbolic." 16 Not from the position of either one or the other, not from a position of either side within difference, but from the chiastic position of difference itself, from the difference at the origin of the symbolic: the law of the signifier against The Law of the signified (which is the law of the signifier under determinate conditions) – "Fuck ‘em and Their Law" (The Prodigy: ‘Their Law,’ emphasis added).
The promise of a return to the pre-oedipal and un-castrated realm of childhood also lies at the heart of Jaron Lanier’s manifesto for Virtual Reality, a field closely related to Techno music, as can be seen both in Techno video clips or in the use of computer animated images at Techno raves: All of us suffered a terrible trauma as children that we’ve forgotten, where we had to accept the fact that we are physical beings and yet in the physical world where we have to do things, we are very limited. The thing that I think is so exciting about virtual reality is that it gives us this freedom again. It gives us this sense to be who we are without limitation ... .17 The close relationship between Techno and a retroactive childhood (that is: belatedly from within the adult symbolic, that is: from within the digital) is I think effectively staged in the ‘fashion image’ of ‘your average raver:’ comfortable shoes with bouncy soles, oversized shirts and baggy trousers are a kind of working-outfit from an active raver’s point of view. As a result, the wearer looks like a full-grown toddler, promoting an image that seems to indicate a refusal to grow up, a denial of accepting the rational/restrictive world of the adults. This utopia of childhood revisited is expressed for example in German Techno DJ Marusha’s cover-version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’18 I think it is important to stress the fact that this is a Techno-remake, thus what is at stake is not a childhood in terms of an ‘analog paradise regained,’ but reveals (and nevertheless enjoys and celebrates) paradise as an effect of the digital machine19. The original song was featured in the movie The Wizard of Oz, a movie that itself relates the reality of the childish dream-world to the functioning of a machine: the big, steaming illusion-machine of the (fake) Wizard. Techno and VR now add a crucial ingredient: the pre-oedipal is always already machinic, the machine is the limit, but the limit of the machine, its basic formula 0/1, can be repeated endlessly. Thus, it seems only natural that the individual piece of Techno music as a pure signifier, as a collage of various signifiers, forms a signifying chain in itself, drifts from remix to remix, creates ‘Loops of Infinity’120: as for the pure want of the abject writer, Techno’s "signifier ... is none but literature" (Abjection 5), that is: the signifying chain, and not some referent outside. Techno is not designed to form an oeuvre, and the artists and DJs of Techno music definitely and consciously belong to the post-author (and post-song-writer) era, not only due to the much-hailed democratization of the artistic process via the easily affordable instruments (and thus of narrowing the gap between artist and audience), but result of the open character of Techno music itself: a Techno chart-buster (as a final authentic mix) is something of a paradox. Being more serial than serious, Techno is able to proliferate endlessly, and, as Jean-Jacques Lecercle has convincingly argued with respect to the work of Gilles Deleuze, "proliferation is always a threat to order."
The repetitiveness of the machinic is thus the distinctive characteristic of Techno music, not only on the level of this signifier’s circulation (and distribution), but on the level of the individual piece (as an abstraction) as well, since this music consists of "sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," as stated by The Law. As in Freud’s grandson’s fort/da-game, which was ‘repeated untiringly,’ repetition of the fundamental difference (fort/da, 0/I) is the rule of the game. This, I argue, is true for Techno music as well. Furthermore, it is its repeatability that makes a rule a rule, that makes a law a law. A way to contrast these two laws: the law of the signifier and The Law of the signified (which – in the end – are one and the same), is to take recourse to chaos theory, more precisely: to the notion of the fractal. As Brian Massumi has noted in his Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, a fractal, "in spite of its infinite fissuring, looks like and can function as a unified figure if we adopt an ontological posture toward it."22 If this notion is related to the endless play of signifiers, the signified – as an effect of the signifier – can be related to what Massumi calls a ‘diagram:’ "The diagram is drawable, but only if the fissuring is arbitrarily stopped at a certain level (produced meaning as evaporative end effect ... momentary suspension of becoming)" (Massumi 22). The Law of the signified is thus only an actualization of the law of the signifier: as such, it is a ‘dead fractal,’ an effect of what it wants to – but cannot – suppress. The realm of childhood thus seems to pose a serious threat to the restrictions and laws of society. Georges Bataille, in an essay on Wuthering Heights in his book on Literature and Evil, on Literature as Evil, comments on the contrast between these two worlds: [S]ociety contrasts the free play of innocence with reason, reason based on the calculation of interest. Society is governed by its will to survive. It could not survive if these childish instincts ... were allowed to triumph. Social constraint would have required the young savages to give up their innocent sovereignity; it would have required them to comply with those reasonable adult conventions which are advantageous to the community.23 Anything that is "likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality," that is: to the community, is a force operative against the Good. By equating benefit with profit, the Good with reason, Bataille can say that what is at stake is a "revolt of Evil against Good. Formally it is irrational. What does the kingdom of childhood ... signify if not the impossible and ultimate death" (Literature and Evil 19-20). This revolt has to be irrational, un-reason-able, ‘stupid’ by definition, because what is at stake is not a question of the immoral against the moral: evil is understood here as "hypermorality" (Literature and Evil 22), something a-moral rather than immoral (and moral can be taken here in the Nietzschean sense of a thinly disguised craving for profit). Thus, a revolt from an other position always already functions within the realm of The Law, in a way acknowledges and strengthens the very opponent it wants to fight. Bataille compares the difference between the hypermoral and the immoral by quoting Sartre on the difference between an atheist and a satanist: The atheist does not care about God because he has decided once and for all that He does not exist. But the priest of the black mass hates God because He is respectable; he sets himself to denying the established order, but, at the same time, preserves this order and asserts it more than ever. (Literature and Evil 35) To put it another way: a rage against the machine by something non-machinic, by authentic Rock’n’Roll (or Punk, for that matter), is bound to fail from the beginning. Because of the fact that it is reasonable, it is immediately incorporated by the reason-machine. A revolt thus has to be stupid, libidinal, childish, and, most important: machinic. Thus, the "revolt of Evil against Good" can be read as the battle between the two kinds of machines that Derrida mentioned: the signifier-machine against the signified-machine, the semiotic against the symbolic, the machine-that-acknowledges-being-a-machine against the machine-that-claims-to-be-natural – thus, it is not as easy as a simple digital/analog distinction. Techno is regarded as un-natural (as against natural music with natural instruments). This perspective claims nature and the machinic as oppositions and represses the fact that once within the symbolic (culture), the machinic is our most natural condition. In Wuthering Heights, then, the already socialized enunciations of the Linton kids – "Oh, mamma, mamma! Oh, papa! Oh, mamma, come here! Oh, papa, oh!" (Wuthering Heights 90) – are not opposed by any reasonable counter-arguments or comments like "No, not mamma! No, not papa!", but by "frightful noises" (Wuthering Heights 90) – the Romantic equivalent to the "repetitive beats" of present-day Techno. Cathy and Heathcliff are observing the Lintons through the window of Thrushcross Grange’s, and this window pane serves as a translucent barrier between the realm of childhood and the realm of society, of etiquette, a barrier that would have to be destroyed or crushed from within in order to return to childhood again (The Prodigy: ‘Break and Enter’).
Whereas the concepts of cyberspace and VR celebrate the sovereignity of childhood without the body – the death of the body is in fact the price to re-visit paradise – Techno celebrates ‘Judgement Night’ as the re-surrection of the body, it puts the body back into its place. A place neither determined by biological parameters, that is: by the real, but by symbolic parameters that go a step further than the Lacanian definition of the subject being a signifier representing a subject for another signifier. In analogy to Félix Guattari’s re-definition of the Lacanian object a as a "object machine petit ‘a,’"25 the subject is constituted in "a pure signifying space where the machine would represent the subject for another machine" (Molecular Revolution 117-8). Whereas the Lacanian object a is a fragment of the real (body), that ‘pound of flesh’ exchanged for the signifier, in a Techno rave the body as a whole is – not replaced – but affected by the machinic: Techno thus transforms the whole body into the "objet-machine petit ‘a.’"26 In this "final corporate colonization of the unconscious,"27 – that unconscious that is both the "secret of the speaking body"28 and that "engineers, is machinic" (Anti-Oedipus 53) – body and machine become one. With respect to Techno, there have been a multitude of references to shamanism, tribalism, modern primitivism and Voodoo-magic. (The Prodigy: ‘Voodoo People’). It was Arthur C. Clarke who was quoted to have said that "[a]ny advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."29 Thus, hackers, cyberpunks, techno artists and other (mis)users of computer technology are the new magicians and mystics of our age, the shamans and Voodoo-priests of technology.
In connection with the ravers’ use of a drug aptly called Ecstasy, all these references collide in the notion of dance as ritual. Whereas the dancing body has been traditionally seen as a means of natural (self-)expression, in Techno-, Goa- and Trance-Dance, the body moves beyond the pose and the object of the (male) gaze: ‘dance’ might be defined here as the relation of the body to the machinic. Lacan has called cybernetics the "science of empty places" (Seminar II 300), and Techno raves, as a kind of ‘gay cybernetics,’ to misuse a Nietzschean term, make much use of empty spaces such as industrial sites, warehouses and factories. Jean Baudrillard has argued that the modern city (or its icon: the factory) is no longer "a site for the production and realisation of commodities."30 It has become "a site of the sign’s execution" (Symbolic Exchange symbolique 119). Thus, it might be no coincidence that just at the moment the factory as such disappears, Techno usurps the empty places with its ‘signifier factory,’ with a production that is good for nothing.
In addition to the notion of pre-oedipal childhood and the pleasure of the body of the polymorphously-perverse drives, which is experienced most directly in Dutch Gabba and Hardcore-Techno, there is the experience of trance and ecstasy prevalent in Goa/Ambient-Techno (which is not to say that Gabba does not have its spiritual merits ...). Still, the terror of speed and repetitive beats is related to the evil and the abject, as a border between the human and the purely physical, whereas the Zen-like experience of trance could be related to the sublime, the border between the human and the metaphysical/spiritual. Both point towards what Lacan calls a "jouissance beyond the phallus" (Encore 81): mysticism.
An obvious liaison between Techno and mysticism could be observed in the trend of merging Gregorian Chants or Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘Canticles of Ecstasy’ with Techno Beats. For another example, watch the video-clip of Scubadevil’s ‘Celestial Symphony,’ which featured film sequences of religious rituals and fade-ins of possible combinations of 0 and I. As an expanded metaphor of the Information-Super-Highway and in analogy with Rock ‘n’ Roll culture as an extended metaphor of the street, the two variants of Techno - the abject and the sublime - can be read as the ‘Information-Super-Highway to Hell’ and the ‘Information-Super-Stairway to Heaven.’The spiritual experience of the mystic gives access to the jouissance of the body which we have taken to be forever lost as a result of castration. This experience can ironically never be put into words as such (despite the fact that this ineffable centers the poetic discourse it creates). Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, relates all sorts of religion and mysticism to the relation to what basically boils down to something missing, something that’s actually ‘not there.’ This something beyond words, what he calls ‘the real’ or ‘the Thing’ (the Kantian Ding), is always "represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else - or, more exactly, because it can only be represented by something else" (Ethics 129-30) – however, in every form of sublimation [and religion and mysticism, according to Lacan, belong to this realm] emptiness, un-speakability, is determinative and decisive. Religion, religio, comes from re-ligare, re-connect: the aimed at re-connection with something that ultimately turns out to be a structural emptiness – call it Thing or GOD.
This impossibility to represent that sublime emptiness takes – in institutionalized religion, the form of a prohibition, of a commandment that says NO!: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’ (of GOD, that is). Jean Francois Lyotard emphasizes this Law’s inherent suggestion that "optical pleasure when reduced to near nothingness promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity." It is this infinity that aims at going beyond the totality that is determined by the phallic function. The mystic’s experience and jouissance is thus ultimately beyond the phallus, i.e. feminine. Hence the title of Lacan’s seminar on mysticism and the feminine jouissance is Encore! If we allow Lacan this logical move, we can follow him in arguing that in the great texts of mysticism we find the best descriptions of a jouissance that goes beyond the phallus, that is related to a structural emptiness/impossibility that opens up an unbounded, infinite space – the utopia of that childhood-cyberspace I mentioned earlier (allow me that short-cut). What we find in mysticism is a powerful experience that breaks all bounds of linguistic possibility. It is thus common to find the extensive use of paradox and contradiction, even the often used formula of being unable to convey the experience exactly in the mystics’ efforts to convey that experience. Another strategy – as the title of the seminar hints at – is the use of repetition, that is, of that technique that is the constituting material of Techno. Here’s a quote from an interview with Charles Olson: "Neither the term ‘knowledge’ nor the term Gloucester’ have any … they might rhyme if I spelled it GN, as it should be spelled. Would you come to Gnowledge to get to Gnoucester? You’d have to GNA GNA GNA, right?" Olson here follows the semiotic drift of the signifier and suggests a kind of Gnostic mantra, a repetitive structure that might – thru repetition – create a kind of meaning that transcends the sum of its parts.
Lyotard, in his exploration of emptiness and impossibility in relation to the Kantian sublime, suggests that these very qualities of the Kantian subliume point "towards abstract and Minimal Art. Avant-gardism is thus present in germ in the Kantian sublime" (The Inhuman 98). The sublime, the mystic experience, and minimal art (and Techno, I argue) thus have the following point in common: they try to convey something that cannot possibly be put into words – at least not into the words of phallic discourse – it can only be represented, to use Kristeva’s terms, in the semiotic pulsation of the signifier, and not in terms of the symbolic signified. Here I see a main reason why The Prodigy (and other Techno artists using message-fragments) are not regarded as pure Techno anymore: by returning – at least partly – to the realm of the signified, The (infant) Prodigy turns into a Prodigal Son.33 However, it was exactly the borderline-position of Music for the Jilted Generation that made it valuable for my reading of Techno. Lyotard’s refernce to Minimal Art might lead as a step further to the connection of mysticism and Techno. If the sublime and the mystic experience is present in Minimal Art, let’s have a short look at Minimal Music.
Minimal Music can be said to revel in that kind of mystic experience of emptiness that results in a trance of blankness, losing the anchor circling and drifting around an empty center. This blankness, however, is connected to a significant openness, e.g. an openness to count ‘as music’ which the status quo would not define as such. Cage, in works such as Imaginary Landscapes or 4’33 incorporated radio frequencies, air waves and the noises of next-door building work into his piece. One of John Cage’s favorite stories concerned a music class he gave in Oriental music. He played a record of a Buddhist service that began with a microtonal chant and then continued with the repetitious beat of a percussion instrument. After fifteen minutes, one woman in the class stood up, screamed, and then shouted, "Take it off. I can’t bear it any longer." Cage took the record off. Then another class member got irate. "Why’d you take it off?" he demanded. "I was just getting interested." The blankness thus got hand in hand with the exploration of repetitive structures and non-western rituals. John Cage, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass – they all indulged in marathon trance grooves, rippling with strange currents, often stretching beyond the limits of endurance, hunting ecstatic release through repetition. David Toop, in his book Ocean of Sound, has traced the development of the early 20th Cent. Avantgarde and their use of religious rituals (e.g. Gamelan Music) through the
Minimalists to Present Day Electronic Music. It’s thus no coincidence, that Steve Reich and Philip Glass are valued by the Intelligent)Techno Community as important ancestors. Two projects cement this indebtedness and influence: Aphex Twins collaboration with Philip Glass, and the Steve Reich Remixed Project, presenting interpretations of Reich’s Minimal Music by ‘distinguished Techno Artists’ such as DJ Spooky The Subliminal Kid, Cold Cut, or Ken Ishi. Some examples:First, Philip Glass - Two Pages (1971)Aphex Twin 1 …. And this is what happens when Philip Glass lays his hands on an Aphex Twin composition … (Icct Hedral)Next, there’s Autechre … they actually released an EP, aptly called Anti-EP, as a comment on the Criminal Justice Bill. The CD is sealed with a sticker, which reads: Warning. Lost and Djarum [name of the traxx] contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes Law. Flutter [another track] has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.Important. By breaking this seal, you accept full responsibility for any consequential action resulting from the product’s use, as playing the music contained within these recordings may be interpreted as opposition to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.As already seen/heard/felt in the short bit I played you of Philip Glass, once ‘repetition’ has been established, so to speak, small variations can trigger the floating into a trance-like state … as the next example shows, the repetitive structure might even fall prey to a process of dissolution, thus somehow canceling reference points … (Autechre)Following John Cage, you can even built a structure out of noise, background sounds …There is even a track by Aphex Twin, who suffers from asthma, in which the rhythmical structure consists of the sound of asthmatic breathing and the puff’ of the asthma-spray.In the case of Oval, a whole aesthetic is built around the notion of noise, especially as machnic noise that is not – normally – wanted: statics and interferences, unwanted frequencies, even the skipping sounds of ‘imperfect CDs.’ Oval feeds warm, almost organic sounds into his process software and they emerge wholly changed as textural, distorted washes of drone, din, and crackle, accompanied by looped, staggered sequences of skipping-disc clicks. To my mind, it’s pretty astounding and mesmerizing stuff, sounding like a computer that’s been fed far too much information and hence is sort of stoned. Here we have the ambient sounds of a night-fallen 22nd century city that is saturated with commercial images and computers choking on excess data. But adjust your sense of scale and you'll hear the trance-like beauty of Oval’s variations on repeating sequences, brief-as-blinking events, and discrete sound scenes. Listen to the CD with your head-phones, and you’ll be tranced into the mystic experience!!! (Oval 8)
Georges Bataille, drawing a connection between the evil, law-less sovereignity of childhood, primitivism and mysticism, states that it is "[d]eath alone – or, at least, the ruin of the isolated individual in search of happiness in time – introduces that break without which nothing reaches the state of ecstasy" (Literature and Evil 26). In the unity of ravers, the subject functions not as identity but as part of a bigger system, part of the machine.Here’s a quotation from Faithless’s God is a DJ:
This is where I heal my hurts
It's in the world I've become
Contained in the hum between voice and drum
It has to be noted, nevertheless, that this unity is not structured by a phallic signifier, by God or a Führer. Some critics have pointed out that the rhythmic structure of Techno shares certain similarities with fascist Marschmusik. As an ‘empty signifier’ Techno might be ‘neutral,’ but the danger is that this signifier might be ‘filled’ with either left or right ideology. In the ‘raving society,’ the individual loses itself, and it longs for the continuity of this moment of disruption. However, this continuity is not one of duration, but one of rhythm, the rhythm of the endless oscillation between I and O (that is: one and zero, I and Other, fort and da), the machinic and the spiritual.
I want to finish by again quoting Georges Bataille on mysticism. The following quote can be taken as an apt description of Techno, the music of a jilted generation that uses the regalia of hippiedom ("Love Parade"), a music that "drifts free and peacefully above the cold volcanoes of beat-music:"34
"Mysticism is as far from the spontaneity of childhood as it is from the accidental condition of passion. But it expresses its trances through the vocabulary of love. And contemplation liberated from discursive reflection has the simplicity of a child’s laugh" (Literature and Evil 27) – "hahahahahahaha hahahahahahaha ..." (Winx: ‘Don’t laugh’).
1. Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Bass. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977, 209. Subsequently quoted as (Four Fundamental Concepts).
2. Cp. e.g. various articles in magazines such as i-D; Spex etc., or publications such as Localizer 1.0: The Techno House Book. ed. by Chromaparke
E.V. Art Books Intl. Ltd., 1996; Simon Reynolds. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. Little Brown & Company, 1998; Rave Off.
Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture. ed. Steve Redhead. Avebury 1993; M. Collin/J. Godfrey. Altered States: The Story of Ecstasy
Culture and Acid House. Serpent’s Tail, 1997; N. Saunders/R. Doblin. Ecstasy: Dance, Trance and Transformation. Quick Trading, 1996; Bruce Eisner. Ecstasy: The MDMA Story. Ronin Publishing, 1993.
3. Cp. Russell Potter. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Albany: SUNY, 1995. Potter understands Hip-Hop as a political practice, a "signifyin(g)" practice the way Henry Louis Gates would have it, with its "Black English" as a vernacular of resistance.
4. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994. Chapter 33. London: HMSO, 1994. Subsequently quoted as (CJPO).
5. The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1944, 166.
6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psycho-Analysis 1954-55. Trans. S. Tomaselli.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 181. Subsequently quoted as (Seminar II).
7. Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works.
24 vols. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74. 18:15.
8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. A Selection. Trans. Alan Bass. New York: Norton, 1977, 277. Subsequently quoted as (Écrits).
9. Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix. Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, 286. Subsequently quoted as (Anti-Oedipus).
10. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, 73.
11. Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. A. Bass. Brighton: Harvester, 1986, 107. Subsequently quoted as (Margins).
12. See ‘Plato’s Pharmacy.’ in: Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. B. Johnson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981, 71: "writing, the pharmakon, the going or leading astray."
13. Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 24. Subsequently quoted as (Revolution). Kristeva links the semiotic to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the ‘schizophrenic flow’ qua modern literature - which both Kristeva and Deleuze/Guattari use as examples –"in which the ‘flow’ itself exists only through language, appropriating and displacing the signifier to practice within it the heterogeneous generating of the ‘desiring machine’" (Revolution 17).
14. ‘Den Klangstrom zum Beben bringen.’ in: Techno. Hrsg. Philipp Anz/Patrick Walder. Zürich: Ricco Bilger, 1995, 137-42, 140-1, my translation.
15. See the CD of the American Crossover Band ‘Rage Against the Machine’ (1992), which prides in explicitly stating on the cover that "no samples, no keyboards or synthesizers were used in the making of this recording."
16. Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press: New York, 1982, 178, emphasis in the original. Subsequently quoted as (Abjection).
17. quoted in: Wooley, Benjamin. Virtual Worlds. A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992, 14.
18. The duplicity of Techno and ‘modernist music’ with respect to childhood is alluded to in Else Kolliner’s analysis of Igor Strawinsky’s ‘infantilism.’ She states that Strawinsky’s music creates a "new realm of fantasy ... which every individual once in his childhood enters with closed eyes." Strawinsky’s techniques of "the stubborn repetition of individual motives - as well as the disassembling and totally new recomposition of their elements ... are instrumentally accurate translations of child-like gestures of play into music." Kolliner, Else: ‘Remarks on Strawinsky’s "Renard,"’ quoted in: Adorno, Theodor: Philosophy of Modern Music. Trans. A.G. Mitchell and W.V. Blomster. London: Sheed & Ward, 1987, 162-3.
19. Since I have related the ‘pure machine’/Techno to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the ‘semiotic’ earlier on, I would like to add Kristeva’s warning not to confuse the semiotic with the analog: "this heterogeneity between the semiotic and the symbolic cannot be reduced to computer theory’s well-known distinction between ‘analog’ and ‘digital.’" (Revolution 66).
20. This is the title of a track by the German Techno-artist Cosmic Baby. . Jean-Jacques Lecercle. Philosophy through the Looking-Glass: Language, Nonsense, Desire. La Salle: Open Court, 1985, 95.
22. Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993, 23. Subsequently quoted as (Massumi).
23. Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. A. Hamilton. London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1990, 18. Subsequently quoted as (Literature and Evil).
25. Guattari, Félix. Molecular Revolution. Trans. R. Sheed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984, 115. Subsequently quoted as (Molecular Revolution).
26. For Deleuze/Guattari, "[d]esire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression" (Anti-Oedipus 26). If, according to Lacan, the object a is the "‘stuff’" (Écrits 315) of the subject, then, in that "pure signifying space," where the subject as subject is missing, it is in fact the objet-machine petit ‘a’ that is the stuff of the ‘subject.’ I am indebted to Hanjo Berressem for this observation; cp. his Pynchon’s Poetics. Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1993, 77-8n9.
27. Title of an Ambient/Trance CD by Drome (1993).
28. Lacan, Jacques. Le séminaire de Jacques Lacan Livre XX, Encore, 1972-73.
Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975, 118. Translation mine. Subsequently quoted as (Encore).
29. Quoted in: Hafner, Katie and Markoff, John. Cyberpunk. Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, 11. The references to the loa and other Vodoo rituals in William Gibson’s Neuromancer is another case in point. For the notion of tribalism and new primitivism, see Techno-‘sub-genres’ such as ‘Tribal Dance’ and ‘Jungle.’
30. Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Ian H. Grant.
London: SAGE Publications, 1995, 77. Subsequently quoted as (Symbolic Exchange).
31. Jean François Lyotard. ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.’ (The Inhuman 89-107, 98).
32. "Muthologos", vol.2 , a collection of Olson’s interviews and taped talks published by Four Seasons in Bolinas, California, non dated.
33. See Kodwo Eshun’s article in i-D No. 135 (December 1994) on The Prodigy, ‘Prodigal Sons,’ where he contrasts The Prodigy’s "pre-adolescence" of their debut, an "aural equivalent of [Lacan’s] mirror stage," with the attempt of their latest album to "put hardcore’s adrenalin thrill into stadium rock."
34 . Diederichsen, Diedrich. Freiheit macht arm. Das Leben nach Rock'n'Roll 1990 - 93. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1993, 278. My translation.
Adorno, Theodor. Philosophy of Modern Music. Trans. A.G. Mitchell and W.V. Blomster. London: Sheed & Ward, 1987.
Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. A. Hamilton. London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1990.
Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Ian H. Grant. London: SAGE Publications, 1995.
Berressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics. Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1993.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985.
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. London: HMSO, 1994.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix. Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
-- Margins of Philosophy. Trans. A. Bass. Brighton: Harvester, 1986.
-- Dissemination. Trans. B. Johnson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Diederichsen, Diedrich. Freiheit macht arm. Das Leben nach Rock'n'Roll 1990- 93. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1993.
Eshun, Kodwo. ‘Prodigal Sons.’ in: i-D No. 135 (December 1994)
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. 24 vols. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.
Guattari, Félix. Molecular Revolution. Trans. R. Sheed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984.
Hafner, Katie and Markoff, John. Cyberpunk. Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
-- Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan Livre XX, Encore, 1972-73. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975.
-- Écrits. A Selection. Trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.
-- The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.
-- The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psycho-
Analysis 1954-55. Trans. S. Tomaselli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Jean-Jacques Lecercle. Philosophy through the Looking-Glass: Language, Nonsense, Desire. La Salle: Open Court, 1985.
Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993.
Poe, E.A. The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1944.
Potter, Russell. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Albany: SUNY, 1995.
Szepanski, Achim. ‘Den Klangstrom zum Beben bringen.’ in: Techno. Hrsg. Philipp Anz/Patrick Walder. Zürich: Ricco Bilger, 1995
Wooley, Benjamin. Virtual Worlds. A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992.