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Kill Your Idols: What are Privilege and Power Doing to Club Culture?

How do we go about creating a truly transformative, inclusionary, and authentic experience in a world resolutely opposed to those very things? Our resident theorist investigates.

Last week Tom Glencross, our resident club cultural theorist here at THUMP began the process of describing a phenomena we're terming the "neoliberal night out". In that essay, Glencross portrayed contemporary clubbing as a largely anodyne thing that's traded radical potentiality for branded day parties in reclaimed dockland space, complete with VIP wristbands and curated street food experiences.

In the second part of his vital close reading of where clubbing and club culture are in 2017, Glencross focuses his attention on how the idea of "hyper networks" has seen the transformative power of the club itself dulled, arguing that we do have the means to make progressive, informed, important change.

It is more necessary than ever to actually interrogate what we get out of clubbing, and what it actually means to talk of "club culture" in any real way. Without discussion and dissection and self-reflection, we become stagnant, unthinking, and uncritical. We become part of the problem. Josh Baines, Editor, THUMP UK.

If club culture is to retain any semblance of radicality, it has to begin looking out towards the wider world. If you don't believe that the club space plays out the politics and privileges of society at large, then just look at the number of all-female-identifying DJ collectives popping up in recent years, challenging the old boys club that the dancefloor—and just as importantly, the booth—has become. From Discwoman to Siren, patriarchal power imbalances are being challenged and disrupted in clubs around the globe.

Increasingly, we're also seeing smaller clubs making it their mission to offer safe-spaces for people who are marginalized, threatened, and bored with the alternatives. There is, however, an ongoing battle in play here, between just how much these collectives and spaces can deconstruct the mainstream narratives and how likely it is they'll be co-opted by the said mainstream. Ensuring the latter isn't a likely eventuality requires constant reflection and transformation.

In global politics we've seen how the hyper-networked societies we belong to and the algorithmic intuitive modes of technology we use to communicate have created echo-chambers for both our ideas and our communities, and surprisingly a 140-character limit hasn't provided us with any great recourse. In terms of clubbing, it's lovely seeing a lot of the same faces week after week on Facebook and week after week in the club, but it's also quite unsettling. Our hyperconnectivity with other people has allowed us to share mutual interests and create spaces of solidarity together, but it has left in its wake a hyperseparation from everyone outside of those spaces, those chambers, those real and imagined sites. We only need to cast our mind back to the last political year to understand how the liberal left's inability to communicate with the right leads to disastrous consequences.

Look at "wokeness" for example. It seems like a thought-provoking idiom for an awareness of the world's systematic privileges and biases, and the power structures we are subjected to. As a positive label, it shows admiration for a critical and reflective understanding of experience. Yet in itself, wokeness implies a binary: that you either know about these things, or you don't and you are hopelessly asleep. Rather than understanding experience and knowledge as a gradual and unending process, it implies an experience of the world that is either discretely correct, or ignorant and fundamentally incorrect.

The emerging alt-right and proto-fascists in the US and the world over haven't hesitated to use a similarly reductive critical understanding of sociology, politics, and reality. Just look at #AlternateFacts, or literally any Breitbart comment feed's obsessional metaphor of the "red pill" or "blue pill", the supposed right or wrong way of understanding the world derived from dialogues between the great mainstays of continental philosophy, Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. If you've ever felt blissfully liquefied on a dancefloor in a union with energy and vibration, you'll know it's an experience that far transcends iterations of "yes" and "no," right and wrong.

Whether the club gives you space to help you dissolve the binaries of your sexuality and identity, to relinquish the dualistic struggles getting in the way of your mind enjoying your body or to collapse all the differences between yourself, your friends and the cosmos then you'll know that the neoliberal impetus for a discrete analysis, the binary yes or no, zero or one just does not cut it. It does not fucking come close.

There is certainly no place for an argument against solidarity and safe-spaces, especially in a society that repeatedly shows itself to be darkly intolerant of any identity that even remotely challenges the straight white male normative narrative. But even if hypernetworks are offering routes to solidarity, without reflecting on the club space's tendency to support what are essentially market-driven and divisive distinctions of taste, value and quality, the professional and curatorial DJ figure will continue to undermine the possibility of a truly intersectional dancefloor.

The club exists for most of us as a prohibited space for some reason or another, but finding yourself somewhere you perhaps shouldn't be, and having your horizons expanded by the experience feels like a necessary transgression. It underlines the true transformative and volatile power at the heart the club experience.

Though for many of us the idea of fluidity in gender and identity is a long-realised understanding, creating spaces and moments of praxis where this realisation can happen for as many of us as possible is certainly jeopardized when neoliberalism and the marketplace go blatantly unquestioned in the club space. When the hypernetworked social-marketplace has likely led you to the club-night's Facebook page and you've paid the door's twelve quid fee, the supposedly authentic safe-space often begins to feel like a theatre you've just bought a ticket for—an off-Broadway simulation.

Then after the shutters close at the end of the night and we're in an Uber home, telling ourselves stories to make the night seem real, some worthwhile, seem like something we're desperate to do again, how do we carry the transformative political energies from the evening back into our lives when the club seems to be largely a theatrical ensemble of people who have proven to be equipped with enough social, cultural and economic capital to navigate club-culture in the first place? And all of this at the exclusion of many people who may especially benefit from a radical inquiry of the dominant discourses of society that disempower us, and crudely shape our lives through its discipline.

Whichever directions club culture takes in the future will depend on how reflexive it is in considering the omnipresent neoliberal ideologies that structure many of its expressions. Whilst I think music can direct us to the transcendent and spiritual means to access knowledge and pleasure beyond the political, social and economic—knowledge and pleasure for its own sake—what we can do with this radical power to change our lives is the club's most exciting prospect. We should try to do whatever we can to honour and protect this power for ourselves without being seduced by the idols of privilege, capital and prestige we've been groomed to desire since birth.

Whether we can do that remains to be seen.

Tom Glencross is a freelance writer.