The Metaphysics of Techno
Imagine you are standing in a dark night club, surrounded by hundreds of people dancing ferociously to an amalgamation of synthesizers and drum machines beating together in rhythmic unity. The atmosphere is ecstatic and vibrant in the sort of way that makes you temporarily forget about your life outside the walls of the club. You are not just enjoying the music, you embody the music. You are here. You are entranced. You are alive.
The description of such an experience likely resonates with the average techno fan who has danced the night away in adumbral nightclubs, shady warehouses and abandoned factories. Such parties are not euphoric events, but fit into a ‘scene’ with an accompanying lifestyle, crowd and culture. Within that scene techno is not just a musical genre, but a way of being which can allow marginal groups to assert their livelihood and identity. For them, techno is a liminal space where the blinding light of everyday life is bracketed by the beautiful darkness of the night. However, this celebratory discourse is not without its adversaries. A problematic image continuously haunts techno in contemporary cultural discourse, where the genre is seen as a cover for hedonistic indulgences in drugs, sex and anarchic chaos. Moreover, techno is often criticized for its monotony and lack of innovation. It is seen as pseudo-music without artistry or skill, echoing the mechanical rhythm of its production in a repetitive and machine-driven sound.
From the polemics surrounding techno as a musical genre and cultural scene, the question arises whether we can understand techno in a way that is philosophically interesting without passing judgement. Since taste is subjective, it would be a moot endeavour to argue for one view being ‘right’ and another being ‘wrong.’ The philosophical task lies in going beyond such judgements by trying to elucidate new sides that have hitherto gone unnoticed. In this case, this means moving towards something I call the metaphysics of techno. This term may sound utterly strange; what does it mean for a musical genre to have a metaphysics? Can we find the ‘essence’ of techno, or something like a deep, primal force that defines it?
Before we can think about a metaphysics of techno, we need to consider what we mean by ‘metaphysics.’ Philosophers have widely different understandings of this term, which is why I have selected the metaphysical framework of philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995) as a starting point for the inquiry into techno. Deleuze’s thought is especially suited for my analysis because his metaphysics is not concerned with finding out what something is, but what something can do, how something can affect reality in different ways.He wants to shift our perspective from a world of stable essences and fixed identities towards a world of intensities, differences and creativity. The reasoning behind this is that when we do metaphysics by asking ‘what is X?’, we reduce that thing to some deeper essence that it is supposed to represent. According to Deleuze, this leads to a stale, bland and banal understanding of reality which misses the chaotic, lively and playful forces continually exerting their power on the world. Therefore, a natural marriage exists between a Deleuzean metaphysics of creative intensity and the world of techno, where inimitable beats cause ravers to align their bodies with its pace and rhythm and ride the flow of sounds and shapes swallowed by the eternity of the nocturnal world. According to Deleuze, those creative forces are what should be of interest in our metaphysics. Therefore, inquiring into a metaphysics of techno does not entail asking what techno is, but rather what techno can do.
Therefore, inquiring into a metaphysics of techno does not entail asking what techno is, but rather what techno can do.
The list of answers to this question is infinite, since techno exerts its forces on an ever-changing assemblage of people, buildings, eardrums, loudspeakers, nightclubs, lightshows, social media accounts and drug dealers. Such dynamic relationships are interesting because techno impacts them in various ways through its unique aesthetics. A techno set is not a recognizable collection of songs with intros, choruses and verses, but a continuous flow of varying intensities that is imagined, produced and experienced on the spot. The sounds which comprise a techno set are ripped out of their original context and recombined with a vast multiplicity of other sounds in ever-changing ways. A uniform sonic structure does not define techno music; its spontaneous and performative elements create a mechanical symphony that cannot be repeated. Such strange and unique features underlie the polarization and confusion surrounding techno, because the standard concepts which we use to understand and evaluate music do not apply to it. Therewith, techno breaks down conventional aesthetic categories and turns them into something new in ways reminiscent of the breaks, cuts and flows which typify its music.
Thinking about techno means thinking about force, movement, intensity and novelty. It means searching for that which lies beyond the horizon of the known, that which designates the strange, the weird, and the uncanny. By structuring our analysis of techno along the lines of all the things techno can do, a discourse can emerge which highlights its remarkable and unique qualities. Thereby, new light can be shed on the array of influences and forces this musical genre exerts onto the world without including the value judgements which bring the conversation to a close before it has the chance to become philosophically interesting. So instead of being dragged into such dreary discourse, you will hopefully have the chance to experience the many things techno can do at least once in your life, to feel the resonance of intensity through beats, bass and beautiful sounds. I promise you it will be worth it.
Thereby, new light can be shed on the array of influences and forces this musical genre exerts onto the world without including the value judgements which bring the conversation to a close before it has the chance to become philosophically interesting.