Neutral and Commercial… Just Like Everybody


Neutral and Commercial… Just Like Everybody

Sarah Thornton,
Club Cultures.

London: Polity Press, 1995.

Discourse credits itself with an authority which tends to compensate the reality from which it is exiled. If this discourse’s assertion is to speak in the name of that of which it is deprived, it is because it is separated from it. At first glance the authority appears to cover the loss, and then, to avail itself of this loss to exercise power.

– M. De Certeau, Heterologies.

Being one of the first steps in the canonisation of club culture, Sarah Thornton’s book raises some serious issues about cultural empowerment and the retrograde role of that growing academic discipline, cultural studies. In many ways Thornton’s book can only work in an institutional arena, one where the very mention of club culture as an item worth writing and “teaching” is looked upon with disdain and condescension. It is only in this light that such a work could come to take on a “hip” (radical) guise. Moving closer to the actual arena of cultural studies would then make Club Cultures work in contradistinction to some of its earlier precursors: the Birmingham School, Stanley Cohen, Dick Hebdidge. Again, being written some 10-15 years later, it could hardly fail to make some “advancements” on the founding tomes of its own discipline and these are mostly made through reference to other works of cultural studies. Were it not for the fact that the main departures from orthodox cultural studies is through her use and adaptation of Bordieu, then Club Cultures would be virtually an hermetically sealed work.

The grave implications of this academic isolation comes through in the sub-chapter entitled “A Night Of Research” which brings into clearer relief the operation of academic discourses that can be witnessed throughout the book. Here, Thornton’s status as an “outsider” to club culture needing “guides” and “informants” increases the sense of objectivity and with it the judgmental superiority of the academic. These elements combine to give the writing a smug “governmental tone” that renders the heterogeneous complexities of club culture knowable, practicable and amenable to governing1. The academic writes “truths”, not allowing stray elements into the carefully bound structure. Club Cultures doesn’t present a scene, a sub-culture – it subjects it to pre-ordained academic tools, it boxes it off under rubrics of “distinction” and “authenticity”. These very tools are themselves informed by that isolation, they are part of the objectivist baggage, and even though Thornton rails against the division between an objectivist approach and a subjectivist one that takes at “face value” all it hears, the practice of professionalism, its ways of operating, necessitate that she is always at a distance, always operating under undisclosed rules: “I was working in a cultural space in which everyone else was at their leisure” or, in the same passage “I tried to maintain an analytical frame of mind that is truly anathema to the ‘lose yourself’… ethos of clubs and raves” (p. 2). This capitulation to the mind/body dichotomy beloved of academics not only denies dancers their sensuous-intelligence it locates the generation of meaning firmly within the walls of the institution, or at least within the bodies of its emissaries. Not only does the scene not get to talk for itself, there is no consideration that her own objectivism may be informed by subjectivist approaches (the investment in her role as an academic, her sifting through interviews to select quotes that best compliment her thesis etc.).

This operation of “knowledges”, albeit conflated with “professional practices”, comprise a power that is wielded over the club cultures she is studying and in this way Thornton relegates an investigation of the desires unleashed through dancing to music to the status of generational conflict (“lost within the excesses and irresponsibilities of youth”). This age motif, as befits the study of youth culture, constantly raises its head and serves as a screen that covers over the psycho social dimensions of the club/rave scene2 (there is only one such passage – “crowds become a self-conscious cultural phenomena, one which generates moods immune to reproduction. Even though resistance would remain hidden for one who conflates the notion of freedom with “substantive political rights” it is further obscured in this work by the academic/objectivist remit where the scene’s “supposed egalitarianism” is not a valid area of consideration as it does not offer a “value-free account”. Without getting into debates about “freedom”, the obvious question to ask then is what makes the academic’s account a “value-free” one when in the light of Foucault, “the rules of formation of discourses are linked to the operation of a particular kind of social power.”3 In other words Thornton’s view becomes a socially sanctioned truth while the clubbers’ discourses are posited as false and deluded. A link arises here with the operation of the media in that academics and journalists are legitimated through their role as specialist professionals invested with power/knowledge by a society. Once the professional identifies with the aims of a society he/she can see nothing but their own conformist position replicating everywhere: hence Thornton’s claim that as far as clubbers are concerned, “interest in authenticity and distinction would seem to be the norm.” Authenticity and distinction are mainstays of the status quo.

It is at this point that we can get to the nitty gritty of Club Cultures, for it is in these two concepts that Thornton’s claim for originality within the sphere of cultural studies lies and it is through use of these tools that club culture is apprehended. By using Bordieu’s theory of distinction, Thornton hopes to legitimate club cultures as an area of academic study, which has the effect not only of canonisation but of carrying out a “conceptual disciplining” that hinders a more free and transgressive view. What is most disturbing about this operation is that where the original work provides the reader with a means of deconstructing the operation of high cultures, Thornton inverts the whole paradigm and implants it onto popular culture which becomes an alternative hierarchy. The implication is that clubbers want to replicate already existing social norms – to have a “symbolic share”, to assert their “distinctive character”. It is unarguable that any sub-culture, existing as part of the dominant culture, would reproduce its values, that there would be some that have a desire for status, who uphold hierarchies and “jockey for social power”. But Thornton’s main thesis implies that distinction is rife throughout the entire dance culture. We can see now how denigrating the subjectivist approach as ridden with unscientifically proven values acts to block off and treat with cynicism the psycho-social aspects of the culture whose common base-line is feelings of communitarianism. Club Cultures‘s desire for concrete evidence and proof acts to belittle these feelings and subordinate possibilities of resistance to normative criteria by explaining all facets of dance culture through the prism of “distinction”.

This moulding thesis of “distinction” becomes all the more problematic when we gradually realise that Club Cultures is not going to adequately delineate the club scene from the rave scene. This is a serious omission, for just as Thornton highlights the tendency of clubs to cater to differing genres of music, the rave scene, at least at its inception, acted to bring together disparate groups. So, just as clubs seem ready made for the “distinction” thesis the raves offered people something different; something that contained, but in no way consciously constructed, an effect of resistance. Without going too far into this it is worth re-treading a facet of the raves that has become common currency, but which receives no mention in Club Cultures: communitarianism. To adequately express this practice shared by clubbers and ravers it is worth coming out of the ivory tower and placing the rave in a social context, the political situation of the late 80s and early 90s. These were times when anti-trade union laws, new laws on affray and trespass, the crackdown on football fans, and more lately the Criminal Justice Act demonstrated a “tendency towards the prevention of sociability”4. Following in the wake of Anti Poll Tax demonstrations (which themselves saw disparate sub-cultural groups coming together) the rave experience articulated, however fleetingly, the “recurring struggle of people to reconstitute communities from what has been overlooked or not yet drawn into the hands of specific interests”5. Just because ravers didn’t express themselves in mainstream political terms cannot be used as a means to belittle the experience of coming together, especially in light of the growing constriction of social space. Anyone who has been in a rave or on a football terrace knows the feeling, and novelist Irvine Welsh has spoken of raves being “one of the only places that working class people can get together”6. (His mentioning of a specific class orientation is thrown in here to cast doubt on Thornton’s thesis that the dance sub-culture is propelled by a desire for “classlessness”).

Departing again from clubs but more closely linked to the influence of raves is the phenomenon of the “free-party” that has been a persistent feature of dance culture and is personified by Spiral Tribe (now mainly operating in Europe), Exodus Sound System and the United Systems Network. In many ways the free-party scene is the least “distinctive”, most anti-commercial and consciously oppositional, but were it to be included in Club Cultures it would be under the category “underground” which is one facet of the dance culture that Thornton is quick to map out as a site of exclusivity. The problem here is that, in defining the underground solely in opposition to the “overexposed” or “the mass produced”, Thornton can only see in its adherents a desire to be “part of something that is not widely distributed” (p. 121). Here there are flaws in the methodology, for even as she rightly criticises others for treating the media as monolithic and not as a series of “institutional networks” the yardstick by which she attempts discussion of the underground term “selling out” is in fact the long running TV programme, Top Of The Pops. Many people who are loosely involved in something that could be called at one time or another “underground” would rarely watch such a programme. But this is not the point. These people more often than not see themselves as involved in activities that “by-pass” or run “parallel” to the mainstream. They are just as much involved in recycling the mainstream that in defining themselves in strict opposition to it (avant-pop). Many would attest to the view that just because a record/sound becomes more popular doesn’t mean to say that it loses it sense of being “underground”. So the idea that the underground bemoans those who sell out because the underground is loosing its “sense of possession, exclusive ownership and familiar belonging” (p. 124) is all too pat and depends, perhaps, on a too literal reading of the underground as defined by the marketing people. To use the dualistic device that is rife in Club Cultures we could turn this around and say that many people experience the underground as a place where knowledge or “sub-cultural capital” is shared and squandered between people and the mainstream as the site where people jealously protect insights as “trade secrets”. That Thornton chooses to illustrate her point by trotting out the “white-label” scenario as being a “distinctive format” cherished by the underground is just another means by which her thesis can be propped up – you could also read the white-label as an anonymous anti-product. Moreover you could choose to focus on sampling and a plagiaristic means of making music as a non-proprietorial, anti-distinctive and a group-creative event without individual authors.

Such counter-readings could go on and on. The point is that Thornton’s notion of the underground is developed in too tight a relationship to the mainstream; it doesn’t escape the mainstream’s purview (“The mainstream is to a large extent read off media texts”) (p. 109). This could be a damaging offshoot of her contention that the media are involved in constructing and disseminating subcultures through the coverage they give, be it the moral panic of the tabloids or the search for alternative style of magazines like ID. This is interesting to a degree, but Thornton, whilst claiming to be utilising a multi-dimensional perspective, tips the balance in favour of such media constructions as a determining instant: with reference to the tabloids Thornton suggests that “derogatory media coverage is not the verdict but the essence of… resistance” (p. 137). This acts to cover over dimensions that aren’t readily visible and hence obscures activities that are carried out under the common, and often disputed, term of underground. The lack of visibility of these activities is not so much a result of its participants jealously guarding a “release of knowledge”, but is more an outcome of its not fitting into readily marketable product categories and its desire to maintain a control over contextualisation, to maintain an autonomy from any form of “editorial” interference. Many of those who participate in the dance underground, as composers, label runners, party organisers, fanzine producers etc., see it as a site of experimentation, as a place or an attitude that allows input irrespective of status and distinction; as a place of discovery where inquisitiveness is activated; as a site that doesn’t take at face value the media-imposed categories and genre mongering; as a place that is not always motivated by commerce and profit whether it is sub-cultural or economic: “Underground is when you enjoy doing your thing without trying to please people you don’t like, or when you create something without thinking about the money it might bring in”7. The essence of resistance is far-removed from tabloid opprobrium, indeed in the dance culture there is no easily identifiable essence of resistance but a “warren of minute, individual, autonomous tactics and strategies”.8

What is objected to in Club Cultures is the way that it acts to blunt many of the positive and oppositional aspects of club/rave culture and freezes these over. What for many people has been a culture of social-inspiration amidst a political situation of profound pessimism is canonised here as nothing more than a relay between institutions that reflect the status quo (cultural studies departments, tabloid press, style mags) There is very little sense of exploration, of speculation or possibilities for a fictional discourse to induce effects, instead the ritualised procedures of academia are trotted out. Maybe in the long run these are criticisms that are misplaced by giving too great a credence to the possible ramifications of Club Cultures, when it is the operation of academic disciplines, it is their will to “truth” and their social authority that is at issue. It is the implied “correctness” of such writing that is so galling, the way that it acts to silence those who “lacking a technical language”9 cannot retort to disturb its impenetrable and artfully constructed theses. Even so it is worth recalling, along with de Certeau, that at the inception of the study of popular culture, at least in France, there lies the “elimination of a popular menace” – the 1852 police survey of street literature.


These moments of intoxication when we defy everything, when, the anchor raised, we go merrily toward the abyss, with no more thought for the inevitable fall than for the limits given in the beginning, are the only ones when we are completely free of the ground (of laws)

– Georges Bataille, The Impossible

Rejecting the objectivist stance towards articulating a “truth”, rejecting the dead end of scientific accuracy, with its implications that a phenomena doesn’t exist until it is fully constituted as an object of study, rejecting these, we must “record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality”. For in this case, desire is a material force made up of distinct and multiple elements which escape any attempt to theoretically master them. To lose law in the dance, to loose gravity in the heave of bodies, to forget time and move whilst suspended in a moment. The bass unblock thought. To hear detail. To resist the hold of language by using language. To return to the same, but unrecognisable, place. To consciously construct a micro-subversion that eludes theoretic optics. To be burning down the library whilst discourse circulates without any need for an author (they look for the author, they look for the book). But they say, “desire doesn’t resist, it is simply physiological”.

Whilst no one is making claims that there will be a revolution led by a vanguard of dancers this framework of operation itself cast doubts on the “ethnogaphical fieldwork”, especially when she makes apologies for “unorthodox combinations of methods” when all she has done is combine talking to people, with listening (eavesdropping on conversation) and consulting texts. The description of such a method as unorthodox perhaps goes some way to accounting for her completely orthodox take on club culture. The institution not only pervades the text, it pervades the mind that wrote the text.


1. Terry Johnson, “Expertise and the State” in Foucault’s New Domains, London: Routledge 1993, p. 151.

2. See TechNET, “Techno>Psycho-Social Tumult (remix)”, paper delivered to Virtual Futures ’95 and available from BM Jed, WC1N 3XX, UK.

3. Colin Gordon, “Afterword” to “Power/Knowledge”, Harvester 1980, p. 245.

4. John Barret, “The Search For Security” in Here and Now No.15, p. 4.

5. John Barret, ibid.

6. Irvine Welsh, Face to Face 27/11/95, BBC2.

7. Interview with Jan Duivenvoorden of Unit Moebius.

8. Colin Gordon, ibid., p. 257.

9. Michael de Certeau: Heterologies, MUP, 1986, p. 26.

Howard Slater is a London-based writer. His texts have appeared as part of the collaborative TechNet project and under pseudonym in Alien Underground, Shimmer and The Techno Connection.