Hermeneutics of Suspicion
Paranoia and the TEchnological Sublime in Drum and Bass Music

by Dale Chapman

Mount Allison University

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  1. Few recent films, independent or otherwise, approach the degree of taut, visceral intensity generated by the movie π (Daniel Aronovsky, 1998). With its story of a brilliant mathematician
    Movie poster for "Pi"
    haunted by the elusive specter of a powerful equation—an equation charged with explaining the most unpredictable patterns in our universe—π taps into the heady mixture of euphoria and paranoia that characterizes its cultural moment. One of the most intense moments in the film, though, takes place before this story even gets properly under way. The title sequence of π captures an intense synergy between aural and visual manipulation: as the movie begins, a nebulous, sustained texture provides a musical extension of the mute signifier “π” which is presented to us in its enigmatic Greek spelling. Through this lens, the concept of pi seems to take on a quality of abstraction, as something that can be labeled by a single, opaque symbol. As the tentative first beats of the theme’s breakbeat groove come in, however, the true significance of “pi” becomes fleshed out: firstly through the 3.14 that constitutes the layperson’s understanding of pi, then in terms of the infinite string of digits that make up the larger totality of this irrational number. The visual representation of this string is immensely powerful, as the digits are scrolled upwards far too quickly for the viewer to grasp.

  2. But it is the music accompanying this montage that accounts for its unique cinematic force. [View opening credits] The drum and bass grooves that are used here lend a sense of embodiment to this montage: in the same manner that the mesmerizing flow of digits dramatizes our inability to bring pi within the bounds of cognition, the grooves of drum and bass present us with a physical impossibility. The assemblage of beats that can be preprogrammed ahead of time into sequencing programs or drum machines—that is, can be comprehended in the abstract, through the manipulation of reason—take on a superhuman quality when they are realized in real time.1 In other words, whether or not a drummer is genuinely capable of reproducing the intricate polyrhythms of drum and bass, this realization by a machine gestures towards the infinite and empowers us by acknowledging that, through the help of the drum machine, a musician could appear on the threshold of the sublime.2

  3. The presence of this technological sublime within the aesthetic of drum and bass situates this music within a larger constellation of social concerns. As I hope to demonstrate, the specific coincidence of elements that we find in many drum and bass tracks—the coexistence of a volatile rhythmic framework, an affect of cyborg artificiality, and the traumatic impact of the sublime – lend them a prophetic quality in the face of recent events. In order to understand the context within which drum and bass emerged, I will situate this music in relation to recent discourses surrounding the cyborg, the emergence of rave culture, and the basic history and aesthetic sensibility of the music, using Photek’s track “Ni-ten-ichi-ryu (Two Swords Technique)” as a focal point for my broader discussion. Although this immediate context provides a sense of how drum and bass resonated with a community of listeners in the mid-1990s, I would also like to argue for the continuing relevance of this music’s affective qualities in the early years of the new millenium, at a point well beyond the initial vogue for this genre. To this end, the latter part of my discussion will take up the relevance of this genre’s representation of the sublime within our contemporary culture of trauma.

  4. The visual and aural components of the opening montage from π are powerful in that they represent our historical moment through the device of the cyborg – the entity that ensues when the human and the machine merge. If we tend to envision the cyborg as the fantastical creature of Terminator, Robocop or Blade Runner, we should keep in mind the way in which Allucquère Rosanne Stone frames the concept of the cyborg.

    Robocop film poster
    "Blade Runner" film poster

    Having attended a lecture by famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Stone was struck by the relationship between Hawking’s inert body—which houses a mind of extraordinary intellect—and his electronic voice box, which translates the subtle movements of his thumb into speech patterns. Stone found herself profoundly unsettled by her inability to determine where Hawking’s body ended and where the machine began. Otherwise stated, how far does Hawking’s subject extend into the device at his side? How far into Hawkings’ subjectivity does the discipline imposed by the voice box penetrate? (4–5)3

  5. Stephen Hawking
    Seen through this lens, our own subjectivities seem deeply implicated in cyborg culture. We become cyborgs to the extent that we are continuous with the technologies that extend our grasp. We use computers to empower us, to allow us to reach beyond our sensory experience into a universe of information. Nevertheless, our consciousness is inevitably mediated and transformed through our engagement with these same machines. Both the outward and inward movements involved in this exchange have huge ramifications for our culture during a moment in history where such technologies have never been more powerful. In the movie π, Max Cohen establishes a partnership with his computer, Euclides, with the intention of finding a mathematical pattern that can bear within its grasp the infinite randomness of nature. Significantly, the results of his inquiry are sought by both the followers of the Hebrew mystical practice of Kaballah, as well as a consortium of multinational corporations. The elusive pattern that torments Cohen holds the key both to spiritual salvation in the form of theName of God, and to the seemingly random fluctuation of the stock market. However, there is an inward movement as well, for the fusion of machine and mind that could potentially transform the outside world also begins to impose an onerous weight on Max himself. As Max slowly drives himself mad in his pursuit of numerical patterns, his mentor labels him as Icarus, the renegade pupil who flew too close to the sun, who attempted to achieve a perspective not afforded to human beings.

  6. It is within this sphere of inquiry that that we can locate the relevance of the musical genre of drum and bass. Drum and bass, otherwise referred to as jungle, emerged in the early 1990s as an idiosyncratic subculture within the broader context of rave culture in the UK. The rave scene, accompanied by the music of acid house, produced an ethos of utopian togetherness often labelled as P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect), with a mind
    Margaret Thatcher
    to the creation of intensely felt (if transitory) communities. Many social commentators have noted that the group consciousness and aesthetic excess of raves can be seen as a response to the deadening social atomization promoted by the policies of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.4 The jungle scene, in many quarters, contrasts dramatically with the rave scene, owing to a number of important factors. While rave culture had been appropriated by suburban white kids, jungle from the start had incorporated a sizeable contingent of Black British DJs/producers and audiences. This led in part to a renunciation of the emotional openness and demonstrativeness of rave and an adoption of a wary coolness appropriated from American hip-hop culture. In the years before its emergence into the mainstream, jungle had been disseminated through clandestine pirate radio. The tension between the excessive vigilance of the law and the pseudo-criminal activity of the pirate radio DJs also resonates in the music, which encapsulates an aura of suspicion and surveillance, as in tracks entitled “Hidden Camera,” “Mind Control,” or “Secret Life.” One consequence of this deep-seated paranoia in the drum and bass scene is that the communal sensibility of rave is not as prevalent as a kind of fierce individualism.

  7. Simon Reynolds understands the possibilities of resistance within the jungle community as having much more in common with the randomness of criminality than with any sense of solidarity or mass action (250-68; 350-6). In reality, though, it should be noted that the underground economy of jungle was at some level precisely an alternative to criminality, an attempt to engage with the Thatcherite culture of entrepreneurship in good faith. In her book In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music, Angela McRobbie demonstrates how marginalized youth in postindustrial London began to develop new micro-economies of cultural production—fashion and graphic design, in addition to electronic music—as a means of flourishing within the gaps left behind by the decline of traditional sources of employment (25-30).

  8. The music of the drum and bass genre in many instances bears the traces of these shifts in sensibility. While acid house—like its predecessors, Chicago “deep” house and disco—is characterized by a steady, metronomic “four-on-the-floor” pulse, the rhythmic foundation of drum and bass is much less stable. Drum and bass producers derive their grooves from what are known as “breakbeats,” the intense rhythmic patterns that hip-hop producers had also lifted from 1970s funk records. [Listen to The Winstons, “Amen, Brother”] As Tricia Rose notes with respect to mainstream American hip-hop, breakbeats are very much characterized by an aesthetic of rupture: like the breakdancing that hip-hop grooves had accompanied in the early years of the genre’s development, breakbeats vacillate between a smooth, compelling flow that pulls the listener onwards and sudden discontinuities, places where the movement unpredictably halts. Rose argues that this notion of rupture is important to understanding the appeal of rap and breakdancing in the social context from whence it derives. In inner city environments such as the South Bronx, residents do not always have the luxury of knowing that their lives will not be radically altered by interventions from outside, whether in the form of crime, evictions, police brutality or other such eventualities. The rhythmic volatility of breakbeats resonates deeply with this experience of the world, as it puts across a conception of time that foregrounds contingency and the element of surprise (39).

  9. Unlike in hip-hop, where sampled breakbeat grooves are simply looped at a moderate tempo, drum and bass producers dissect and fragment breakbeats into their smallest components, reassemble them into intricate, asymmetrical patterns and then set them at a rapid tempo closer to that of house than that of hip-hop. The result is a groove in drum and bass that can only be described as treacherous. Unlike the reassuring redundancy of the four-on-the-floor house groove, the “breakbeat science” of drum and bass demands a certain wariness on the part of the dancer (Reynolds 252-5). [Listen to Lemon D, “Don’t Make Me Wait”] The listener cannot simply surrender to the flow of the eternal present produced in house or techno grooves, as he or she must always be cognizant of how the present is reconfigured in each moment. It is in this way that the very rhythmic foundation of drum and bass inspires a kind of “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

1     2     3     4    Works Cited


1. Depending upon when a particular track was put together, it would have been dependent upon one of a number of different musical technologies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, producers would have had to rely upon combinations of sound sources from external hardware—drum machines, synthesizers, and digital samplers—and sequencing software that arranges these sound sources into the structure of the track. More recently, the development of faster CPUs and memory expansion has allowed sound material to be saved straight to hard disk, and powerful new interfaces allow producers to manipulate these audio sources in a variety of different ways. Consequently, a lot of current electronic music production and live performance can be enacted using a laptop computer as a stand-alone device. For discussions of the implications of these technologies, see Theberge and Reynolds. For reviews of more contemporary audio software, see Carmical and Portnoy.

2. Fredric Jameson, among others, has articulated a notion of what might be called the “technological sublime.” If the concept of the sublime had previously been used to articulate the inadequacy that the human subject felt upon trying to represent Nature, the postmodern condition—in which Nature itself has been effaced—has produced a sense of the sublime in which humans find themselves up against their own creations, and find themselves wanting (34–35).

3. Donna Haraway’s writings on the notion of the cyborg constitute the most influential discussions of this concept. In her 1985 essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Haraway situates the merging of human and machine that constitutes the cyborg at the center of questions of cultural politics: in the same moment that the cyborg embodies patriarchal, late capitalist ideals of total mechanistic control over a diverse world, it also is about the celebration of partial subjectivities that are not afraid to cede their autonomy, to merge with the machine (Haraway).

The collection entitled The Cyborg Handbook, compiled by Chris Hables Gray, assembles a huge array of materials, encompassing post-Haraway reflections upon the cultural politics of the cyborg, fiction by cyberpunk writers, scientific documents advocating the use of cybernetic technology and interviews with the pioneers of cyborg terminology. For other recent scholarship on cyborg culture, see Hayles and Plant.

4. As a comparison, see Simon Reynolds’ discussion of the emergence of the rave scene (56–111).





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