1. The sense of anxiety that emerges from this approach to music-making—the exertion of absolute control coupled with its radical renunciation—comes to inform the aesthetic of the musical sounds. The intricacy of the breakbeats and the sense of anticipation that they create indicate one area where the cyborg collaboration of producer and sampler can create a situation of expanded consciousness reminiscent of the sublime. The ability of the musician to program patterns that would be beyond the capacities of a live drummer creates a situation where he or she has powerfully extended the body’s capacity. Moreover, the constantly shifting orientation of the beats—their seemingly inexhaustible variety—gestures towards one of the central themes of the movie π, that is, the mind’s effort to encompass conceptually the infinite randomness of the universe. However, in the cultural context of drum and bass, this gesture towards the sublime takes on a radical new significance: the potential meaningfulness of every gesture and every silence only serves to facilitate the paranoia of the listener, the sense that dark, nameless forces are constantly at work. Seen through this lens, the technological sublime loses its idyllic aura and takes on a more sinister aspect: the infinite capacity of technology to inflict damage. Technology loses its peripheral status and becomes the motor that drives societal norms, taking on a life of its own.

  2. This more sinister face of drum and bass—its celebration of technology’s seeming alienation from the humans that create it—can be represented through numerous strategies, and it is important to take note of the particular strategy that is employed here. Parkes is a huge Japanophile; even though he admits to never having visited the country, he has developed a fascination with the sensibilities of certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture through his training in martial arts (Parkes).6

    Toshiro Mifune

    One idea that seems to manifest itself extensively in Parkes work—particularly on this track—is his accentuation of space or silence as a palpable quality that resides between objects, gaining significance through the way those objects mark out space and time. In this instance, the discourse of Japanese aesthetic appropriation maps out against other discourses of the kind mentioned earlier: rupture, paranoia, and a suspicion of silence in a world view where the appearance of rest can never be wholly trusted.7

  3. In short, what “Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu” dramatizes is the capacity for drum and bass to powerfully evoke the terrifying specter of otherness. Here, as in other Photek tracks (“UFO,” “Hidden Camera”), or in darkeBlair Witch Projectr compositions by Ed Rush, Panacea, or others, specific musical devices—rhythmic tension, silence, unsettling textures—are harnessed in the service of placing the listener in opposition to a nameless, terrifying presence located somewhere beyond the confines of the work. [Listen to Ed Rush and Nico, “Technology” (Boymerang Remix)] For example, in “UFO” Photek superimposes samples drawn from what sounds like a documentary on U.F.O. enthusiasts tracking unidentified objects in the field (“It’s coming this way … it is definitely coming this way …”) over top of patterns of accumulating rhythmic tension and harmonic suspension. The cumulative effect is that of a musical Blair Witch Project, a composition that presents the very absence of information as a spectral otherness, looming immediately beyond the listener’s grasp.

  4. Simon Reynolds argues that the politics of paranoia and alienation that manifest themselves in drum and basses’ darker permutations are closely aligned with problems of identification and social configuration in the late 20th century. His vision of drum and bass—particularly the subgenre techstep—as the articulation of some of the crucial sensibilities of late capitalism resonates in unsettling ways with the more dystopic possibilities that N. Katherine Hayles has envisioned with respect to the cyborg:
    Identify with this marauding music, and you define yourself as predator, not prey. What you affiliate yourself to with techstep is the will-to-power of technology itself, the motor behind late capitalism as it rampages over human priorities and tears communities apart … Resistance doesn’t necessarily take the “logical” form of collective activism (unions, left-wing politics); it can be so distorted and imaginatively impoversished by the conditions of capitalism that it expresses itself as … a sort of hyperindividualistic survivalism. (Reynolds 354)

    Ultimately, his statement here confronts us with what is at stake when we dance to this music. The ruptures and discontinuities in drum and bass do not allow solidarity, but confront each individual with the task of devising his or her own tactics for responding to the music’s dislocation.8 This social atomization, for Reynolds, translates into late capitalism’s appropriation of everything with which it comes into contact, including anticapitalist resistance. From this perspective, the struggle to mentally and physically encompass the technological sublime—to confront the immensity of multinational capitalism—becomes merely a struggle to keep up, to attune oneself to the thorough commodification of anything and everything.

  5. However, Reynolds was writing in 1998, when it seemed that the social alienation accompaning late capitalism was the biggest thing we had to worry about. What seems evident now—from the vantage point of a society confronted with fear on a daily basis—is that the qualities of alienation, suspicion, and the terror of the other that permeate so many drum and bass tracks have only gained relevance as time has worn on. Moreover, even as the genre itself has faded from its mid-1990s notoriety, the prophetic tensions peculiar to drum and bass have the potential to tell us more about our cultural moment than the many contemporary sensibilities that have supplanted them. In order to make a case for the continuing relevance of drum and bass, we need to look at the music less as an iconic emblem of a specific moment of fashion and more as an ontology, a statement about what it means to experience our present moment.

  6. In π, as I mentioned earlier, Max Cohen’s pursuit of a single, fundamental pattern underlying all natural phenomena attracts the attention of two wildly divergent groups. On the one hand, the number is sought by a consortium of multinational corporations, who wish to predict the future direction of the stock market. On the other hand, the number has piqued the interest of a group of Jewish practitioners of the Kaballah, Kaballahistic Alphabetwho seek to uncover what they feel is the “key to the messianic age.” [View scene] At first glance, this latter group seems to embody the positive, utopian alternative to a brutally instrumental use of Cohen’s work through market forces. However, the enormity of what is at stake in Cohen’s number—its sublime, limitless breadth—ultimately pushes the Jewish group to be almost as violent as the corporations in their pursuit of Cohen.

  7. The pattern at the core of the movie π foregrounds the profound connections that bind together the sacred and the secular within the postmodern sublime. It urges us to remember that each of these bears within itself the trace of its other: behind the rational and secularized image of global capital lies an almost millenarian faith in market forces. In the same moment, many of the most intense manifestations of religiosity in our times are to a great degree driven by the profound changes currently shaping contemporary global society.9 In both instances, the breadth and velocity of the forces involved have the capacity to wreak great damage, to introduce an unprecedented violence.

  8. Part of what we must do, then, to understand the cultural ramifications of drum and bass is to set the music within this larger context. Previous discussions of the music have concentrated upon its relevance to understanding urban postindustrial society against the backdrop of economic changes in 1990s Britain, or its role within Afrodiasporic conceptions of modernity (Reynolds; Gilbert and Pearson 79–80; Collin and Godfrey 243–66). However, the resonances of musical practices often exceed their immediate social context, and it is important to understand the ways in which the structures of feeling embodied in music can perhaps tell us things we might have initially thought beyond its purview.

  9. As I alluded to above, the genre of drum and bass has long since passed its apogee as the “it” genre among aficionados of electronic dance music. The intense gloom of drum and bass that accompanied the British recession of the early 1990s faded as better economic times seemed to demand a music with a sunnier disposition. 2-Step or UK Garage, popular in the late 1990s, replaced the gritty samples and rhythmic treachery of drum and bass with a smoother, more slick production style and crisp, lightly syncopated drum grooves. Both drum and bass and UK Garage have since been largely overshadowed by the electroclash movement of the early millenium, with its dry, funkless grooves and retro 1980s coldness. At a superficial level, drum and bass seems to have lost its ability to speak to the immediate concerns of contemporary culture.

  10. However, this banishment from the realm of fashion doesn’t tell the entire story about this music’s relevance. The moment of drum and bass’s emergence in the early 1990s coincides with another, broader shift in our cultural frame of reference, one that continues to affect our apprehension of the world around us. If the ominous textures and rhythmic treachery of drum and bass served as a fitting soundtrack to the uncertainties of inner-city life under Thatcherism in the recession of the early 1990s, they also accompanied the much-trumpeted global shift towards a New World Order, the emergence of an uncontested neoliberal hegemony following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, many prominent figures spoke about this moment in glowing, utopian terms, with Francis Fukuyama hailing the new moment as the “end of history.” Any lingering doubts about the new social order faded from view as the late-1990s boom provided what seemed to many to be unassailable evidence of its triumph. What seems striking about the 1990s in retrospect was the tremendous uncertainty that lay underneath this utopian veneer. The dissolution of the Cold War opposition between two powers meant that, among other things, the prosperous Western states were left with no clear adversary, no definitive Other against which they might define themselves. Moreover, this collapse of the old Cold War polarities coincided with the unfettered expansion of the process of globalization, the inculcation of market principles at all levels of social experience. What continues to be unsettling about this new socioeconomic order is the moral vacuum that resides at its core: the guiding principle of the neoliberal economy is its own success, as if the efficiency of the process was a proper substitute for its ethical soundness.10

  11. The affect that I have discussed in relation to drum and bass—its aural evocation of a spectral otherness, looming immediately beyond its confines—lends itself to the ambiguous state that characterized the world of the 1990s. Drum and bass points to a lingering doubt at the core of the new order, the sense that unforeseen consequences awaited those who would prematurely celebrate the rise of Western neoliberal hegemony. However, I would like to argue that drum and bass also prefigures the experience of those consequences themselves. What at the height of the 1990s came off as a playfully maudlin exercise in paranoia, a kind of gleeful embrace of Armeggedon, takes on a more sinister resonance from our vantage point in 2003 as we look back across the devestating events that have come to define our present moment.

  12. Earlier in my discussion, I argued that many drum and bass musicians infuse their work with a peculiar power that results from the intersection of the technological sublime with the element of rupture. What we need to ask is, what happens when we bring the weight of the sublime behind something as potentially volatile and disruptive as this element of rupture? To my mind, the sudden brutality that manifests itself in this music prefigures the emergence of a trope that has become alarmingly pervasive in contemporary Western society over the past few years: the representation of trauma. Trauma is, in short, the experience we have of an event so violent or disturbing that our mind shuts down in the attempt to represent it; the event creates a break that ruptures our sense of the way in which the world is organized. Framed in this manner, we might say that trauma articulates the experience of the sublime—that massive, unlimited awe and terror—in the form of a single, punctuating act.

  13. Kobe earthquakeThe element of trauma is nothing new in itself, of course; psychoanalysis has long understood trauma as central to the experience of the modern subject. What is new in our time is the emergence of a construction of trauma as spectacle, as located in the public domain. The capacity for the media to widely disseminate the most harrowing experiences, in all of their brutal immediacy, only draws attention to the ways in which trauma is increasingly experienced at the public level, whether the event is an earthquake in Kobe or the terrorist attack that leveled the World Trade Center in 2001. This latter example is significant here, in that another feature of many such events in our time is that they owe their violence to human agency. If contemporary technology enables a handful of men, acting alone, to destroy hundreds or thousands of human lives, the ability of contemporary media to portray such moments in vivid, unwavering realism only magnifies this violence, enabling human acts to inflict the world-shaking impact previously manifested only through acts of God.

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6. This linking of martial arts and cyberculture is very pervasive in our cultural moment; perhaps the most obvious connection here would be the Wachowski brothers movie series based around The Matrix. In that movie, Keanu Reeves’s character, “Neo,” can literally download martial arts maneuvers into his brain.

7. Moreover, the citation of East Asian cultural references is particularly prevalent in some quarters of hip-hop, such as that put forth by the Wu-Tang Clan, where alienation and a politics of suspicion are held in tension with an empathy for other marginalized populations in the U.S. and non-white cultures abroad. In Parkes’s case, what is likely enacted here is a mapping out of a newer, unfamiliar tension (that of the implications of information technology) against the signifiers of an older, more familiar one, that of exoticism: in citing a Japanese aesthetic, Parkes potentially gestures towards the mixture of pleasure and fear that Western listeners derive from representations of the Yellow Peril, or of the lingering suspicion that looming, conspiratorial forces were at work behind the pre-bubble economic boom in Japan in the 1980s.

8. We find this same survivalist posture enacted in the sampled textual interlude of “Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu,” a long segment from a samurai movie. Over a plaintive phrase of shakuhachi music, with swords clanging in the background, the samurai master intones a solemn declaration that weds the appreciation of martial skill with a call to individualism: “Everyone is dead. The one who is able to perform this form of killing is a skillful samurai. Understand? The only one who possesses this skill is you.” Here, Parkes is implicitly setting up the analogy of DJ as master and the dance floor as training ground for the survival of twenty-first century life. (I am grateful to an anonymous reader for bringing this element to my attention, and thanks to Mika Yoshitake for providing a translation from the Japanese.)

9. For a discussion of this millenarian thread in contemporary global capitalism, see Comaroff and Comaroff.

10. It was only as a result of the new visibility of the “fair trade” or anti-globalization movement at the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle that we have begun to see even the slightest lip service paid to the notion that globalization must be grounded in social justice. At subsequent WTO meetings and economic summits, world leaders have been careful to assert their support for fair labor laws and environmental regulations, even while they maintain a pointedly secretive and antidemocratic process for negotiations. For a discussion of these issues as they played out during a recent summit in Cancún, see Powers.





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