1. In his recent study of the events of September 11, 2001, Slavoj Žižek argues that the spectacle surrounding this act of terror is best understood not as an intrusion of the Real within the fantastic sphere of postmodernity, but rather its inverse:
    [I]t was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, perceiving Third World horrors as something which was not actually part of our Social reality, as something which existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen—and what happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image; the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality). (16)
    This intrusion of the fantasy upon reality—this spectacle that ruptures our previous assumptions about the externality of the suffering world—collapses the space that had previously separated Americans from the global consequences of American hegemony. What is most unsettling about this collapse is that it reveals how the Other—the elusive adversary that has, at long last, been revealed to us—is actually internal to the broader dynamic that Western interests have set in motion. The same mujahadeen that the U.S. sponsored in the late 1970 as anti-Soviet “freedom fighters” have now turned against us, and yet they remain part of us in a fundamental way. Žižek identifies them as an instance of the excess of U.S. state power, the necessary outcome of that power’s intervention abroad. Moreover, this dynamic is in no way restricted to military power, but also manifests itself within the broader cultural dynamic of neoliberalism. The so-called Free Trade Zones found throughout Asia and Latin America, with their factories exploiting cheap, unprotected labor, also manifest themselves as the necessary “concrete” excess of the postmodern information economy.

  2. The intricate relationship Glamoramabetween postmodernity and its vicious underbelly becomes particularly apparent when we look at a text such as Bret Easton Ellis’ 1999 book, Glamorama. In many ways, this work prophetically situates terror as contiguous with or even internal to postmodern culture. It prefigures the horrific spectacle of an act of terror manifesting itself as the return of the repressed, the “blowback” resulting from postmodern excess. In doing so, Glamorama also dramatically envisions the traumatic suspension of the Real that accompanies the moment of terror, the violent cut that ruptures our sense of reality. It is this representation of trauma that I will set in relation to the ontology of rupture central to the aesthetic of drum and bass.

  3. The protagonist of Glamorama, Victor Ward, is a New York model and socialite whose caustic cynicism is only rivalled by his absolute reverence for the cult of celebrity. Halfway through the book, an anonymous agent diverts Victor from his work in opening a trendy nightclub, in order to send him to find a colleague modelling in London. Upon locating her, Victor finds himself among an uber-glamorous circle of models all at the apex of stardom.

  4. It is therefore all the more unsettling when Victor suddenly stumbles upon these same models engaging in the systematic torture and murder of a teenager who turns out to be the son of a Korean diplomat. From this moment on—this shocking act, unprecedented in the narrative—the protagonist experiences the detached, noncommital moral relativity of the world of fashion and celebrities in lockstep with the randomness of terrorism. The two, in fact, come to seem integrally related: it is precisely the fact that postmodern culture enables signifiers to float free of ethical or material constraints that guarantees the moral abyss out of which these acts of terror emerge.

  5. We should not shrink from the outlandish conclusions about postmodern society that Ellis presents in his novel. Ellis presents the supermodels’ acts of terror as internal to Western society, as acts perpetrated by those located at the center of Western culture. It may be tempting to create a clear distinction between Ellis’s fictional acts and the horrific acts of terror that have been unleashed recently in Istanbul, Bali, and New York, acts attributed to a group, Al-Quaida, that is often situated in opposition to Western culture.11 However, this kind of thinking may be anachronistic. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest in their recent work Empire that there may no longer be an “outside” to the hegemonic influence of capital, that the entirety of global society may be subsumed under the diffuse network system that they refer to as “Empire.” By this logic, fundamentalist Islam cannot be seen as some archaic holdover from the seventh century, but is itself a dynamic bound up with the exigencies of late-20th-century culture.12 If Ellis’s book does not anticipate the specific source of the real-life attacks, it implicates postmodernity in the emergence of contemporary terror in a highly unsettling fashion.

  6. Music organizes time, enabling humans to experience even the most radical occurences of temporal rupture as embodied feeling, and it is in this sense that I see drum and bass responding to the kind of cultural moment depicted in a narrative such as Glamorama. As an example of how such sensibilities manifest themselves in the practice of drum and bass, I would like to briefly take a look at the track “This is Los Angeles,” produced by the UK producer Lemon D. The track opens innocently enough, with a steady if rapid breakbeat groove. Lemon D eventually layers in a looped melodic sample that combines the wa-wa guitar and synth typical of an early-1970s funk record. This element—which is recognizable as the kind of G-funk reference we might hear in an old Ice Cube tune—is punctuated with an ominous sample of Tom Brokaw intoning, “This is Los Angeles, gang capital of the nation,” a sample culled from his 1992 coverage of the Rodney King riots. Thus far, Lemon D is giving us a relatively stable, if unsettling dance track.
    rodney king beating
  7. It is only after this groove is well-established that he introduces a gesture of sufficient power to break this narrative wide open. In an unprecedented move, Lemon D suddenly drops the melodic layers, leaving us with an ominous drum roll that builds as the sound of circling police helicopters looms overhead. As the drum roll is cresting, we hear Brokaw asking in a paternalistic tone, “let’s see if there’s anything that can be done about all of this.” The ensuing sub-bass drop punctuates the musical texture with a forcefulness that is at once thrilling and terrifying. It is a gesture that resembles nothing that we have encountered thus far in the track: even the drum roll leading up to it, with its clear trajectory, does not anticipate the sheer overwhelming volume of these bass drops. It is this kind of moment that most insistently links drum and bass to the idea of the sublime, and that most powerfully reveals the element of terror implicit within the sublime. [Listen to Lemon D, “This is Los Angeles”] One of the most effective aspects of electronic music is that the technology used to produce it allows artists to explore the most extreme reaches of frequency and intensity. This is a capacity that drum and bass artists such as Lemon D, Dillinja, Ed Rush, Optical and others harness in the service of a disturbing level of sonic violence, an aural analogue of the destructive power of contemporary technology.

  8. Lemon D channels the explosive violence released in the sub-bass gesture into the breakbeat that follows, cutting and splicing this sampled groove in such a way that the loud snare fragments almost completely undermine our sense of a steady 4/4 beat. Alongside the brutal impact of the sub-bass accents, the ricocheting snares have the effect of temporally ripping the ground out from under us. It is only after extended listening that we begin to see patterns emerge: the bass notes occur at regular intervals, giving us a scaffolding for what seems like the spontaneously improvised turbulence of the sampled snare fragments. We begin to see that there is in fact a broader, systemic permanence underlying this turbulence.

  9. The percussive impact of this climactic moment in “This is Los Angeles” couldn’t be clearer. However, the implied source of this violence is much more ambiguous: what is this sonic fury supposed to represent? The cops that beat Rodney King? The uprising that followed those cops’ exoneration? The crackdown on gang violence? Tom Brokaw himself? On the one hand, the rigorous, gridlike framework that organizes these gestures suggests the top-down imposition of power that characterizes the state. However, the exuberant polyrhythmic density of this new section, coupled with its basis in sampled funk breakbeats and the “Jeep beats” of the bass drops, suggests that African-Americans themselves are being placed at the center of Lemon D’s narrative. By this reckoning, the musical surge midway through “This is Los Angeles” could be interpreted as the aural analogue to black insurgency. In any event, the ambiguity of this gesture reveals something of the unsettling power of drum and bass: Lemon D strips away all external, semantic reference points—G-funk keyboards, sampled helicopters, television announcers—concentrating the musical energy in a gesture that eschews referants in favor of violence itself, the radical ontology of rupture expressed in aural form.

  10. Situated within the broader historical context, Lemon D—a UK producer, working on this track in 1995—is responding to a specific moment in postindustrial life, experienced perhaps most visibly in a community such as South Central L.A., but in fact not unrelated to similar social trends in Thatcher-era working-class London. The narrative of the Rodney King disturbances articulates broader lessons for late capitalist culture. The weight of the state, in the form of the LAPD, being brought down on South Central in a frenzy of military strength that could only be labeled sublime had the unanticipated effect of generating a widespread social upheaval that would eventually result in a broader moment of cultural trauma. The undertone of menace that pervades Lemon D’s “This is Los Angeles,” consummated in its thundering moment of rupture, articulates the inevitable consequences of the society of affluence, a society that is prepared to sublimate its social inequities in order to sustain the affluence of the few. The purpose of drum and bass is to make such systemic upheavals embodied as predictable, even in their radical unpredictability; this music urges us to be vigilant in the face of the constant possibility of danger.

  11. TPi Headhe defensive postindustrial posture of “This is Los Angeles” also gestures towards a broader context for this music, one grounded in the Afrodiasporic nexus that Paul Gilroy refers to as the Black Atlantic. In the same moment that the track foregrounds the immediate crisis of the L.A. uprisings, it implicitly draws a connection back to its own East London context, highlighting the commonalties that link black communities in post-Reagan L.A. to black and working class communities in post-Thatcher London. Lemon D, a black British producer, is taking up a genre that sits at the crossroads of American hip-hop, British techno (a genre imported from urban Detroit), and the Jamaican sound system culture that Caribbean immigrants brought to cities such as Bristol and London in the postwar period. This music of drum and bass draws its energy from a notion of culture grounded, if anywhere, in mobility, migration and dynamism, in “routes” rather than “roots.”

  12. Paul Gilroy has argued that the experience of migration has an especially powerful cultural resonance in Afrodiasporic cultures as a result of the networks of movement and travel that have constituted the societies of the black Atlantic since at least the beginning of slavery several centuries ago. For Gilroy, every voluntary movement taken on by Afrodiasporic peoples bears the traces of earlier movements that were in many instances wholly involuntary: much of the social identity of black populations in the wake of modernity has been constituted by the cultural memory of the slave ships, of the traumatic events of the Middle Passage. Against this backdrop, drum and bass producers, DJs and dancers, all of them participants in cultures constituted through migration, can be seen as intensifying aesthetic impulses—rupture, break, discontinuity—which gained a considerable part of their cultural resonance from this legacy of upheaval. The fury and vertiginous instability that courses through “This is Los Angeles” resonates well beyond the track’s immediate subject, binding together aggrieved communities of color across national and historical boundaries.

  13. However, if “This is Los Angeles” dramatizes the impact of a mass insurgency, a spontaneous uprising against the abuse of state power, its unprecedented fury gestures towards the more unsettling situation in which we now find ourselves: devastating acts against the state need no longer be based in mass action. Drum and bass anticipates the paranoiac worldview necessary in the age of asymmetrical warfare, an age in which our own technological infrastructure is turned against us. Earlier in my discussion, I argued that the contemporary technologies of music production—MIDI sequencing, digital sampling, and so forth—take up the cyborg relation between body and machine, where such technologies serve as extensions of individual subjectivity. One of the more disturbing aspects of this relationship in the context of electronic music is that a lone producer, armed only with a modest bedroom studio, is capable of unleashing a sonic tempest completely out of proportion to his or her own scale as an individual. When a particularly extreme artist such as Ed Rush claims that he wants to “hurt people with my beats,” he is articulating the fundamental asymmetry of power that exists between the producer and the dancefloor. In the dance music environment, the consequences of this asymmetry may be little more than hearing loss and a certain residual jittery paranoia. Nevertheless, this asymmetry translates into an aural analogue of something far more sinister. It emulates the devastating—and largely inscrutable—process that manifests itself within the sublime act of terror.

  14. It is worth considering what this dimension of electronic music production—its metaphoric proximity to asymmetrical warfare—might suggest about the relationship between drum and bass and a utopian/dystopian imaginary. Walter BenjaminIn his conclusion to the well-known essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin takes note of the obscene pleasure that 20th-century humanity finds in the spectacle of destruction or atrocity:
    Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympic gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. (242)

    For Benjamin, this aestheticization of destruction is not simply an isolated phenomenon, but participates in the political economy that sustains the status quo. Earlier on, he writes,
    Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. … If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. (241–2)

    If capitalism generates technological innovations that might ultimately encourage a collective vision of utopia, undermining the property system, the device of war enables this excess in productive forces to be taken up in the service of sustaining this system. The aestheticization of violence participates in this economy at a symbolic level, offering up the spectacle of destruction as a distraction from existing inequities. In this sense, we might see the explosive musical force of drum and bass—its aesthetic codification of traumatic rupture and militaristic individualism—as a device that participates in our culture’s postponement of a critical engagement with late capitalism.13

  15. However, also implicit in Benjamin’s formulation is a vision of technology as a repository of utopian hope. The same productive excess that manifests itself in spectacles of destruction also gestures towards the utopian promise of technical innovation itself. As an aesthetic mobilization of this productive excess, the bleak wakeup call of drum and bass bears within itself the possibility of a more utopian world. In the expansion of the mind (and body) that derives from the experience of the sublime lies the potential for additional strength, for critical awareness. In its pairing of mechanistic rigor with neurotic, fragmentary rhythms, the works of this genre constitute their own self-critique. In the end, the hermeneutics of suspicion inspired by drum and bass might help to foster a conscious world-view in which we are ready for the contingencies to come.

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11. For example, in Samuel P. Huntington’s influential text Islam is positioned as the absolute antipode to “the West,” its values ostensibly the product of a process completely distinct from the evolution of Western culture.

12. A fair bit of evidence points to this interpretation. It is possible to interpret a number of events in the Islam world since the Iranian Islamic Revolution as some fundamental response to modernization, Western imperialism, or the encroachment of globalization. The clerical fatwa against Salmun Rushdie, the two Palestinian intifadas, the rise of the Taliban—each of these seems as driven by supposedly “external” events as through any internal logic. Slavoj Žižek argues that, far from constituting the threat of an unrelated, external “Other” to the West, Islamist terror may be wholly intrinsic to late capitalism: “…are not ‘international terrorist organizations’ the obscene double of the big multinational corporations – the ultimate rhizomatic machine, omnipresent, albeit with no clear territorial base? Are they not the form in which nationalist or religious ‘fundamentalism’ accommodated itself to global capitalism?” (38). Indeed, this form is often quite recognizable to us. A recent article by Bruce Hoffman in the Atlantic Monthly argues that Osama bin Laden’s operational methods may most closely resemble the dynamics of venture capital: bin Laden doesn’t dictate projects from above, but rather gives the go-ahead to projects that are proposed to him, in the manner of an investment firm “green-lighting” a new Internet startup.

13. I am grateful to an anonymous reader for drawing attention to this element of Benjamin’s argument.




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