New Book Explores Why Nightlife Fosters Intimacy Among Strangers – Billboard
Written by GRB on 10/08/2023
There’s an anecdote in the opening pages of Together, Somehow where the book’s author, Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta, recounts a moment on the packed dance floor of the infamous Berlin nightclub Panorama Bar.
In the telling, a young man squeezing through the mass of dancing, sweating bodies pauses in front of Garcia-Mispreta just long enough to utter the question, “Alles klar?” (“All good?”) to the raving ethnographer.
When Garcia-Mispireta responded affirmatively, “Ja Alles klar,” the nameless young man simply smiled, then, “he caressed my face along my jawline from ear to chin, and continued pushing his way through the crowd. I never saw him again.”
Such unsolicited touching would have been intrusive, if not utterly inappropriate, in most other environments. But for Garcia-Mispireta, the moment is a salient example of what he calls “stranger-intimacy,” a gesture that is simultaneously warm and impersonal. An interaction made permissible due to “corporeal copresence, a shared sensorium, and apparent aesthetic affinities.” Or as the academic author helpfully clarifies, “in the flesh, sharing space, atmosphere, and sensuous enjoyment.”
Contradictory behaviors like the one Garcia-Mispireta describes are common in subcultural communities like the underground house and techno scenes of Chicago, Paris and Berlin that serve as the focal point for Garcia-Mispireta’s 320-page study, full title, Together, Somehow: Music, Affect, and Intimacy on the Dancefloor, published this month by Duke University Press.
“My central argument in the book is that the vagueness of how we get together and get along is actually kind of how we continue to do it,” Garcia-Mispireta says on a Zoom call from the U.K., where he is an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Birmingham.
He continues, “It’s part of the way that nightlife scenes in general and club culture, rave culture specifically, manage this weird trick of bringing together crowds where there should be some significant reasons for fracturing and schisms. And instead, getting them to, not get along forever, but to hang out for a party and mostly not get on each other’s nerves.”
Pick up any book about electronic music (there aren’t very many to choose from) and the focus will inevitably be some version of the music’s historical narrative. Authors will make passing mention of the audience as part of the overall phenomenon while mainly focusing on the key artists, records and events that make up the chronological story. But none have delved this deeply into the physical contact that is as distinct to the overall experience of raving as the lights and music.
Take, for instance, Nick, a Chicago raver who told the author, “I’m definitely, to this day, more intimate with my friends in the techno scene than my other friends, in terms of touching, hugging, kissing.”
Or Lisette, a Paris raver who found herself “starved for touch,” according to Garcia-Mispireta, in her daily life in the reserved city.
And it’s not just personal touch that gets, er, touched on. Another chapter explores physical touch by musical soundwaves (“Sonic Tactility”), while others address the beautiful messiness of partying (“The Sweetness of Coming Undone”) and the less-beautiful exclusivity of clubbing (“Bouncers, Door Policies, and Embedded Diversity”). The author writes about each situation in a manner that is rigorous (and rigorously cited), considering psychological and sociological perspectives that leap from broadly human to deeply personal.
Technically, the boots-on-the-ground research conducted for this book took place from 2006-2010, in the cities listed in the subtitle. As such, the book can’t help but offer a window into the fallow decade between the Y2K crash and the EDM boom, when electronic music had largely retreated from mainstream attention.
“For the global North, that was when dance music was picking itself up from the 2000 bust — the end of the nineties,” Garcia-Mispireta explains. “2006 to 2010 was a period when there wasn’t actually a lot of money. Cities’ scenes like Paris and Chicago were struggling to organize events and get enough people out. And there wasn’t huge scrutiny from the outside.”
But documenting this slice of electronic music history is not the focus of Together, Somehow. And despite Garcia-Mispireta’s first-hand accounting, the book is not a memoir or exposé. It is an academic study categorized by its publisher as research in gender and sexuality, LGBTQ studies, music, ethnomusicology, cultural studies and affect theory. As such, you’re more likely to encounter the names of cited researchers in its pages rather than any of the DJs or producers who thrived in this era.
The names of clubs like Berghain (Berlin), SmartBar (Chicago) and Le Rex (Paris) are mentioned with regularity, but this is due to ethnographic rigor rather than the historical importance of specific venues. The fieldwork is balanced out by interviews with individuals conducted outside of the club environment.
The combination of theory, history and first-hand accounting makes Together, Somehow highly readable as far as academic books go. This was important to Garcia-Mispireta so that the book’s readership might extend beyond his fellow academics and into the community it analyzes.
“This is first and foremost an academic book,” he admits. “But I do want this to be a book where the community can see themselves. That’s why the flow is anecdote or vignette, then shift to theorizing, then shift back to storytelling, and so on.”
The author is qualified to accomplish his dual agenda better than most because he is a card-carrying member of the community he studies. A “queer-presenting Latino dude” who sports gauged earrings and favors brightly-colored clothing that conflicts with the all-black aesthetic that dominates the techno scene, Garcia-Mispireta discovered raves growing up in Toronto, and went on to combine his passion for parties with his academic interest — the latter enabling the former via grants and post-doc positions.
His previous publications include articles with titles like “Techno-Tourism and Postindustrial Neo-Romanticism in Berlin’s Electronic Dance Music Scenes,” “Agonistic Festivities: Urban Nightlife Scenes and the Sociability of ‘Anti-Social’ Fun” and “Whose Refuge, This House? The Estrangement of Queers of Color in Electronic Dance Music.” He also writes for Resident Advisor (check out 2013’s “An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture”) and gives lectures on subjects like “Bouncers, Door Policies, Multiculturalism.”
In 2014, Garcia-Mispireta helped establish Room 4 Resistance, a Berlin-based collective whose parties were among the first to put issues of “collective care, harm reduction, accessibility and experimentation” front and center. Some of R4R’s innovations, such as posting a highly–visible Code of Conduct in venues or having a taxi fund to help at-risk attendees get home safely, have become common practice for promoters around the world.
Garcia-Mispireta acknowledges that some of the light-touch intimacy he writes about in Together, Somehow might be seen to conflict with the safer spaces he works to create with R4R. He is careful to caveat the fine line between stranger intimacy and offensive behavior.
“I always want to keep in mind that there is tons of creepy-ass touching on the dance floor,” he states. “But nonetheless, as I talk to people, especially folks who were most likely to be vulnerable to bad touch — women, trans folks, folks of color, what have you — they would say ‘I have clear boundaries about this. And at the same time, these are the clubs I go to where I can be open with my body.’”
He proceeds to point out the interview subjects in the book for whom dance floor intimacy offers up a positive experience that is otherwise missing from their life.
“Often, there was initially a period of discomfort if they were new to these sort of norms around touch,” he explains. “But for some people, they’ve awoken to an appetite for a kind of human contact that they didn’t get elsewhere.”
Like all things involving humans, the behavior Garcia-Mispireta studies is nuanced. And messy. And constantly changing as culture evolves. Fortunately, researchers like him are working to identify these knotty interactions, even if the ultimate goal isn’t to untangle them. In a world where people are increasingly divided, the appeal of togetherness is hard to ignore.
“My argument is that a lot of [intimacy on the dance floor] happens precisely because we don’t actually know all that much about each other,” he concludes. “We’re happy to sort of sit with that kind of strangerhood within the space of the party.”