If you think attending lectures and clubbing are mutually exclusive activities, think again! Berliner and musicologist Dr Beate Peter is touring the UK giving lectures on her life’s work: research into the psychology of raving. The latest leg of her tour was in Colston Hall, so I went to check out what she had to say…
Beate was born behind the iron curtain, shrouded in her folky East German village of scarcely more than 800 (occasionally lederhosen-clad) inhabitants. Local “fun” consisted of scenic walks and medieval dress-up at her village fetes. So, how does such an upbringing lead someone to do a PhD on rave psyche?
Unsurprisingly, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the watershed in the ascendency of German youth culture. When the GDR collapsed, the nooks and crannies around the old Wall were surrendered to the imagination of the people. One year after unification, 1km away from the Brandenburg Gate, a shack above the vaults of the Wertheim department store was reinvented as Tresor and the abandoned headquarters of a tableware manufacturer became WMF, both within a week of each other. Two years later, two blocks down from Checkpoint Charlie, DJ Clé spun the first record at EWerk. This was the cultural background of Dr Peter’s teenage life – years spent studying in Berlin, rather than at the boarding school her parents believed she attended.
Dr Peter isn’t just an expert in her field, she experienced first-hand the rave scene of the late eighties and nineties, back when the Berghain building could be rented for a single deutsche mark. The original scene emerged in England five years earlier, in response to Thatcherism and individualism. It created a community organised on a not-for-profit basis that switched people on to Eastern philosophies and a ‘more holistic experience’.
The human psyche is a triple-tiered network of the conscious, the unconscious, and the collective unconscious. Our conscious psyche is our ego, where we knowingly construct our personas and consciously decide which to adopt at any given moment. Our unconscious is full of mighty suppression mechanisms. And the collective unconscious? The part of the mind where our instincts come from. The collective unconscious comes from the very structure of our brains, so it is common to mankind as a whole, regardless of race, gender, class.
Like our instinct for “fight and flight”, our instinct to fall into a state of trance comes from the collective unconscious. The trance state is one of altered consciousness in which the person experiences a sense of egolessness and a distorted sense of time and space. How it basically works is by syncopation - we hear a rhythm, we respond to it. The repetition of a simple riff played over a limited range draws us into a mild hypnosis; we can’t sing along, so we move. A second rhythm comes in and we try to respond to it with another part of ourselves. If the beats are democratic (same volume), the introduction of a third rhythm is disorientating; we are lost for what to do, and this is when the trance state sets in. The club scene wouldn’t exist if we weren’t all predisposed to trancing through the collective unconscious.
Dr Peter’s research shows that rave culture created a space where men felt free to participate in dance, “without the fear of being laughed at” and women didn’t feel the need to “protect themselves from unwanted sexual advances”, says Dr Peter. On almost every other dance turf, you have to actively step down or step up to the dancefloor and then make a conscious decision to stay or to leave at the change of every song. Essentially, you use your ego. But DJ sets can last for hours. So when we’re raving, we stay within the realm of the collective unconscious.
Dr Peter was quick to point out that drugs don’t fuel cultures, each youth culture chooses its drug depending on the drug’s function. Ravers chose MDMA, because it brings a sense of disembodiment that sustains the egolessness of the trance state, amongst other things.
Whilst rave is anti-conservative, the original movement really survived off the conservatism that it was responding against. After Europe liberalised and New Labour took over in England, rave fizzled out. In interview afterwards, Dr Peter speculated that in an anarchist state, rave might not exist.
So, no surprise then, with Theresa May running the country into Article 50, the rave scene is making a comeback. Cultural differences remain: on the same day that authorities shutdown London’s Fabric, Berghain was granted funding for providing arts and culture in Berlin. However, DJs the world-over are now joining forces over the internet, managing their own bookings, circumventing the overhead profiteers. Dr Peter predicts the culture will re-emerge – given her expertise, she’s one to trust.