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Closing Times and the American Devaluation of Pleasure

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Recently California Senator Mark Leno proposed a bill that would allow cities in the state to grant selected restaurants and nightclubs permission to extend the serving of alcohol later into the night. The new suggested limit would be 4 am rather than the 2 am dictated by the current regulation. The bill, Leno’s press release stresses, would allow the California cities a fairer standing vis-à-vis other global metropolises in the economically important competition to attract pleasure-seeking cosmopolitans and their money.

Supporters argue that the bill would benefit the economy as well as provide cities with the traffic-planning advantage of being able to have different clubs close at different hours and thus spread out the flow of people heading home. The opponents, on the other hand, in dramatic images of blood, fire and sirens in the night, want us to consider risk, health and public order (“the streets of Los Angeles at 4 a.m. will look like a rerun of Demolition Derby”), as well as the economy, though this time in terms of the increased state expenses the escalated night-time ravage of the extended service hours would cause.

As a foreigner accustomed to going out in Copenhagen and other European cities, one of the most apparent differences in the flow of things, that I experienced subsequent to arriving in California last fall for a year-long study abroad was, indeed, the very abruptly ending nights out. Imagine something like having finally obtained the warm and buzzing sensation the combination that drinks and good conversations can facilitate, maybe having established some nascent feeling of connection with an interesting stranger or perhaps almost being ready to immerse yourself in the crowd of the dance floor just for the lights to be turned on and a resolute doorman letting everyone know it’s time to go home. Entire stages of the journey that is a Friday or Saturday night out are simply never even allowed to begin here.

And however much the supporters might imagine that keeping the taps flowing for two more hours would propel San Francisco and LA into the top of some global party circuit, compared to many European cities 4 am is actually still not very late.

One of cities that Leno’s press release imagines the Californian ones to be on level with if the bill is passed is Berlin. But in terms of alcohol laws Berlin is much more similar to Las Vegas in that there isn’t no such thing as a set cut-off time for serving. Thus, certain clubs are able to operate, and sell alcohol, continuously for several nights and days. The liberal laws of the German capital, together with other factors such as low rent and cheap airfare, have provided the conditions for an extremely vivid and cultivated scene for nightlife and club culture as well the establishment of an image of the city as the party capital of Europe, that allows its inhabitants and many visitors to drink and dance to loud music in sweaty rooms (or outside in parks, on boats, by lakes, or on rooftops in the summer) at any time of night or subsequent day for however long their bodies are capable of.

Compared to this, then, the bill indeed appears as a very modest proposition, perhaps suggesting something about how an American puritan legacy disparaging pleasure might still play a substantial role in conditioning and constraining the premises of political debate, even in California.

Along these lines, it’s worth noting that the supporters of 4am predominantly argue in terms of economy and practical convenience. (Admittedly these are principles that dominate many European debates too, though Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit’s 2004 designation of his city as being poor but sexy stands as a beautiful exception). What is largely absent from the discourse is how the diverse collection of aesthetic forms, interactions, sensations, feelings, and bodily movements encompassed in the term ‘partying’ might actually have cultural and existential values too, values that a societal debate could acknowledge as ends in themselves rather than merely means for economic ones.

When they work well, bars and clubs late at night can be very special spaces that give rise to unique situations and experiences, spaces that enable more overt expressions of affection and connection, spaces that allow playing with identity and self-staging, improvisation and loosening of boundaries, explorations of sexuality and intimacy. And they can be spaces of experiencing the body’s ability to gradually attune to and inhabit rhythmic movement facilitated by a collective of other bodies – often a process that can unfold over several hours if allowed.

And though drinking is not crucial to any of the above (indeed a lot of dance cultures utilize several other drugs, and perhaps even more so in the US as an effect of the strict alcohol laws), alcohol does often play an important role in transforming the situation into something distinct and different from everyday life, giving it a more ritualistic tone. And being allowed to serve does, in practice, seem to be what is necessary for most clubs and bars to stay open and keep the number of people required to hold the collectively charged atmosphere together.

Perhaps nightlife could be valued a little more – and the intoxicating substances involved in it be despised a little less – if we also think of it in terms of citizens sharing a quasi-public urban space, being able to experience one another as a sources of pleasure and communal ecstasy, and ultimately getting a strengthened sense of social commitment.

Photo by icanteachyouhowtodoit

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Test systems and learning

At the University of California Santa Cruz where I’m currently an exchange student I’ve encountered one aspect of the organization of university life that has been standing out to me as being remarkably far from my conception of what higher-level education entails: The way the grading and test system for some undergraduate classes is designed in an extremely rigid, inflexible and disciplinary fashion. Being confronted with this, I think it’s interesting and important to try to think about which attitudes towards learning are encouraged and which understandings of knowledge are performed in these systems. Which ways of being a student does the system enable and encourage me to pursue?

This is the way one upper division (which means the students have usually been to university/college for between two to four years) class was designed:

The final letter grade which is the one that will figure on the student’s transcript is generally translated from fairly meticulous 100-grade scale on which you during the course accumulated points. An array of different activities gave us these points. Each week we had 4-8 reading questions typically asking us to describe a certain concept from a text and compare it to something else. Each question had to be roughly a paragraph. All answers for these questions had to be uploaded on a webpage before a certain time in order to elicit points. It didn’t matter that much, we were told, whether the answers were actually good or correct as long as they were there and somehow tried to engage with the question. In the middle as well as by the end of the term we had two-pillar exams consisting of an assigned take home-essay and an in-class quiz. The midterm essay had two questions to choose from. An example of the form of one of them is:

“What is the relationship between concept 1 and concept 2? Discuss this through Author A, B and C (including citations), and give 2 examples each from Author D and E (with citations) to support your argument.”

The answer to this question had to be in three double-spaced pages. We were provided the rubric which the teaching assistant were to use to grade our papers, detailing how every inclusion of a requested article gave us a couple of points while a coherent argument gave a couple of extra points too. The final exam, in five pages, was a veritable puzzle and too complicated to explain here, but included three different quite broad ranging questions that all had to be answered and six lists of different texts from the course with us having to use one text from each list once, with all lists except one being tied to specific questions. The in-class quizzes had the form of a list of sentences with a blank spot in them in which we had to insert a concept from a list from the top of the page and write a small justification beneath it.

The design of a course can be thought of as an apparatus that works to create and/or sustain a certain conception of what knowledge and learning is. The particular class in which I experienced the test system described above was in addition also characterized by a fairly large reading amount, which at least for me (admittedly not a fast reader, but from talking to other students my impression was that many of those experienced the same) meant that it wasn’t possible to actually thoroughly read all pages of all the assigned texts, at least not without deprioritizing other classes simultaneously.

Here are some thoughts on what the design of the course in my experience did:

The actual practice of reading changed. The reading questions pointed out in advance what one should look for in the text, which meant that interpretation to some extend got uniformed across the class. Overall, Everyone reads after the same. My own experience was also that, due to the busyness I tended in a higher and higher degree to read with a purpose of getting a very superficial understanding of a given text in order to be able to answer the reading questions as fast as possible. This also strengthened a tendency to understand new texts through concepts and patterns that I already was acquainted with before starting to read the text (usually actually even before starting the course), thus reading for sameness rather than difference, the identic rather than the non-identic. I noticed that I started to disregard the types of analyses that were more ambiguous, complex or multifaceted, something I otherwise tend think of as important to pursue, in favor of the articles that to a higher degree allowed themselves to be reduced to what was entailed in an abstract or a conclusion.

The in-class multiple choice tests gives the impression that social scientific concepts are unambiguous and that they to a large extend can have a fixed meaning outside of a larger textual context. The fact that these quizzes count as an exam suggests that knowledge is primarily about memory, that being able to remember the (very simplified version of) meanings of concepts is an end in itself rather than doing something with the concepts. The reading questions and the prompts for the essays did in their formulation sometimes allow an approach that was a little bit more analytical explorative, but the extremely small amount of space and especially time for each of those meant that it in practice was very unlikely to get very far with them, and if you did end up spending too much time thinking about one of the questions and actually did an effort to answer it in an interesting way you’d have lost the time needed to answer the other ones and would end up getting lesser points in the end.

Thus in contrast to classes with exams based primarily on small research-like projects or more individually defined essays the test-design of this class had practically no mechanism to reward creativity or originality. This counters curiosity and creates a sense that more discoverous, groping reading/investigation is an ineffective way to spend ones time as a student. It also gives very little room to develop an individual flow of motivation and working style. I guess it that it as a contrast to neo-liberal demands of constantly being entrepreneurial selves could be argued to be somehow liberating to be allowed to feel less personally engaged. It can be stressful always to be creative and make decisions; this course had such a narrow scope for a creativity that it doesn’t matter anyway. One could be allowed to feel a bit of comfort in the oldschool experience of allowing oneself to be distant and despising of an inhumane and alienating system and a bit of joy in the hacking-like challenge of trying to formally meet the demands of the system with as little effort as possible. But then on the other hand it’d be hard to seriously argue that being able to accommodate so clearly defined goals could ever be a viable way of actually practicing social science. Thus the kind of skill and the kind of work the test-system encourages doesn’t point very far beyond being able to do well in this particular course. We are approaching something almost tautological: The primary goal of learning in the course becomes to be able to get a good grade in the course.

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Nogle betragtninger om Roskilde Festival

Som mange andre havde jeg fornøjelsen af i sidste uge at opholde mig på den Roskilde Festival, jeg som teenager glorificerede, det meste af mine tyvere har holdt mig væk fra, men som jeg i år fik lejlighed til gennem et ok frivillig-job at genbesøge, tage del i og i samme ombæring få samlet lidt betragtninger omkring. Således det følgende.

Roskildes campingfestunivers fungerer ret godt som tilfældighedsmaskine. Sam-tilstedeværelsen og -cirkulationen af mængden af mennesker, ting og aktiviteter på området forårsager en løbende opståen af sjove og interessante hændelser og sammenfald uden nogen på forhånd decideret har planlagt dem. Eksempler kan både være den løbende automatiske renden ind i bekendte, sociale ritualer som ølbowling eller blot etableringen af en følelser af opstemthed gennem en serier af indtryk på en gåture gennem en livlige dele af lejrområdet. Den kontinuerte opståen af nye sammenfald er også noget der teoretiseres som en generel kvalitet ved byer (pdf), men på festivalen er det på nogle planer intensiveret. Fordi der bos i telte frem for bygninger af beton og sten, fordi man generelt opholder sig mere udenfor og fordi der ofte er meget løse overgange mellem lejrene og festivalens fælles rum bliver festivalgæsterne samlet mere kropsligt (såvel visuelt, lydligt, duftende som taktilt) tilstedeværende for hinanden end de er i deres dagligdags’ urbane miljøer . På grund af dette – og selvfølgelig i stærk samvirkning med alkohol, hash, fraværet af forpligtelser og en på forhånd etableret hedonistisk indstilling – skaber festivalens rum særlige affekter der sætter os i andre tilstande, og giver os foranledninger til andre måder at fornemme og opføre os på.

På mange måder etablerer festivaltilstanden kulturer og væreformer der er mere løsslupne/promiskuøse, (på nogle planer) åbentsindede, legende/improviserende (simple ølspil kan også have deres egen kreativitet) end hvad man må antage kendetegner mange af gæsternes hverdagsliv. Intimetsgrænser bliver mere flossede, nøgenhed er (til det amerikanske netmagasin Fuses benovelse) ikke specielt kontroversielt, relativt mange former for adfærd tolereres.  Det er smukt; måske kunne vi endda på en eller anden måde lære noget af det i vores hverdagsliv?
Eksperimenterne og løsluppetheden er dog samtidigt også viklet lidt ind i normativiteter, regelmæssigheder og udgrænsninger. Den eventuelle seksuelle prøven-grænser af virker altovervejende til at være en heteroseksuel en af slagsen. Drenge der kysser med andre drenge og piger der kysser med andre piger er – undtaget de åbenlyst distancerede, indforstået heteroseksuelle, bøsse-morsomheder – ikke et synderligt tilstedeværende fænomen på festivalen. På samme vis har nogle lidt vel fastlåste kønsroller en tendens til at træde frem. Nogle gange gensidigt accepteret, men desværre også nogle gange ret ubehageligt sexistisk grænseoverskridende, som  hos grupperne af mænd i lejre der i råb kritiser forbipasserende kvinders kroppe.

Lidt på samme måde som lejrområderne pulserer os rundt i uforudsigeligheden, giver sceneplaceringernes geografi på festivalområdet mulighed for musikalske derives gennem dagen og programmet. Hvor det på den ene side kan virke lidt uoverskueligt med de syv forskellige scener, har dette samtidigt den kvalitet, at man – enten udelukkende efter fødernes logik eller i kombination med spontan-planlægning i perioder af programmet hvor ingen på forhånd bekendte spiller – kan slentre sig frem gennem musikalske nyopdagelser fra både genrer og verdensdele, man må måske aldrig før har stiftet musikalsk bekendtskab med.

Det ærgerligt negative eksempel på koncerternes næring fra de rumlige dynamikkers tilvejebringelser af spontane publikummer er placeringen af den elektroniske Apollo-scene ude på campingområdet i Vest. Det ekstremt lave antal besøgende til ellers anerkendte og højkvalificerede acts som Martyn og  Addison Groove kunne være et vidnesbyrd om at scenen i praksis er sat uden for cirkulation i musikdagene. Den musikalsk progressive dynamik som festivalen ellers producerer ved at facilitere de omvandrende gæster pludselig havner til og bliver forført af cumbia, dyster neo-folk eller afrikansk ørkenblues bliver således ikke rigtigt den elektroniske dansemusik til del.

Ud over at den mere klubbede elektroniske musik placeringsmæssigt bliver sat uden for døren af festivalen, er der også andre måder hvorpå den ikke rigtigt for lov at komme til sin ret. Apolloscenens højde og det faktum at den er udendørs, giver en temmelig rockkoncertagtig ramme for musikken, med dj’en/kunstneren som et ophævet center på bekostning af den intense anonyme kollektivitet der kan opstå i et velfungerende tæt klubrum, hvor dj’en selvfølgelig stadig i nogen grad er et pejlemærke i rummet, men hvor der alligevel på en helt anden måde kan opstå en på en gang mere decentreret og fokuseret situation i tætpakketheden af dansende kroppe. Shlohmos overraskende dansable ”koncert” – som i praksis var et dj-set tilsat kåd og begejstret snak – på den fine, mørke og tætte (indendørs) Gloria-scene søndag aften var for undertegnede en kortvarig reminiscens af om hvad elektronisk dansemusik, med de rette rammer, faktisk kan – også på Roskilde ville kunne – formå at skabe af ekstatisk intensitet.

Sammen med det rumlige spiller tid også en stor rolle som vilkår for oplevelsen af musik. Klubmusik har i høj grad tradition for at være nat- og nogen steder post-nat (dvs. morgen)-musik. Lone og Martyn henholdsvis 18:45 og 20:30 er altså i det perspektiv ret meget op ad bakke. Hvis man ville have insisteret på Apollo-scenens position udendørs i lejrområdet, også som noget der måske, som Ralf Christensen foreslår, er tænkt til at korrespondere eller konkurrere med festerne i lejrene, kunne en meget sjovere måde at have brugt den på være generelt at have forskudt programmet på den måske fem timer længere tilbage i forhold til de andre scener. På den måde kunne man, efter at være gået ud fra de sidste koncerter på festivalområdet, få glæden af at danse til solopgangen til langt smukkere, mere intense og interessante lyde end lejranlæggenes uendelige røvballepop.

Øverste foto af Stig Nygaard, CC BY 2.0

 

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