All posts by Bue Thastum

Closing Times and the American Devaluation of Pleasure


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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Presentation on cyborg music

Here are the prezi slides for a small presentation I recently gave on the music journalist/theorist Kodwo Eshuns accounts of alien/future/posthuman/cyborg musics.  It mostly consists of quotes from the introductory chapter of Eshuns book ‘More Brilliant than the Sun‘, spiced up with words from Simon Reynolds, K-Punk, Jacques Attali amongst others, as well as a two wonderful pieces of 90s electronic dance music.

Viewing the accompaniment of a presentation is necessarily going to be (even more) of a fragmented experience, but maybe it’d be interesting for some anyways. Eshuns style of writing, as exemplified in the quotes, is fascinatingly energetic in its resonating with the sensibilities of that of which he is writing.

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Various fragments on what sound can do


On the occasion of taking a class on the anthropology of sound I spent a little time brainstorming with the collective intelligence that is the Internet on various examples of different contexts in which sound is doing something.
Sound can be shown to affect people physiologically. Here’s a (kind of strangely written) danish news article about acoustics in classrooms. The most interesting aspect of the article is a mentioning of a study demonstrating a correlation between the frequency of the heartbeats of the teachers and the amount of noise in the classroom. Thus in comparison in a room with 0.7 seconds decay the teachers in average had 10 more heartbeats per second than in a room with a decay time of 0.4. seconds. Also, it seems that it’s quite well established that classrooms with insufficient muffling of sound significantly worsens learning. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases this knowledge still haven’t managed to be materialized in the architecture of educational institutions.

Sound and health. Sound, as music, can also be shown to be made work in favor of (a certain definition of, re. the measurement scales) mental health and well being. Here’s an example of a study.

This study used a random control experimental design with a music-listening group and control group for 22 older adults undergoing hip or knee surgery. The experimental group listened to music at the bedside for at least 4 hours daily. The NEECHAM Acute Confusion Scale and the Folstein Mini-Mental State Exam were used to measure cognition and acute confusion. Findings demonstrate that the music-listening group had higher levels of cognitive function and less confusion than those who did not listen to music.

I found the very fact that a journal of the name Music and Medicine existed to be kind of interesting too.

Noise is also being utilized for health and wellbeing purposes. Thus, there’s a bunch of web pages and apps solely made for generating noise-sounds. Often you can choose between white, pink and brown noise, and sometimes you can have recorded sounds that approach noise too such as ocean or rain sounds.

One of those noise-machine pages lists a whole array of alleged possible effects of noise: “Sleep Aid, Enhance Privacy, Block Distractions, Mask Tinnitus, Pacify Children, Soothe Migraines, Increase, Focus Stress Relief“. It also offers a differentiation between the different types of noise in terms of uses and advantages. I especially think the aspect about enhancing privacy is quite interesting, serving as a case through which to think about sound and spatiality as well as possibly lending a new meaning to the term ‘wall of sound’.

The idea of certain sounds having very specific effects, also made me think of the quite curious recent appearance of so-called ‘sound drugs‘; sounds that are being sold as allegedly having effects similarly to psychoactive chemical substances. It could be entertaining to see someone do an analysis of the rhetorics and imagery of the phenomenon. Here’s a quite funny Wired article from 2010 mentioning how an Oklahoma public school actually banned iPods in response to the phenomenon.

Finally, talking about sounds and physiological effects, I need to mention ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) too, which I’ve had a small interest in for a while. The term covers a certain type of reaction consisting of a very pleasurable shivering, tingling feeling in the head and sometimes the spine some people report to have as a reaction to certain stimuli, including listening to other people speak in calm and whispering voices with lots of lip sounds often in relation to activities involving personal attention such as examinations or haircuts. Despite the medical-sounding name the phenomenon has not yet been the object of any form of institutionalized scientific research, but it has spawned a vast online-community (thus, the reddit-page devoted to it currently has 34,700 subscribers) and a trend of creating role-playing videos deliberately designed to trigger the reaction.

 Image in top by sam_jennings (slightly modified), CC 2.0-BY-NC-SA

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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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Some thoughts on writing this blog

To some extend this post is within a genre that I generally thinks it’s best to avoid: The self-thematizing blogpost. It’s a classical and quite prevalent genre. Bloggers writing about being bloggers, about not blogging as much as they’d like to, about not knowing what to blog about, about what they imagine that they’ll blog about in the future. I remember the first time I made a blog, about six years ago, starting out writing about cool web 2.0 tools, the social/political/democratic potentialities of blogging and social media etc. I guess – or at least I think that was what it was like for me then – starting a blog often coincides with a blooming fascination with the medium rather than any actual subject one would like to write about, the only present ideas for something to write about thus being the medium itself. An inwards spiral of self-referentiality is thus initiated. Most likely very boring for everyone else as virgin bloggers aren’t very likely to actually be able to say anything very profound, new or interesting about blogging.
Being aware of all of the above, the reason for writing this is thus all-overriding a part of a solely self-centered, self-indulgent project of lowering the thresholds of self-censorship. Sidetrack: For danish readers, Caspar Eric is a remarkable example of making the lowering of thresholds of self-censorship and allowing the emergence of an hyper self-conscious blog-persona into an almost conceptual project that by over-amplifying these tendencies might actually perhaps take them somewhere else. This is not really an attempt to make that the general direction for this blog, though, thus I hope, I’ll be able to limit the blog-blogging to this post for now.

An occasion for making this post now, is some thoughts on new mutations I plan for/hope will happen to the blog. (By experience, the actual way things happen often ends up betraying these kinds of declarations, but we’ll leave that aside for now).
One thing is that I want to start to try and write in English. So far all posts here have been in danish and maybe I’ll write more danish posts in the future as well, but for now, being in an English-speaking environment (I’m in Santa Cruz, California until next summer) it feels like it makes sense to try and start writing more in English as well. Writing things and publishing them for public access, for me relates to a desire for dialogue and exchange. This can take place just online but in my experience often some of the more interesting things happen in the mixing of online and offline dialogues. Thus blogging is also about the hope that people around me might sometime randomly bump into what I’m writing and be engaged by it and discuss it with me and thereby enabling us to create new ties and thoughts and common changing worlds.
Another aspect of writing in English is also to make it a part of a project – related to being at a English-speaking University – of being better to think with the English language.

Another ambition – that maybe, maybe not will actually be fulfilled – is post things more often. This is a quite recurrent one, I guess. It’s an interesting question though, how to make writing a more integrated part of ones daily practice, and, for my part relating to this blog, how to set up things in a way that makes it feel ok to post things that are not necessarily well-rounded or flawless in any way, but to the contrary can be a lot more tentative and ambivalent (and vulnerable?). The reason for wanting to do this again being the ambition to get into a state of being in exchange with the world around you, experience the resistance or creative building upoen other people might produce in relation to the modes of thought you’ve grown used to taken for granted with yourself.

I have some thoughts about how to enable myself to post more often (especially re-thinking what is enough to count as a post, though at the same time also very much acknowledging the need for some kind of quality criterium. I feel like I need to, however small, make some kind of comment or contribution to whatever I’m writing about or juxtapose something in a novel in order to make it justifiable as a post), but I’d love to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter as well.
Also, as I’m not a native English speaker and I’d really like to get better, I’d love to get some spanking by some grammar nazis out there, if anyone would ever happen to feel inclined at that.

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