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Trance Formation: The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of Global Rave Culture
by Robin Sylvan
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 6/19/2012

There’s no getting away from it. Since human-kind first learned to rhythmically bang rocks together, those same humans have been moving in mysterious ways, furiously engaged in an activity that no one else can do for you: dancing. Sure, other species might engage in what one could call dance, even above and beyond the workaday world of courtship hops or territorial high-stepping; but beyond a doubt no other animal on earth seems to do the dance deed to the beat. No other animal produces music for dancing. There’s no way of knowing which came first, music or the controlled use of fire. (Were early acts of Paleolithic percussion responsible for the first flinty sparks? Could Prometheus have been the first DJ?) Whatever the case may be, as far back as folk have been drawing pictures of themselves on cave walls, those images have represented humankind dancing ‘round the fire—making beats and tripping out on heat, light, and the presence of other bodies, both seen and unseen. Fast forward ten thousand years or so and it seems those beat-happy ape descendants are still at it: the caves, bonfires, and drumming circles of ancient pre-history replaced now by warehouses, laser/fog effects, and massive sound-systems.

In his book Trance Formation: The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of Global Rave Culture, author Robin Sylvan argues that so far as the spirituality of wild parties is concerned, both (1) nothing has changed, and (2) something totally new is in evidence. Rave culture, he asserts, accesses the same circuits hard-wired for religious experience—circuits that institutional religion burnt out long ago—dusts them off, and reloads neural software packages for transcending the self.

Sylvan suggests that rave culture, while rooted in ancient sensibilities of ritual and ecstasy, is moving toward a 21st century form of community spirituality—one uniquely suited to 21st century challenges and possibilities.

The proof of rave culture’s power to inspire and transform is right there in the pudding of Sylvan’s book. As emphasized in both his introduction and throughout the book, the author’s personal involvement with the rave scene was sufficiently transformative for him to dedicate years of effort and research toward honoring his experiences and the experiences of those around him. This book is a love letter to a community that matters tremendously to its author, and whose potentials and possibilities he is very much invested in expressing.

Some of Trance Formation is given to providing a very discursive tour through a number of anthropological/sociological ideas of what constitutes a “religious experience” with an aim toward making the claim, drawn largely from self-reported participant testimonials, that the rave scene can be seen as embodying/accessing/manufacturing just that sort of thing. So far as providing a careful review of ethnographic literature pertaining to trance states, ritual dance, and religious uses of music goes, the book is a bit light. (A book on transcendence of the ego in groups with no mention of Durkheim?!). However, in a way this is just as well, seeing as how the tendency in Western scholarship has traditionally been prejudiced against trance states, interpreting them as evidence of degeneracy, hysteria, madness, dangerous primitivism, etc. At any rate, the author has clearly chosen ethnographic methods privileging first-hand accounts and self-reported personal narratives over sorting through the academic strata. To be sure, the strength of Trance Formation is in letting its subjects speak for themselves. We will never know what it was like to attend an Eleusinian mystery rite or dance till dawn at a medieval carnival; but now, thanks to Sylvan’s work, there is a record of the voices of people alive today whose experience is perhaps the modern equivalent of those ancient celebrations.

For a more complete historical perspective, read this book together with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Ehrenreich’s book focuses far more on the role of communal ecstasy in transformative group cohesion than it does on individual spiritual transcendent experience, but it helps provide some much needed context. While Dancing in the Streets strengthens some of Sylvan’s points, at the same time it shows the extent to which many of the phenomena Sylvan considers uniquely new in rave culture are, in fact, just about as old as the hills.

Indeed, as a point of criticism, Sylvan’s study of “global rave culture” is perhaps not quite as global as it might assert, seeing as how tightly it focuses on individuals within that scene who deliberately use the rave format as a spiritual endeavor. Raves have been a lot of things for a lot of people, with certain forms even being in direct contradiction with one another. Sylvan digs deeply into the religious/spiritual aspect of the “rave”, while only scratching the surface of rave culture’s activist/dissident aspect. (The ideas of Temporary Autonomous Zones and Situationism are touched on briefly, but not enough for my taste.) His aim is to posit the power of rave culture as being globally transformative; however, he seems to think that the mere experience of universal connection is sufficient so far as positive political action goes. That approach got tried during the Sixties, and its shortcomings should be obvious by this point.

In general, Trance Formation is fairly uncritical of the way that spiritual themes and images are assimilated into commercialism. Missing also is the critique of rave culture as merely being part of what Herbert Marcuse called repressive desublimation: the blowing off of steam that serves in the long run to cement social norms. However, an interesting point of future study might be to investigate either mainstream commercial raves or even raves which, although underground, do not self-identify as being primarily conscious of themselves as spiritual (such as circuit parties, break-core parties, etc.) and then to compare the spiritually transformative effects such “secular” rave cultures may have on their participants anyway.

In the end, anyone in contemporary culture believing that the best way to enrich your soul is to lose your mind, and that the best means for doing that is through the exuberance of the body, is going to be fighting an uphill battle for legitimacy. In the struggle to honor and dignify this style of worship, Trance Formation is a solid resource.

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