Dancing at the End of History: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Ecstasy in Berlin

Image: "Angel in ecstasy" Photo credit: Eke Miedaner, Feb 10, 2007.
Image: “Angel in ecstasy” Photo credit: Eke Miedaner, Feb 10, 2007.

By Ben Gook, CHE Associate Investigator at The University of Melbourne

Around the fall of the Berlin Wall, electronic music took on a new role in the lives of many eastern and western Germans. Over the following decade, rave and club music’s ecstatic form in Berlin attracted mass audiences from across Europe. Berlin’s annual Love Parade, which had begun in July 1989, saw a million people dancing in the city’s Tiergarten in 1997, with this number swelling to about one and a half million by the end of the decade. Although the Love Parade has since moved on, electronic music still contributes considerably to Berlin’s tourist industry and the city’s self-image as a place of ecstatic weekend encounters. A growing number of documentaries and books capture this cultural moment, as visitors and locals explore its particular history and bring it into cultural memory.

Although I think the electronic music scene’s durability in Berlin is a fascinating topic, it hasn’t been the focus of my research. I instead look at the first few years of German re-unification as a time of ecstasy and melancholy. Still, non-musical cultural production has helped to cement Berlin’s place as the ‘techno capital’ of the world, as reflected in feature films such as Run Lola Run (1998), Berlin Calling (2008) and this year’s Victoria.

Its mantle as techno capital has seen Berlin called the electronic dance music equivalent of Nashville’s country music industry: ‘a hub for production, distribution, networking and performance’. All this sits at the end of the period I describe in my research on ecstasy, but it’s important to keep it in mind as the present circumstances – the outcome, if you like – of the earlier period.

Ecstatic encounters

What captures my attention is the way that ‘ecstasy’ functions as a signifier to describe the experience of the Berlin Wall falling and what was simultaneously happening in music. So these are the triple senses of ecstasy I mean with my title: an ecstatic response to the geographical and political reorganisation around 1989; an ecstatic cultural enactment and reimagining of that reorganisation on dancefloors; and the popular take up of the drug that takes its name from an emotional experience already accounted for by the ancients (e.g. Euripides’ Bacchae). The blurb for SubBerlin (2008) illustrates what I mean by this – namely, the release from cultural and social stasis, rediscovered in artistic forms over the years after 1989:

The Fall of the Berlin Wall was something no one had ever expected to happen so quick and with such intensity, leaving Germany in a state of euphoria, upheaval and confusion … The years that followed were marked by new-found freedom, chaos, change and a rush of collective ecstasy.

Various-SubBerlin-Story-of-Tresor-Club-L666017246024
Renowned techno club, ‘Tresor’.

This documentary film is about Tresor, a renowned techno club that was at first set up in an abandoned department store vault in the former no-man’s-land border strip of Berlin. The blurb clearly associates the club with its historical context.

This is hardly surprising. The years 1989 and 1990 mark a world historical event – to say this is at once a banality and a claim that could be substantively argued through philosophical and political-theoretical understandings of an event and its consequences, its prolongation and its development. What followed for many Germans, however, was a decline of early openness, a move towards rigidity, a loss of autonomy, suspicion of westerners, a trashing of eastern German hopes, and so on.

What I want to trace can be put in a slightly different, and potentially universal, register: it concerns the openness of ecstatic experience versus the loss of that openness in melancholia, or a shift from plenitude to lack. The latter would not exist without the former; the regret would not persist without the taste of something joyful, the absence without the memory of something once present. If an event occurs then vanishes, it leaves traces and calls upon subjects to retain fidelity. Such an event struggles to be expressed in available language. The musical subculture becomes a cultural echo of that experience, perhaps an attempt to take up the event in a different language, as it ripples out, ecstatic and melancholic, a double tonality of history and experience, a tone and its counter-tone. An ambivalent switching occurs as the event is traced and lost (see Gibson on Françoise Proust, whose work remains untranslated in English).

To be more historically specific: 1989 and 1990, of course, formed an incredibly optimistic period for many people. This moment, particularly for East Germans, heralded the end of various deadlocks. The revolution saw the spilling of people on to the streets, a rush to overturn and renew what stood in their path – this kernel of disaffection and the promise or hope of something better created a moment that broke through the institutional blockages and banal routines of damaged and compromised lives (for more on this, see my recently published book on this period. The electronic music scene, among many other contemporaneous expressions, retained a token of that lived experience, and this carried within it an openness towards others and a promise of futurity and change that travelled beyond Europe.

Dancefloor Sozialismus

In 1989, then, something happened to people that tweaked their understanding of how desire works within and against social structures; this recognition took place, to use Lacanian terms, across the real (it was an excess, previously unavailable in the rigidified symbolic order of the GDR, felt bodily and in the unsayability of feelings), the symbolic (people discovered that their consent secured the virtual power of the order – people alternately hugged and spat on border guards, who now appeared ridiculous) and the imaginary (new relations emerged, enmities broke down, imaginary rivalries momentarily dissolved). As in Orwell’s account of Barcelona in 1936, Berlin in 1989 was marked for a time by its instantaneous friendships, unquestioned solidarity and generous feelings and gestures.

Cover from the Tresor record label.
Cover from the Tresor record label.

This spontaneous ecstatic moment is all too easy to isolate from the patient and rigorous work of dissidents, working groups and social movements in the months beforehand – what took place in November 1989 was not a miracle, nor was it intoxication, but rather the longed-for moment of political disintegration that would herald moments of individual, cultural and social disintegration too. It became a moment of recomposition across realms divided by standard distinctions such as emotion and reason, affect and cognition, body and mind.

To be more concrete, watch the clip below from one of the many documentaries now being produced, this one entitled We Call It Techno (2009). Because his language and expression are saturated with pleasurable recollections of enjoyment, I’ve edited together footage of the only interviewee described as a ‘fan’, rather than a producer, promoter, DJ or club owner. The second half shows the language of ecstasy emerge, in part, from the scene itself. The journalist we first see begins by talking about Wolle’s parties, and we then see Wolle and a promotion for one of his parties.

Frank, the fan, clearly talks about overwhelming and significant experiences that re-oriented his life, while Wolle directly invoked ecstasy and trance as desired states, to bring people together but also to experiment. The past – reheated 60s sounds and disco – is denigrated in a commitment to nowness and the future. A desire for immediate redemption (joy, now, here, on the dancefloor) exists within a horizon of aesthetic, bodily and social exploration. So in the early 1990s, previous identities, institutional structures and aesthetic forms were all in flux, in a scene directed resolutely towards a future and away from the Cold War.

Collective ecstasy and individual ecstasy

Rushes of collective ecstasy, we see, can have a lasting impact – be it around the fall of the Wall or the spontaneous communities of the dancefloor. But what is this ‘ecstasy’?

Ecstasy may overwhelm the subject, providing moments of transcendence and immanent submission to the group. These two poles accord with broader conceptions of ecstatic experience, touching on ek-stasis, the term’s Greek root. Ek-stasis signifies a moment of standing outside oneself or the putting of something (typically the self) out of place. This etymology also uncovers the link to stasis. Stasis means civil war, as Agamben’s recently translated work reminds us. This is a suggestive etymological root for divided Germany: ecstasy entails being released from an inert internal division, from an entropic holding pattern. Nietzsche described ecstasy as liberation from stasis and sameness in his explorations of aesthetic, erotic and sacred expressions of ecstasy and rapture. Ecstasy, he wrote in section eight of Twilight of the Idols, was the preliminary psychological state for artistic activity or perception – indeed, of all art. Manic individual creativity displays this most intensely, but it can be present in less intense forms.

Still, of all the arts, ecstasy and music share an especially strong link, especially when performed to a group. So it’s also worth pausing over ‘collective ecstasy’ and asking whether it describes these experiences – or what it describes that may be distinct. For example, does collective ecstasy differ from individual ecstasy in any significant way? Since all emotional experience entails another’s presence, either real or imagined, the adjectives (collective/individual) seem to specify a different quality in the experience.

These qualities can be charted to the two slightly different meanings of ek-stasis – one about displacement to an outside, another about displacement within. So in many individual accounts of ecstatic experience, an awareness of the external world seems to drop away, and is replaced by an expanded interior consciousness – which in religious and mystical ecstasy examples clearly entails a heightened awareness of God and in the music examples entails an intense focus upon aesthetic experience, such as textures and rhythms; in clubs, too, Frank made clear, the increasingly elaborate synaesthesiastic experience of intense light displays, fog machines and so on.

In which case, then, does collective ecstasy merely reinforce and heighten the experience an individual can have? Is it that, in what people call ‘collective ecstasy’, they are primarily experiencing a self dislocated into the shifting field of those who surround them and seem similarly dislocated – have they ‘merged’ with a crowd? If this is right, then in collective ecstasy people seem to describe an extension into a field of others, a third space between self and other, while in individual ecstasy people seem to describe an intension within the self, almost a displacement of the subject to a yet deeper internal world, a new shape of the self (see Pahl) that has enlarged the internal experience through self-alienation and exposure to an external event. In these senses, ecstatic moments seem to reconfigure subjects and spaces. This opening of the subject can make them vulnerable, disorganising and reorganising senses of self. Encountering new shapes of the self is, it seems, the draw of ecstatic experience.

Drugs and divided subjects

If music and geopolitical rearrangement produced a call of freedom in clubs after 1989, the other part of the equation is drugs. Specifically, ecstasy: its properties helped to set the period’s tenor. Indeed, as Joshua Clover writes, ‘rarely has a subculture’s self-identification been so thoroughly indexed to a single drug’.

A pure dose of ecstasy – which pharmacological and public health research indicates is difficult to find on the black market – is an empathogen-entactogen. Its entactogen properties signify a ‘touching within’, a shift that can put pill takers in contact with others and oneself. MDMA’s legislated use in the second half of the twentieth century was as a tool for therapeutic sessions, particularly romantic counselling. For some time, it was legal in the United States for this purpose. Its empathogen properties make it a feeling enhancer, disinhibiting subjects and affording them access to a potentially broader range of experiences. The term indicates too that it aids in producing empathy, so these experiences are typically shared experiences.

Ecstasy can hence open barriers and remove borders for individual subjects – and for spontaneous communities. Such crowds, as on the dancefloor, can catalyse what music critic Simon Reynolds calls ‘a strange and wondrous atmosphere of collective intimacy, an electric sense of connection between complete strangers’. Again, this urge-to-merge recalls those spontaneous embraces at the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Not every audience member or DJ was on this or any other drug in these years – but the affective atmosphere was decisively shaped by a drug that increased empathy and inner reflection. As DJ and producer Tanith says in an interview with Denk and von Thülen (about infamous Berlin club Walfisch): “you could go in at four in the afternoon without taking anything and still get high.” Or, as someone else notes in the same book: if you’re shown a door once, you can find it again (i.e., you don’t need to be on the drug repeatedly). In other words, ecstasy was a cultural and neurological dominant in the gatherings, suggesting a ‘fit’ between musical production, bodily response and shared enjoyment.

So this cultural form provides interesting material for considering how – following an event – political, social and cultural change mutually interact and individuals and groups reach after new experiences. Demonstrably, German re-unification was a disappointment for not a few Germans. And the electronic music scene became an embedded, institutionalised and heavily promoted pillar of Berlin’s post-industrial tourist economy. But for a moment, in those ecstatic moments, something flickered there – and its evanescence makes it more, not less, interesting for the paths not taken.

Dr Ben Gook recently completed his PhD thesis at The University of Melbourne in Social Theory and Cultural Studies. His recent publication, Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-unified Germany after 1989 puts affective life at the centre of these questions, both in the role affect played in mobilizing East Germans to overthrow their regime and as a sign of disappointment after formal reunification. Using contemporary Germany as a lens the book explores broader debates about borders, memory and subjectivity.

Further Reading

Agamben, Giorgio. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm: Homo Sacer, II, 2, translated by Nicholas Heron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Clover, Joshua. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Denk, Felix, and Sven von Thülen. Der Klang der Familie: Berlin, Techno and the Fall of the Wall, translated by Jenna Krumminga. Norderstedt: BoD, 2014.

Garcia, L-M. ‘At Home, I’m a Tourist: Musical Migration and Affective Citizenship in Berlin’. Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, 2(1+2) (2015): 121-134.

Garcia, L-M. ‘Techno-Tourism and Postindustrial Neo-Romanticism in Berlin’s Electronic Dance Music Scenes’. Tourist Studies, 16(3) (forthcoming).

Gibson, Andrew. Intermittency: The Concept of Historical Reason in Recent French Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Gook, Ben. Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-Unified Germany after 1989. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Hollywood, Amy. Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference and the Demands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Nye, Sean. ‘Minimal Understandings: The Berlin Decade, the Minimal Continuum, and Debates on the Legacy of German Techno’. Journal of Popular Music Studies 25, no. 2 (2013): 154-184.

Pahl, Katrin. Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012.

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