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(Credit: Levi Guzman)

Music | Opinion

Opinion: Are illegal raves Britain’s last surviving ritual?


Last week, there was much talk about an illegal rave on Cornish moorland. The event – which attracted thousands of partygoers – commenced just before the Jubilee weekend and quickly attracted complaints from local residents, many of whom took issue with the loud music emanating from a distinctly soggy patch of land on Davidstow Moor, near Camelford.

By Sunday, the ravers were still there, with police threatening to take action against the organisers if the attendees didn’t disperse, some of whom travelled from as far away as Scotland. A police statement issued at the time carries the usual matter-of-factness: “[We] would like to reassure the local communities and wider public that we are taking this matter seriously and where appropriate,” it read. “We will seek to take action against those attending and running the event.”

That need to be “reassured” by the authorities whenever an illegal rave takes place indicates that these events threaten to overturn the everyday rhythms of ordinary life. The rave is innately subversive. Unlike the humble concert, field-bound danceabouts are celebrated for their ungovernability. The use of illegal drugs (sometimes used to excess) alongside the hedonistic and escapist intentions of ravers has added to the aura of danger surrounding these events. However, viewing them as public nuisances denies the potential that illegal raves function as a space for individuals to explore new modes of the collective experience and express resistance.

Ritual is a uniquely human preposition. From a certain angle, raves can be seen to function in the same way as many of our oldest customs, largely because they also serve to bind communities — or in this case, sub-communities. According to Rachel E. Watson-Jones and Cristine H. Legare, rituals had traditionally been used to “solve adaptive problems associated with group living.” They tend to involve large groups all participating in the same action, allowing the community to identify in-group members. If an individual currently engages in the approved codes of conduct of a specific ritual, they are accepted. Those who demonstrate commitment to the group through participation in the ritual are thus more likely to be trusted. In this way, the ritual has typically been a way for societies to re-establish or redefine their parameters.

When it comes to rave, commitment to the group is shown through the participant’s submission to an enhanced focus on the body. Through dancing and the use of drugs, the raver’s awareness becomes rooted in the world of the physical, allowing for the creation of what Robin Sylvan (author of Traces of The Spirit) calls “bodily mysticism”. Many members of the EDM subculture are attracted to raves because they are transformative by nature, with drugs like MDMA allowing for a heightened sense of collective empathy. Illegal raves often make use of abandoned spaces, turning disused farmland, abandoned warehouses and derelict terrace houses into spaces where individuals can connect and intertwine on a frequently psycho-spiritual level. The ubiquity of unitive experiences formed through EDM culture has led many to regard raves as a sort of non-religious spiritual movement, with ravers all seeking a mystical experience that will inspire a heightened state of consciousness and bind them to others. Indeed, these ritualistic elements of rave tend to define the experience for the majority of participants. What is a rave, after all, without a sense of having experienced both intense psychical stress and overwhelming love?

Historically, rituals have been heavily structured, both in the sense that they were fixtures in the calendar year and often featured pattern behaviour. More often than not, rituals tend to employ various repeated rhythmic activities. On the most basic level, raves are deeply ritualistic because they require large groups of people to repeat the same movements while listening to repeated rhymic pulses. While this isn’t enough to label the illegal rave a modern-day ritual, the transformative motivations behind such events would suggest that they have the potential to be. Raves are often described as ‘underground’ events that seek to catalyse spiritual change in participants, generating a cultural shift by extension. However, they are also antidotal. In both the de-centralised way they are organised and the collective experience they seek to offer, raves attempt to remedy the hyper-individualisation, mass-conformity and isolation of modern life.

That’s not to say that illegal raves don’t have the potential to be destructive, dangerous and offensive; it’s just that that’s sort of the point. In testing the limits of collective experience, ravers may be attempting to form new ways of living in an increasingly fragmented and totally industrialised world. To assume that all raves are sordid dens of depravity is to ignore one of the most essential functions of subculture: to imagine an alternative.

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