Nightclubs and Nihilism

If you’ve never been to a nightclub before, allow me to paint you a quick picture: The lights are colourful yet dim, with the occasional flashing strobe.  The bar is generally pressed against the far wall of the establishment, in which two or three baristas are scrambling to keep up with the onrush of orders shouted over the din, the disorganized exchange of sticky dollar bills, and the patrons who are thirsty for more than a vodka cranberry.  The bar, though every club-goer’s first stop, is not the main focus of The Club; rather, the main appeal of the room (and my main strategic focus) is the dance floor.

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Here is where anyone can witness true nihilism at its finest.

Martin Heidegger defined “nihilism” as the result of single-minded fixation on one goal or aspect of human life at the expense of all else.  This kind of hyper-focusing on only one aspect of life amplifies not only its importance but also its omnipresence in society, and allows other potentially important values to fade to the periphery of human consciousness.  Dirk Leach observed nihilistic patterns in the monotonous and mindless routines involved in the mechanical labour he performed at an automobile manufacturing plant; a job that has been perfected with systematically standardized procedures to maximize the speed and efficiency of the manufacturing process not only minimizes the importance of other facets of the workers’ skillsets (such as rest, creativity and/or communication skills), but also actively suppresses them, dulling the worker’s sensibilities and acuteness until he himself forgets they ever existed.  For this reason, Leach specifies that nihilism hides in places where there is repetition, monotony, and too much of one thing, such as countless mechanical parts on an endless assembly line. Having displaced what it deems “of no account”, the object of our current focus begins to lose any discernible meaning for us as well.

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Similar claims have been made that the modern, industrial world makes us nihilistically oblivious to the omnipresence of technology and environmental destruction around us.  The image below, a screen grab from Godfrey Reggio’s experimental 1980s film, Koyaanisqatsi, shows happy-go-lucky sunbathers frolicking in the shadow of a huge nuclear power plant.

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I agree with Reggio, but add that Heidegger and Leach’s notion of nihilism has also shaped the experience and expectations of nightlife frequenters.  As any club-goer could tell you, the club attracts a LOT of one thing: people.  Neglecting to enforce the capacity restrictions on club entrance, money-hungry bouncers often usher in hundreds of patrons to the point where people need to hold on tightly to their friends so they don’t get separated while weaving through a seemingly endless throng of overheated human bodies and simply lining up to get to a bathroom can take up most of the night.

This is the first element of nihilism in the club, as it conditions club-goers’ expectations: like at a rave, the club’s crowdedness breeds a new kind of partier, one who not only can survive without needing privacy, but also has an aversion to it. We are a generation of extroverts who thrive in social situations and feed off anyone’s company except their own. While everyone complains about an over-crowded dance floor, those same people are the first to leave if there were “not enough people there” one night.   To further prove my point, female bathrooms, even stalls–the only place in the club designated for one person at a time—are often occupied by multiple girls at once.

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The other omnipresent element of clubs is the music (if you can call it that); managed and mixed by a deejay on a high-rising platform, the music is so loud that regular conversation is impossible. A person needs to physically shout directly into another ear to be heard over the pounding beat, and often, after the third or fourth repetition of what they said, gives up talking altogether.  With an absence of all forms of verbal communication such as conversing, joking, and–dare I say it—verbal consent, what takes over is body language.  Without oral communication, club goers must instead–as the Shakira song
goes–“rea[d] the signs of [others’] bod[ies]”.   Consequently, your personality is pretty much forced to take the backseat, as your desirability in the club depends—for the most part—on your backseat.  This whole process–of muting one’s personality–is best achieved with the help of intoxicating agents that slow your thoughts and reaction time, and help convert your physical movements into a caricaturized representation of your internal state, not unlike an emoji.

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I don’t say this as a disapproving “square” offended by anything “kids these days” are into; I’m observing the ways in which the ideological values embedded into the framework of a structural system have the power to emphasize or de-emphasize certain characteristics of humanity.  In the club, the only reality is corporeality, as all else is pushed to the background.  Club-goers communicate by waving, smiling, dancing, touching, or approaching or retreating from someone.  While unwanted physical contact is a common unpleasantly in clubs—usually for women–in a physically-defined environment such as a club dance floor, touching can in some cases, act almost as a means of asking permission to touch, and denial of that permission is also communicated through physical means (often by moving someone’s hand, or one’s self out of reach).

The obvious outcome of such an abundance of physical communication is that in the absence of verbal and other forms of communication to prolong the spaces in between, a preliminary-stage physical advance is welcome and the rest are quick to follow.  Thus, the over-crowdedness and loudness of clubs are conducive to physical relationships that progress rapidly and often terminate just as rapidly either that night or the morning after.  The reason why so many physical relationships that began with such acceleration burn out so quickly is that without the initial ability to properly communicate or present one’s personality, the parties involved can rarely ever develop the kind of personal connection that might have been conducive to a more profound relationship.  Hook-up culture, in which people deliberately seek out these brief, nonintimate encounters, might then be considered the fallout of the impossibility of intimate relationships in the club setting.

In this way, the club exemplifies elements of nihilism articulated by Heidegger and Leach, since club-goers’ near nightly immersion in omnipresent music, crowds, and physical encounters renders each individual element repetitive, monotonous, and in turn–as Leach observes of mechanical parts on an assembly line–meaningless.

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