Dionysus Now> by Graham St John


It was July 2007. I guess I had travelled to Greece to locate the Dionysian festal, in a region proximate to its origins. I wanted to dig around the roots of what now passes for carnival, but which, under Christian and commercial interests, has been domesticated in the modern West. I travelled to the island of Limnos in the Northern Aegean for the Island of Fire Festival, a psytrance festival on a remote sandy beach near the village of Moudros on a tree devoid island shaped like a horseshoe.

 The heat was stifling, and the setting sun a daily epic over the calming waters of the Aegean Sea. The stage was set for Dionysus to stomp forth in towering sheets of flame, bearing barrels of red wine and sumptuous treats unlooked for. Or so I imagined, mistakenly, for things hadn't quite gone to plan on the Island of Fire. With numerous big-ticket acts including Vibrasphere, Kenji Williams, Youth, Solar Fields, Gabriel Le Mar, Beat Bizarre, Tripswitch, along with about 30 other performers like Klopfgeister and Carbon Based Lifeforms, full live bands, and a raised purpose built stage, the project was ambitious. Yet with more than 2,000 people fewer than the 3,000 expected, the party was more a warm cup of chai tea on a remote beach than a dance conflagration. An extravagant private party. Now, a warm chai on a remote beach isn't bad at all, nor is Kenji Williams and his amazing wife, dancer Sayoko, turning up at your party.

But this wasn't the way it was meant to be.

Unlike the earlier Samothraki festival, held on the nearby island of that name (which attracted 10,000 people by 2003, and would be closed down by Greek authorities that year), the Dionysian vibe failed to materialise, with the global freaks synonymous with psytrance filtering through in small numbers only. Certainly, splayed out in small pockets along the beach, many party-goers (along with the legion of contracted DJs) enjoyed themselves in acts of spontaneous combustion, and the acoustics of the bay were fabulous, the stage flush with a smooth rock cliff dropping to form a right-angle at one end of the beach. But the dance floor never reached high tide, and the music too diverse for a single stage. The event was an unmitigated blow-out.

 It was fair to say that I was disappointed. Musing on why I hadn't danced with Dionysus or his Maenads, it occurred to me that I may have encountered them all the same, and in places I'd hardly anticipated, though with which I was already quite familiar. The tourism and recreational service industries upon which Greece relies is saturated with the Dionysian, or some adulterated version of it. It had enveloped me on my pre-festival visit to the island of Hydra, and a few days after the event, Dionysus was carousing Myrina, the port of Limnos, the central thoroughfare of which-a cobble-stoned avenue lined with souvenir and cellular phone stores snaking its way from the harbour to the sun-lounged beaches-I plied for several days smouldering like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. In what seemed like endless days waiting for the ferry (to Samothraki), I knew that the god of wine was not absent, just distributed. Not barred, just bar-coded. Not dead, but re-animated by media corporations and entertainment conglomerates, styled, packaged and promoted according to detailed readings of the latest market research. Anyone for Dionysus Lite?

 How many days did I skulk about in that café-bar drawing on a frappé enduring Olivier Newton John's Twist of Fate on Sky FM? Why do I know all the lines to this, and how did I become haunted by Phil Collins?

 These aren't exactly original thoughts. Post-Nietzsche and certainly after Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, which explored how the carnivalesque passed into literature and modern consciousness following the adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel, carnival has broken the levy and floods everyday, and everynight, life in our post-Seven Eleven world of round-the-clock social recreations. From café-bars to virtual town squares, from tour groups to all night dance parties, the "people's second world", as Bakhtin dubbed the carnival, has proliferated throughout contemporary social life, a theme obsessing French sociologist Michel Maffesoli. In The Shadow of Dionysus: Towards a Sociology of the Orgy, Maffesoli explored what he called the "orgiasm." The orgiastic impulse to be together in conclaves of conviviality pervades the present characterised by passional associations the Frenchman called empathetic neo-tribes, fluid and temporary micro-communities often driven by no purpose other than to be together with fellow travellers. From dance clubs to sporting associations, these reservoirs of puissance are geared towards the orgiastic climax of the festal, those moments of pure consumption occasioning transgressions of imposed morality: pleasure for pleasure's sake. As the late 20th century t-shirt and bumper sticker read: "It's all good."

 The carnivalisation of everyday life has also concerned criminologist Mike Presdee, who takes a rather different approach. Presdee's Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime explores how the "logic of transgression," the pleasure that is obtained in breaking rules, proliferates within media, entertainment, and consumerism, as the rules, codes, and laws governing social behaviour multiply. With satellite television, net-porn and a host of newly conceived vicarious interactions, transgression is in hot demand as the outlawing and licensing of the disorder and disorientation implicit to carnival sees the latter flourish in bizarre commodified and virtual forms. "It is the nature of the carnival," states Presdee, "to resist containment and closure." In this view, regimented and regulated by official culture on the one hand, registered and trademarked on the other, Presdee offers sanguine suggestions about the criminal career of Dionysus torn loose from his moorings. "[T]he unofficial second life of the people is driven deeper and deeper from view and comprehension," such that we are now in the midst of a rampaging "carnival without closure". Maybe it wasn't all good after all.

 The commodification of transgression is a theme taken up by a host of thinkers, among them Thomas Frank, whose The Conquest of Cool recounts the pimping of the counterculture by the advertising industry. Hippies, freaks and other "edgemen" were involved in a headlong commitment to embrace ekstasis, to trespass across the psychic limits, a motivation inherited by contemporary psytrance habitués. But as Frank discusses, radical self-abandonment and psychedelic visionary states were, if not subject to repressive ordinance, usurped by business execs and chic designers exploiting the desire for transgression, for being experienced, which could now be obtained drinking Coca Cola's Fruitopia or behind the wheel of a Chrysler. Up on billboards everywhere, Dionysus was good for business.

 Not too far removed geographically from the God's original haunts, this was all fairly de riguer on Limnos, where the Greek military, incidentally, maintain a sizable presence so close to Turkey. On the streets of Myrina in July the transgressions of the modern Bacchanal, stifled in a cove 20km to the east, were channeled into the safety dance of the Grecian tourist industry, relocated to the parental world of controlled discharges and surveillance, confined to units moved and packages offered by The Mysteries. A faint reminder might have been found at the Hotel Limnos or in any of the other hotels, bars and gaming salons vying for the tourist. But for initiates of the Speedo Cult who work on their tans during the day, shifting back Amstel Pulse at Club Energy after the sun goes down, for couples temporarily vacating their routine or routinely vacating, and thus, as Sherry Turkle once stated, possibly never knowing "anything but workdays and days off work", Dionysus rarely loses his trousers.

 Workers of the world demand vacation security alongside job security, all the more in a global climate where uncertainty is synonymous with insecurity (and thus where certainty IS security). A secure vacation appears assured by the state's persistent bludgeoning of the edges of predictability, made possible as rights for administering the "Limit Experience" are granted to Dionysus Industries Pty Limited, enabled as direct phenomenal experience is replaced by vicarious entertainments like that enjoyed when tuning into Survivor.

 With no chance to be voted off the island, I heard stories of thousands who'd been prevented to travel to Limnos. At several ports of disembarkation, police searched festival-bound freak bodies, cars and belongings for illicit substances. Festival organiser Haris Papadimitriou from It Records and Freeze Magazine, informed me that military command on the island made the event a no-go-zone for its personnel, among them Sideliner, an artist originally on the bill. Quietly fuming in an email: "Headquarters did not give him permission to play at the rave!!!" Haris was also disappointed that police had apparently confused him with the organisers of the Samothraki events a few years earlier. Before the party started, he'd spent several hours pleading for the release of one of his crew found in possession of a very small quantity of hash and jailed. This incident appeared to have fed the kind of hysteria necessary for agents of Apollo everywhere to maintain order in the face of perennial threats to stability, dangers embodied in folk devils lubricating the machinery of boundary maintenance in the Age of Security. I was even told a story about police strip-searching someone's child for drugs (they found none). Despite all the appropriate permissions from the Mayor, the authorities weren't about to permit Dionysus to raise his flute on Limnos.

 Millennia downstream from Plato, who had himself railed against "bestial gatherings" and sought the banning of the Bacchanal, was this the function of the repression of the Island of Fire Festival: to allow safe transgressions to smoulder throughout Greece like a controlled burn? If it was the case then this is not, of course, a circumstance particular to populations in the Aegean and northern Greece. It is the lot of those dwelling in the neo-liberal information age, where raging social conflagrations are routinely hosed so as to maintain an entirely predictable outcome in which state order and profit are intimate accomplices.

 In Myrina it was another searing afternoon, and as I gazed west across the sea pursuing the sun's final moments, the sky grew orange bathing the foreshore park in Blakeian iridescence. I had sought relief in the park, its plants, trees and statues now illuminated by the spectacle. At the same time, this new light seemed to communicate a vision, or, perhaps more accurately, confirm an earlier recognition: that the wild and intoxicating dance endogenous to the Dionysian has been domesticated globally. In the glittering nightworld of dance the inter-corporeal delirium has been regulated by industry standards and copyright laws, strangled by a closing thicket of permit requirements, entertainment licenses and council by-laws, smothered by Public Order, Noise and Anti-Social Behaviour Acts and Quality of Life Taskforces; routed by brutal paramilitary style campaigns designed to kill the vibe. In the UK and around the world, following the feral days of acid house rave and the popularising of Ecstasy (or what would pass for MDMA), clubs were back in tight with the alcohol industry, and soundscapes in café-bars and retail outlets increasingly dictated by the ever-encroaching middle aged funk of RIAA approved and Phil Collins saturated net-radio stations like Sky FM: one station under God.

More Now

In a region with some of the largest mobile billboards on the planet-glacial class high speed ferry-boats featuring advertisements for Vodafone along their sides-the Northern Aegean is flooded with cellular phone consumption, echoing evidence of its growth around the globe. The ubiquity of mobile phone marketing in this region literally lifted me out of the water, and shed further light on the career of Dionysus.

 As opposed to the disciplined world of Apollo, the Dionysian is recognised to be a carefree realm, outside or between rules, a space-time of wild abandon, play and immediacy, the merging of self with, and in, the Other. To be Dionysian is to live now, to be immortal, to "stay up forever" to revisit a mantra from the early rave scene-a scene which was also dedicated to making "now last longer." As conveyed in ubiquitous advertisements for cell phones, and, for that matter, luxury cars or flash sportswear, making now last longer is more achievable today than ever before. And, the recurring sequence of images by which this promise is marketed? Youthfulness. The immediacy, and immortality, of youth. And perhaps, more to the point, a virtual youthfulness. In the hands of more and more citizens of the globe, more and more of whom thus become globalized, with the assistance of satellite communications technologies, cellular phones are a kind of possibility talisman. Potentiating instant communication, such devices enable owners to live more in the present than just yesterday, to be more spontaneous than you were last week, to be more youthful than when you were a kid. As the advertising campaign for a UK mobile phone sex-texting agency at SKY TV had it: "text fun... maybe more." More. Always the promise of more.

 The possibilities are made to seem endless-an orgiastic opening outwards as telco and cyber industries both invent and resolve the desire for more. Despite the increasing virtualization of interactions, technologies are designed to enable immediacy, like the mediated immediacy offered by Wi-Fi. Wearable media players, PDA's and the Iphone, there are always new devices, newer models, with the latest firmwear, just around the corner, promising upgraded accessibility, improved interactability, permanent spontaneity, better living through satellites. In the millenarianism of satellite telecommunications discourse, such as that associated with GPRS and 3G networks offering "anytime/anywhere" access, being connected, fully-charged and powered-up amounts to possessing a global-selfhood, possessing data-potency, being "on" forever. In this climate, who wants to be a sedentary stay-at-home, inaccessible, un-networked and immobile? Who wants to be left behind? Unconnected, unrealized, virtually dead?

 Of course, transforming military and commercial practice, essential for operating within competitive markets, for child rearing, for policing, for day-to-day work and living arrangements, virtual connectivity is driven by instrumental reasoning: by an Apollonian impulse. But it occurred to me that the ubiquity of cellular technology in particular is driven also by a Dionysian impulse. The mobile technology advertising industry has done its homework on the impulse for immortality, manipulating, and manufacturing, fears of obsolescence, of being left behind, and "off" the network. It manipulates the occidental terror of one's own mortality. As a ubiquitous Dionysian engine, the mobile phone-together with an endlessly updated suite of plans and services marketed like a mongrel in Greece-has become emblematic of the desire for mobility, immediacy, and immortality; to "be together", for being global, in the present.

 Within a couple of decades, the Dionysian has broken its levees and flooded the public sphere, enabling one to be in permanent dialogue with more data, in touch with more people, be more mobile, more now, than ever before. The desire for the carnival, for entrancement, perhaps for what Roy Rappaport called "cosmic time", has driven the development of communications technology (perhaps as much as practical and utilitarian motivations). But like the safety dance evinced by contemporary entertainment and lifestyle industries proliferating as a result of the control and regulation of the Bacchanal, the mobility of the Dionysian exemplified by mobile technology ubiquity and branded immortality, relies, in practice, upon its immobilization.

 A brief odyssey through the contemporary career of Dionysus returns me to my original quest: the Island of Fire Festival on Limnos. With police restricting access to the island for the festival, Apollonian and Dionysian compulsions came to a head. The festival was a financial disaster for its organisers and disappointing for the development of psytrance in Greece. That said, Haris isn't defeated. He says he'll do it again, in a different place. With that kind of Herculian spirit, and courage, you know Dionysus has a chance.

read radical anthropologist Graham St John's ongoing blog @ http://edgecentral.blogspot.com/