The days went by, as they always and everywhere do. There were jobs to work, dependents to care for, and friends to support and from whom we needed support. But we who were close, physically or psychically, felt dissonance enter even these obligatory movements; during a quiet conversation with a friend, perhaps amid the last vibrations of a laugh, would appear a notification of dozens of children trapped beneath the rubble of a maternity ward.
There were protests in Tbilisi every night. Ukrainian flags everywhere. Blue and yellow explanations of how to help from afar and appeals for donations repeated themselves on social media. The clubs participated: publishing statements of solidarity, pledging to donate their profits to the Ukrainian cause. Phones constantly pinged with updates from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, bringing energy, urgency, and, inevitably, sorrow.
Over those days, I found my thoughts turning toward the distance between what’s necessary and what’s pleasurable. I wondered whether stepping toward pleasure might heighten the contrast between my peaceful surroundings and Ukraine’s war zones. It may not make the dissonance more jarring, but it does perhaps make it more accusing.
The whole point of electronic music, of a rave, is a quiet stillness. In clangor and chaos, as beat follows beat, everyone together creates a temporality whose moments acquire irregular durations and unpredictable qualities, whose connective tissue warps beyond sober recognition. Outside of normal time, neither one’s cares and anxieties nor their hopes and dreams have a substrate in which to express themselves; (every)one is free to be free. On the best of nights, these waves of collective absolution flow into one another, scarcely differentiable. Lives have been ruined in the pursuit of ekstasis; lives have been saved by it too.
The vitality of this originary state is why my question, our question—can one dance while people are being murdered in Ukraine—is not a frivolous one. But it may be secondary to a more substantial question: Do any of our actions possess the consequentiality required to really be called actions in the full sense of the word?
The whole point of electronic music, of a rave, is a quiet stillness.
I can only support and admire those who move in concert with the masses of like-minded people around them, those who attend protests, hang flags from their balconies, and post appeals for donations on social media. Though there is meaning in these gestures—solidarity foremost among them—their results, to me, seem far from clear. It’s rather like throwing a handful of unidentified seeds into the wind and praying they grow into something edible.
The hope is that “We,” together, can grasp the material necessary for change, like people acting collectively have done in the past and may in the future. Tbilisi’s club scene provides hope enough. Their White Noise Movement (closely related to Bassiani’s founders) began organizing in opposition to the country’s gratuitously harsh drug lawsin 2016. They responded to club raids in 2018 by staging a massive protest-cum-rave in front of the National Parliament. These actions had some success, resulting in partial relaxations of drug laws in the months that followed.
My fear is that the course of Putin’s war is beyond the influence of even the most well-organized collective action, that the basis for action has in fact been reduced to obscure faith that some infinitesimal difference will be made by donating a few dollars or flying a Ukrainian flag. If our responses to suffering are so restrained, their relation to our desired ends so clouded, then so too is our capacity to judge what is moral and what is not. Did I act immorally because I skipped a solidarity protest to go to a rave? I don’t think so—the stakes just aren’t there.
If the point of dancing is stillness, then dancing is not an action in any of these senses. It’s something entirely different—to dance is autotelic. The word refers to actions that have no goal outside themselves. Running to lose weight is not autotelic, but if you run just to run, it is; knitting just to knit can be autotelic, but if your kid needs a scarf, it’s not. In the ideal, then, one dances just to dance, chases stillness just to be still.
T. S. Eliot once wrote that poetry is autotelic (in contrast to criticism, which always has an agenda): “Art may be affirmed to serve ends beyond itself; but art is not required to be aware of these ends.” Someone could say their art—or their dancing—serves some purpose, political or otherwise, but they don’t have to. Even if they wanted to frame their dancing as a pacifistic political intervention, it’s unlikely they would be able to point to any definite results of their purported action. At this moral impasse, all we can discuss is the meaning of an action as a symbol—what dancing at a time like this “looks like”or “shows about someone”—not its actual outcome or work.
When I went out on March 4 (which stretched to the morning of the sixth), I was already thinking about this essay. My action, then, was not an autotelic one—I had writerly intent. Feeling the mood, I watched people dance, trying to diagnose their expressions and glimpse the character of their conversation. It looked, for all I could see, like a normal, if not exceptional, night—that is, people managing to create a peaceful suspension that existed only within itself and for itself.
It would be easy to say that dancing, and autotelic action in general, has nothing to do with anything outside itself. But action of any type occurs in a particular context and at a particular moment. Adorno’s remark that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz may not have been true, but it still points to the world’s intrusion into all we would try most earnestly to keep isolated from it.
The invasion of Ukraine is, at least for those of us on the eastern edges of Europe, the most important event in the world right now. But it is not the only thing that’s happening, not the only tragedy that could provide the impetus for the questions I’ve been asking. Decisions about what pleasures are permissible to pursue have been constant since the pandemic began—though they’ve always existed. Even before, our world had begun to seem more and more intrusive, harder and harder to escape. We’ve grappled with multiple realizations that the climate is changing faster and more drastically than predicted. Ethiopia has been at war for months; Yemen, Mali, and Myanmar for years. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. And, in Bosnia, where I live, refugees from all these conflicts are subjected to beatings, robbery, and rape on a daily basis. Everything is fucking horrible and only the most naive optimists believe it will get better.
Action of any type occurs in a particular context and at a particular moment.
It would be equally easy to say dancing is a profound act of resistance on the part of people who cannot affect these historical movements. Doesn’t partying, dancing, having fun in spite of it all amount to a rejection of the hand that we who are young have been dealt? Perhaps, though those with the time and resources to go clubbing probably don’t have the worst cards in the deck.
One might think their dancing doesn’t imply any insensitivity or disrespect, while another believes it to be the most sensitive and respectful action at their disposal. A third counters that dancing right now is profoundly disrespectful. Multiple justifications and many counter arguments could be traded, but no objective conclusions can be reached.I’d insist that dancing is not even just meaningless, but neither meaningful nor meaningless: that we can dance simply to dance.
As I watched, thought, and moved in and through the clubs in Tbilisi, I knew I would find my way to where I wanted to be. I waited to receive beats and samples and drops that carried me away from any thoughts of this war, or this essay, or anything else. I moved toward everyone else. To seek this pleasure is, in my judgment, human.
But also important to my humanity is feeling fully, respecting the iron pang that hit when I left the darkness of the club. I am responsible, at least, for using the morning light to look as unblinkingly as I can at the state of the world, the suffering of people, even when there is nothing I can do. I worry about the uncomfortable dissonance between here and there fading with time. Not only Ukraine, not only in the present, but all those wars and crises we’ve not allowed to affect us, nor asked ourselves these questions about. The absence of discord within those autotelic actions that bring us pleasure is a sign of an indifference that cannot but lead to a failure of action—if the possibility of acting ever does reveal itself. Until then, I’ll dance with those who are dancing. Without guilt, I’ll take whatever moments of peaceful amity I can while accepting the inevitable comedown to our too-enmitous world.