KEY WORDS: NARRATIVE, ACTOR NETWORK THEORY, HOUSE MUSIC, LGBTQ+, PEOPLE OF COLOUR
Actor Network Theory (ANT) proposes a different way to look to what we call “reality” and a different way to do sociology. According to Bruno Latour (2012), ANT is an alternative social theory that, among other things, argues that the social must be “done”, gives primacy to associations and postulates the agency of objects. Instead of pre-defining the form of the social, ANT emphasizes that this form is “done” through the movement, flows and associations of actors (including non-humans) who participate in the process of the formation and transformation of networks. The “social” does not exist, hidden, in the world, waiting to be discovered or unveiled by the scientists: it is “done” continuously.
John Law (2009) understands ANT less as a theory (because it is more descriptive than explanatory) and more as an approach that is part of the family of tools, sensitivities, and methods of semiotic analyYis, which treats all things as effects generated continuously in the webs of relationships in which they are located. ANT studies, says Law (2009), explores and describes the networks and practices of these relationships. Finally, he summarizes: “material semiotics” (ANT studies) explores the promulgation of realities (the ontological) as well as describing the making of knowledge (epistemology). Referring the discussion to the field of ethics, Law (2009) states that goods (or evils), knowledge and realities, are all promulgated together. It is worth emphasizing that the ANT authors do not dissociate the enterprise of knowing the reality of the act from creating it. In this sense, researching / studying / writing also means making and drawing networks.
Annemarie Mol, considered by some as a post ANT theorist, invests in the aspect of performativity and speaks of ontological politics and multiple realities. According to Mol, there is not just one ontology, which precedes the practices of knowledge. For Mol, ontologies are “made” (performed or acted, instituted, implemented, occasioned) through the practices. And because there are many practices, there are many ontologies. On the other hand, the different realities coexist and relate, are linked, which poses the question of their coordination / organization, thus introducing the political dimension: which version of reality, for example, takes precedence over the others? What sustains such primacy? These are good questions to ask and very pertinent to the subject I wish to address in this text, where I try to initiate a reflection on narratives from the perspective of actor-network theory, considering the action of the materialities in the narrative process. In this sense, I propose that narrative can be thought of in a performative sense and that the materialities can be considered as active elements in the process.
THE DJ SET AS A NARRATIVE
In week 8 of the Narrative Research course at the Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London, in which I recently participated, one online discussion involved an interpretation of a poster called “For the Manydem”. I found the poster interesting but I was not able to understand the message, whose political meaning was admirably described by a colleague on the course. I did not have the resources to understand the narrative in the poster because I did not know the signs implied in the message. I spent some time thinking about this and about the different kind of ‘narratives’, especially those related to art, that are not usually considered in these terms (that is, as narratives).
A few days after this episode I had a conversation with a professor, in which I told her that the DJ set is a narrative. She seemed a little disbelieving but I added that veterans DJs often say that good DJs “tell stories” through their sets. A week later I went to a London nightclub to see Honey Dijon, a House Music DJ who is active and popular in electronic music scenes at this moment. But, before I talk about the night I spent with Honey Dijon, for my purposes in this text it will be necessary to describe, at least briefly, the “evolution” of the electronic music scene in the world and the role of House Music in the story.
This story began in the 1970’s, in New York City locations/clubs frequented predominantly by black and latino queens, who danced to a combination of predominantly black rhythms (funk, soul, underground disco …). From the way the songs were performed and the mood that the combination of songs would bring to those places, originated the concept of House Music. Because of this background, House can be considered the first electronic genre of music produced for and on dancefloors.
From Chicago and New York, House Music crossed the Atlantic ocean in the mid-1980’ s to win the world and inspire the emergence of other styles of electronic music, which diversified in the 2000’ s, gaining a high level of influence and popularity.
But, just like any novelty full of creativity and spirit, House Music was appropriated, in large part, by the market() in a process that has become even more violent in recent years due to two phenomena that I propose to consider together here: the development of the technology related to DJiing and producing music- which increased access to these two fields, specially the DJiing, because it has now becomes a very easy thing to do; and the fact that the DJ has become a kind of “pop idol”, which has provoked exclusion (from the market) of artists outside a certain body / age / racial pattern.
As a result, some producers and DJs have been making a lot of money from the creation and execution of songs destined for the dance music market, pasteurizing timbres and references to styles like House and Techno, inventing attractive labels to boost their pastiches in the market, without worrying about transmitting to the consumers anything about the history and foundation of this kind of music. This is how this market and scene are working nowadays. And the DJ, a key character in the scene, is becoming a brand and also a manager of social networks instead of an artist(). Nowadays, the electronic music derived from House moves fortunes, which meanwhile stay very far from the hands of the communities that gave House life. Likewise, this music of underground and libertarian origin, generated in contexts frequented by Black and Latino people (People of Color) belonging to the LGBT + segment of the population, now has an increasingly white and middle class audience.
DJ Honey Dijon is very critical of this marketing appropriation, which has as a consequence not only emptying out the artistic/aesthetic aspects of House Music, but also erasing the dimension of resistance that underlies the emergence of House. To exemplify her political position, I reproduce here one of her many public Facebook posts about thesubject:
And I’m gonna be the bitch to say it. I love House Music more than life itself. But shit these days is more about surface than substance and that´s why shit is stagnant as fuck. Everyone is staying in their own lane. It’s become entertainment as opposed to community. Motherfuckers consume rather than contribute. Bring back the freaks, the misfits, the odd balls and the kids that had nothing other than personality and a prayer. Also soul. Stop making house music about ticket sales and social media followers and agendas. Wasn’t it supposed to be about the music in the first fucking place?I#bringhousemusicback .
In interviews, Honey often mentions that she grew up in the 1970s and that her parents listened to a lot of soul and funk with political messages: “I grew up in a generation where music was attached to cultural and social change,” she says in an interview with Mixmag, and adds that much of the music she was listening to in her childhood was aligned with the civil rights movement.
I do not know if it is possible to say that House was originally created as a resistance music, but it has acquired this characteristic even if it is just due to the spaces where it was born and developed (ballrooms and clubs for black and Latino people LGBTQI +) together with its ethic of diversity and respect. In these spaces, such people, stigmatized by society in general, could socialize more freely and in protected ways and finally could recognize themselves as a community. For LGBTQI+ people, these contexts where House Music was the soundtrack, were the basis of the culture of these groups, simply because they provided for the coexistence of these people and for the exercise of an identity and expression related to their dissident sexualities (and/or genders, in some cases). Yes, I am saying that the party has a political dimension, as well as the property of gathering people and things, building communities and cultures.
For Honey Dijon, being a black and transsexual woman, and for a lot of LGBTQI + people, these places were not only sites of amusement. They represented a space where it was possible to be yourself without being threatened or attacked (psychologically or bodily). For people like Honey, as said in the Mixmag article, House Music culture was not only a passion but a necessity.
In spite of all this, if we take on the exercise of thinking as Bruno Latour and other ANT authors propose, arguing that ontologies, as well as realities, are multiple, we would have to assume that the origin of Eletronic Music scene is dispersed. And I must agree with those authors, because, how, for example, can we honestly say that an ultra-commercial festival like Tomorrowland is necessarily linked with 80’s Chicago? Or that The Continental Baths, a NY gay sauna where House Music founders Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, two black homosexuals, started their careers in the 70´s – is linked to Fatboy Slim DJiing at carnival in Bahia, where he played for a huge crowd in the streets? Reasoning along other lines, how can we forget that the equipment for DJing was created and produced in parts of the globe sometimes very far from the places where they ended up being used()? It is precisely because of this kind of conclusion that I think that the narrative (here, the DJ set), in this sense, unites the points, and can be seen as a resistance to the just-mentioned dispersion. To narrate, or to play, from this perspective, would mean to draw or create a network where, according to the elements summoned to compose the narrative and the way in which the process of chaining takes place, the narrator may or may not recognize certain protagonisms. With this, to narrate becomes a political act.
HONEY DIJON´S NARRATIVE (or: Honey Dijon´s DJ Set)
Now let’s go back to the cold night in December of 2018, when I went to see Honey Dijon djiing at Corsica Studio, an alternative club in London, located in Elephant & Castle. I think that Corsica Studio cannot be considered a gay or queer venue, but it looks like any person is welcome there, since the club focus seems to be on music. That night, the room where the DJ performed was so crowded that I had to climb on a sofa since I, a small statured person, was at a disadvantage within the volcano in which the dancefloor became. Most of the people there were white and young (looking to be less than 30 years old). They paid between £8 (super-early bird) and £15 to be there (the club also sold two intermediary levels of tickets costing £10 and £ 12. £15 was the final price). Everybody looked to be at the club for the music: there was nothing about taking selfies or wasting time with flirting, just everyone wanting to enjoy the music.
With the Honey Dijon set, the crowd went insane. Using effects to add layers of sounds and vocals to the tracks, she declared, first and foremost, that House Music is queer and black. She declared that House came from Disco Music and is a relative of Techno(), too, especially Detroit Techno. That House is a sensual and spiritual music about being yourself and being part of a community, and that we must preserve the dream and utopia that House created.
Honey started the journey that night, of course, from Chicago. She opened her set with the track “I’ll be your friend” by Robert Owens, the legendary lead singer / producer of House’s early days, and went on to tell that audience where House Music came from and what its principles. She showed where the club culture came from, a culture which now generates fortunes that are going into very few hands. She did this through the choice of songs and their chaining, and through the addition of vocals and timbres, sometimes filtered through the effects provided by a machine (a sound table or mixer). It is also necessary to emphasize the role of the materialities in the narrative, like the Funktion One soundsystem of the club. Because electronic music has to be felt as a totality, it is not sufficient to listen to it loudly. The frequencies also have a role in this experience that should involve the whole body and (why not say it?) the spirit. And those are only provided by a good sound system, which involves a lot of different equipment and cables, for example.
The sax sounds that Honey Dijon put on the beats told us about the Latin and Jazz influences in House Music. Some vocals and melodies she inserted told us about tracks that became popular because they were born classic – and not because someone paid to inflate them in the market. Honey also took us repeatedly to New York, especially to the New York of the 90´s, through inserting the strong beats of Tribal, a substyle of House that used to move gay audiences around the world. She used the vocals of Celeda and Sylvester to remind us that transgender and nonconforming-gender people were there, at the base of the whole phenomenon’s DNA. And when she released, over the beats, a recording of “I have a dream,” she told us that she has a dream. But she also reminded us that, half a century later, Martin Luther King’s dream of an egalitarian society not only did not come true but still seems far away.
We, from the electronic music community, do not usually mention lyrics; we always talk in terms of vocals. Currently, playing songs with vocals ends up being something specific, because vocals were losing space in the kind of scene that Honey used to play. But the vocals were there, at the beginning, especially in House Music from New York, which was very fond of virtuoso feminine voices, gospel-style. “Do not forget where we came from”, the DJ, playing those vocals, seemed to say.
Continuing to discuss materialities: nowadays, because of technological evolution, there are a large number of resources for Djiing. It does not mean that there has necessarily been an improvement in the art and techiques of DJiing. It can mean just the opposite, instead: today, a DJ can simply play the songs from a notebook computer, which does not require any specific ability; or can bring a ready-made DJ set from home and concentrate his/her performance on lifting the crowd using their nice look or exotic appearance, or a microphone. Modern equipment “allows” it. Besides, it´s not necessary, any more, to have (buy) physical records (vinyls or CD), for example.
Some people like to look cool and say that the DJ’s work is about “music”. This is true, in some sense, but, at the same time, it makes me think about Latour´s concepts of mediator and intermediator. For this author, mediators transform the meanings or elements they convey, while intermediaries convey meanings or forces without transformation (2012, p.65).
In this sense, certainly the equipment used by the DJ can be understood as an intermediary, but when I examine the networks in which these types of objects are inserted, the conclusion that stands out is that the multiplication of equipment for DJiing and the possibilities brought about by the internet changed completely a whole scene; and this highlights the ‘mediator’ characteristics of these elements. The equipment is not “passive”. The non-human elements act, too, in conjunction with the human elements.
We have to recognize that the advance of technology and the creation of a series of new equipment items has turned DJiing into a very easy thing to do, if we consider the technical aspects – and in terms of aesthetics, too, because it is possible to find ready-made sets, playlists, and so on, on the internet. Doing musical research is now very easy, too, and you can have the music in few minutes (the distance is just some few “clicks” away). In practical terms, a person does not need to have albums, either, or buy any music, if they do not want: they can download music from the internet, even without paying, in some cases. These facts are not good or bad in themselves, but they have brought some consequences to the market and to the artistic and aesthetic aspects of DJing.
So, the fact that, for example, a DJ chooses to play using vinyl records in an era where there are a huge number of new resources is something that helps to compose the narrative, because, in my view, that choice can include a message against the pasteurization of an entire scene, since vinyl mixing requires a specific presence and attention from the DJ, not to mention practice (which requires time to learn and improve ability). Of course there are DJs who play very well, with soul and even in a sophisticated way, using controllers and software; but, in practice(), what we have been seeing are people of “good appearance” pressing only three buttons on machines that offer millions of possibilities.
The Honey Dijon “DJ set” certainly wove a narrative network, in which she associated heterogeneous entities of different kinds, such as equipment, effects, and volumes, to tell a story. We must consider the tracks she chose to this narrative network, too! But I think there is another specificity to consider in a network woven through a narrative, especially an artistic narrative(): its reception. How did my traveling companions, the people who were with me at the club, get the message from Honey? It is true that many people might have known who Honey Dijon is and what she proposes through her work, because this can be ascertained through journalists’ reports, interviews and the social media of the artist. Things does not exist in isolation, is what I mean to say. But, back to the beginning of the text, where I told of my inability to interpret the ‘For the Manydem’ poster: I thought that, similarly, maybe another student of the same course might not be able to understand a “DJ set” as a narrative or to build an interpretation of it. If the student were not a clubgoer, he or she might not even notice that there was a narrative there. Perhaps he/she would simply have thought that was a very noisy environment. Or maybe he or she would just have loved everything and danced a lot, which is, after all, the best way to understand a DJ narrative. Alternatively, I could just hang the poster on the wall of my room simply because I like the colours of it, for example. There are a lot of different possibilities of understanding.
I was thinking of finishing this piece by saying that it is necessary to have adequate tools to “properly understand” some narratives. But I concluded that it is better to problematize the category “understanding”, since we are talking about art and its understanding passes through affect, which is a powerful mediator, without any doubt. However, with this, I think that we are already entering into a new debate that maybe we could discuss in another text…
With special thanks for the advice of Corinne Squire.
LATOUR, Bruno. Reagregando o Social: uma introdução à Teoria do Ator-Rede. Salvador, Edufba, 2012.
LAW, John. Notas sobre a Teoria Do Ator-Rede: ordenamento, estratégia e heterogeneidade. (tradução de Fernando Manso)
LAW, John. (2009), “Actor network theory and material semiotics”, in B. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to social theory, Malden, MA, Blackwell, pp. 141-158.
LAWRENCE, Tim. Love saves the day. A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79. Duke University Press. EUA: 2003.
MARTIN, Denise; SPINK, Mary Jane; PEREIRA, Pedro Paulo Gomes. Corpos múltiplos, ontologias políticas e a lógica do cuidado: uma entrevista com Annemarie Mol.Interface (Botucatu), Botucatu, v. 22, n. 64, 295-305, Mar. 2018. Available from <http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1414-32832018000100295&lng=en&nrm=iso>. access on 25 Dec. 2018.
Honey Dijon Social media: facebook
Poster “For the Manydem”.
Poster of the Rhythm Session Party with Honey Dijon.
 This statement is interesting in thinking about this article as an actor-network, too.
 We use “set” to describe the collection or array of music played by a DJ at one gig.
 Thanks to Reginald Ajuonuma for starting and animating this discussion.
 It is important to note that I do not use the term ‘market’ to name an entity whose action explains the situation described here. On the contrary: the market is also a network that needs to be explained. In this sense, a possible characterization of the market would be through the content of the connections that make up its features, such as the monetarized exchanges of products and services, combined with marketing and administration systems and the movements of financial capital. The market, in its larger dimensions, intertwines with smaller or local networks, including those belonging to other fields, such as art, for example.
 Or maybe nowadays to be an artist means this?
 I remember DJ Dolores mentioning, in a lecture held at the event called “Sound Landscapes”, held in 2017 in the city of Cachoeira-Bahia, that the rhythmic cell of Jamaican Dancehall originated from a Japanese keyboard.
 The Techno influence is notable in Honey Dijon´s sets, too, since House and Techno have much in common, specially at the beginning. In this sense, it is necessary to mention Techno´s black roots, too.
 She plays regularly, for example, at Berlin´s Berghein, considered one of the eletronic world’s meccas.
 One of the main Latour´s (2012) recomendation is to pay attention to what happens “in practice”.
 I sent an earlier version this text to Tim Lawrence, a writer and professor at the University of East London, in the United Kingdom, and he made an important comment: in his understanding, the advent of mixing, a practice that became, in his words, “semi-mandatory” in the second half of the 80’s, took away the storytelling aspect of the DJ´s set, because the DJs became more focused on the moment of the mix. In Lawrence´s view, the DJ´s storytelling had its peak between 1972 and 1987. I understand his point and passion for the time mentioned, but I prefer to consider the mix as an “actant”, that is, as a performative element that integrates and acts in the narrative of the DJ. After all, regardless of the fact that I really enjoy the mixing, my interest is not to establish what is better or worse, much less what is right or wrong, but to reflect on narratives from the ANT perspective.
To those that do not know, the mixing is the moment when the DJ puts two (or more, in some cases) pieces of music together. To do this, with the help of headphones, the DJ needs to use the pitch control at the turntables (or CDJs) to put the tracks at the same velocity and to use the mixer to open the two volumes and let the audience enjoy the moment that the tracks go along together. At least, older electronic music DJs needed to know how to mixing using the equipment I mentioned, but today any cheap software can do this for the DJ.