Primitive accumulation and the temporary Utopian sublime

Ashkan Sepahvand on the political economics of Berlin’s party scene:

“… in many ways perform a kind of “primitive accumulation” – pioneers for new horizons of speculative value” and at the same time “going against the utilitarian logic of capitalist social relations […] a mode of survival through […] some type of temporary utopian sublime.”

Ashkan Sepahvand - curatorial research fellow at the Schwules Museum*,Berlin.How do you feel about Berlin night-life and parties? How does this effect your research at SMU* [Schwules Museum, Berlin]?

In general, I think there is much to be learned from partying. Though it may seem like “just fun,” I believe a party is a genuinely political space in that real-time connections and conflicts unfold, are negotiated, and are constantly improvised. Partying is an activity that carries with it extreme possibility and risk – the possibilities of passion and affect, and the risks of consumption and ignorance. Ecstasy – and here I don’t mean the drug, but the literal meaning of the word, “to stand outside oneself” – is a political experience, one that is formative for the self but also for a sense of possibility between and amongst various communities. In Berlin, where partying has not only become an institution in its own right, but also a mode of being that somehow achieves a semi-permanence, this is something hard to escape – if not in terms of participating, at least in terms of having an opinion about, towards, or against. I think the excess that Berlin offers is, in one way, something quite unique within a Western metropolitan context, as most other cities (such as London, New York, and Paris) have strictly regulated and contained the possibilities of public excess to the bare minimum (at least in official venues) – in that sense, there is a certain freedom of sensuality and exploration of the ecstatic that should not be underestimated in the power it holds for sensitive minds to find novel ways of articulating imagination. On the other hand, I do have a certain skepticism concerning exactly that discourse of “freedom” that partying is so often framed by – for in many ways, partying is the basis for Berlin’s economic situation and for its modalities of informal labor. Partying, with its professionalization in Berlin, is also a market that sets certain limits of play and creativity, certain aesthetic standards, and specified modes of being that in many ways perform a kind of “primitive accumulation” – pioneers for new horizons of speculative value whereby the “self” is made the primary currency to be bought and sold as a type of pleasure-performance. The partygoer is very much a contemporary form of factory-worker, working on his or her self, creating this self as an object of value, and allowing the dreams, hopes, fears, and desires of this self to open up avenues for capitalization. The notion of “freedom,” in this case, doesn’t account for the limits set up that regulate a set of motions within a space that is “free” only up to a certain horizon of possibility. There are many normalizing processes going on, and these happen through a kind of participatory, domino-like effect, which again create contradictions out of the norm. This is what is so fascinating about partying, and in a place like Berlin, where the intensity of its underground celebration cultures, its temporal breadth and affective density, allows for much reflection on contemporary sensual regimes – how subjects under late capitalism feel and express themselves, how desires are articulated and put into practice, and how infrastructures regulate these flows, allowing certain phenomena to expand while preventing others from growing. On top of all of these considerations, partying is one of the “traditions” of queer history, particularly gay history – its hedonism, celebrated and derided at the same time, is indicative of a certain “inoperativity” queerness has challenged society with. That is, the refusal to be productive, to produce – to reproduce even, to “make sense” and “have a purpose,” going against the utilitarian logic of capitalist social relations. In this way, partying has also been a space of retreat, escape, and self-creation, a mode of survival through lavish expenditure, where, yes, even if one’s life may be shit and everything in danger, there is still the possibility to connect, laugh, love, dance, and collapse together, if even for a few hours, into some type of temporary utopian sublime. So much creation and anguish has come from this tradition of celebration – so much art and thought. For this reason, partying cannot be separated from the process of imagination and creation that “work” or “research” aspire to formalize – it belongs to it, cannot be quantified in relation to work, but is a constant source of affect that feeds one’s practice, without which the practice of creating culture becomes stiff, stale, and numb. It is a replenishment of sensibilities, even if these may be contradictory or hard to process in the moment – indeed, partying only shares its practical knowledge with significant delay, a kind of accumulation-apparatus that builds up sensations, perceptions, memories (both good and bad) that eventually give rise to a language that can be articulated somewhere within one’s work. I cherish my ties to this culture because it continues to give me so much, including my work at the SMU* and beyond.

– Schwules Museum*: “Interview with Ashkan Sepahvand, Post-Colonial Curatorial Fellow at the Schwules Museum*”. On: (Aktuell). Date: 23 Sept 2016. URL: Last viewed: 10 Okt 2016.