The Road of Excess
Young partyers are searching for communion, intensity, and freedom.
Photo by Lea Trier Krøll
By Sébastien Tutenges
Far from dying out, religion can be found thriving in contemporary quests for meaning and ritual.
My first academic journey down the road of excess took place over a ten-month period beginning in the fall of 2001. I was studying anthropology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and preparing to study Buddhism at a monastery in India as part of my master’s thesis project. On the side, I had a job as a student assistant on a research project about young people and their use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs in a provincial town called Ringsted. I spent my weekdays reading books on Buddhism; during the weekends I went to bars and nightclubs to observe young people having fun. But I could find no funding for my fieldwork in India, and besides, as time went by, I grew more and more fascinated with the Ringsted youth. In particular, I was intrigued by the almost ritualistic character of their substance use and their determined efforts to derange their senses and achieve altered states of consciousness.
So I decided instead to write my master’s thesis on the Ringsted youth. As an anthropology student, I had always imagined studying exotic cultures far away from Denmark. As it turned out, though, the difference between the monks and the merrymakers was not as enormous as I had imagined. Partying youths, I discovered, are also seeking something which may be considered religious experience.
My master’s thesis supervisor, Michael D. Jackson, fully supported my new initiative and gave me some lasting advice. He recommended that I approach the young revelers with an open mind and that I not—as is often the case in studies of licit and illicit drugs—focus narrowly on the adverse effects of drugs or on possible solutions to the “drug problem.” He prompted me to concentrate on getting close to the youths in order to shed light on their nightlife experiences, their stories, and their perspectives.
The general desire to meet up, hang out, and be close, for no specific reason, is what really makes things move in nightlife.
The result has been a decade of studying young people from Denmark in a variety of nightlife environments, including bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, music festivals, and seaside resorts in Bulgaria and Spain. In all of these studies, I have tried to be nonjudgmental and open-minded, and I have done my best to find the right words to describe the lived reality of partying. Upon reflection, the most powerful and all-encompassing word that expresses the experiences I have witnessed is “effervescence.” After studying intensive forms of partying, I think the concept of effervescence best captures the essence of what young people search for, and sometimes experience, when they venture down the road of excess.
It was Émile Durkheim who introduced the term “collective effervescence” to the social sciences in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), a case study of totemism among Australian aborigines. In a central passage of the book, Durkheim notes that the life of the aborigines alternates between two contrasting phases: Periods when the population is scattered in small groups and life is centered around work activities, such as hunting and fishing; and times when the population is summoned together for religious ceremonies. It is during these ceremonies, when people come closely together in the same place, that states of effervescence can occur. Durkheim explains:
The very fact of assembling is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are assembled, their proximity generates a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation. Every emotion expressed is retained without resistance in all those minds so open to external impressions, each one echoing the others. The initial impulse thus becomes amplified as it reverberates, like an avalanche gathering force as it goes. And as passions so strong and uncontrolled are bound to seek outward expression, there are violent gestures, shouts, even howls, deafening noises of all sorts from all sides that intensify even more the state they express.2
Such a fervent description was unusual for Durkheim, who wanted to establish sociology as a respectable science on a par with the natural sciences and thus normally wrote in a measured tone, exuding scientific expertise. Yet The Elementary Forms of Religious Life contains several passages that radiate such vitality that the reader can almost sense the charged atmosphere of the ceremonies. The theme of the book is also unusual for Durkheim. He had made his name writing on concrete matters, such as suicide and the division of labor, but then—at the peak of his career—he devoted nearly fifteen years to the study of so-called primitive people and their beliefs.3
Durkheim’s book on religion sparked much controversy, but it also inspired generations of scholars around the world. In France, the notion of effervescence came to play a key role among Durkheim’s followers. In the 1930s, Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois were among the founders of the Collège de Sociologie and the society Acéphale. These groups were so preoccupied by effervescence that they did more than read and write about it; they also organized and participated in rituals that could unleash effervescent forces and help revitalize themselves and society. Michel Maffesoli and some of his followers at the Sorbonne are currently conducting research along similar lines (although in a more disciplined manner), and Randall Collins from the University of Pennsylvania has also made significant theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of effervescent activities, such as drug use and violence.4
Curiously, Durkheim never elaborated a definition of this keyword, “effervescence,” though he clearly considered it to be the religious experience par excellence—a kind of raw vitality from which religious ideals and symbols emerge.5 Thankfully, other scholars have undertaken the job. Collins writes that collective effervescence is “a process of intensification of shared experience,” and he also refers to it as “a condition of heightened intersubjectivity.”6 To further unpack the term “effervescence,” I think that it can be divided into five components: unity, intensity, transgression, symbolization, and revitalization.7
1. Unity. The crux of effervescence is that people are united, that sentiments are felt in common and expressed by common acts.8 According to Durkheim, there is something inherently meaningful in meeting new people, being physically close to others, moving to the same beat, and sharing a common focus of attention. To feel and act in common involves a mutual awareness that diminishes the distance between self and other. Such communion is rarely a simple matter of “networking” or strategically seeking a partner, long-term friendships, or alliances. Rather, people come together precisely in order to be together.9
Many people describe their nightlife experiences in very similar terms. Of course, people sometimes go out with the expressed goal of building networks or other practical purpose, but such goals rarely stand alone. The general desire to meet up, hang out, and be close, for no specific reason, is what really makes things move in nightlife. Consider the following excerpt from an interview with a young Danish tourist:
SIMON: It creates a sense of unity when you are surrounded by a sea of people. When we all yell and scream to a Danish song at a bar here at the resort, it’s the same emotion that I get when I’m at a sports stadium. It’s about being together and doing things together.
This simple motivation of “being together and doing things together” is a cornerstone in most rituals, whether religious or secular, and it has the effect of allowing people to tune in to one another. Durkheim explains: “By shouting the same cry, pronouncing the same words, making the same gesture to the same object, they become and feel as one. … Individual minds can meet and commune only on condition that they come out of themselves; but they can do this only through movements. It is the homogeneity of these movements that makes the group aware of itself and so brings it into being.”10 This collective attunement during rituals can give rise to strong feelings of freedom, power, and solidarity. Some people even get the sense, albeit often brief, that they are connected with the wider universe as well as to their fellow humans.11 This is a deeply meaningful experience, which provides a glimpse into the connectedness and interdependence of all things.
An expression of this in nightlife is the widespread practice of sharing. People buy rounds of drinks for their friends, and sometimes for strangers. They give away cigarettes for free. They pass around cannabis joints rather than smoke them alone. They generously exchange compliments, hugs, and kisses. These practices act both as causes and effects of unity among the revelers. They illustrate that, in nightlife, group needs have precedence over personal needs. The collective “WE” is more important than the individual “I.”12
2. Intensity. Like other crowd theorists in his day,13 Durkheim held that something fundamentally destabilizing can happen when large numbers of people come together in the same place. Copresence stimulates intersubjective exchanges, and this can sometimes create a whirlwind of emotions and affects that transport individuals beyond self-centered existence and into states of collective abandon. “Within a crowd moved by a common passion, we become susceptible to feelings and actions of which we are incapable on our own. And when the crowd is dissolved, when we find ourselves alone again and fall back to our usual level, we can then measure how far we were raised above ourselves.”14
There are varying degrees of intensity in different nightlife environments. Consider the quiet buzz of a small pub, the animated atmosphere of a nightclub, and the explosion of energy when superstars go onstage at a densely packed music festival. These varying intensities are produced by a complex combination of human and nonhuman factors, including smells, temperature, lighting, music, decor, performative practices, patterns of substance use, and, perhaps most significant, crowd dynamics.15 Here, a teenager emphasized the importance of drugs and crowds in creating the right level of excitement:
RASHID: It’s only possible to run amok when you are on drugs. You cannot reach that point in a normal frame of mind. And you have to be together with a lot of other people. The attention of the others is necessary. You have to think: “Hey, I have to make the others feel great.” You cannot create that mood on your own.
Many young people have a preference for nightlife venues with a high level of intensity. They shun the empty or half-empty venues because these are “dead” and “bring you down.” What they want is to “run amok,” “go crazy,” and “get smashed.” These nightlife aspirations need to be seen in relation to their everyday lives. Many spend their weekdays working for money or studying for an education. They follow strict work and school schedules, and their bodies and minds are regimented to move through a specific, controlled set of tasks. Their immediate desires have to be put on hold. Thus, not unlike the aborigines Durkheim writes about, Danish youths alternate between low-intensity periods focused on accumulation and restraint and high-intensity periods where the focus is on expenditure and abandon. This lifestyle of “work hard, play hard” has become increasingly common among young people of both genders:
KAREN: Young Danes have very scheduled weekdays, but then there are the weekends where you just rave and do exactly what you want to. Alcohol and drugs are part of the weekend, because in the weekend you can let yourself get wasted. You don’t have to worry about getting up early next morning.
However, Durkheim observes that too much effervescence, as exhilarating as it can be, takes its toll: “a very intense social life always does some violence to the body and mind of the individual, disturbing their normal functioning; hence it can last for only a very limited time.”16 This point is widely known among bartenders, bouncers, pole dancers, nightlife ethnographers, and all the others who stay in nightlife settings for sustained periods of time. Some of the side effects of long-term nocturnal hedonism are reflected in this email written by a young man who had been partying almost nonstop for two weeks during vacations in Bulgaria:
Well, it’s been hard to come home … my body got used to the wild party life. I’ve drunken nothing but water since I came home in order to clean out my system. I haven’t been hung over, really, but … I’ve slept much more than I usually do. It took 14 days after my return before I got back my energy. I know that many of [my travel companions] feel the same way. I had a slight cold when I came home, as well as some coughing fits. Why, I don’t know. But my lungs and my heart took quite a while to recover. I’ve just now begun running again after giving that up because I couldn’t get enough air and because of a serious pain in my chest.
3. Transgression. When crowds reach states of effervescence, they tend to engage in acts of transgression, ranging from a playful mockery of convention to severe breaches of the law. In Durkheim’s words: “The effervescence often becomes so intense it leads to unpredictable behaviour. The passions unleashed are so impetuous they cannot be contained. The ordinary conditions of life are set aside so definitively and so consciously that people feel the need to put themselves above and beyond customary morality.”17 This is not necessarily bad. From time to time, humans need to get away from the everyday world of rigid rules and predictable behavior. Human life without transgression is simply unthinkable. There would be no creativity, no innovation.18 Moreover, as Bataille argues, “The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.”19 That is, crossing boundaries is a vital mechanism in a society, putting established norms and rules up for debate. When boundaries are crossed, vicariously or directly, we become aware of their scope, strength, and significance.
A key attraction of nightlife environments is that they allow, and indeed facilitate, transgressions. Most often, these are minor and do not pose a serious threat to the clients or business. The masses, the music, the dancing, the alcohol, and the drugs create a powerful cocktail that disturbs the ordinary functioning of body and mind, weakening the ingrown habits of self-control while strengthening the capacity for abandonment. Many participants describe the feeling as “free,” “open,” and “alive.” Here is how two teenagers20 described their favorite bar:
SOFIE: You always feel welcome there. The owner never scolds you.
THOMAS: I have been dancing on the tables with my pants down by the ankles and without a shirt on, and nobody said anything to me. People thought it was fun. It’s like a haven for young people, you know.
SOFIE: I really feel that it’s my haven where I don’t have to be anybody but myself.
THOMAS: Yes, that’s it. It’s this openness to everything and everybody.
Nightlife venues often give their clients the feeling of being among their peers, such that they can do whatever they want without risking their reputations.21 This impression may be illusory, but it helps incite people to do things they would not normally do. For example, it is common in nightlife to observe ostensibly heterosexual men swaying their hips, letting their wrists hang limply, fluttering their eyelids, and acting in a flirtatious manner with other men. Likewise, it is not unusual to see women on the dance floor flexing their muscles, throwing hand signs, and looking mean. Such role reversals are perfectly acceptable in nightlife. In fact, it is not only accepted but expected that revelers will transcend the confines of their ordinary selves and try out new roles and behaviors. Consider this excerpt from an interview with a group of tourists:
SÉBASTIEN: Can you give me the three most important reasons for coming here?
NATHALIA: To have fun, party, and be together with friends.
SIGNE: Yeah, being together …
NATHALIA: We just want to have fun without anyone interfering or criticizing us. What happens here is between us, between close friends. … And right from the beginning we agreed: What happens in Bulgaria, stays in Bulgaria. It’s best if people back home don’t know what we have been doing here.
SIGNE: There is another kind of moral down here.
NATHALIA: For sure.
SÉBASTIEN: Can you tell me more about that moral?
LINDA: Here it is less acceptable to abstain from drinking. When I see someone who doesn’t want to party, I kind of think that they are boring.
HELENE: People should go out and have fun while they can.
SIGNE: People are generally more tolerant down here, more open.
There is generally a high degree of tolerance in nightlife when it comes to immoderate behavior. There is decidedly less tolerance for anyone practicing moderation. Young revelers can easily get away with heavy drinking, loud singing, dancing on tables, and throwing off their clothes, but they may be subjected to teasing from peers if they try to stay sober, save money, eat healthy food, or go home early. Contrary to our preconceptions, nightclubs and bars are not anarchistic playgrounds where anything goes. Revelers cannot do as they please, but are impelled to act in accordance with formal and informal rules that are backed by sanctioning behavior. Those acting with too much restraint are likely to receive criticism from peers, whereas individuals going too far may get punished by venue staff or other authorities. It is a balancing act: The road of excess is narrow!
The transgressions in nightlife venues tend to be minor ones and are generally undertaken in the spirit of “Why not?” Lines are crossed out of curiosity, for the thrill of it, and for the esteem that comes from peers for having the nerve, strength, and capacity to go against rules upheld by parents and other authorities. No harm is intended. However, nightlife effervescence occasionally goes awry and degenerates into fighting, vandalism, overdosing, and other tragedies. Such outcomes are rarely the result of a singular cause, such as the toxic properties of drugs or alcohol. Instead, each event has to be understood in context.22 Overcrowding, aggressive alcohol marketing, poor sanitation, unfriendly staff—these are just a few of the many variables that can generate harm in nightlife environments.
Young people place a high value on stories, photos, video clips, autographs, and other symbols that can connect them with past effervescent experiences.
4. Symbolization. Individuals get pumped up with energy when they gather for celebration. Most of this energy is channeled back into the event through intensified interactions and movements, but some of it is saved up for later through “symbolization.” This occurs when a symbol (e.g., a totem symbol) becomes the focus of attention and is imbued with collective energies.23 Randall Collins explains: “What is mutually focused upon becomes a symbol of the group. In actuality, the group is focusing on its own feeling of intersubjectivity, its own shared emotion; but it has no way of representing this fleeting feeling, except by representing it as embodied in an object. It reifies its experience, makes it thing-like, and thus an emblem, treated as having noun-like permanence.”24 The emotionally charged symbol functions somewhat like a battery: After being charged or recharged, it can supply energy for a certain period before going flat. Similarly, after the end of an effervescent event, individuals may remember and reexperience some of the effervescence by turning their attention toward an energized object that reminds them of the event.
The process of symbolization is a largely understudied but important aspect of nightlife. Young people place a high value on retaining stories, photos, video clips, autographs, and other symbols that can connect them with past effervescent experiences. The desire for energized symbols is so strong that many go to great lengths to obtain them. For example, at a seaside resort in Bulgaria, a group of male tourists told me that they always had at least one camera with them on their nights out in order to immortalize all the “crazy stuff” they were doing. Upon arriving home they would make a “scrap wall” with the best photos as a testimony to their excesses. Likewise, a group of women explained that they had brought a diary with them on vacation in which they meticulously wrote down “who got most drunk, who slept with whom,” and so on. The diary, or the “trophy” as they called it, would help them “remember how much fun [they] had” and enable them to “make it through an entire school year.”
These examples support Durkheim’s argument that effervescent moments can have effects that last long after the actual ritual gathering. People are often quite conscious about this—and, by the way, so is the leisure industry. Partyers and nightlife venues spend much effort, time, and money to create and accumulate symbols that can help transport the collective energies into the future. In other words, people indulge in moments of effervescence not only for immediate pleasure, but also to collect energized symbols that they can enjoy later in life. Thus, in studying nightlife and substance use, I think we have to be careful about seeing these activities as manifestations of transient or momentary enjoyment—embodied in terms like “carpe diem,” “no future,” and “flow.” True, many revelers long for states of consciousness in which they are fully immersed in the present, but such states do not come easily and tend to be brief, even for people who are under the influence of drugs, loud music, repetitive dance movements, and stroboscope lighting. Moreover, people partaking in nightlife are frequently aware, mindful, or downright preoccupied with the enduring narrative potentials of their effervescent situations.
5. Revitalization. Durkheim emphasizes that collective effervescence is something universally necessary for humans. Without it, life would become a bore and society would fall apart. We humans have a periodic need to “get in touch with a higher source of energy” and to forget about our “ordinary occupations and preoccupations.”25 This is not merely a matter of blowing off steam or escaping so-called reality; it is also about discovering who we are, where we belong, and what is important to us. On a societal level, episodes of effervescence form an indispensable driving force that accelerates interpersonal exchanges and strengthens social cohesion.
I share Durkheim’s conviction that effervescence has some potentially edifying qualities, and I believe it is crucial to cultivate a deeper understanding of these qualities if we are to make better use of them. I am therefore skeptical of the tendency in the research literature to focus narrowly on the adverse effects of substances and to treat youthful excess as a symptom or epiphenomenon of some sort of social problem, injustice, or pathology.26 For example, difficult economic conditions and bleak job prospects are often cited as reasons that today’s youth indulge in nightlife excesses. Other researchers suggest that young people seek refuge in alcohol, drugs, and other forms of excess because they are unable to handle the proliferating choices of postmodern life, the expectations imposed upon them by their parents, the demands of the educational system, and the rapid social and technological changes that have caused traditional values and networks to fall apart. While it is true that some venture down the road of excess in search of ruin, oblivion, or death, I have come to see that the majority of young people are searching for something else. What they want is to live moments of communion, intensity, and freedom, while generating stories, pictures, and other symbols that can help them carry these moments into the future.
The nightlife industry already seems to have a solid grasp of contemporary youths and their periodic desire for abandon. Indeed, most of the nightlife environments I have studied over the years have made it their business to administer to and profit from alcohol-fueled effervescence. In a country like Denmark, an estimated 38 percent of nineteen-year-olds go to a nightclub at least once a week. An additional 29 percent go every two weeks.27 We may criticize these leisure habits for being hollow and unwholesome. We may try to suppress them with laws and police action.28 But perhaps it is time to embrace, cultivate, and make better use of this urge for effervescence among young people, and to find creative ways to harness these impulses outside the context of commercialized, alcohol-focused environments.
- François Gauthier, “Rapturous Ruptures: The ‘Instituant’ Religious Experience of Rave,” in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. Graham St. John (Routledge, 2004), 80. I am grateful to François Gauthier and Michael D. Jackson for inspiration and help with this essay.
- Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2001), 162–163.
- Michelle H. Richman, Sacred Revolutions: Durkheim and the Collège De Sociologie (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 23–25.
- See, for example, the masterful studies by Michel Maffesoli, L’Ombre de Dionysos: Contribution à une sociologie de l’orgie (Le Livre de Poche, 1985), and Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 164.
- Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 35.
- See Tim Olaveson, ” ‘Connectedness’ and the Rave Experience: Rave as New Religious Movement?” in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. St. John.
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 287.
- Ibid., 283. See also Michel Maffesoli, “Présentation,” in Émile Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (CNRS Éditions, 2007), 24.
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 175–176. See also Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 35.
- This point is made in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. St. John.
- Maffesoli, L’Ombre de Dionysos.
- For a discussion of whether Durkheim should be considered a crowd theorist, see Christian Borch’s new book, The Politics of Crowds: An Alternative History of Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 70–78.
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 157.
- Cameron Duff, “The Pleasure in Context,” International Journal of Drug Policy 19, no. 5 (October 2008): 384–392. See also Mark Jayne, Gill Valentine, and Sarah L. Holloway, “Emotional, Embodied and Affective Geographies of Alcohol, Drinking and Drunkenness,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, no. 4 (October 2010): 540–554; and Tim Edensor, “Illuminated Atmospheres: Anticipating and Reproducing the Flow of Affective Experience in Blackpool,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2012), vol. 30, 1103–1122.
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 172.
- Ibid., 163.
- Ibid., 284–285. See also Chris Jenks, Transgression (Routledge, 2003).
- Georges Bataille, Eroticism (Penguin, 2001), 63.
- In Denmark the legal age for consuming alcohol in bars and nightclubs is eighteen years. However, this law is frequently breached. Teenage drinking and drunkenness is very common in Danish nightlife; illegal drug use, on the other hand, is rare.
- David Redmon, “Playful Deviance as an Urban Leisure Activity: Secret Selves, Self-Validation, and Entertaining Performances,” Deviant Behavior 24, no. 1 (2000): 27–51. Dick Hobbs et al., “Receiving Shadows: Governance and Liminality in the Night-time Economy,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 4 (2000): 701–717.
- See Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press, 2009).
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 176.
- Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 37.
- Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 285.
- I discussed this in my dissertation, “Louder! Wilder! Danish Youth at an International Nightlife Resort” (Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, 2010).
- Signe Ravn, Intoxicated Interactions: Clubbers Talking about Their Drug Use (Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University, 2012), 26.
- Graham St. John, Technomad and Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox Publishing, 2009), 51.
Sébastien Tutenges is an assistant professor at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University in Denmark. His research focuses on nightlife, tourism, prostitution, and substance use. This essay is based on a talk that he gave at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School on February 8, 2012.