Berghain, Techno und die Körperfabrik: Ethnographie eines Stammpublikums

Guillaume Robin
Marburg: Büchner-Verlag, 2021.
ISBN: 978-3-96317-274-8 (paperback), ISBN 978-3-96317-812-2 (eBook)
RRP: €22,00 (paperback), €18,00 (eBook)

Anja Schwanhäußer

University of Göttingen (Germany)

Bars and nightclubs count among the mythological places of the city, as Rolf Lindner (2022) writes in his In einer Welt von Fremden: Eine Anthropologie der Stadt. As part of his recent role as guest researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch at the Humboldt University, Guillaime Robin has tracked one such place, in his study of the world’s most famous Berlin club, Berghain. In the introduction he cites the two most well-known, but rarely spelled-out, concepts in cultural studies in reference to club culture: heterotopia (Michel Foucault) and the non-lieu (Marc Augé). Although Augé did not mean industrial wastelands with the term non-lieu, rather airports, train stations and motorway rest stops, the term never-the-less testifies to the transitionary character of the nocturnal locations, converted ruins of post-industrial society. For Robin, Berghain is a transgressive, social, sensual and reflexive place, where “the exploration of self and community meet, where the utopia of the body takes shape” (10) (this and the following quotes are all translations by the reviewer).

Robin has the genuinely ethnological goal of writing about club culture not from the point of view of its musical actors (DJs, club operators, party organisers), but from the perspective of its audience. For this purpose, he conducted a study among regulars, and especially the global, urban nomads of the “EasyJet Generation”, as the journalist Tobias Rapp (2009) calls them. In terms of methodology, he bases the study on twelve interviews and around 30 online questionnaires, supplemented by the manageable number of twelve “observational sittings” (15) at the club. In doing so, he faces the challenge of describing a quasi-sacred place, without himself succumbing to mythologization: The analysis aims “to go beyond the blind reverence of the initiated and to scrutinize these cliches under the magnifying glass” (15).

There’s an attempt at a balancing act between empathy and distance in the text, which is not always successful, for instance when Robin presents a Berghain party as being akin to an ancient ritual and asks: “To what extent can Berghain be seen as a revival of Bacchanalia?” (13). This flowery formulation irritates at first. There are more recent Berlin-specific traditions which would lend themselves better as a comparison. For example, the tradition of the Berlin secret societies or the queer scene surrounding the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. On the other hand, the sensual anthropology in the school of David Howes (2005) doesn’t shy away from a certain pathos either. Thus, the reference to bacchanalia is not to be understood analytically but as a metaphor to capture the genuine Berghain atmosphere, as experienced by a cosmopolitan, queer scene.

The first chapter, “Bodies in Space”, is about the significance of the club for its regulars and the transition from the “profane” world beyond the club into the “sacred” (40) halls of Berghain. With the term rite of passage (Arnold van Gennep) and Communitas (Victor Turner), Robin describes the character of the space, the shifting bodily perceptions, the temporary sense of community, as well as the internal control mechanisms which grant a harmonious night of celebrating. He sees the special feature of Berghain, in addition to its symbolical situation in the Berlin party-metropolis, as being the aura of secrecy that surrounds it. This is created through the strict door policy, the photography ban, the seemingly sacred architecture, the complex system of rules of conduct and the so-called “Hainweh” (47)—a portmanteau word made up of hain from Berghain and weh meaning to ache, a play on the German word Heimweh that means to be homesick—with which fans express their passionate attachment to the place. The recourse to an online questionnaire, which is often quoted in the text, might initially surprise the empirical cultural studies readership. In place of the personal experiences of the researcher are instead short and concise reports from the actual participants, reminiscent of blogger style. Unfortunately, Robin does not explain this method and its implementation in more detail, but he uses it extremely creatively. The subjective descriptions by the guests of their self-image and their personal opinions about club politics are astonishingly involved and in parts even poetically formulated. One extremely interesting question which has unfortunately also not been elaborated on and brought to any conclusion is:

Does the example of Berghain perhaps reveal a change in Techno culture in general, away from a subculture which is open to all, where social differences are blurred by cheap drugs, and towards a more homogenous, exclusive subculture, whose members are recruited largely from more privileged segments of society? (89)

A court decision in recent years equating clubs with high-culture events for tax purposes would seem to point in this direction. The second chapter, “Utopian Bodies”, is about stylisations as a way of separating oneself from the everyday identity and from each other, while at the same time being a way of creating community. In reference to Foucault’s concept of utopian bodies as well as in reference to Piotr Nathan’s mural, “Rituals of Disappearance”, in Berghain, Robin defines the stylistic transformations as the individual’s longing to dissolve. This dissolution takes place in various forms and media, through the equalising procedure at the Berghain entrance, the adaptation of dominant dress and dance codes, anonymisation (e.g., by wearing fetish masks) as well as through the consuming of drugs. A central finding is that subjective feelings of freedom and liberation are closely linked to a communal and institutional set of rules, with self-discipline and self-constraint: “It’s not so much a matter of total liberation, but much more about a strongly controlled disinhibition, which goes hand in hand with the ethics of consent and the respect of others’ bodies” (94). In Robin’s description, a party night seems to run like an almost perfect machine where almost nothing goes wrong. Robin writes that he has left out sequences which are too voyeuristic. This is understandable, yet it gives rise to an argumentative gap. What happens when shame boundaries are crossed, not because one wants to, but because one is driven to it by obsession? Nevertheless, he offers an extremely interesting insight into this “body factory” and its culture. The “crows”, as the audience is also called, voluntarily adapt to the institutional constraints, regulations and codifications thereby giving the club its individual character.

In the third chapter, “Degendering the Dancefloor”, the focus is on gender-specific stylisations and the play with gender identities. With reference to Judith Butler, Robin defines gender as performance. Especially for guests from less liberal countries, Berlin and Berghain offer a “safe space” (105). Here also new subcultural trends come on stage, such as the “sex-positive” movement, which promotes an openness to diverse gender identities, sexual practices and to nudity. Robin rightly notes that the nocturnal rulebook can lead to a “homonormativity”, where certain homosexual codes dominate and thus exclude other forms of expression.

In the fourth chapter, “Underground resist-dance”, Robin opens up the perspective to the broader Berlin club scene and, in particular, to the period of the pandemic. Due to the enforced closures, considerable financial and cultural damage was done, and the cultural diversity of the metropolis has suffered. The perseverance with which the Techno culture actors have defended their “right to dance” and “right to the city” (150), Robin presents as being proof that clubs are more than just spaces for commercial events. As already demonstrated by Birmingham Cultural Studies, in a study to which Robin, however, does not refer, partying is shown to be more than hedonistic consumption. The charge of hedonism was famously invoked by politicians during the pandemic in order to devalue outdoor dancing at night. As Robin shows though, it is, on the contrary, a way of life and culture which is pushed through even in times of crisis, and against prevailing opinion. The author also recalls earlier protests, with which clubs resisted displacement and gentrification. Without questioning the pandemic-related regulative measures, he interprets these activities as a positive expression of a political consciousness in nightlife: “the proliferation of these wild raves, which were often interrupted by the police…thus emphasises the active role of the techno audience and its desire to assert itself as a driving force in the scene” (148).

The fifth chapter is called “Closing”, similar to the last act at a dance night at Berghain. Here, Robin comes to the unsurprising conclusion that a Berghain club night is not a bacchanalia. Extremely interesting, however, is his reasoning, in which he returns to the central thesis of the first chapter: “Berghain is undoubtedly a space of freedom like no other, but it is above all an extremely codified space in which the liberation of the body is linked to self-discipline and strong control mechanisms” (160). The transgression of boundaries and ecstatic forms of dissolution in the community are thus only possible because of the strict set of rules. As in the process of civilization (Norbert Elias), to which Robin refers, the increasing loosening of control over emotions comes at the price of an increase in the suppression of inner drives, so that ecstatic celebration is also only possible through a sophisticated system of control. This is expressed on several levels: The rejection of sexist and objectifying heteronormative practices as well as of “body shaming”; the maintaining of a respectful distance, and a strong internalisation of respect for the body of others. Robin points here to a possibly generalizable connection between discipline and ecstasy which, also for other subcultural contexts, is worthwhile examining. It is a perspective of our current time, which is “woke” and “aware”. It turns out that within order and its compliance (also) lies a longing for “pleasure” and the dissolution of boundaries.

Robin’s study provides a particularly successful and exhaustingly complex description of the sensuality of the club experience. The central insight, that liberation can only be achieved through self-discipline, is extremely illuminating. The bacchanal thus becomes a code for a subcultural practice that is characterised by the inner contradiction of control and the dissolution of boundaries. The book is an innovative contribution to the “sensual turn” in urban scene-, pop- and subcultural research. In the past decades this field has mostly been concerned with the economic aspects of partying (creative industries, subcultural capital and such). In Robin’s work, on the other hand, questions of cultural order and creativity and of social change (again) come to the fore in an exemplary way. By taking into account the social origins and the phenomenon of the global EasyJet Generation in his analysis, Robin also makes a contribution to the question as to the extent to which popular culture and popular means of pleasure have nowadays become the guiding culture of the middle-class. The study shows that for the queer global elite, going to visit a cultural site such as Berghain is just as important as a visit to the opera in New York or Sydney. Last but not least, he provides a very good, in part poetically formulated portrait of the “loaners”, typical figures of the big city as described by Rolf Lindner (2022), accompanied by beautiful photographs by Mike D’hondt. Thus, the study can also be connected to the analysis of figures and figuration of urban anthropology.


Howes, David, ed. 2005. Empire of the Senses. The Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Lindner, Rolf. 2022. In einer Welt von Fremden: Eine Anthropologie der Stadt.Berlin: Matthes& Seitz Berlin.

Rapp, Tobias. 2009. Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno, und der Easyjetset. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.