Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures

Graham St John
London: Equinox Publishing, 2009.
ISBN: 9781845536251 (hardcover), 9781845536268 (paperback)
RRP: UK£50.00 (hardcover), UK£15.00 (paperback)

Phil Kirby

University of Liverpool, UK

Graham St John is a cultural anthropologist whose latest publication explores “themes of counterculture and resistance” in global electronic dance music culture (EDMC). Previous publications by St John explore psytrance and the intersection of rave culture and religion, key themes in Technomad. The book is the result of eight years of research and offers a utopian study of rave culture, one in which legislation such as the UK’s Criminal Justice Act and the onset of corporate clubbing hasn’t stopped the development of the free party scene. It adds to the evolving canon of academic literature that explores EDMC culture and demonstrates a rigorous level of research.

In an echo of Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) theory, St John frames the global techno-countercultures explored in Technomad as “resistant”. St John acknowledges that Anthony D’Andrea has also explored the intersection of rave culture and post-1960s new (age) spirituality. Where D’Andrea attends to the cultural economy of psytrance “neo-nomads”, St John makes use of a significant range of theoretical stances including Bey’s concept of the temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) to unpack the “fleeting permanence of contemporary counterculture” (2). Technomad provides a cultural history of diverse alternative global EDMC formations, the techno-underground, whose mobility has been partially facilitated by new digital technologies. The book’s focus is mainly on the nexus between hippy culture and rave culture, which has resulted in the evolution of EDM sub-genres such as psytrance.

St John divides the book into eight chapters and in the course of the first chapter, which serves as an introduction, quotes from much of the academic literature that explores rave culture. Key themes are introduced that are then explored in more depth throughout the book; these include digital technology—both in terms of facilitating DIY music production, its role in enabling alternative modes of communication and in framing dance music as a form of resistance used by activists to oppose rampant capitalism; gender issues and environmental issues. A key argument of Technomad is that non-commercial forms of EDMC are directly politicised by restrictive regulation and subsequently offer alternative spaces for a liminal communitas to evolve.

The second chapter explores the proliferation of a specific form of rave culture practice, the UK free party scene. The intersection of post-hippy UK free festival traveller culture and acid house music was in part facilitated by the appropriation and subsequent growth of sound system culture, a concept originally developed in Jamaica in the 1950s. This chapter explores the growth of mobile dance music sound systems and what St John refers to as ‘traveller circuses’ such as Spiral Tribe. This nascent free party culture eventually culminated in the festival at Castlemorton Common in 1992, the event that precipitated the UK’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Subsequent police attention and legislation had the unintended effect of gradually spreading these cultural practices around Europe and beyond. St John notes the influence of various sound system crews as they stage events outside the UK. The third chapter maps the development and proliferation of sound system based EDMC scenes in America, Canada and Australia. The integral role of the sound system in both reggae and hip hop culture has been noted in numerous histories of those genres, but St John successfully explores the key role that sound system practices have played in the global dissemination of particular strands of rave culture.

St John then seeks to define the elusive “vibe” of a successful dance music experience, tracing the origin of the popular usage of the term back to the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. The study explores the idea that the term may have Afro-American origins and connotations of Eastern mysticism, “...the term now legion within EDMC is used to denote a spatial and temporal experience, a collective and individual happening where a profound sensation of connection and mystery transpires” (99). From this definition various tribal EDMC subdivisions are discussed in terms of “vibe tribes”. These tribes are not framed as mutually exclusive but explored in terms of “...a spectrum upon which the vibe may be characterized as libratory and divine at one end, and militant and proactive at the other” (103). The straightforward hedonism and release sought and achieved by many participants in mainstream EDMC isn’t explored, as the project of the book is concerned with utopian outlaw countercultures. The various shamanistic/spiritual and activist tribal standpoints are explored in some depth offering useful insights for researchers interested in contemporary cultural anthropology. The author then explores a wide-ranging history of carnivalesque counter-cultural tribal gatherings, from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the Burning Man. These ‘temporary alternative zones’ (or TAZ’s) and countercultural dramas are framed as “alternative futures”.

The themes of spirituality and activism mentioned above inform the next two chapters. In chapter five Technomad explores the intersection of rave culture and spirituality through an analysis of psytrance culture. St John defines psytrance as “...a carrier of the 1960’s counterculture flowering in the present” (165). He mentions the commercial “progressive trance” scene very briefly, acknowledging that it has ‘significant exchange value’, although it seems unlikely that the concept of the Technocult explored by St John would mean much to the denizens of Gatecrasher (; see also Moore 2010). The pantheistic values of psytrance culture are discussed and the various occultist manifestations of the “trance ritual” are investigated, “Itself a network of deviant and hidden knowledge and practice, from magick, prophecies and shamanism to astrology, esoteric Christianity, UFOs, and alien abductions, psytrance constitutes a discernable field of contemporary occultism” (169). Parts of this chapter would seem familiar territory to readers of Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, mainly as St John explores some of the global psytrance events leading up to the millennium and also some bizarre examples of psytrance ideology. For students and researchers interested in the evolution of Goa-trance and the cultural practices and beliefs of the psytrance community, this chapter will provide a useful resource.

The next chapter explores the harnessing of electronic dance music to a variety of activist agendas. These include anti Criminal Justice Bill protests and Reclaim the Streets events. St John notes that “official” culture seeks to limit the dangers of carnivalesque excess, whilst recognising that carnival has a role in maintaining the equilibrium necessary for capitalism to thrive (Presdee 2000). Activists in turn have noted the dissident energy within the insurrectional dance-carnival and utilised it as a feature of contemporary protest and direct action. The implication of EDM in a wide range of progressive and occasionally militant courses of action are explored; St John uses the neologism “protestival” to categorise these events of “radical conviviality”. Initially the protestival was concerned with the regulation of dance music culture, but has since been harnessed to a range of different causes. The protest-carnival template has proliferated globally, partially facilitated by the Internet. This leads to an interesting exploration of the intersection of activism, theatre and carnival in Australia, the techno-tribes and sound systems discussed are concerned with injustices to both the Aboriginal population and the environment. Australians refer to outdoor EDM events that synthesise transgressive, anarchistic and ecological sensibilities as “doofs”. The mobile sound system counterculture or “doofscape” discussed in this chapter is concerned with establishing valid links with the Aboriginal population and seeks a respectful relationship with both the indigenous population and the land.

The final brief chapter summarises the project of the book, to unpack the cultural politics of electronic dance music scenes. In many ways Technomad achieves this successfully, although the focus of the book on the “outlaw” aspect of EDM omits a significant range of practices and participants in EDMC. However, as a contribution to the understanding of globalised dance music culture Technomad offers many useful insights, both in terms of cultural anthropology, neo-religion and spirituality and the potential for EDM as a form of activism. This exhaustively researched and meticulously crafted book provides a significant resource for all those interested in contemporary popular culture.


Bey, Hakim. 1991. T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

D’Andrea, Anthony. 2007. Global Nomads: Techno and New Age as Transnational Countercultures. London/New York: Routledge.

Moore, Karenza. 2010. The British ‘Mainstream’ Post-Rave Trance Scene: Exploring Emotional and Spiritual Expression amongst ‘Crasher Clubbers’. In Religion and Youth, ed. S. Collins-Mayo and B. Pink-Dandelion. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Presdee, M. 2000. Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime, London: Routledge.

Shea, Robert, & Wilson, Anton. 1998. The Illuminatus! Trilogy. London: Constable and Robinson Ltd.