Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race. Arun Saldanha. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
ISBN: 0816649936 (hardcover) 0816649944 (paperback)
RRP: US$60.00 (hardcover), US$20 (paperback)

review by Anthony D'Andrea

University of Limerick (Ireland), University of Chicago (USA)

Chromatic Variation in Ethnographic Analysis

Reflecting a Deleuzian turn in social geography, Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race examines rave tourism in Goa through the prism of a materialist theory of race and racial segregation. Well-written, erudite and thought-provoking, the book opens with the observation that the mostly white psytrance music fans (also known as Goa freaks) arrive at parties only after Indian tourists have departed. The author Arun Saldanha, a Belgian geographer of Indian descent, expresses his discontentment, "I felt this segregation", and adds, "This book wants to find out what sort of theoretical vocabulary is necessary to make sense of racism when it is not supposed to be there." (p.5). The basic question it seeks to answer then is, "what makes white bodies stick together?" According to Saldanha, racial segregation is a basic effect from the ethnic profile and profiling of white psytrance fans and backpackers in Goa.

The book provides a philosophically robust retheorization of race. Opposing social constructionism, Saldanha seeks to develop a materialist theory of race, centered on the Deleuzian concept of viscosity, defined as resistance to flow and perforation. Considered for its corporeality rather than representation, race is organized like a machinic assemblage, as instantiated in ritual experiences of the psytrance collective in Goa. Saldanha demonstrates familiarity with a wide range of philosophical work, including not only Deleuze and Guattari, but also Levinas, Goffman and Fanon, among other thinkers in feminism and poststructuralism. Psychedelic White has gained attention among geographers of race, as a number of book reviews have praised Saldanha's innovative theorization while also questioning its internal consistency at a philosophical level. This review, instead, highlights how this philosophical hypertrophy has created analytical problems in the study of psytrance.

Within a complex formulation of race materialism, Psychedelic White discusses the more proximate notion of "psychedelics", which Saldanha defines as the dynamics of self-transformation enabled by travel, drugs and music. Yet, these techniques are examined in relation to the racial background of Westerners. In a series of refined reviews on the history of countercultures, orientalism, hippies and drugs, Saldanha refers to the creative needs of "white men", a term repeated ad nauseam throughout the first third of the book. This bias could have been moderated in the light of the anthropological truism that a wide variety of societies, and not only the white West, nurtures more or less complicated relationships with such techniques and devices of self-transformation. As such, the reader may be left wondering how whiteness and psychedelics are causally determined, and, if so, what is the significance and implication that Saldanha attempts to address.

Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in northern Goa between 1996 and 2002 (and again in 2006), the empirical horizon of Psychedelic White is constrained within a sharp racial angle, as organized across the book in three analytical sites: the shared experiences of Goa freaks, the visual economy of rave tourism, and the politics of location in Goa. The philosophical work so interestingly advanced by Saldanha results in a racial determinism under which psytrance formations are forcefully examined. Political economy is reduced to "phenotype and foreignness" (p.163). "Goa freaks are microfascists" (p. 89). The book is permeated with "depressing conclusions", as Saldanha well puts it, following anecdotal analyses of white exploitation, segregation and indifference toward Indians. Psytrance formations, Saldanha argues, have paradoxically thickened rather than transcended racial segregation in Goa. The book is thus marked by a predominantly negative assessment of countercultural formations in India. In Deleuzian words, Psychedelic White focuses on the lines of death traced by this war machine, and says virtually nothing about the emancipatory potential of chromatic variation. Some readers may even find that the impressive philosophical apparatus delivered by Saldanha tends to lose connection with the empirical reality it seeks to explain.

Indeed, psytrance freaks are eccentric individuals, often elitist, arrogant and troubled. In a decadent and dystopic scene such as northern Goa psytrance, most freaks and backpackers would likely feel more comfortable interacting with phenotypically similar peoples, whereas some individuals may express racist behavior at times. However, the argument that psytrance in Goa is essentially reaffirmed through racial segregation would require stronger empirical testing and support. Incredibly, important factual questions were overlooked in the book. Firstly, psytrance insiders reject tourists - regardless of race - whether in Goa or elsewhere. Spatial segregation between insiders and outsiders is a basic feature of electronic dance scenes around the world, and Goa is no different, for its members regularly attend other scenes interlinked across global countercultural circuits. In this connection, trance (ecstatic) experiences generally occur with no essential reference to issues of racial identity or segregation. Internal bickering is pervasive within white psytrance subgroups in Goa (p.152), and clashes involving national, generational and class difference are at least as common as those predicated on race. Moreover, several Indians (and other not exactly white individuals) occupy significant positions in the scene, as DJs, party promoters and well-off diasporic fans. Mating relationships across racial groups are common, even against India's backdrop of patriarchy and sexual harassment, considering white females' frequent complaints about native males. Furthermore, Saldanha does not account for the violence, exploitation and segregation that some Indians explicitly perpetrate against third-world immigrants working in Goa. Likewise, he neglects that white travelers' attitude of indifference towards Indians is more often than not a Simmelian response to the overwhelming demand incessantly posed by street vendors, beggars and sexual predators across India. All in all, EDM studies indicate that class, gender and sexual orientation, alongside race, are all important factors in the makeup of electronic dance scenes. The psytrance scene in Goa embodies complex multiplicities that cannot be easily explained by means of reduction to a single analytical category alone.

As an ethnographic study, the claim that psytrance identity is founded on racial segregation is perplexing, particularly when argued on basis of empirically grounded evidence. No significant discrepancies can be found by cross-checking my fieldwork with Saldanha's ethnography at the level of observed behaviors. At a closer look, however, it becomes evident that Saldanha has neglected the cultural point-of-view of psytrance people. In fact, he explicitly states that their representations on transcending prejudice would have misled him; and that he would not have been able to understand white identity in Goa by approaching it discursively or psychologically (p.130). Instead, Saldanha chooses to observe their forms of sociability, at a distance, without ever addressing underlying meanings, intentions and desires. As such, the dismissal of native representations remits Psychedelic White to a pre-Geertzian moment, strangely resonating with classical British functional-structuralist anthropology. Not by accident, in both British and Deleuzian versions, subject interiorities become effects of larger social and material structures (machinic assemblages). As a possible remedy, what is the meaning of white bodies sticking together would have been a legitimate, even safer question. In other words, how problematic race actually is according to foreigners and natives in Goa would be a question that largely defines the social and explanatory pertinence of a theoretical framework.

However, Goa freaks and Goan villagers rarely speak in Psychedelic White. In fact, they become largely incidental against the philosophical apparatus weaved across the book. In its appendix, Saldanha correctly notes how difficult it is to interview psytrance freaks in Goa, even though he seemed to possess a remarkable ability to socialize with them. Conversely, Saldanha provides a list of interviewees including a relative majority of Indian authorities, intellectuals, journalists and activists, all of whom have been opposed to rave tourism. More widely, in a world of complexities, ethnographers ought to be supple in finding ways to engage, translate and interpret examined ways of life, initially in their own terms of sociability and intelligibility. Concurring with Saldanha, the locus of truth, as Bourdieu puts it, rarely resides at the surface level of discursive representations alone. However, they provide critical clues towards a persuasive account that is both intellectually compelling and empirically accurate. In dismissing the voice of Goa freaks, Saldanha has paradoxically incurred an act of segregation by only allowing his own representations to speak and prevail.

Ultimately, the book fails to address a critical counter-hypothesis: psytrance fans reject Indian tourists and beggars because they egregiously disrupt psytrance practices. "Trance parties" are ritual practices of a quasi-sacred nature by which scene insiders can ritually express their anger and opposition to the modern self, morality and system. Logically, those who don't appear to share or respect the meanings entwined in such countercultural practices and ideologies are deemed unwelcome outsiders. In this light, the book's main premise - that white freaks reject Indian tourists because of their race - is empirically flawed. Consequently, its main argument - that foreign countercultural formations in India are essentially reproduced on the basis of racial segregation - must be questioned. The fact that these are "mostly white" formations struggling with native and alien majorities does not suffice to define them as founded, identified or reinforced by racial segregation. Segregation and racism are not the same.

Psychedelic White must be commended for its philosophical ingenuity. Nonetheless, in order to do justice to Saldanha's exquisite contribution to race studies, the book would have benefited from a more nuanced and cautious analysis of psytrance formations empirically and methodologically. It would have been more persuasive by better calibrating its racial determinism vis-à-vis the multiple, complex and polysemous injunctions of global psytrance locally, and particularly by means of a more direct dialogue with the scholarship on psytrance, travel and tourism in India and Southeast Asia. In battling against social constructionism, Psychedelic White has lost sight of the empirical dimension it sought to explain, along with alternative philosophical explanations. In their double folding, war machines are defined both for their lines of flight and death, as well as for their viscosity and chromatic variation. How to account for race as chromatic variation would have opened up a whole new range of empirical and theoretical possibilities. All along, the fixity of psytrance in northern Goa (as in elsewhere) can be assessed as an ambivalent tactic of resistance for keeping the space of creative experimentation, one that is continuously threatened and reinforced by external formations, linkages, and power/knowledge arrangements.