The Mysticism of Mosh Pits, Or, The Mess of Sociality, Or, Have You Ever Seen Lightning Bolt Live?
“It is amusing and interesting to know that when the jazzband came into existence everyone said to his friends: ‘Something crazy has come into society.’”
—Hazrat Inayat Khan
At 03:14 in the video of Lightning Bolt at the 2014 TACIOCLUB festival in Japan, a pair of legs rises above the crowd and kicks at the sky. The pelvis is where the head and shoulders should be. As though the person were pumping their fists in time with the beat, both of their legs strike the air in bursts. One, two, three! A comment on the YouTube video says, “You know you are at a great concert when the audience is rocking upside down!” The legs, and the person to whom they belong, are held up by the crowd, which heaves and swirls like an agitated sea. It’s hard to watch this video and not want to be there, in the midst of all those bodies transforming into that slippery electric elixir that only happens in really mythical pits. The camera cuts away as the legs start to fall over, and you worry what will happen next. Will the person crash down on their head, won’t the crowd crush them?
But questions of gravity have no place in a mosh pit. The pit is like a black hole, or a quantum anomaly, or the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz: it’s a vortex of forces that don’t obey the physical laws we earthlings are bound to. Instead, the pit obeys a sort of metaphysical law that can’t be seen but which permeates the material plane with a numinous power. This produces a set of physical laws that push into something supernatural: the people in the pit are transfigured from solid units of individual mass into a singular body of surging liquid. Unlike a black hole, though, which absorbs everything that comes too close to it, and ultimately negates it, the force of the mosh pit ripples outward from its core, and, rather than a negation, it amplifies, intensity begetting intensity.
In other words, it’s a catharsis, which is to say, a communal alchemy—transcendent, transformative, pure magic—with emphasis on the communal. The most important part of catharsis, the thing that makes catharsis catharsis, is that it requires a sociality in order to be born. It cannot happen in isolation to one individual, but is produced, somehow, by the convergence of many people together in the same place. When Aristotle first coined the term, vaguely defining it in his Poetics as the purpose of art (and therefore of civilization), he was speaking of its civic role within the structure of the polis. Catharsis was what happened to the citizenry while watching performances of tragedy during the annual theater rituals of Athens, which brought together the entire population, including the women and slaves otherwise banned from being in the public sphere the rest of the year. Aristotle—and many others since—theorized that experiencing catharsis as spectators taught the citizens of the city not only how to live, but how to live together. In watching the dramatic performance of emotions—how they are born, how they grow, and how they are purged, which is to say, changed—we are afforded a sort of map to navigating them in our own lives. Learning this together, in and through socialization, offers a map for how to organize ourselves interdependently. Catharsis, then, teaches us how to be political.
This may seem incongruous to the alchemical transcendence it offers. Isn’t the realm of mysticism beyond the bounds of politics? I’m sympathetic to understandings of mysticism that highlight sociality rather than reject it, and I think it’s important to note that these are often found in accounts of music and sound and their propensity toward mystical experiences. I think of this quote about harmony in The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan: “There are two aspects of individual harmony: the harmony between body and soul, and the harmony between individuals.” What better way to enact both aspects of harmony than to sing and dance along to a band with hundreds of other people singing and dancing next to you?
Since its first appearance in the Poetics, catharsis has threaded through every art form in Western society, as both what we as an audience seek from art and what we as artists seek to produce in our work. Its ambiguity is why it’s so pervasive—because it deals with the mess of emotions, it’s difficult to define empirically, so lends itself to the sorcerousness of creativity; and because it deals with the mess of sociality, it’s difficult to explain exactly how to produce it, since each configuration of sociality is a unique confluence of complex multiplicities, desires and wills and intentions and accidents, all in one big pile. Both of these elements mean that it’s the kind of thing that can’t be defined exactly—you only know it when you feel it—and perhaps this inexplicability is what makes it so mystical, because mysticism is simply that which cannot be explained.
Although the role of catharsis in social life can’t be underestimated, we have to be careful with it. Aristotle named only “pity and fear” as the emotions that it deals in, and “purification and purgation” as what it does to us—hence it’s being yoked primarily to tragedy. This is why we can find catharsis everywhere today, in our tragic times, from public shaming and call-out culture, to the collective rage emanating from all places on the political spectrum, to the general pessimism and disenchantment that seeps through the unseasonably warm air. #MeToo swept the earth with the kind of wrath that recalls the pestilences of the Old Testament. Thanks to Trump, Twitter has become the pillory of our town square—the site of pity and fear—that affords us our purification and purgation. And, as many have noted, there isn’t much difference between tragedy and comedy, in the end. I’d argue we could call our time The Age of Catharsis—are we living in a tragedy or a comedy or both? Either way, there’s so much that needs to be purified, so much wreckage and mess.
But it’s not enough only to purge. Yes, it feels great to point to and name the offensive thing and state why exactly it is offensive, and it feels even better—cathartic, yes?—to “cancel” it, our 21st-century form of banishment and exile. But such acts rely on the idea of crime and punishment, which is to say, the idea of organizing society around the prison. Twinned and interlinked with catharsis, this is perhaps the other ideology threaded through Western civilization, and I’d suggest it’s the reason we’re in the embittered and punitive mess that we’re in.
Is the answer, then, to burn it all down? Sure, that is one option, and it certainly has had its place throughout history, functioning as a moral and infrastructural reboot. But it’s not enough to simply destroy, of course. Rebuilding is what’s important. How we fill the space we’ve made by clearing out the old is everything. Rather than asking, “How will we carry on?” the more pertinent question is “How will we carry on?” The “we” is the more challenging task. We are, after all, in this together.
Lightning Bolt doesn’t play on the stage of venues, but on the floor, at the core of the crowd, which instantiates a flattened hierarchy in the space and is distinct from typical mosh pit scenarios. This is why I’ve chosen this band over others for a discussion of mosh pits. Being in the pit at a concert of 25,000 people, below the band who strut on the raised stage like deities looking down upon you, is a very different feeling than being together, all on the same level, pushed into the band’s bodies and instruments, affecting their space as much as they affect yours. In the 2002 documentary on Lightning Bolt, by Peter Glantz and Nick Noe, The Power of Salad and Milkshakes, a montage shows crowd members holding the band’s instruments in place during the show, to keep them from being moved. Bodies tumble over the drum kit and climb up the amps to crowd surf. People put their entire heads inside the bass drum, slap the cymbals, merging with the instruments, making it not just the band who animates these objects.
In the past few years, as their popularity and the size of their crowds has grown, Lightning Bolt has moved from the floor to the stage to make sure that everyone, particularly women, or anyone not interested in elbowing their way to the front, can see and hear the band. It feels important to note, though, that in almost every live video I’ve watched of the band playing on the floor, women are up front and in the pit, Lightning Bolt having made inclusion part of their live shows since the beginning. Now that they play on stages, this is still in effect, as in this live video of a show in Moscow, where a group of exceptionally burly men have linked arms in a human barricade at the front, making a space for women to be in the front row without having to worry about being molested by the crowd behind them. Of course, mosh pits are always problematic in terms of the dominance, aggression, and violence that can be produced in them—but that’s because anything social is.
In the video of Lightning Bolt in Japan, we can watch both the mess of sociality and the mysticism of mosh pits come into being. While drummer Brian Chippendale fixes his mask of brightly colored fabrics sutured together around a microphone (“I gotta fix my face” he says, the only legible words of the video), everyone takes a breath, standing still. Arms are raised in applause but also in a moment of rest. The song Lightning Bolt is about to play is their last one, so by now everyone—crowd, band, crew—is drenched in sweat. The expressions of the audience look ecstatic and exhausted from this ecstasy. Chippendale pauses to drink half a bottle of water. People in the crowd wipe their faces, pink and swollen with endorphins. Brian Gibson, the other half of the band, lets his bass shriek through layers of distorted feedback, playing toward the riff of the song “Dead Cowboy,” but not letting it complete yet, letting it build and build. About a minute-and-a-half in, Chippendale counts it in—one, two, three, four!—and the drums thrash and crash and the riff yawns open into its frenetic noodle. The beat is very, very fast, like most Lightning Bolt songs, Chippendale’s drums filling every moment and Gibson’s bass never taking a break to breathe. The effect through the crowd is explosive. Everyone jumps, flails their limbs, thwacks their heads around as though their necks were a maypole. It is chaotic, frenzied, and unruly, as anything social is—but it looks more complex than just a purging. It looks like it’s making something, filling space rather than emptying it.
When asked to write on the future of artist organizing, little came to mind. “The future?” I scoffed. “Good luck with that!” (I’ve been reading a lot of Eugene Thacker lately; he’s cracking me up.) The idea of mosh pits arrived because it seemed like a good way to think about the future, since the question of the future is always a question of how we will do the future together.
In this moment, in our Age of Catharsis, the question of how we belong to each other—for better or worse—is producing such a friction that things feel scorched. I’d like to suggest that thinking about sonic harmony might help us think about social harmony. Harmony: how fleeting it is, and yet, how eternal. It’s like the moment when a body defies gravity and is suffused with rhythm, and then is absorbed back into the teeming, ecstatic mass around it. It’s a reminder that many separate individuals can, at times, for a time, make a whole.
Johanna Hedva is a Korean-American who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches. Hedva is the author of the novel On Hell (Sator Press, 2018), and their writing has appeared in Triple Canopy, The White Review, and Black Warrior Review. Their performance work has been shown at Performance Space New York, Wysing Arts Centre, Machine Project, HRLA, the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, and the Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon. Their album, The Sun and the Moon, was released in March 2019.