TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Myth as Subculture:
the meaning of the Berlin Underground Rap

David Kergel (Freie Universität Berlin, Deutschland)



The philosophical epoch of “Deutscher Idealismus” (German Idealism) can be regarded as the point of origin and the foundation of the modern subject conceptions. There is one specific feature where the question of the transcendental faculty of man arises. Influenced by the philosophy of Descartes, the Sensualism, and also by the wider impact of the French Revolution, Kant created an anthropology which is still valid in regard to its basic principles. Kant referred to the tradition (to which Nietzsche related later on) of understanding the man as a reasonable being as well as a wild, irrational and brutish creature.

Kant’s anthropology analyses the very being of man (as a contradiction between reason and bestial needs) and his relation to his environment. This ed Kant to the question of legitimacy and necessity of moral. The independence of the subject within Kant’s theory of perception (“transzendentaler Idealismus”/ “transcendental idealism”) was entangled with the demands of social practice as it was well-exemplified in Kant’s “Vorlesung über Pädagogik” (“On Pedagogy”). In his early years, Nietzsche was influenced by this dualistic model of man which was developed by Kant. Nietzsche, the author of the “Geburt der Tragödie” (“The Birth of Tragedy”), which was published in 1872, wrote this book at the time when he was under the significant influence of Richard Wagner’s theory of art. Wagner’s concept of the work of art tried to combine different types of theories which were contemporary to him. Wagner incorporated in his own work the aesthetics of music as proposed by the early romanticists, such as Wackenroder, Tieck (and later E.T. A. Hoffmann), as well as the reflections about the semantics of music. The composer was influenced by the ideas about a new social order which he learned mainly from Bakunin, in 1848. This is seen in the process of the final destruction in the “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), which could be understood as a scenario of revolution in Bakunin’s sense. In his book “Opera and Drama”, Wagner developed a theory of art which was envisioned to bring about a new way of social cooperation. His intention was to achieve a social change, which was related to some of the concepts of Bakunin and Marx, in regard of social revolution. Wagner referred to a possibility of social change which was created mainly by the impact of art, music in particular. From this point of view, “The Ring” can be read as a description of social processes (e.g. industrialisation), using the alienation effects in a similar way as Brecht did later on.

Nietzsche adopted the ideas of Wagner’s concept of art and combined them with the theory of perception of Kant in respect with the anthropology developed by Kant. In “The Birth of Tragedy”, Nietzsche referred mainly to the contradiction of anthropology that Kant had pointed at. Nietzsche’s philosophy included complex considerations about the psychology of man. The obvious reflections and descriptions of the art of the Greeks in “The Birth of Tragedy” represent also utopian concept of society, with the roots in the tradition of the “German Idealism”. “The Birth of Tragedy” might be classified as an attempt to resolve the problems of the contradiction within the nature of man. As a result, in “The Birth of Tragedy”, Nietzsche considers art as the basis for social practice, also for the existence of a society in general.

Nietzsche discusses the “meaningless nature” originating from Kant’s theory of perception. The adoption of nihilism is described by Nietzsche as a harsh process which has to take place within a community for the sake of cohesion of a society. According to Nietzsche, the experience of nihilism leads to the need for meaning. At this point, “The Birth of Tragedy” becomes important for a sociological view on society. Sociology, defined as the scientific study of society, includes the analysis of patterns of social relationships, therefore also of social interactions or social practices, which are often expressed in the forms of social subgroups or subcultures. Nietzsche analysed social practices as common developments, with common meanings, within a particular society. He favored the thesis that the basis of society is a permanent process of collective development of meaning which was described by him by the term “Mythos” (myth). Myths tell the actions and fates of gods and heroes. According to Nietzsche, the image of gods should be regarded as a mirror reflecting the - collective - experience of life. Nietzsche points out that the essence of myths reflects also the imagination of the history of civilisation. This imagination is the result of the two opposite sides within the human being (reason vs. animality).

Simultaneously with the progress of civilisation, the achievements of culture also denote that man does not belong to nature. The tension between the rational faculties and the brutish needs of man has already been described by Kant, and Nietzsche took that tension as a permanent feeling of tragedy placed at the basis of civilization. (From this point of view, Nietzsche’s interpretation of culture seems to be similar to the one of Marx). Although a fierce critic of Hegel, Nietzsche implicitly used the method of dialectics the way Hegel had developed it. The brutish character of human being taken as a thesis and the faculties caused by reason taken as the antithesis constitute a dynamic synthesis within society. This synthesis, as myth, should enable social life. Individual brutish basic needs are preserved in “super-individual” customs which also include the faculties of the reason of man. The unity of a society is manifested symbolically in its rituals and celebrations. The structure of these festivities corresponds to the demands of the contradiction of anthropology. As it was in the case of Freud later, Nietzsche was confronted with the problem: How to describe a psychological phenomenon without proper technical terms. Consequently, Nietzsche had to develop new technical terms. For that purpose, he referred to the ancient gods of the Greeks. There he identified the psychological processes which he wanted to describe symbolically as represented by the gods Dionysus and Apollo. Nietzsche argued that only by having the same symbols of meaning, a society would be able to grow and to restore itself continually. A myth should contain and express both dimensions, that of Apollo and that of Dionysus. Since he was influenced by Wagner’s theory of art, Nietzsche (anticipating Freud, in part) interpreted art as expression of psychological processes which are represented by symbols (as in myths). Following Nietzsche’s interpretation, myths can be defined as a self-conception of a society which integrates the symbolic aspects of Dionysus and Apollo.

As it is later described also by Charles Morris, fundamental crises of social practice are seen in the loss of the efficacy of the symbols of a particular society. In this context, Nietzsche observed two essential indications of social decay. One is that collective symbols are not able to restore themselves. The other is the development of subgroups within a society which create their own kind of myths expressed, for instance, in their specific manifestations of folk songs (“Volkslied”).

The theory of folk song which Nietzsche offered in “The Birth of Tragedy” can be helpful for the analysis of the meaning of the Berlin Underground Rap. Nietzsche traces the imagery of folk songs back to what he calls the Dionysian expression in music. According to Nietzsche, the most important element of a folk song is music. The structure of music influences the structure of its imagery. Music itself is the artistic expression of Dionysian needs. Nietzsche’s interpretation follows the contemporary romantic opinion about folk songs – that folk songs represent the culture and needs of an anonymous subgroup (“folk”) and not of the entire society. The Dionysian needs of this particular subgroup (“folk”) are expressed and represented within a folk song. At the same time, that folk song reveals alienating tendencies within a society, and fulfils the demands of a part of the society which are attributed to myths. With the use of the term ‘folk song’, the music and ideologies of subcultures can be analysed as a contemporary appearance of myths. Subcultures offer a structure of meaning with the demand for an emotional identification.

Using Socrates as a symbol, Nietzsche points out that a society is endangered if it is based only in reason and neglects the affective needs of man. This lack of emotional values as a consequence of “a society of Enlightenment” was noticed already by Robespierre (as seen in the festivities for the “Etre Supreme” / “Supreme Being”). The affective dimensions of man make it possible to create and thus analyse (“mass”) phenomena, like it is the present craze for the new I-phone mobile by Apple or for Knut the polar bear in the Berlin Zoo. Following Nietzsche, these phenomena can be regarded as a search for (Dionysian) meaning within a society.

In this context, the Berlin Underground Rap, as a kind of a subcultural phenomenon, could be considered as a form of mythical appearances. This perspective allows us to draw conclusions from the social reality and the social identity – what the German public uses the term “Unterschicht” (lower class) for. At present, there is a process of exclusion taking place in Germany, mainly in Berlin, which is neither fully described nor analysed as yet (we can mention Hohm’s attempt in this regard).

The recent Social Structure Atlas (2003, a sociological analysis of the socio-economic structures within Berlin) describes the social conditions in Berlin and reveals that mainly the districts in the centre of Berlin are affected by the process of exclusion (in contrast to other cities where “ghetto-like” quarters are placed outside of the city-centre). This analysis shows that in districts like Wedding (Mitte / Centre) or Kreuzberg (Friedrichshain) there is a significant quota of people with the immigrant background and high unemployment rate. The lack of financial stability on the one hand and the lack of integration on the other, as well as the negligence of these districts by the government, have generated a process of social exclusion.

Parts of the population who can afford it are leaving those districts; the consequence is the social and cultural isolation of the inhabitants who are left behind. The dimension this process is taking can be seen in the attitude of the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit. In a TV-interview, Wowereit mentions that he wouldn’t allow his children to attend any school in Kreuzberg. Since Wowereit is the representative of a policy which has as its task an urge for integration, Wowereit’s remark can be rated as a symbol of societal failure. Another significant point is that his remark shows (and symbolises) the decline of the excluded districts in the eyes of the public.

Therefore, the inhabitants of those districts are forced to create a different kind of definition of their own social roles, their social identities within the society. They can either deny the society or construct their own new - social - identity.

In particular, the young people, growing up there and hardly having any possibility of changing their living conditions, are compelled to give some meaning to their lives within a problematic district, i.e. to develop their own specific myth.

In their search for their own social identity, they turn the societal process of exclusion into an artistic and aesthetical basis and invert it into what is called the Berlin Underground Rap. From this point of view, the Berlin Underground Rap, as a modern kind of folk song, could be understood as a modern myth.

Until now, the discipline of music-psychology has not been able to analyse in full how the relation between music and text affects the psyche of the listeners (this fact is pointed out by the music-psychologist, Gerhard Harrer). According to Harrer, it can be said that music affects the subconscious disposition of its listener. Nietzsche tried to describe the relation between music and the subconscious faculty of the psyche of a listener by the term Dionysian. He explained that the structure of human beings and the action of myths are simple in nature.

This simple structure represents the basic conception of society. In case of the Berlin Underground Rap, the basic structure is a simple one-individual-to-one-individual-relation (in contrast to the punk-music, where a “we-against-[an-anonymous-] them”-relation is constructed). This one-to-one-relation corresponds to a specific structure of music. The music of the Berlin Underground Rap is essentially based in a few and aggressive beats (hardly any syncopate rhythms). This rhythmical structure creates the basis for a special kind of rap where the accents of the rhythm emphasises mainly the first and third quarter of a bar of a 4/4 rhythm, while the tempo is a pulse-like between slow medium and medium. This rhythmical structure generates an energetic and, in combination with the semantic dimension of the lyrics, aggressive effect.

In reference to the semantic structure we can observe the following:

The Berlin Underground Rap re-enacts a conversation which, in fact, is the destruction of conversation. The artists of the Berlin Underground Rap, themselves being excluded from the society, refuse the discussion with other social groups of the society, and their reactions are obviously based in reason and the power of speech. Instead of engaging himself in conversation, the Berlin Rap musician insults his - non-existing - interlocutor, marking him by the personal pronoun “you” (second person singular). The listener does not connect this “you” to himself. On the contrary, he identifies himself with the point of view of the rap musician. This situation, or feeling, of helplessness, this continual humiliation by the institutions of society (from the school to the unemployment-office), this total loss of perspective, are processed within a myth which interprets and thus transforms their own speechlessness into an act of resistance.

At the same time, the Berlin Underground Rap helps the overall society – to be able to cope with the excluded groups. The unity of society is thus reconstructed by delivering a structure of meaning which all parts of society can refer to. From Nietzsche’s perspective, this process of identification forms the basis for a myth.



Exemplary artists of the Berlin Underground Rap:

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For quotation purposes:
David Kergel: Myth as Subculture: the meaning of the Berlin Underground Rap - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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