Towards a General Theory of Parties

Parties are the highest form of human art and the purest arena for self-expression.

For millennia, festivals, booze-ups, house parties, birthdays, feasts, lock-ins, weddings, wakes, raves, dances, and religious rituals of all different shapes and sizes have been the pre-eminent conduits in people’s lives for love, transcendence, friendship, intellectual progress, and spiritual celebration.

Parties structure our sense of autobiographical time, define our kinships, and create the opportunity for us to expand our consciousness beyond the banal strictures of the everyday.  They can, as a consequence, claim credit for a startling percentage of the total meaning and joy ever experienced by human beings.

But what is it that makes the party such a potent tool for meaning, joy and human connection? 

Embarrassingly for our civilization, parties have hitherto gone almost entirely unstudied- if research budgets are any indication, we value the understanding of sub-atomic particles millions of times more than of our own consciousnesses. But this epic cultural fail should not tempt us to underestimate how well we can understand parties, nor indeed their importance. 

In my posthumous work, a General Theory of Parties, I’ll go into all of this in much more detail, but I thought it might be worth sharing an overview of how parties function now, and a sketch of an analysis

What makes a good party?

One simple way to approach the question of what makes a great party is to make a list of the greatest party moments of one’s life, and then to inspect each for what took place in the surrounding party-context to set up that sublime party-moment.

I actually recommend you do this before reading further. List three truly great parties and try to work out what it was that made them so damn good. It’s not difficult to come up this way with a list of universal party ingredients.

When I conduct this reflection on the greatest party experiences I’ve enjoyed, which of course dominate the list of the happiest and most profound moments of my life, what’s so striking is that the same ingredients co-occur even across wildly different parties.

Parties with very different scales, different purposes, different kinds of people, music, patterns of mind-alteration have similar categorical ingredients.

Specifically, the four best parties I have ever experienced (outside of Burning man, a category of its own) were:

  • A spontaneous house party for ten in Paris in 2005 (10-ish people)
  • My parents 40th wedding anniversary (120-ish people)
  • My best mate Al’s stagnight (2016, 20 people)
  • The Oregon Eclipse (5000 people)

The ten universal ingredients of great parties

 1. A theme or focus

Every great party has a theme of some kind, an organising goal or principle that acts as the source of emotional harmony and energetic co-participation. There are times, admittedly, when a theme can be implicit, or can spontaneously arise during a party, or can derive from the history of the community who make the party (as at Burning Man) but great parties are always, at some deep level, about something. (As an interesting aside, this mirrors the intentionality of consciousness).

At the Oregon Elipse, the theme was essentially cosmic. It was about the eclipse, but more generally it was about how we fragile humans are

The drugs were psychedelic; the scale demanded a seven-day party; the eclipse itself a moment of the profoundest meditative reflection.

At my parents’ 40th, the theme was family values, the love of a couple; at the Oregon eclipse, the

2. Great People

Like a murmuration of starlings, parties exist as an emergent property of all their participants’ behaviour. This is a miraculous phenomenon, and entirely beyond the scope of any kind of contemporary scientific discourse to model.

Murmuration.gif

It follows that people and their behaviour are the essence of the party. One can observe that all other elements in our list of ingredients are simply ways of mediating the interactions of people withing the time-space of the party.

This has numerous and profound implications for party design; most obviously, getting great people to come is key. But equally, ensuring that those who come are committed to the party, motivated to co-create and participate. This is one of the reasons Burning Man is the greatest party in the world: the incredible levels of creative devotion of the community who reinvents it every year.

This point deserves elaborate treatment but I’ll make note here of a few of the basic laws of people-related party-organisation

Diversity is key

Whenever there are more than three people together, a virtual party begins to simmer in the space of the possible: add some beers and music, and this could very quickly become a happening.

Good parties, like Rugby teams, have people of all shapes and sizes: sexy people, rowdy people, dancers, intellectuals, drunkards, cynics,

Every attendee is a micro-host

Of course individuals may play many roles. In particular, there is a continuum between host and participant, so that hosts are also participants, and good participants will be constantly seeing opportunities for micro-hosting (whether initiating a singsong, rescuing a lonely participant, welcoming a new arrival, fixing an issue with the alcohol supply-chain or what have you).

Prioritise the fun people

Fun people are especially important guests at parties: their intuitive gift for perceiving the dynamics of the experience and acting on it have super-linear effects on the happening of a party. Fun people should always begin your act of invitation, for these superadditive reasons:

  1. They are more likely to be up for attending or co-hosting a party
  2. They are more likely to be naturally good and actually practised at holding space for fun, and seeing opportunities for fun.
  3. They are more likely to be broadly recognised as such, and so be able to attract further great guests.

So in other words, if you’re hosting a party, a great rule of thumb is to invite the most fun people you know. And if you’re attending a party, never forget that your participation is constitutive of the party that emerges.

3. A narrative through time

Perhaps the greatest error people make with parties is failing to recognise the importance of sustained engagement over time. Experience is deeply temporally contextual, and to completely refresh that mental context, to flush out all of the deeper accumulated boringness and narrow preoccupations of the mind, can take two-four weeks: hence the typical length of a summer vacation, or the fact that hardcore burning man participants always go to “pre-burn” to help set the thing, and themselves, up.

This is where narratives come in. They accelerate and bring structure to the principle of refreshing experiential space. This requires time. In the context of parties, eight hours seems to be the minimum amount of time for the generation of valuable experience. But we also need to remember that the broader context of the party, including the invitation, the period of anticipation and the process of preparation are equally part of the critical context for the experiential dynamics of the party itself.

An interesting conceptual entrée into this is to meditate on why the amount of fun had at parties correlates so consistently with the difficulty of getting to them. When I first observed this, I assumed it was a coincidence. It seemed so counter-intuitive that my favorite parties were the ones where the car had broken down on the way; where I’d had to walk four miles over a snowy field; when I’d had to get a dangerous boat ride.

These moments when the journey provides unnecessary friction… at the time you feel furious, you regret the decision to attend the party. But such parties turn out again and again to be the best.

Why is this? Well, such adventures create new emotional space in our minds for experience, they generate distinctiveness from normal life and above all they encourage commitment.

4. Many different spaces

The spaces of a party are the containers that determine the tenor and dynamics of the interactions of the participants at each moment in time. We need lots of different spaces for all the moods people need to borrow from in the course of the party, and great parties always involve a multitude of spaces. 

We can begin here by listing a small subset of the large variety of conversations a party needs to create space for:

  • Playful chitchat
  • Catching up
  • Discussing deep new ideas
  • Seduction and flirtation
  • Deep-and-meaningfuls
  • Vulnerable sharing

Each of these varieties of conversation demands a micro-world to house it: some combination of mood, context, decoration, degree of background noise, chance of interruption,  etc. You don’t want to be engaged in a deep-and-meaningful in a crowd listening to jazz: that works better in a yurt at 3 a.m.

Hence for conversation alone, a diversity of spaces is foundational. But of course, great parties are much more than conversation. Participants have to be able to find spacetime for dance, for love-making, for sleep, for gossip, for shelter, for mischief in all its many varities.  That’s why great parties always have a multitude of spaces.

In this context, the agency of party-cipants is key. The joy of parties is to have a degree of autonomy in navigating the pleasure-domes. A basic repertoire of spaces at a good bash will include neutral areas like toilets, chill out zones, raving zones, light dance zones, kitchen chitchat zones, spacious gardens.

5. Multisensory delights

Great parties almost always take pleasures to delight the senses. Delighting the senory organs has an interesting and potent incremental low-level effect on our consciousness: they stimulate, and they are pleasurable in themselves, and because of this they prime and attune our delight and pleasure, bring us back to the body: thus providing a natural precursor to debauchery, falling in love, having fun.

Sounds

Smells

Lights

Lights . this interacts with principles of

Tastes

Touches

Furs, silks, feathers,

Because of the principle of participation, when created and shared, treats like these give rise to extra sinews of emotional and intellectual connection at the party.

6. Great music

The liquid architecture of music is of course fundamental to parties, and barely requires explanation here. It plays two fundamental roles:

a) It makes people feel different

And if we double-click on what happens when it makes everyone feel different, it does so in a comprehensive fashion: music alters perception of time and space, emotion, mood. In one memorable study, people listening to German techno underestimated the speed of the cars they were driving by up to 50%.

b) It makes different people feel different in a similar way.

Thus, music is a vector of commonality: it brings people together into the same experiential spaces, and so connects them directly.

With its inevitable copartner dance, music provides an under-appreciated vector of virtual reality. The whole space of a room feels differently if you change the music.

7. Dancing

Dancing is of course key. At every good party I’ve ever been to. Why is dancing so important?

8. Costume:

It is, let’s face it, very boring being ourselves. The golden shimmering force of universal infinite consciousness pulses through us all, yet most of the time the lenses of our minds refract it down onto our council-tax bills, job frustrations, disappointments in ourselves, and counterfactual fantasies about, for example, how we might be more beautiful, or more effective.

Parties generally, and costumes specifically, are an extraordinary tool for freeing ourselves from the banality of ourselves, and expanding the scope and possibility of our imaginations.

Great costumes connect us with other narratives that bring joy and fun, they create distinctness from everyday experience, and their feedback-effects encourage us to be more interesting and daring.

They also help others at parties: they entertain others, providing sensory decoration and phenomenological arousal.

Of course, costume (combined with lighting) can elevate and make accessible people’s attractiveness, and this creates new opportunities for pleasure, naturally enough.

9. Mind-altering substances

Now I don’t wish to endorse the use of mind-altering substances. In my view, a ten-year apprenticeship in the art of classical memory techniques is the only legitimate form of psychoactive substance, and I worry a lot about the appalling cognitive effects of, for example, alcohol on people’s perceptual and intellectual capabilities.

That said, it cannot be denied that mind-altering substances are a universal feature of human happenings through the millennia. And that different substances have different qualities roles to play.

All psychoactive substances are, by definition, tools of consciousness, which interact of course with the broader experience of the spacetime of the party. Empirical data indicates that people will often take a number of different substances depending on where they are in the party, and that these substances are often constitutive of costume, music, etc. Alcohol is of course the most common substance across so many cultures.

Among the psychoactive effects of drugs is that they change visual and sensory acuity, affecting for example the vibrancy of colours and tastes; they alter mood, and interpersonal attitudes (love, openness etc), inflecting for example generosity; they affect the basic structure of experiential spacetime.

If we take the example of alcohol, it lowers people’s inhibition and critical intelligence making everyone more interesting and the expression of deeper desires come closer to the surface. This tends to enable more fun. In the case of psychedelics such as mushrooms, they seem from the written accounts I’ve been able to assess, to alter the quality and resolution of spacetime, and bring less distinctive cognitive discrimination between, as well as enhanced relationship to music.

10. Performances / entertainment

Performances create mnemonic foci or landmarks in the timespace of the party, and can in a way be viewed as worlds within worlds. Parties can hold on their shelves many different performances, but these of course work best when they are consistent with the theme of the party.

  • These can often be the most important, the most memorable things at parties
  • A poem can contain a universe
  • Performances create intense focal-points of experience
  • They are at their most powerful when they flow from the participants, and there is a witnessing and connection with the very people with whom you’re partying

How these ten ingredients come together in the invention of party/consciousness time-space

What unifies the ten ingredients of incredible parties is that each is a distinctive tool for acting on the shape of consciousness. Together, they offer a toolkit for the architecture of time-spaces of human consciousness.

Party-composers thus deploy costume, spaces, music, mind-altering potions, sensory delight, narrative and so on to create journies that bring the consciousnesses of their participants into new vistas.

When these tools are marshalled with intent towards a particular purpose (celebrating the arrival of Spring, someone’s marriage, the end of a war, global community) they enable party-goers to enjoy spectacular communal transformations of consciousness, attaining feelings and perceptions of the world, themselves, and their relation to each other that simply aren’t possible in other art forms like conversation, film, literature, or even the philosophical study of fundamental ontology.

Thus parties help people escape the strictures of their normal selves and voyage wild and deep into the frontiers of consciousness, which is to say of their own existence. And this is the thing about parties, they’re not a form of thinking about living, they *are* living. The changes they bring to consciousness are not a means to an end, they are the end. This is what is so spectacular and mind-blowing about the medium of parties, and helps account for their universal role across history at the heart of all that is good in human life.

On top of this, let’s not forget that these aren’t linear journeys like books and films; they’re not separable from the minds of their consumers. For party-goers have agency, they’re all on different journeys, and these spaces and experiences are co-created. The partygoers make the party, it is all inherently improvised and co-created.

Seen in this way, parties can be seen as co-created time-space journeys to lastingly new perception of how the world works, changing people for the better and creating meaning in their lives.

The process of enacting a party looks like collective invention, participative theatre, a massively multiplayer game, the original form of virtual reality.

A note on mind-world relativity

This theory of parties leans on the concept of mind-world relativity. 

In follow up posts, I’ll address what extensions will be required to Relativistic Mathematics to capture the way that the timespace of parties relates to the timespace of the participants consciousnesses in law-like fashion.

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