Some time a little after 3 am in certain Brooklyn clubs, a shift starts to happen—if you know what to look for. Outside, the line, likely sparse since an hour prior, starts to pick up a little. Inside, the coat check queue swells. Half the people in it are heading home, suddenly eyeing their morning brunch plans through the blurry vision of a fourth drink. But the other half are just arriving from a friend’s apartment, or maybe still waking up from a nap. They are here to dance, to lock in, to merge with the sound. The partiers are leaving. The ravers have arrived.
To show up at a party well after midnight takes skill. First, you have to overcome the primal instinct to stay in bed after a nap. If you do manage to emerge, dancing successfully for hours afterward requires a certain set of knowledge accumulated over many nights: of your body, your needs, which supplies go in the rave bag, which shoes to wear, whether and which drugs to take, and how to take them as safely as you can. Then there’s stamina: you have to understand how to pace your breaks, glasses of water, and half-heard conversations with friends off the side of the dance floor.
In other words, raving takes practice—or is a practice, which partiers tend not to understand. McKenzie Wark began practicing in the 1990s, took a 20-year break, and then returned. “After I transitioned, I felt a lot better, but there was, and is, some kind of low level ambient dysphoria on which one of the few things that works is dancing,” she tells us. “Raving is intense enough that it cuts through the noise of gender.”
There is not much of a canon for this genre; most books about electronic music are histories, and essays appear only so often. Wark’s new book, Raving, is both a chronicle and a critique of her experience—a queer, trans, cripped, middle-aged one—articulated over the course of six essays, which put her friends and intellectual influences in conversation on the dance floor. To read it as a raver is to feel understood. To read it as anyone else is to get a glimpse of a world, enclosed and artificial, that, after the course of a loud, damp night, can leave its marks on everything outside.
Along with Wark, we are writers and ravers who organize an intermittent reading series called Writing on Raving, which is exactly what it sounds like: a place where ravers share their dance floor experiences away from the noise and crowds of the heated sunrise rave. In this interview, we take this format in a slightly different direction, interviewing Mckenzie herself about her new book, techno, subcultures, and the difference between good dancing and good raving. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
—Zoë Beery and Geoffrey Mak
Geoffrey Mak: The night after the Monterey Park shootings, us three were texting, and I said, “writing is the only place I feel safe,” even though that obviously isn’t true. Then you said writing was also your “happy place.” In Raving, you write that once you transitioned, you had writer’s block. But then “out of raves, the writing came back, slowly.” I want to know more about the relationship between raves and your writing: How did the rave make the words flow again?
Mckenzie Wark: My experience with writing and gender transition is that it’s like being a clarinet player who got handed a saxophone. I sort of knew how my instrument worked, but I couldn’t get a good flow, a good tone. I was writing but nothing really worked. So I went dancing instead. Dancing, particularly sustained dancing to techno, is one of the few things that works on the more obtuse, diffuse gender dysphoria in my body. It overcomes the noise of it. The path back to writing was to write, not so much about that—more like through that—to find a practice of writing, a form, a style, that extended that back onto the page. Raving is techno aesthetics, rave culture, as I live it, expressed in book form. It centers queer and trans experience within that but hopefully also some of the other things we play with together in those spaces.
Zoë Beery: One of my favorite things about the book is its frequent examination of the temporal qualities of raving, including the fabrication of a pocket of time between yesterday and tomorrow. Historically, this atemporality has convinced many ravers—including me, and previously you—that we are opening a space for temporary utopias where we try out alternatives to the world we rave to escape from. But as you write, our present rave-time continuum exists within a reality-time that feels doomed: “Today’s raves…cannot prefigure futures when there may not be any.” Under these conditions, what larger purposes, if any, can raving serve? If the rave was ever political, can it still be?
MW: In my first go around as a raver, in the nineties, there was a lot of utopian language and feeling. Maybe it’s more that I think about “utopia” differently now. I don’t see utopia as a perfected ideal, or prefigurative moment. What’s utopian is what is practical, but taking the practical to the extreme. Raves are not utopia in the sense of a world that’s free from the violence of the [outer] world. The reality is that the tensions and aggressions of the world all pass through the dance floor too. What’s interesting about a good rave is that there’s the collective, creative, cooperative project of dancing together, but at the same time there’s still a little thread of aggression. When it works, the rave is a practical way of dissipating that aggression. I don’t think rave culture is “political” in any direct sense, and in any case I think that’s a word we use too much. But to get a few hundred people off their phones, being proximate and intimate with each other—that’s a useful capacity, even a kind of power.
GM: For a long time, I defined the rave as “a system,” a group of components in relation to another, until I discovered your definition of the rave as “a situation.” I was like, “oh shit, you’re so right.” Using the Situationist definition, you write, “a situation is where agency meets concrete forms that shape its expression…the ravers bring their freedom: their moves, raw need, and their arts of copresence.” A situation is more dependent on the outside world than a system typically is. The rave, as a constructed situation, generates activity that affects the world. Could you say more about that?
MW: Situation has this specific meaning to Sartre. It’s what is between my freedom and the material constraints of the world. It’s where “I don’t know what I’m free to do, and where I will find out.” The Situationists came along with the idea of the constructed situation, where we could design [a place] to collectively play in between freedom and necessity. One of the strands that runs through rave culture is a Situationist one—of group experiments in freedom. Ravers have been playing with that for a few decades now, constructing situations where we can get free, and take some of the liberation in through the body, and back into our engagements with the world.
ZB: Like any good documentation of an underground, Raving makes its subject tantalizing while keeping it just out of reach of readers who are not already in the scene. You use single letters as pseudonyms to identify people in your social circles, and reference specific parties without naming them—breadcrumbs that don’t actually lead to the destination. What is your intention with this book for people who are not ravers?
MW: I don’t want to participate in the cycle of exposure and extraction of subcultures for media consumption. On the other hand, it’s not about being exclusive. Raves aren’t all that hard to find, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, and an establishing of trust, to find the good ones. There’s another level to the book where raving is just the particular example. You can read it as a book about the art of constructing situations more generally where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle, find forms of collective joy, or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.
ZB: Let’s talk about the glossary. You’ve created new terms for some of the experiences particular to raving, like “junkspace,” the disused urban landscapes full of possibility where the best raves happen. Much like trying to describe what music sounds like (an obsolete form of music writing), putting raving into words will always fail to some extent, because it is a physical experience. And yet, this is also the job of the writer: to describe the ineffable. How widely do you hope these terms will spread?
MW: A lot of the conceptual language I’ve repurposed from elsewhere. “Junkspace” I got from the architect Rem Koolhaas. The most subtle and elaborated language for some of these situations is in Black culture. I want to honor that, but not appropriate it. Some language that I think is more mine to play with is from trans experiences of embodiment. The end of the book is a little glossary of concepts for articulating what happens in the rave, particularly the kinds of dissociated states it can produce. I distinguish at least four of those. The glossary reads as a little essay in itself. I don’t care whether these terms catch on. I just want us to play with language rather than just slot raves into the existing ones: utopia, transcendence, resistance, and so on. An aesthetic experience, in this case the rave, should put pressure on existing language. I’m not interested in trying to represent the rave in writing. I’m interested in the rave entering into the writing. The rave works when you let the sound enter your body. The writing works when you let the rave enter the text.
GM: This book has a weird shape. It uses theory within a frame of confessional, narrative fiction. It also moves in and out of individual and collective discourse, not unlike a saxophonist in a free jazz group. The book certainly has arguments, but the book’s form is also, in and of itself, an argument. In your words, what is that argument?
MW: You just said it better than I could, lol. In a good rave, there are components to the situation, but they all come together and blend: the light, fog, and sound system, the way the door is managed, the way everyone interacts, threading their bodies together, or chilling out and talking, or having sex in a dark corner somewhere, the DJ, and so on. For the rave to enter the book, the book had to find a form to blend narrative, description, feelings, concepts, references. The form of the book is an argument about forms of life.
GM: How do you dance at the rave? Teach me something.
MW: I’m a terrible dancer. Very uncoordinated. Ravers aren’t always good dancers. It’s about the willingness to embrace the situation, disappear into it, search for the states of being toward which it opens. In Raving there’s four that I’ve experienced, and there’s surely more. Ravers are those who know how to let go of themselves in these situations.