WHO IS ‘RAVING’ FOR?
Real freak hours with rave theorist McKenzie Wark
It was a cold winter afternoon in LA when I had my first off-dancefloor hangout with McKenzie Wark, the academic powerhouse and author of The Hacker Manifesto who has recently become somewhat of a rockstar in queer underground rave circles. I was cramping a little from running to the cafe where we’d arranged to have a coffee, arriving late and flustered. She was sitting serenely at a table, reading a book by Kathy Acker, the punky postmodern novelist with whom Wark had a brief affair. Looking up, she announced she had to pee. I offered to ask the restaurant down the street if we could use their bathroom. “Let’s just walk,” Wark said. Around the corner, she pulled us into a construction site, dipping behind a wall to piss in broad daylight in a residential neighborhood. That’s when I knew she was a bad bitch too.
In February, Wark published Raving, a cute little pink book you might have been seeing all over social media lately. It is, as my homie Emily put it in her New Yorker review, “the most extensive depiction of the renegade party scene that has recently exploded in Brooklyn.” It is also one of the things I love most: a deeply nerdy account of the codes, culture, and customs of raving by someone who truly gets it. So when Interview magazine asked if I’d call Wark and have a quick conversation with her about the book, I knew it was going to be tough to reign it in. We ended up chatting for more than an hour—about everything from the types of people you avoid at the rave (“coworkers” and “punishers,” she calls them), to ketamine’s entropic influence on the dancefloor, and our differing takes on the State of the Scene. Not everything made it to the final cut, so below are some of the juicy bits from our interview that were left on the floor.
On Tuesday April 18, I will also be supporting the LA launch of Raving at a really cute event! Wark will be joining fellow academic-raver madison moore (with whom she co-edited a must-read edition of e-flux called Black Rave), DJ and co-founder of Hood Kumi James aka Bae Bae, and moi at for a conversation-based kiki at Poetic Research Bureau, one of the sweetest gathering places of the LA lit scene. See you there!
You define “ravers” as “people who really need it.” Why is it that raving feels like such a primal drive?
McKenzie Wark: I think of techno as a kind of music that lends itself to dissociation really well, in a way that for example, house doesn't quite do as well. Although I definitely got off to house music as well. So like that need, it's interesting. If I go to the rave at four or five in the morning, it's a lot of people who do service work, and are used to being nice to people all day. There’s also sex workers, who similarly are having to use their body, their subjectivity, and their emotions in service of the job. They go to a space to get out of that.
Then there are people like me—“intellectual workers.” Products of your brain, your ability to talk and all that's for sale. Those kinds of labor just work for someone to be at the rave for hours. On that sound, in the dark. You can barely see anything so your visual senses are tamped down. When I’m in rave spaces, language is going on in my head, but I'm not paying attention to it. It's just there but I'm not in it. That's just one of those states that I need.
That state that you're talking about, it’s very meditative. You can feel it on a collective level, when everybody's locked in. It doesn't happen all the time. But when it does, that's when you know it's really working.
You can't force it. You can just try to create the conditions where it's likely. Every now and then you pull out and look around you. And you just see people moving un-self-consciously. You're like, oh, here we are. Great. And then just hopefully let it flow into that state again.
That's when a party truly lifts off. And that's the vibe we're all chasing. Every time we go to a rave and put our bodies through all of this exhaustion, it's kind of chasing that one feeling when it hits.
I was chasing it hot for a while, and then my trans mom said, you can't force it…
What's really interesting about that state is that it usually takes place much later in the night. I call it Real Freak Hours, which is when all of the “co-workers” and “punishers” have left the dancefloor. This state is also dependent on the chemicals that are fueling the dancefloor. The alcohol evaporates as people who were drinking get really tired and leave. What you have left are people on other kinds of substances. In this day and age, it's usually ketamine.
I feel really conflicted about ketamine’s presence in rave culture. On one hand, it’s been really powerful for a lot of people and creates a really distinct vibe. At the same time, I was having a conversation with Cedric, the infamous door bitch of New York City’s nightlife, and he was saying-
Whom I love deeply.
Right. We love Cedric. He was saying that he’s noticed such a shift in the culture because of ketamine, in a bad way. He feels like a lot of the kids these days just do not know how to behave. They’re super antisocial, they’re kind of keeping to themselves in the corner. They’re not really talking to people outside of their little groups and they’re just totally dissociated on the dance floor. And he was like, “Back in the day, when it was cocaine and house music, everyone was just super chatty and talking to everyone, and it was a genuine sense of connection and community.”
I’ve also had that conversation with him. I mean, I kind of wrote the book, a little bit, to teach that. I can’t help being a teacher, because I also teach nightlife in the university setting to undergrads. It’s okay to talk to the person next to you waiting for the bathroom. That might be a possible friend. I think Cedric’s right about that.
I’m curious what your thoughts are on this scene as it stands right now. Because, you know, you know that I love this scene and this culture as much as you do, but sometimes I feel like I have a much more cynical take on it.
You know the prehistory of it way better than I do. So maybe I'm just being more of a naive bunny, who doesn't look too closely as well.
I think what disheartens me the most is that feeling we discussed before, of when the rave hits and you feel it. I feel like I'm chasing an ephemera at this point. Something that's almost a ghost that I can never truly encounter. The so-called spirit of the rave. I think there's a lot of reasons why she is so absent from the dance floor these days.
Whether you want to call it the clout matrix, which is the algorithmically-based social media cage that is trapping nightlife in a lot of the things we're supposed to be escaping from. And nightlife has become so much more popular since the pandemic that I think a lot of people have latched on to it who don't necessarily need it in the same way that we've talked about.
I'm always looking for where the heads are really gravitating. Where we can just seek it amongst other people who have some clues about it already. And the problem with the party is that it's not financially viable on its own. Because the whole of nightlife depends on alcohol sales, and selling expensive tickets and brand-name DJs. So the problem here is navigating between the business model and the culture.
That's why your book gives me some hope. Because I think not everything is lost. But rave culture is definitely at a very interesting tipping point, and it's up to the people who've been around to hopefully push it in the right direction for the children. What I’ve arrived at is that rave culture might not necessarily revolutionize or change the world. But it may be able to change things on an individual and community level.
I don't think it's a bad thing for people to learn to be intimate with each other on the dance floor, in close proximity, to be vulnerable to each other. Sometimes, it makes very weak networks. But even those are not bad things to have. There's people around that you're gonna see in other contexts and you just know a little about each other. Yeah, it's not the revolution. It's not utopia. But it's not nothing.
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