For McKenzie Wark, The Practice Of Raving Is Essential To Living
“I didn't go dancing with the intention of writing about it. I was doing it because I needed it.”
For three years, McKenzie Wark couldn’t write. Instead, she raved.
After starting hormones in 2018, Wark, a media and culture professor at Eugene Lang College and the author of no less than two dozen books, found it impossible to put pen to paper. So she started going to raves, where she found a new vocabulary of being.
In the summer of 2021, Margret Grebowicz approached her to write a book for Duke University’s Practices series; someone had dropped out, and Wark had less than two months to write the book. It was on the dance floor, in moments of dissociation and “re-association,” in Wark’s words, that “shook loose sentences.”
“I didn't go dancing with the intention of writing about it. I was doing it because I needed it,” Wark tells NYLON. “Then this commission came along, and thus it was born. It broke the drought, changed my writing. I think I found a simple way to write again, through doing it.”
Wark devised a vocabulary for talking about the practice of raving, one she puts forth in Raving, which is part manual for the revolutionary futurist aspects of the rave and part first-hand experiences in Brooklyn’s queer and trans underground rave scenes. It’s there she encounters DJs like Goth Jafar and Volvox, as well as people who “let the sound f*ck them,” “rave bimbos,” the “punishers,” “who make it hard to get your rave on.” But the people Wark is most interested in, and who the book is for, are the “people for whom raving is a collaborative practice that makes it possible to endure this life,” she writes.
It’s easy for any nightlife dispatch to feel like navel gazing, but the only gaze Wark is concerned with is what’s in her immediate vision, even if sometimes it's obfuscated, however briefly, by lights and smoke and twilight. Because for Wark, the rave is a solution in the face of collapsing societal systems, but it is not the only one. Raving considers the ways in which the rave falls short. It’s not always structures that facilitate changes; it’s people.
“There's a tendency to overload the experience with things that it can't really support. People want it to be utopia, or resistance, or transcendence. All these things. All of the messy things about the world don't actually disappear when you pass through the door,” Wark says. “People bring that with them. People bring their aggression with them. It's just a question of, what do you do with it? A good rave works through the aggression, to something else, which doesn't always happen.”
Wark sees raving as a practice rooted firmly in the here and now, and her writing has the immediacy of sweat dripping on the dance floor, of bodies moving, dissociating and reassociating into beats from 120 to 140 beats per minute: a place where “body and mind, both home, both happy, both into each other, both free to see other people, to be polyamorous with time,” she writes. “Welcome to ravespace.”
Wark spoke with NYLON ahead of Raving’s release, what it’s like to write about a scene from an insider and outsider perspective, good dissociative states particularly as they relate to transness, and the work of the rave in a techno-commodified culture.
Raving is not out yet, but it's already generating a lot of hype. It's going to be the subject of the Nowadays Book Club and you just had an excerpt on Resident Advisor. How has the response felt for you so far?
On the other hand, RA put it on their Instagram, and I made the mistake of reading the comments. It’s not going to please everybody. The book was read by people in my immediate rave community first, and people were invited to make suggestions, comments, and corrections. It's my attempt to make a little gift to that world. I think it's sometimes appreciated as such. I'm trying not to extract from it, but to say something about the world that we're trying to make together there, the little world.
It's good, because you are in this community and you are so close to it, but that can sometimes be the double edged sword, right? Because you’re in the scene, people might feel like they can be more critical.
I'm an insider and an outsider at the same time. I'm considerably older than most people there. I'm not going out all weekend. I show up at 4:00 AM, until 9:00, and I usually don't go to afters. I know people who live in that world, and work in that world, but I don't. I've tried to have that insider outsider thing. For me, that's how you study culture, is to ask: How do you de-familiarize your experience a little bit? But at the same time, honoring and respecting the community you're on the boundary of.
Totally. To translate that insider experience, you do need the outsider perspective for a readership that is composed of both, too.
It's trying to think about those different readerships. I want to gift that to the people that it's about. I want to gift from that world, for people who might even hate techno, but might be interested in how you create that collaborative culture at the moment.
“[Raving] doesn't confront or resist a larger extractive, exploitative, techno-commodified world. It's just a place you can hide from it for a minute, and twist the technology part of it to different ends.”
Where did this book begin for you?
I transitioned. I went on hormones, and I couldn't write at all for about three years. Nothing was working. I write a lot, and I suddenly couldn't. Margaret Grebowicz was editing this series called Practices, and asked me at short notice if I could do something for it. Someone had dropped out. I'm a little bit prone to mania. She just called me at the right time. I'm just like, "Yeah, I could write you a book in three months. But it has to be about this." Because that's what I'd been doing for three years, going dancing. I did that instead of writing.
After a bit of back and forth, it was like, "All right." That was the genesis of it. I didn't go dancing with the intention of writing about it. I was doing it because I needed it. Then this commission came along, and thus it was born. It broke the drought, changed my writing. I think I found a simple way to write again, through doing it. I'm fond of this little book, I've got to admit.
I’m so curious about the processes of raving and writing, and how they facilitate each other?
The aspect of raves I'm interested in are dissociative states, the good ones. As a trans person, a lot of trans people dissociate in the bad sense as well. It's hard for us to be present in our bodies and our lives, for gender dysphoria, trauma, and other reasons. We share some of that with other people. But can you re-associate into something from that state? Is there a way dissociation can be a good thing? For me, it shook loose sentences. It just started to happen.
People who don't write always imagine that you're the person doing the writing. But it's more of, the writing happens to me. Sometimes that would happen on the dance floor, and sometimes I'd stop and write it down. But often I let it go, and forget it. I’d not remember a single thing, a sentence that was going through my head on the dance floor. But it's like, "I know there's something there," so I can start over again.
The book's about different kinds of aesthetic experiences of dissociation that I think are interesting. But the extra one is writing itself in a sense. Rather than bring a language to raving, where people like to impose languages on it from elsewhere, let it generate the language. That's the approach.
Raving helped you to write, and obviously there are so many revolutionary aspects around it. But you don’t romanticize it. I liked how you talked about it not being a queer utopia, but often the only relatively safe space. There are people who are actively working against making it a utopia. Can you talk more about that, why you didn’t want to romanticize the rave?
There's a tendency to overload the experience with things that it can't really support. People want it to be utopia, or resistance, or transcendence. All these things. All of the messy things about the world don't actually disappear when you pass through the door. People bring that with them. People bring their aggression with them. It's just a question of, what do you do with it? A good rave works through the aggression, to something else, which doesn't always happen.
It's trying to observe and participate, rather than come with some imaginary fantasy that the rave has to support comes from elsewhere. To resist the tendency to do that a little bit, so that the people around take it seriously. Really, we're trying to make something here, and there's endless discussions about it. Things like that, and Discords, and Signal groups, and so on. But to let the experience lead you. Start with it, rather than bring some expectation from outside.
As my friend Janice Rose says, "To come with intention, not expectation, is important." I'm going to go, and I'm going to contribute what I can, to this being a terrific experience. But I'm not going to expect it's going to be some magic thing that I can just consume.
On that note, this book also does map out a future, where the rave can help us in the wake of collapsing systems. You talk about not wanting to put off a revolution per se, but that you write your practices are “here and now, sideways in time.” Has this always been the function of the rave? Or is this particularly true now?
I'm trying to come up with a contemporary aesthetic, that's actually in some ways a bit different. I was peripherally attending these things in the '90s. It feels very different, the vibe around that. There's a lot more expectation about the transformative power of [the rave.] Whereas I think to be a little bit realistic about what it is: It's a place you can go and hide. It doesn't confront or resist a larger extractive, exploitative, techno-commodified world. It's just a place you can hide from it for a minute, and twist the technology part of it to different ends.
To start with modest ambitions for what's achievable strikes me as really helpful. Because then you're going to be pretty happy with the results, rather than expecting that it's the revolution. Then you go, and it's a bunch of people dancing, and you're like, "That's it?" You went with an expectation, rather than just come with your body, to move and contribute to it, and help build something. Practices are always a little modest. Let's stick with the practices, and learn what we can learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.