This two part interview was held on January 28th 2022 with writer McKenzie Wark by Brazilian publication Revista Rosa and the online platform Weird Economies.
You can find the second part here.
The conversation transcript has been edited for clarity.
McKenzie Wark — One reads theory the way one reads anything: in several ways simultaneously. One of those layers has to be aesthetic. One of the ways to read theory is as a series of interventions within language itself. So rather than thinking that one can sort of skip over that level and go straight to the concept (there is a sort of idealism in thinking that theory is about concept, and I might be guilty of that sometimes myself), one should pay attention to the materiality of the language. I don't think it's an accident that most of the things that seem to be sort of canonic works of theory tend to do interesting things with language as well. And this is where theory is, maybe, sometimes a little different to philosophy where that's optional. Philosophy maybe has other goals and is constrained in different ways. But I think theory has to be looking for ways to put pressure on received language and the way received language always has received ideas. So you seem to have to change language a little bit in order to be able to think differently.
MW — I don't think there are easy answers to any of this. The thing about the media that we're operating in now is that it was never designed for civil society at all. It was designed for extracting value. The broadcast era media was too, but it has a slightly more complicated history. There was a lot of thought about what role broadcasting would play in the construction of a nation, for example. But when we skip to the next iteration of the evolution of media, to our current post-broadcast media. no one really seems to have thought too much about that, or perhaps those concerns were more aggressively pushed aside. And we've got platforms that are just about extracting surplus information out of us, and nothing more.
The content doesn't matter. It turns out certain kinds of media that grab attention around fear and panic and rage work extremely well. Those tend to be emotions you can connect very easily to a narrative that feels like a kind of fascist novel. There's a way in which living inside fascism looks like living inside this giant novel. That's kind of exciting, because there's always something dangerous that has to be attacked. We are all pitted against all of these threats all the time. Of course there will be heroes and villains. It's like serial fiction: there's always somebody else who is a threat. We’re supposed to rally around the fascist hero of the story. The kind of attention that is based on the constant appearance of threats is easily excitable, and a lot of this is now done very intentionally.
And the thing about theory is — how to get out of the giant novel? Or if that's not possible, be in one that’s a better genre? How to think a little counterintuitively: maybe the problem with fake news isn't just at the level of facts. The thing is that often the facts aren't completely wrong in the fake news. It's just how they're skewed, or which of the facts are highlighted. And another thing is that a lot of the supposedly better liberal bourgeois media is full of dodgy facts as well. It's not as if you can claim a complete mandate to be on the side of the angels with that. So: maybe it is worth paying attention to the question: could we be inside a different novel? Could there be different processes of ficting? And that is hard at a time when it's very difficult to hold out that there can be futures of any kind.
And this is where the appeal of returning to the past, which is another part of the narrative structure of fascism, seems like a thing that you would want. It's like: “oh, this is awful. But, you know, these guys promised to return to something, back to a time when it was better. We just have to exterminate the racial other and the gendered other and all that other stuff. We'll be back to some Nirvana.” So how to create better fictions? I'm not an artist. I don't know how to do that, but that would seem to be part of the challenge.
MW — One of the writers who's very dear to me, and who I can only read in translation, is Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet was hugely influential to me. That influence is connected to Pessoa's story of the heteronyms. His poetry I don't know so well, but I relate to the idea of constructing several, really quite complete personas that had entire aesthetic points of view. It seems Book of Disquiet was going to be by Bernardo Soares, but then other scholars say that actually there are several different heteronyms that might have been involved in that project as well. I'm not a Pessoa scholar, other people would know this better. But besides loving his prose writing, there was this idea: "what if you let go of that sense that there is some kind of coherent arc to the subjectivity of the writer altogether”? And there are some writers more than others for which that coherent arc of subjectivity might be interesting, but certainly Kathy Acker just wasn't very interested in that. There's a way in which she is allowing situations, experiences, sensations, and the formation of concepts to drag subjectivity into different orbits. It is not heteronyms in Pessoa’s sense, or schizophrenia in the Deleuzian sense: Acker personas vary, rather than being radically different from each other. In writing about Acker, it seemed helpful to be able to think a little bit like Pessoa, as if she was creating these different versions of self that could be connected.
But then she is actually going to change them in the middle of the sentence, in the middle of the text. It evolves past Pessoa, who had these separate identities who wrote separately. But here you are in the middle of a sentence, and you are like: "oh, wait a minute". Not only is the prose something else, but maybe the author is someone else, and you know that exactly while you are reading. That struck me as an interesting set of experiments, opening up those questions. Because I'm from that era, like Kathy. We didn't believe in identity at all. How is identity created and how is it a construct? Those were more interesting questions than taking subjectivity for granted and then writing from that point of view.
MW — Yeah. And it has to be said Kathy Acker was very good at what you now call self-branding. There was a consistent sort of appearance. It was also about her having to work as a woman who, in her terms… she would always say: "I'm not conventionally beautiful, so I have to be interesting". She might say that of herself. The text is very free in terms of how subjectivity plays, but you are presenting this coherent image, because, let's be real, artists work in marketplaces, and there are certain ways in which these things work.
There's also an artist named Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose work I really like. The really astonishing work she did, the stuff that I keep coming back to, is what she did in the seventies, when she just created this whole other persona called Roberta Breitmore, who wore a certain kind of dress and always had a certain kind of wig on. She got documentation in Roberta's name. She went on dates as Roberta and somebody else photographed her with these men that she met through the back pages of a newspaper, in a public place. You don't see their faces. There are ethics involved. She got a job as this fake persona. It's astonishing work from the seventies. And of course, now it's connected to Lynn Hershman Leeson. She got sick of doing it after a while and then encouraged other people to be Roberta. There was this idea of the distributed subjectivity, which developed later with the use of collective names such as “Luther Blissett.” I've always been interested in those sorts of experiments as well, even though I've not done them. My work has all been consistently as McKenzie Wark, for 35 years or something — I just use my actual middle name and last name — but I'm interested in people who worked to pull that apart.
MW — That's great. I hadn't really thought about these things together actually, but yeah. On Bogdanov's blood sharing, we have to be clear that it didn't work, it was not really good science. There weren't any controls for these experiments. But I think the blood bank in the Soviet Union was called the Bogdanov Institute for a while after him, even though he was sort of a persona non grata to the Stalinists, when that happened. I am interested in phenomenologies of bodies, techniques, and situations, but which are distributed, and maybe there is a bit of a common thread between that and working on the situationists and their “constructed situations.” Bogdanov, and also Andrei Platonov in a very different way created work about experiences of embodiment in these very pressing and dark times. And also Acker, in much more privileged circumstances, was working on languages of the body and figuring out how to let the body itself speak. And then for her something emerges from the repetition of lifting a weight, as the body will speak through the repetitions in a sense in its own way.
And there is also the work I'm currently doing on raves, which are constructed situations too, but for me it’s all about phenomenologies of dissociation. I'm interested in the dissociative states that raves enable, as things trans people tend to really do a lot. Dissociation in the clinical sense is thought of as debilitating, but maybe there is also an art of dissociation that you could also think of as an ability. How can you think of dissociation not as always a disability, but as sometimes an ability? It's like, we cannot be here, we're not in this subjectivity or in this world, and sometimes we are pushed in that direction by gender dysphoria. But maybe that's actually an ability as well. I actually think that's how I got all these books written. I was just massively dissociated for so long. And I didn't really know why. When I transitioned, I stopped writing for a while. I just didn't need it anymore. And now I think I'm back with the Raving book. I think, because of my disinterest in psychoanalysis, which seems to me to take too many things for granted, I am more interested in experimental phenomenologies of collective embodiment. I'm less interested in subjectivity and identity than in embodied states and the flesh.
MW — Yeah. One has to be careful with translation. The word ‘transgender’ in English might not be equivalent to how you might use the term elsewhere. These things get passed about differently in different cultures. I want to be attentive to that. I can only speak to the Anglophone context. But ‘transgender’ became an almost acceptable liberal identity category, but that version can downplay the transsexual experience of body modification. And sometimes both transgender and transexual can be very respectable ideas about ways of being, maybe too respectable. I want to be careful to clarify that one does not have to think transness through sexuality, but sometimes you weren't allowed to think this way at all. For me, there was a possibility of thinking about transness and its discovery and practice through sexuality. I think we need that on the table, but not to insist on it. Anyway, in English, the word transexual also just sounds better, it's a great word. There's a little bit of a movement to reclaim that, but it's very important to not police the boundaries of it. You could be non-medicalized and call yourself as a transsexual. I'd be totally happy with that. Policing identity seems like a really not fun thing to do for minoritized people, everyone else does it to us. I don’t know about in your language but in Spanish there’s a movement to reclaim the word travesti, which maybe doesn’t map neatly onto any of these English terms anyway. Language for minority people is always about using whatever tactics one has to make meaning for oneself and one’s friends, in and against the dominant culture.
MW — There's a couple of things there. Maybe technique is prior to the human. There is, probably, an archeological version of that argument I'm not really qualified to make, because obviously I'm not an archeologist, but to my lay person’s understanding, there were tool-using hominids before there were homo sapiens. The tool just sort of seems to literally precede us, and as far as I can understand it, the hand and the tool evolved together. Whether we’re talking about a stone tool or the trace of other tools that are lacking in the archeological record: it seems that hominids could weave and make baskets before we were modern humans. Our pre-human ancestors could do all that. Technique is not something that is secondary or comes later in the history of the human. You could even expand that: maybe all species have their own technologies.
And then what if you thought of technologies also as sometimes being internal to the body itself? What if we thought of teeth as a technology rather than thinking only the false teeth or the knife as technologies? I think we have to get out of thinking of technology as the other in order to embrace it and to be close to it. Which then does open up questions of gender and erotics around technology. If technologies are so intimate with the human, then it strikes me as interesting to ask: what's their gender? What if techniques were an extra gender? I was going to say third gender, but maybe there's already more than two human genders. I don't know. Does there have to be a number?
It looks like most people are in one of two genders, but there's intersex genders too, and there’s trans people. Western, imperial language tends to use binary gender and to reduce it to two. Maybe there are lots. And then what if you thought of technology as being also a gender? I came to that thought working through Andrea Long Chu, because there is a sort of bracketing off of the technical in thinking through gender in her writing. But is there any way to know your gender without a technique? There's always this - to me nonsense - talk of: "gender is biology, it's in your DNA". How do you know your DNA? Most of us don't know. I assume I'm XY chromosomes, but I don't actually know that for a fact because I've never been tested. There's a small chance I could be in some other variant; not all humans are XY or XX, there are a few other variables, other ways to have that. How do you know gender without a technique? You don't know it directly in relation to your own body. You don't know it in relation to another body. There's always something mediating in between. Maybe you could think that as a third, or better than saying third, extra gender to whatever the number of human ones is.
MW — Wage labor is on one level such a totalizing system that it's very hard to get out of. The way out of it used to be leisure time. One of the great demands of the labor movement was, at least in my world, the eight-hour day. You have to restrict the amount of time that you work each day to eight hours so that there's time for leisure and time for rest of the stuff. There's a sort of late commodification that happened to the idea of leisure and the reduction of the working day. Capitalism's response to that was to go and colonize the space of leisure and create the culture industry. The culture industry was a commodification of the time that had been freed from wage labor, on an industrial scale. Still, there was a sense in which the time that we spent in those activities was itself only indirectly productive of value. It was recreating the value of the worker, but it was not itself something you could extract value out of beyond the profit from exploiting creative workers. That's the new part: directly extracting value out of the non-labor of leisure is the wrinkle. It’s extracted in the form of attention, free labor and information.
There is an additional enclosure that happened. It's not like the old days when we would just go to the movies. You could just sit there and watch a movie in your free time. You had to pay for the movie, it was part of a cultural industry. But what you felt or thought about it was free. Now you just walk around with this stupid phone in your pocket, generating free information for 20, 30 companies, most of which you don't even know about, who have that access to the data that you're producing from that. There is a commodification of that non-labour.
So, under those conditions, what are the tactics through which you can create a different quality of time, of situation, of relation, outside that extraction of value from non-labor? It's only ever going to be partially outside, but I think that it matters: to be able to create things that maybe aren't any sort of utopia necessarily, because all of the regular social conflicts will be there, but situations where you have reduced that data extraction and spectacularization to the minimum.
Which is a shorthand way of saying why I like raves: I just go dancing at four in the morning and at the good ones there's this strong social prohibition against having your camera or your phone out on the dance floor. At the rave, we're still inside of techniques. I’ll be dancing near a big sound system and some DJs and it is like, “oh, well, let's just separate this time a little bit from the time of extraction”. This time can have a different quality, where our movement in relation to each other is what matters. We will get to know each other in a certain way through our shared embodiment on the dance floor. We'll get to know who doesn't really belong with us, because we have to move to the other side of the dance floor because there are a bunch of annoying guys over there <laugh>.
This is one partial example. Where do you create a space that works by different rules? I don't know that such situations can scale. I'm quite frankly not optimistic that much of this process of commodification through the extraction of attention, participation and information is reversible, but the art of creating spaces internal to that commodification of non-labour seems to be the key at the moment.
MW — When I transitioned, I lost the ability to write at the top level. I lost the ability to write books. I just had nothing. It was as if I didn't need to do that anymore. Before I transitioned I was just so massively disassociated that I ended up in this like k-hole where I would just write all the time. And then after I came out, for three years I wasn't writing at all. I just went dancing.
I was asked to contribute a book to a series about “practices”, and I said, "well, I haven't been reading enough to have a book on anything, but I can write about this, about raves. This is the only thing that I'm doing, and it came out of finding a slightly different voice and style. So stylistically it's connected to Reverse Cowgirl and the first half of the Acker book, Philosophy for Spiders. It was about trying to write about both the individual experience, my individual experience of affirmative dissociation on the dance floor, of discovering different kinds of possibility for getting out of the subjectivity, and away from the extraction of information from our nonlabor.
It turns out that the New York queer rave scene is popular with people who do intellectual work like me, but there’s also people who do service work, who do emotional labor. A lot of my friends there work in the nightlife. At first it doesn't make any sense. It’s as if you worked in the club for eight hours and now you've come to another club. Why did you do that? My job is also emotional labor sometimes. I can’t just teach ideas. I teach people how to become their own teachers, and that’s emotional work too. When you do that as work, sometimes you just need to get out of that. There's just so much pressure on pimping out your subjectivity, for a lot of us, in a lot of work these days. So you go dancing and you're free from it. I’m interested in rave as a kind of useless physical labor that’s collective, shared, for intellectual and emotional workers.
I am also trying to diagram out the community, the tensions, and difficulties of being in that, and also how there's spaces for trans people in this scene, even though we are a minority there too. It's not our trans universe. It's just somewhere we're just ordinary, and that's really rare. A place where it's just not a thing for trans people to be there. We're maybe 10% or somewhere we're 5% of the scene, and the fact that this is not interesting to anybody feels like: thank you. <Laugh>. Spaces like that are really hard to find.
And Juliana appears in it. I think it sort of begins and ends with Juliana Huxtable shows. She was on the bill with another DJ who got sick, and she played the whole night: that's the last show that’s in the book. I wasn't there for the whole eight hours; I didn't last that long, but she did. She is amazing. I caught the second half.
I'm interested in social types, so the Raving book fits with Gamer Theory and A Hacker Manifesto.. How do these abstract social types of people navigate 21st century techniques, their commodification? It forms a trio of those other books of mine in a way.
MW — Not as a whole, but there's a bit that connects to it, though. The scene in Brooklyn is very centered on Bushwick and Ridgewood. It's mostly places I can walk to, where we all could walk home from, basically. There's a connection between this being formally a very undervalued industrial space, but then it is drawing people, which leads to gentrification and we are having to cope with that. We are collectively participating in something that will get expropriated from us, and we'll have to move elsewhere. There are certain qualities of space which are interesting and it's hard to find good spaces in Brooklyn now. That sweet spot between “not too far away” and “won't get shut down by the police too quickly”. Those places actually have gotten pretty rare and a little hard to find, and the good ones are actually really micro, like hundred-people spaces. These aren't big parties that I'm looking at: some have gone like quasi legal, but still in the low hundreds of people coming through. If I were talking more about techno, there's a little network of legal clubs, which close at 4AM because of licensing laws. I'm looking indirectly at that, but more at the classic warehouse: it's not a rave unless it takes place in a warehouse, right? Or in some repurposed space, it's not the regular club. And it goes at least til the sun is up.
MW — There was a lot of that here during covid. I wrote about one I was at that was behind the Ikea parking lot. I don't know if Ikea's a thing in Brazil — huge homeware megastore with a huge parking lot and then behind it this space for a rave. It got shut down. Then it moved to a dead-end street somewhere else. Another time we ended up in a rail yard. You cannot dance in a rail yard. You're going to break an ankle there! Rooftops were a thing. It is too cold now, but I think in the spring we'll see rooftops again, but it gets shut down eventually. When it is warm maybe there will be beach raves again. How are you supposed to dance on a beach? <laugh>. But there's a way in which you can discover spaces in the city. You've got coordinates on a map, and it's in a forest somewhere, and soon you are stumbling around. <laugh> I love that. The way you discover the psychogeography of the city, drifting through it chasing raves, experiencing the city as a situation for pleasure and nonwork. But I'm getting too old for this. I turned 60 last year!
MW — Yeah. There was what we call a “town hall” meeting about nightlife at a club called Nowadays, that was all black and trans nightlife people, and what came up a lot is that all the clubs are owned by straight white guys, you know? It's like we're just renters in our own culture. I say that as a middle class, white person, but this was much more about black trans people who don't have anything except nightlife. Nightlife is the only way home, you know?