Quantum Mechanics: On McKenzie Wark’s “Raving”
By Vivian MedithiJune 29, 2023
Raving by McKenzie Wark
Wark has been writing about information and capital since the mid-1990s; theory-minded readers may be familiar with 2004’s A Hacker Manifesto or 2019’s Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? Motifs from that past work recur in the autotheory melody of Raving, but the backing track is all autofiction, more akin to 2020’s Reverse Cowgirl, which explored Wark’s sex life from 1980s Australia to present-day New York City. In Raving’s later moments, there are glimpses of the epistolary stylings of I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995–1996, a collection of emails between Wark and Kathy Acker published in 2015, though Wark’s prose never seems so vulnerable or forthcoming as her one-time lover’s. Preferring to play the participant observer, Wark maintains a cool academic distance throughout Raving that precludes reader intimacy, as if watching an emotional peep show through frosted glass.
In person, in the club (meaning here an abandoned-enough building that the “raver mice” have populated for the night), Wark seems like she would be charming: if you need a cup of water or a bump of K, just say the word. On the page, Wark is far less accommodating, prone to distracting citational digressions and self-contradiction that aims for multiplicity and lands closer to jumbled. Worse still is Wark’s solipsism—staggering especially for the plethora of evidence that she knows better.
Despite this, Raving, a narrated microethnography that pulses forward with alacrity, is an enjoyable read. Wark is a deft writer with an eye for detail, the kind of person who notices a grate in the ground and listens for the ocean below. Raves occur in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, almost always literally and a couple of times “psychogeographically”; these spaces are generally tight-knit and moderately gatekept, with flyers posted on private Instagrams and disseminated via Telegram group chats. Wark’s “rave crew” of friends and lovers is similarly semi-anonymized, reduced to referential letters. Unnaming turns characters into avatars readers can more readily envision in their own lives, occasionally at the expense of clarity (wait, so what happened between Wark and J? Does C like F or was that Z?). Exceptions are made for a few friends quoted as theorists or working the rave, bartending and designing lights, as bouncers and ticket takers and DJs. Wark’s respect for the people behind the boards is obvious: parties are identified not by name but by who’s spinning.
While music is essential to Raving, what’s playing is incidental to the dancing, drugs, and self-examination the beat spurs. Early on, Wark explains: “The music will mostly be techno. Repetitive, four-to-the-floor beats, from about 120 to 140 per minute. Few if any vocals.” This shorthand may be unsatisfactory to anyone who has gone to more than two raves in their life: jungle is not trance is not gabber. But Wark is disinterested in culture reporting, at least in the traditional sense. This is not Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists nor a Rolling Stone listicle of “25 Can’t Miss NYC DJs.” Raving, in Wark’s words, “needs to gather concepts from situations more than it needs to extract stories from them.” The book forms an account of Wark’s experiences in these spaces rather than a guide to what these spaces might mean to others.
Wark’s stories—hookups on the dance floor and key bumps in the bathroom, socially distanced raves during COVID-19 lockdown and Halloween parties in reappropriated corporate offices—are fleshed out. When the paper tiger peers past her navel to psychoanalyze cardboard cutouts, Raving is far less three-dimensional. Early on, Wark delineates two criminal classes, the “punishers”—those who “make it hard to get your rave on”—and the “coworkers […] who just want a night out [to talk about] on Monday.” Wark is quick to hedge: “Not that I’m judging; I know the feeling,” she smizes before neatly dissecting an errant co-worker’s “[h]yperfast, erratic movements” and labeling him self-centered. To be annoyed is human, to couch it in passive aggression is divine. Much later, Wark will “acknowledge that [she’s] a coworker” herself—but the thought that those she derides might be on similar journeys seems not to occur. Wark elucidates the reasons that these white-collar interlopers, ground down by the ruthless economics of New York City, might find nightlife liberatory or cathartic just as Wark does. But they still aren’t ravers, or even club kids—just a necessary evil like the punishers, unlikable guests tolerated primarily for their ability to turn a party profitable.
“Raves serve a lot of needs, […] distraction, entertainment, exercise, dating, cruising, and so on,” she writes on the book’s third page. “I’m interested in [those] for whom the rave itself is the need […] people for whom raving is a collaborative practice that makes it possible to endure this life.” This proto-utopian language is a well-worn cliché, soaked through with the sweat of a thousand dancing bodies long before Wark put it on. The joy of raving—and Raving—is not found in its novelty but in its ongoingness. Wark is no virgin, reminiscing on warehouse nights in Sydney and “[t]hose weird East Berlin streetlights” illuminating the path to Tresor. That was in the 1990s; Wark has since been on a “twenty-year chillout” from the underground circuit.
On a shorter timeframe, Wark is also returning to publishing: “I hadn’t done any book-project writing I was happy with since I started hormones.” Wark’s “second adolescence” runs parallel to that of late millennials and early Zoomers, those ravers and co-workers and club kids who turned 21 between Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (2013) and the start of the pandemic. Wark carefully minds the gap: sure, she dances on speakers, but she worries about breaking a hip when she climbs down. As she admits,
The young ones look at me like I’m an alien creature.
Which I guess I am. I got to live as if there could be all sorts [of] futures, and now there are hardly any at all. I don’t blame them for saving any sense of ongoingness for each other. For treating me and mine as history. The lives I got to live are not part of their Bushwick dreamscape.
Youth culture is always a rejection of old ways, but despite flattening history and shortening attention spans, the generational gap Wark perceives in contemporary queer rave culture reads more like an appeal to senescent authority than a legitimate complaint. Frank Ocean’s brief PrEP+ party series comes to mind: newer generations are acutely aware of the possibilities that have been lost between public policy and private bigotry. Ignore for a moment the bookish minority of collegiate JSTOR warriors and intellectually inclined teens familiar with Adorno and Berlant thanks to self-directed inquiry and institutional channels. Scroll Twitter long enough and you’ll see Sartre excerpted on fascism, or a crash course on the context behind a Haring painting, the type of pop scholarship that could expand a young person’s “sense of ongoingness” beyond themselves, beyond the present. The modern era of PDF piracy and Tumblrized text fragments has constellated at least surface-level theory and queer literature across the night sky of social media. Mark Fisher isn’t exactly niche.
But if Wark feels detached from a number of her fellow rave-goers, well, it seems more self-inflicted than anything else:
The brain cops’ only concept of dissociation is that to detach from this world must be a bad thing. But this world is broken. Even more than our bugged-out psyches. Maybe sometimes to dissociate can also be to “ressociate.” Why isn’t that a word? That there’s no words for where we go is maybe the sign that we’re on our own, but on our own together, trying to find the ways we can endure the end of this world.
This is a pretty optimistic view of ketamine that may slide past inexperienced readers, dimly aware of “Special K” via recent rebranding as an off-label antidepressant. But it will ring hollow to anyone who has experienced or witnessed a k-hole in all its slovenly, slurred abasement. For Wark, ketamine chemically estranges the mind, submerges it in the flesh, makes it easier to “be fucked by sound.” This metaphor is extended: Wark, at least sometimes, wants “the entire situation” to fuck her, wants to be “penetrated by light [and] fog” and “railed by pounding sound.” All well and good, but getting fucked is passive, no matter how active a switchy bottom can be. If this is a way to endure the end of the world, it is sadly individualized, akin to the algorithmic consumption of dating apps (“I was on eight dating apps. Nine, if you count Twitter”). At least stimulant-induced logorrhea has a veneer of sociality, even if it’s just MDMAish I-love-yous between PLUR diehards or egomaniacal monologues conceived at coked-out afters.
Raving is “autotheory,” drawing on Wark’s life experience to craft a philosophical framework for understanding raving in general. Raving is also autofiction, which generally means “honest about the fact that I am creatively misremembering my life,” and here additionally means, “I am writing about writing.” Calling this book manic might scan as derogatory if Wark didn’t confess as much in its second sentence. But it would be apparent even without the admission: tangential block quotes collaged atop Wark’s words arrest narrative momentum. If you’ve ever stepped outside the club for a cigarette and into the middle of an animated conversation inevitably circling around to the textures and failures of modern society, you’ll find the pacing of Raving familiar.
The first inkling that Wark might not have her shit together arrives on the fifth page: “Some say techno came from Germany, but to me it’s Black music.” What is meant as a concession to the fluidity of genre origins instead comes across as insipid waffling. She elaborates further, but it’s jarring how quickly Wark moves past techno’s Black history given how, later, she returns to the topic, explaining that her “white ass is haunted” by “the negative unvoiced noise of techno. The blackness of techno itself.” It feels cursory, like a land acknowledgment at the New School.
But it’s a microcosm for the book as a whole, which claims the intellectual high ground from a scant 50 feet above sea level. Wark goes deep on the ways that nightlife precipitates gentrification, “driving up the rents, edging out […] nonwhite working-class people.” But when she discusses style extraction, the ways corporations and co-workers exploit and commodify rave culture, it’s difficult to ignore Wark’s own complicity. When she acknowledges the contradiction with a knowing “LOL,” it is impossible to take her seriously. Wark is Cool, Hip, and Not Like the Other Academics; let’s just be glad she didn’t tell her fellow co-workers where the party is.
Vivian Medithi is a culture writer and critic with bylines at No Bells, HipHopDX, Pitchfork, and Guardian US, among other publications.
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