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McKenzie Wark’s ‘Raving’ and the Need to Dissociate from the Body and Self

McKenzie Wark’s understanding of ravespace as a constructed situation in nonlinear ketamine-time comports with my experience raving on weekends as a freshman in college.

McKenzie Wark
Duke University Press
March 2023

Let’s begin by situating McKenzie Wark so that you will understand why I picked up a copy of her latest work, Raving, when I have not read any of her 20-something other books. As PopMatters readers will know, I am very fond of the Object Lessons series, and second-wave spawns inspired by it, such as Avidly Reads. I’ve not yet dug deeply into the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, but it’s on my list.

Not to be outdone, Duke University Press has four entries so far in its Practices series “for real-life hobbyists, devotees, and enthusiasts”: fly-fishing (by Chris Schaberg, co-editor of Object Lessons), juggling, running, and raving. A friend forwarded me a photo of the minimalist mauve jacket for Raving with the title written in Sharpie, and she said, “this reminds me of you, your handwriting.”

I’m also very taken by any writer who labels their work autofiction and autotheory. It’s a move of radical honesty that is by turns brave and stupid, and it’s a move I try to make myself every chance I get. In Wark’s own words:

I choose terms for this writing, this practice, that are derided and ridiculed—autofiction and autotheory, as they are to genre what we trannies and faggots are to gender: not to be taken too seriously. […] The auto that writes doesn’t add up. It will be a mix, some part auto and some part allo, other, and more interestingly, part xeno—invitingly strange: xeno-flesh. Just fluctuating bundles of feelings and thoughts. And with the rave-situational proviso that what the auto needs most of all is moments when it can dissipate itself, not be there, pare down to a moving part or floating notion.

All signs pointed me to read Raving. In case you are similarly late to the public intellectual party that is Wark, let me also make an effort to situate her so that you’ll understand why I’ve been delaying this engagement. Wark is a professor of Media Studies at The New School in NYC. Reading about media when you work in or consume a lot of media can be necessary, saddening, and terrifying at once, so I dose quite lightly.

My last major media head trip was on Donna Haraway 20 years ago, and my sensitive psyche still vomits things up from it on the regular. The other thing, more specific to Wark, is that she’s written a fair amount on Kathy Acker. Acker is the literary equivalent of cilantro; either you dream about its bright deliciousness, or you want to spit out its bitter soapiness. I’m a bigger fan of cilantro and don’t often walk out onto Acker’s particular limb of the literary feminist family tree.

Neither the pros nor the cons above offer the complete story: I grew up queer and poor and got myself a debate team scholarship to a private liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, so on weekends, we’d find some junkspace and go party. Junkspace, in Wark’s terms: “Urban ambiences that hover between decaying forms of usage and novel potentials. Where a city’s tendencies of coherent spatial organization fail. Good locations for constructed situations but inevitably prey to style extraction.” By party, I mean we raved. That was the year I began a steady engagement with cannabis. Although many of my friends hit harder drugs, I was mainly there—in Wark’s terms—to get fucked by the music: “We are the femmunists. Learning the situations into which we can pool, in which we can let go of ourselves as private property, where we can let ourselves be fucked by beats, where men don’t have to be ‘men'”.

Wark’s understanding of ravespace as a constructed situation in nonlinear ketamine-time comports with my experience raving on weekends as a freshman in college. The main mission of true ravers who must do it is to practice several forms of dissociation from the body and the self. Each of these dissociative practices gets its chapter. As Wark moves through xeno-euphoria, ketamine femmunism, and enlustment, her anecdotal nodes resonate as a compellingly formed and comprehensible abstraction.

Also in service to these concepts is an insert with two dozen full-color photographs taken from somewhere in the side-chain of her k-time at raves, lending vibes more than imagery. She is, in short, a very good sherpa if you’re interested in going to a rave—an endorsement that I make both figuratively for the book and literally for the person, as she sometimes displays mama bear tendencies and always has water or earplugs on offer. “I like to care for people,” Wark shrugs. “Maybe I just impose my idea of what they need.”

Does all this suddenly feel even cooler if I let you know that Wark is middle-aged, over 60? What if I let you know she identifies as a clockable white transsexual raver? Although Raving does not especially have identity politics at the heart of its explicit argument, the lenses required for her analysis of many facets of rave culture usefully rely on these elements of her identity. She reports on the psychogeography and sociology of a space for young people and frequently mentions being the oldest in the room.

Age has shifted Wark’s needs at these events. Her inability to pass as a cisgender female matters when it changes whether and how much it costs her to get into the space. It also matters that here is a space escaping the time clock and enjoying the fluidity of all genders. Her whiteness operates as one constraint on the diagram of her social mapping and the raves to which she might get an invite, as let us not forget that the soundscape of techno and house music found at raves has been pioneered by Black creators. Wark’s queerness is central to her overall interest in and understanding of the practices of raving. That queer eye also offers a queer voice with a sense of humor. For example, in her taxonomy of the kinds of people you find at raves: those who need it, punishers, coworkers, junkies, et cetera.

A rave is a situation with gay rules, but “it’s not queer utopia”, Wark cautions. “Even on a good night, there’s punishers and coworkers. Encounters, good and bad.” The word “situation” occurs almost one hundred times in Raving until, at some point, I realized I’d been saturated in a very down-to-earth approach to applying proper Situationist theory to raving. Wark has written directly about Situationism a lot, but in this book, she wears her knowledge of it both lightly and usefully. The same can probably be said for how Raving applies her interests in media studies, although she hands over the needed buzzkill of theorizing how rave culture gets sucked up—like everything these days—into the capitalist vacuum via processes of style extraction as grist for the productizing mill and the language of monetization.

For me, the delights of Raving are somewhere along a continuum with Kate Bornstein, whose writing only gets better as she ages and whose theory is always meant to be consumable by regular people rather than only academics, and Lauren Berlant, who was expert at breaking something into its component pieces and at turning emotional landscapes into reasonably tangible ones. Over time, I’ve ended up applying the ideas of Bornstein and Berlant to many facets of existence beyond the scope of the subject matter in their work.

I can already see my way to doing the same with Raving, as Wark’s discourse on dissociation as a way of being should be useful to a wide variety of practices. It’s a main strategy for surviving the frequently-awful ongoingness of desire and history by setting up a surround, in Wark’s terms: “That refuge beyond what can be surveilled, disciplined, and contained, whose being is blackness. Which femmunism might touch, with which it might mingle, when invited.” All I can say is that I’m glad I invited myself to this party of Wark’s, and maybe I’ll check out some of her others.

RATING 7 / 10