Raving – McKenzie Wark (Duke University Press, 2023)

When the pandemic started to fade, I found myself feeling weird in crowds. Masks on the subway, seats between mine and a neighbouring diners, that sort of thing. I was looking for space because the idea of social distancing was hammered into me. At the same time, I longed to be lost in a crowd, to just feel what it was like to be around people once again.

It’s a feeling that I’m still working on, but Raving, a new book by McKenzie Wark, helps me articulate it into words and even if I can’t make it into a rave or crowded nightclub, it helps me at least experience the scene if only in short bursts, snapshots on the timeline.

Part of a new series by Duke University Press called Practices, Raving is a brief book, running just under 90 pages. It’s not just a piece of theory or a cultural history. No, Raving is a dive into something close to Wark’s heart: the rave scene in New York City. She takes readers into nameless clubs into abandoned and repurposed urban environments, introduces some concepts (k-time, ravespace, etc), and attempts to capture the uncatchable. Mostly she succeeds.

A professor and theorist, Wark has several books under her belt: The Beach Beneath the Street, a look at the French Situationists, Molecular Red, a dive into where theory and the anthropocene meet, and Reverse Cowgirl, an auto-fictional memoir of being trans. Raving builds on these, drawing on previous concepts to build a whole. Not that one has to read them, although it helps, because Wark also keeps things simple, slowly introducing her ideas (and has a helpful glossary in the back) as she goes along, as well as liberally quoting thinkers as diverse as Susan Stryker, Georges Baitille, and Kathy Acker.

Writes Wark:

“A good rave is still spectacle, but reduced to its minimal, formal elements: beats and fog and diffracted light. Our devotion to it is almost religious. A religion without content, a faith of pure media form.” (pg 84)

To Wark, raving is not just a thing one does to blow off steam. It’s more of a way of life, a side-door out of late capitalism and an escape into a sense of time that stretches and sways, aided by drugs (especially ketamine) and loud electronic music. She calls this “K-Time,” a dissociative space, often aided by drugs, where one literally loses oneself in the music. As she puts it: “existing within and without the body simultaneously, free of selfhood.” In this sense, Raving captures a very trans way of life, a way to liberate the self from a body that doesn’t quite fit or a way to fight dysphoria while also having a good time.

Indeed, time itself is a key element to Raving. The way it expands, sure, but also the way it shrinks to fit the moment where one loses oneself. Which is to say the moment where one feels free and moves into another space. But, of course, this is both hard to capture and also very private. So Wark sometimes sidesteps the issue completely. To wit:

“A rave is temporary. A passage of a few people through a rather brief moment of time. Some things about it as a practice happen in the time of the situation and maybe belong there rather than in writing. So I left them there.” (pg 65)

Because raves are private by nature – one needs to know someone to get in and to get on an esoteric mailing list or private server to find the location – Wark’s narrative isn’t exactly linear or autobiographical. Her peers are identified only by initials; mapping the way these people (if, indeed, each letter corresponds to the same person throughout the book) would result in the kind of tangled nightmare out of Momento. In that sense, it’s almost the inverse of a piece Wark wrote last year where she guided readers through Brooklyn, naming not just names, but locations as well. Here it’s all guarded; maybe those closely associated with the scene can guess who is who, but to most they’re just letters.

Then again, truth is not exactly the point here – this is a book about raving as practice and as a way of life. It’s stylized and glowing, with a steady 4/4 beat and a speaker stack that’s shaking under its own volume. Again, Wark:

“I want a practice of writing that is more adapted to the rave situation… the discipline of indiscipline, as the anarchists say.” (pg 49)

In some ways, Raving is Wark’s aesthetic boiled down to its essence: a short primer on nightlife and sex that’s explained in concepts and theory, and told in a slightly fictionalized series of bursts. It moves from dancefloor to dancefloor, deftly avoiding the classroom and academy. Raving is very much a book that only Wark could have written. I’m glad she did.

About author

Live in Limbo covers Concerts, Music, Film, Gaming and Sports. LiL leads the independent pop-culture and entertainment media coverage in Toronto. Established in 2009, LiL is now one of the best Canadian online publications focused on delivering reviews and news that ignites our passions to the world.