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In FACT (UK), April 29 - May 2 2014.
Few people talk about dance music with quite such incision and precision as Terre Thaemlitz - best known for her work as deep house operator DJ Sprinkles.
Thaemlitz’s output veers all over the place, ranging from austere electroacoustic works, through piano covers of Kraftwerk records, to the longest album of all time. In these quarters, she’s best-loved for her essential deep house releases - of which the real keeper, 2009's Midtown 120 Blues, is about to get reissued. She’s also one of dance music’s most rigorous theorists, with many of her records arriving with long essays on gender politics, social power structures, and the deficiencies of club culture. When she speaks, it’s well worth listening - for a fuller survey of her work, point your rudder towards our The Essential... Terre Thaemlitz feature.
FACT writer Alex Macpherson pinned down Thaemlitz for an (extremely) thorough, often revelatory interview on the complex politics of clubland and music-making. Given the precision and scope of Thaemlitz’s answers, we’ve decided not to truncate or fillet their discussion. Instead, we’ll be presenting the complete interview in four parts, presented chronologically but roughly partitioned by theme. You’re unlikely to think about dance music in quite the same way again.
Part One: Clubland Ideology
I've long been fascinated by the idea of the club as a site of escapism - particularly for minority groups. But when this is discussed now, it seems overly historicised - as though this aspect applies less than it did when house music was nascent. How do you see this? Following on from this, what kind of differences do you see when you play to a crowd of mostly white, mostly straight clubbers in the west, versus clubs specifically geared to queer audiences? Does this affect what you play to them?
Well, I hate to start off the conversation so oppositional, but I've always found the idea of clubs as sites of escapism incredibly boring. At their best, I think of clubs as possible places of refuge, and how they function as safe spaces. That is something very different than a place of escapism. "Escape," yes, but not "escapism." Like, you would never call a safe house for battered women an "escapist house." And, although it may not have been the majority of clubs, there certainly were venues that acted like safe houses. That is part of the whole language of the club as house, of transgendered houses, and that whole family model of trans-socializing around the house father, mother and children, right? Totally capitulatory language, but it has this connection to the ideal of a "home" as a safe space. Of course, this is more than ironic, since many house children were runaways, disowned, and otherwise homeless. And within those spaces, the "escapism" you speak of was there, but I think it's vital to situate it in relation to context.
I mean, I don't know what histories or discussions you're talking about, and in my mind "escapism" is still the dominant language of the day when people speak of clubs, but... if what you're saying is a thing, I would imagine part of that has to do with drugs and chemicals heightening emotions within clubs, while most discussions about clubs happen outside in a moment of sobriety? In my case, I know I'm weird. I never drank or did drugs - not even a beer - so I've been looking at these things with a kind of brute sobriety for decades now, which is why I have always been sensitive - maybe over-sensitive - to that link between context and the invocation of affect. Because for me, those deeply felt emotions people are dying to drown in just seems so obviously formulaic to conjure. Like, cheesy colored lights and mirrors, loud noise, bad air, and chemicals. I just find that whole aspect uninteresting. Only the larger dynamics of how certain spaces come into being, and the roles they play for disaffected people, are interesting to me. And, like I said, those particular spaces are few and far between. Like, I doubt I will ever play a context as interesting and complex as [New York transsexual sex worker club] Sally's II, ever. Definitely not night after night as a resident! I accept the rarity of that experience, and continue to learn from it precisely because of its rarity. I really don't expect to actually learn things from most sets. And I guess it is because actual learning is so scarce that it has such a deeper impact on me than self-centered moments of emotion and affect.
A lot of my sets these days focus on my own tracks, or remixes I've made, so that is a huge difference between the kinds of sets I play now versus the ones I played back in the '80s and '90s. And all of my tracks are made through a kind of historicised lens. To be honest, I feel like it's a form of lecturing about a past. It's definitely about remembrance. And mourning is a part of this, as well... how HIV devastated a generation of dancers. How gentrification and poverty scattered communities. Again, I don't know what histories you are thinking of, but I can imagine those very specific and real dynamics of the past are also part of why experiences of escapism would be contextualised in relation to social crises - not just focussing on the feelings of escapism themselves. This, to me, is obvious. And necessary.
I don't really change what I play based on a crowd's demographics. I mean, I may think nasty shit in my head, but I don't really change my selection. I basically look at DJ-ing, or performing, or lecturing, or whatever other kinds of appearances, as work. As labour. So my main concern is delivering on my end of agreements with organisers. I take that quite seriously. At the same time, I really don't care about the audience. I think their pleasure has more to do with a kind of agreement between the organisers and their audiences. That all involves a lot of stuff that is not in my job description. If the audience is happy, sure, great. If not, also, sure, great. I've never equated a crowd's discomfort or boredom with my not doing my job. Sometimes discomfort is a kind of proof of work, you know?
But even in this distinction between "escapism" and "escape," do you think drugs are part of that, and not necessarily in a bad way? My original question didn't really have drugs in mind, but to me they're an inherent part of club culture. Not always positive, of course, but they can play a tremendous role in self-acceptance (speaking from personal experience).
Clearly drugs were a part of that old club context, and continue to be a part of it now. My friend Mark Fell once said something about drugs in the '80s and '90s UK scene that holds true to what I saw in the US as well. Basically, people were really miserable within society. So when they took drugs, and entered this completely "other" social space with massive sound and lights, you could say they felt transported into some other world. But the problem was that for many people being on drugs just felt so much better than when they were off drugs - which is not about drugs being awesome as much as society being shit. And that is when drugs can really take a person over and destroy them.
Within transgendered communities, and particularly in the US where the absence of socialized medicine made access to health care impossible for many, there was a lot of self-medicating going on. Black market hormones were sold by the resident coke dealer. I knew many queens who took women's birth controls out of desperation to alter their body chemistry. And to make matters worse, they couldn't afford to buy the hormones with regularity, so they just took things whenever they could. Or they bought one hormone pill off one friend, then a few days later a completely other type off someone else. Their bodies were utterly deregulated. It was also quite an intergenerational scene, so I saw the emotional and physical effects of this ongoing deregulation over time. In fact, witnessing and understanding the real necessity for financial stability and access to health care when transitioning - and not knowing what my own life might bring - was one of the major factors in my own decision not to go in that direction, and instead pursue a non-medically mediated relationship to my own body. So the drug issues at play in some clubs were not always just about recreational use.
What was behind your decision to steer clear of drink and drugs, especially in an environment like this? Were you ever tempted?
In a way, my experience as a youth was pretty much like what Mark described, about being miserable within society. I felt that I had no control over my life, how I was being codified by issues of gender and sexuality, etc. I think I felt like I had such a thin grip on reality that something like drugs might be the last straw that made me totally lose touch with reality forever. And I definitely didn't see drugs, alcohol, or religion, or any other "transcendental devices" delivering on their promises of happiness to those around me. To the contrary, it just seemed to bury them deeper in poverty, and an inability to socially function. So by the time I was spinning in clubs, and a coke dealer would try to tip me with a snort if I played his request, there was zero temptation. I had absolutely no interest in anything "transcendental," simply because I was always in such a struggle to get in touch with reality, in a kind of brute way. It just seemed that the entirety of society was focussed on preoccupying people with distractions and alienations, and those obsessions with illusion were what I personally wanted to escape from.
I guess when I talked about "escape" I was thinking mostly in terms of identity (LGBT or racial), but I totally agree with your emphasis on tying it to social crises. When you remember HIV in your sets, is it as a kind of warning as well as a remembrance?
In a way, yes, there is a warning to be heard - because HIV is on the increase again, particularly among heterosexuals, who make up most of the crowds I am asked to play for these days. IV drug use is also back in vogue, it seems. But HIV is not the same kind of death sentence that it used to be. That peculiarly violent cultural link between the lack of medical research and those most affected has transformed to a degree in the West. By no means completely, but things today are significantly different. And that difference also effects how people hear warnings, or how deeply they feel impacted by them. So when I speak of remembrance, all of these factors of time and context contribute to the difficulties of finding meaningful ways to remember. Remembrance as distinct from nostalgia. It's kind of a generational thing, more pertinent to people in their 40s, 50s or 60s. When they are not part of an audience, that communal remembrance is not possible for obvious reasons.
"Remembrance as distinct from nostalgia": a phrase I really like. Do you think there's been an increase in a culture (and industry) of nostalgia in recent years - maybe in parallel to the economic crisis? From the UK perspective, I'm referencing things like "keep calm and carry on" posters, an obsession with the Blitz spirit, all this rhetoric straight out of World War II wrapped up in a twee vintage-fetishising package that's somehow meant to encapsulate Britain. Nostalgia as a vehicle for conservatism. You might not be familiar with the UK angle, but I was wondering whether you'd noticed this in any other forms.
For sure. One of the ironies of capitalist globalization's viral spread is that it exploits local patriotisms, so it suddenly becomes a matter of "local pride" for, say, a city in an impoverished country to be able to build a "modern," Westernized shopping centre. The mall gets praised for offering local employment, empowering locals, improving local lives, demonstrating that the region is globally competitive, etc. That's how the rhetoric flows, right? Although in reality, it's a selling off of the "local" - quite literally. The ideological craft behind post-colonial capitalist imperialism is unbelievably sophisticated when it comes to making social processes appear as the complete opposite processes. And nostalgia provides the "false memories" that make those processes appear grounded in traditions that are both timeless and immutable. For those in power, nostalgia provides proof of one's culture being on the right historical path: "The good old ways got us where we are." Meanwhile, for those who are undergoing ongoing cultural decimation, nostalgia might revolve around desires to reclaim something lost. Something that is disconnected from the here and now.
Either way, nostalgia is generally about rallying around a memory of power, past or present. Here in Japan, it's always nostalgia for samurai - images of which are used to sell westernized crap from beer to the national baseball team. And as one of my Japanese feminist friends points out, this incredibly elitist image of the samurai persists despite a history of hard fought indigenous struggles to break free of those old systems of injustice. Struggles that were surely influenced by the forced opening to the West, but did not solely emerge from contact with the West. So the Japanese public today agrees to forget how millions wanted out of that samurai era. The UK public today agrees to forget that millions wanted out of that vintage packaged era you speak of. And it's easier to forget those hard fought struggles of the past, simply because nostalgia is standing by with surrogate memories to make us feel comfortable where we are today. To make us feel at home within our current alienations. That comfort is a tyrannical thing.
Few other house DJs or producers are as conceptual or academic as you. What I like about your music isn't just how you weave samples into the sound in a conceptual way - but how you do it to just the right extent where it's evocative and meaningful, but never didactic. When it comes to educating people about ideas and theories, do you have any rules you follow? How do you balance out the importance of your ideas and the importance of the sound?
I understand why you phrased your question with the terms "ideas and theories," but I'm really not about ideas and theories. I'm interested in the material realities of domination, discrimination and violence - with the objective of reducing violence. This is not theoretical or rhetorical stuff. If the kinds of analytical language I use at times read as "theoretical," I think people have to consider that the systems of domination being discussed are so incredibly refined and finessed that, of course, any serious discussion will become complex and multi-layered. I mean, if we are talking about trying to understand the social processes by which we internalize traditions around things such as gender, sexuality and race, to the point that they feel "natural" or "instinctual" to us on an essentialist level, then we are entering the realm of social deprogramming, and the discussion will go on for a while. For example, if most people have internalized a female or male identity, and even accept those categories as scientific fact to the exclusion of other physical gender realities, how does one even begin discussing transgenderism so that it can be understood in terms other than feeling or psychosis? In other words, in material, non-theoretical terms that are not simply dismissed as delusional "ideas and theories?" So this is why I feel immediately compelled to address that phrase "ideas and theories." That's something different than what I try to talk about. I'm talking about attentiveness, vigilance, and self-defense tactics in response to dominations.
I don't have fixed rules, although when working in dance genres I do often limit what I try to say, out of a kind of hopelessness that comes from understanding how limited the terms of discourse can be. Especially within a club environment, where most people are chemically detached, and the loudness makes it hard to clearly understand spoken words in the recordings. Depending on the country, there can also be linguistic barriers. So my own expectations for communicating explicit ideas on the dancefloor are low, which I guess is ironic in that most people wish to associate clubs with a freedom of expression, and of expressive possibilities. But the possibilities are few. And this is why that familiar metaphor of the club as church takes on negative meanings for me, because I think any social space that declares itself "open" and "all accepting" is instantly suspect, and engaging in ideological production.
I mean, I grew up as a non-believer in a religious family, within a differently-religious community that was hostile towards my family's religion, so before I ever got into club music I had already developed some tools for coping with the contradictions of finding oneself buried in conservative - even dangerous - rhetoric. As a realist, I also strongly believe languages of escapism and transcendence are part of the ideological production resulting from conservative contexts. Such language generally doesn't offer ways out of that conservatism, but serves as a means of distraction from one's continued participation in those systems. Of course, that distraction is a coping mechanism for dealing with the reality that we rarely have the privilege to simply walk away. It is a hard reality, especially when one is coming from a position of disbelief. Like, the hurdles of the Black Atheist movement in the US are totally brutal. I realize a lot of people need spiritual rhetoric to keep their sanity - this includes music scenes - but it has the totally opposite effect on me, and totally does my head in. So for me, the more useful alternative to escapism is strategic refusal. Non-cooperation. Boycott. Like, refusing to adapt languages of spirituality within a club, or any musical context. Or twisting it against itself, like in the K-S.H.E remix of ‘Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning'.
Several of my house releases were accompanied by poems printed on their covers, but the topic was always materialist. This was a kind of sarcastic twist of the dominant rhetoric of poetics and spirituality in dance music. Conversely, most of my electroacoustic and piano solo projects were accompanied by rather lengthy, analytical texts. However, they were not about embracing academic language, but providing a contrast to the idiotic level of discourse in commercial audio. They were a response to record labels who wanted to dumb down content as much as possible for easy sales, and music press who were adamant that audio producers simply generate "sounds from the heart," wherein any decoding of content in those sounds was the domain of journalists. So, I don't have rules, but you could certainly say I am always selecting language in strategic ways, based on the conventional rules of the industry itself.
I find what you said about hopelessness and the pretense of openness really interesting, and am tempted to agree with it - I certainly do agree with your suspicion of spaces that claim themselves "all accepting", which isn't too far away from "I don't see race"-style elision of difference - acting as though we live in an ideal world and thus abdicating responsibility to change it?
Yeah, the classic thing for people of my parents' generation (now in their 80s) was to say, "I don't care if you're skin is green or purple..." and then go on to make some totally racist generalisation about whatever category of people of colour they just said they don't care about. And of course that kind of denial has been around for centuries, so by now it has gotten quite finessed in the form of Neo Liberalism.
What would you say is the ideology of the club? And what attracted you to that environment in the first place - and motivates you to keep working in it?
Unfortunately, I would say the predominant ideology found in clubs ranges from centrist to rightist liberalism. Part of this has to do with the cruise, and a conformity to particular conventions of the body - even in queer and trans spaces. Sometimes especially in queer and trans spaces.
Electronic music on a nice sound system is the main appeal for me personally. Not much else. A big part of my interest in electronic music, since childhood, has been it's rejection of the rock-stage, and an emphasis on studio production. So I really dislike performing, and only do it because economic survival within the audio marketplace demands it. If I could live off record sales, and never tour, I would. This is why my "live" performance strategies, particularly with electroacoustic projects, have always been about denying the concert experience. For example, being at a music festival, and starting with a 15 minute lecture, then simply hitting the ‘play' button on something completely fixed, and following it up with audience discussion. This is also a way of rejecting the conventional camp of the transgendered stage. Agitation of the audience is a part of that process, but it is not simply ‘taking a piss.' I am interested in conveying detailed and explicit content, which requires planning and precision, and in that way the performance of my projects would be hindered by improvisation or mishaps. Most other electronic producers I meet at events can improvise because they are pretty much formalists, and not so invested in content. They lose little through the clouded poetics of improvisation. So my interest in electronic audio simply lies elsewhere, and I place it in line with a different history of constructivism and socio-materialism. Not expressionism. Not futurism, with its links to fascism.
Re: the rejection of the rock stage and your dislike of performance. Do you have any thoughts on The Knife's recent tour? Their show for their latest album was explicit in its subversion of the established live form: an emphasis on choreography rather than an illusion of "creation" by prodding a laptop; lip-syncing as a device to make a political point (lyrics about gender coming from the mouth of a mask of a Swedish right-wing journalist) and so on. Also, do you see any future for the kind of musician who rejects the necessity of live performance? The most famous example would be Kate Bush, who has refused to perform live for 35 years - and of course even she's given in to the demand for it this year...
I'm not so familiar with The Knife, but what clips I have seen of their shows were all totally spectacle based. The relationship between stage and audience seems completely standard. And things like a predominance of choreography and lip-syncing - which have been staples in drag performances for nearly a century (if not more), and were by no means "invented" by drag queens - have done little to undermine dominant models of performance until now. So I don't see how it's not just more pomp and circumstance, although within the realm of pomp and circumstance we can perhaps say it is unusual for someone in a certain genre to publicly address certain social themes. Still, I'm not particularly impressed by the style of performance itself. But to be clear, I would never expect myself to be impressed by performances.
You mention Kate Bush. I also think of Harry Nilsson as a rather unusual example of a conventional pop artist who actively refused to perform live. And it's worth noting that both of them withdrew from performance as the result of traumas, so I am not sure if Kate Bush's return to the stage indicates a real change or compromise in personal ethics. Hearing she was going to perform on stage did not disappoint me like, say, when I first heard about Kraftwerk's decision to leave the KlingKlang studio and go on tour back in 2002 or whenever that was. I would never want to see Kraftwerk live because I simply don't understand the point of it. They were all about the records. But I think it is really important not to confuse those kinds of audio producers with someone like myself, who operates on a small scale that they would all likely dismiss as inconsequential. Unfortunately, in an economic sense, it is difficult for producers on my level or poorer to reject the necessity of live performance unless they are supported by a "day job," or they are already independently wealthy. So any future I see - at least any immediate future - is the same as the current reality, which is one of compromise and hypocrisy.
Those of us who absolutely despise performance, yet do it anyway, are numerous. The audience simply doesn't want to hear that we're just doing our performing jobs with the same minimum of enthusiasm they bring to their own jobs. Performers are like used car sales people. We have to appear enthusiastic to make the sale, and we can learn to muster the energy required to make the customer feel good. But what is more tragic than a used car sales person who actually "believes" in what they do? A musician, that's who! The upsetting thing is the cultural pressure for people like me to feel shame or fraudulence about failing to believe "music is who I am." What horrible double standard of capitalist ethics is that, when an audience requires such a thing of performers, while they themselves don't feel that love towards their own jobs? Of course, on a propaganda level, today's "artists" embody the potential for from-the-soul harmony between labour and the self under capitalism. That really makes music performance about an ethical double standard, which is performed by both those on stage and off. It is a double standard I can only engage with criticality and disgust. My personal objective as an audio producer is to make these hypocritical processes more visible, and speak of them openly.
Part Two: Faith, and the Importance of Negativity
I was intrigued by your description of your upbringing. When and how did you realise you were a non-believer? How did you reconcile that alienation from loyalty to a minority community itself being oppressed?
I knew I disbelieved by age 13, when it came time for me to be confirmed as a Catholic. I actually talk about that whole story in ‘Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning', on the Soulnessless album. Basically, my parents were both quite religious and had links to the clergy. My father was a Christian Brother for 19 years before leaving to start a family. A brother is like a male nun, who takes a vow of celibacy, but cannot say mass like a priest. And during my childhood my mom was still in touch with the nuns who educated and cared for her as a child, so I had a pretty deep Catholic upbringing in that regard. We then moved to an area dominated by quite extreme evangelicals - Assemblies of God and Baptists. Springfield, Missouri, was the AG world headquarters. The evangelicals considered Catholics to be satanic graven idol worshipers, with the Jesus on the cross, and statues of Mary... Although the Evangelicals worship around crazy symbols as well, like putting books and records to the "test of the sacred flames" - you know, book and record burnings, where anything that cannot survive the holy fires must be satanic.
One would like to believe anyone with half a brain who is exposed to such things will automatically see it all as ridiculous, but that's not how the world works, is it? Some of the brightest kids in my school were also the most devoutly religious. I'll never forget one of my best friends at the time, a top student, telling me he had thrown his prized collection of Blondie import EPs into a fire (they didn't survive), and telling me that fossils were tricks of the devil placed into stone to test humanity's faith in creationism. I'm pleased to say he is now away from all that, and even came out of the closet as gay. But you asked about loyalty. I guess with all of that madness permeating every aspect of my life, from family to friends to strangers, loyalty was simply about doing the best you can to care for those you care about, without letting it completely destroy yourself in the process. There is certainly a self-destructive component to loyalty. Militaries exploit that to extremes in soldiers, right?
Re: the obviousness of religion as folly. Are you familiar with the UK philosopher Richard Dawkins, who's turned atheism into his own little cottage industry? In so doing, he's revealed some of the problems with dogmatic atheism - for example, his intolerance and prejudices towards Muslims. How do you reconcile rejection of religion as an oppressive force with tolerance of a diversity of faiths?
Well, despite how perfectly Dawkins might fit a particular image of the godless infidel indicating the arrival of the end times (not only for Muslims, but Christians and others as well), let's keep it real and understand that the overwhelming majority of religious oppression throughout history has always come from members of other religions. Not from those who disavow all religion. So I get really upset when I hear people complaining about how anyone openly calling themselves "atheist" must be "bad non-believers," because "good non-believers" are modest enough to never call oneself by a name, or ruffle the feathers of believers. That strikes me as the contemporary, secular-spiritual equivalent of those old religious tyrannies that have always forced non-believers to remain nameless, silent and hidden. I really do believe atheism's current bad rep is just more of the same old shit, making people feel shame about not believing. So within this larger context of intolerance of non-believers, even within Western secular humanism, I can both understand and appreciate the need for people to actively "perform" non-belief in front of others, without compromise. It is part of a "self-outing" process that should be familiar to all queers as an act of resistance, despite being seen as an act of arrogance by the mainstream. The way people get upset about "atheism" is really similar to straight people accusing two gay men holding hands in public as "flaunting it." I mean, I have a friend there in the UK whose kids are total non-believers, and they had to sit through public school lessons on "religious tolerance and diversity" which never once even raised the possibility of non-belief as an option in life. The classes were only about respect between dominant faiths and minority faiths. My friend went and complained to the school board, but they did nothing, of course. Another friend in Missouri went through something similar with his kids' schooling. So within this reality where belief is still demanded of us, and based upon how I hear people discuss both Dawkins and "atheism-as-religion," I really associate "athi-phobia" with a kind of heteronormative intolerance.
At the same time, I can understand a kind of emotional reaction that emerges if one is able to see religious people as "victims." Victims of cultural indoctrination. Victims of brainwashing. There is a kind of pity and desire to help people break free of the cultic. I think this emotional reaction is familiar to most people - even religious people - such as that feeling a moderate Christian might have upon discovering a friend is becoming a Jehovah's Witness or Mormon in order to get married to someone in one of those churches. Anything extremely different takes on the appearance of "cultic," and what could be more different to the eyes of a believer than non-belief? Hence "atheism" is transformed into a "religion" in the eyes of many. It's bullshit. But I can understand the cultural mechanisms through which that perception is formed. As a result, anyone who publicly speaks out against religions is seen as enacting a kind of domination on the masses, despite the greater cultural dynamics of imposed belief clearly making any such public gestures primarily acts of self defense. That image of domination becomes all the stronger when a "minority faith" is questioned by the faithless, because dominant culture has no mechanisms for interpreting an atheist rejection of all faith as in any way culturally different from inter-religious intolerance. How can non-believers speak of religious oppression, and a desire to live without religious interference, without being heard as intolerant? We can't.
I had what you might call a "Dawkins moment" during a talk while performing Soulnessless at the CTM.13 festival in Berlin last year. In one part of the performance I discuss the overall weakness of religion in Japan, calling it "one of the world's least religious societies." A lot of Westerners have a kind of orientalist concept of Japan as being a spiritual place filled with Zen Buddhism, etc., but that image of active spirituality and religion is misinformed. Although it's true most everyone in Japan would say their family is either Shinto (a kind of indigenous Japanese paganism) or Buddhist (primarily imported through China), the overwhelming majority of people only interact with these faiths through ceremonies related to births, weddings and deaths - and then it's generally just a matter of handing money to the monk, who puts on a little performance. Without a doubt, anyone who actively goes to a shrine or temple with regularity is considered a bit cultic, and to be avoided. Well, at this show, a Japanese woman in the audience stood up and announced that she was "very religious." She went on to explain why Japan must be one of the most religious societies in the world because in Shintoism there is the possibility for every thing to be occupied by a god. Therefore, in Japan there are millions of gods everywhere, making the country incredibly religious - as if a religion's cultural strength can be determined by the quantity of gods it allows for! "My religion has more gods than yours, so it's stronger!" Totally bizarre reasoning, but welcome to the logic of the faithful.
In that setting, in Germany, with a Japanese woman declaring her culture's deep religiosity before a lot of people whom I am sure held orientalist misconceptions about Buddhism in Japan, I really had to counter her quite strongly. And this was uncomfortable for me, because of course I know how the signs of body and race read in Germany, with this white person who lives in Japan contradicting the testimony of an "authentic" Japanese woman, etc. But it was precisely because of the "authenticity" her voice invoked within that context that made it all the more important for me to be very clear about how she was misrepresenting things to the audience. She kept challenging me, and I ultimately had to say, point blank, "If you are so religious, then you of all people know how incredibly unusual it is for you as a Japanese person to stand before an audience and declare oneself ‘deeply religious.' You absolutely know that if you said that in Japan, people would look at you with suspicion." I think I even said something like, "You're full of shit, and you know it." After the show I was talking to some Japanese friends who were in the audience, and they were like, "Yeah, she was a fucking nut! I'm glad you said what you did!" But I'm sure a lot of people that day thought I was acting like a real asshole, using my "power of the stage" to silence her. Reality is more complicated than that. I was refusing to allow her to perform a problematic and orientalist image of Japanese spirituality to a Western audience. That was something I felt compelled to stop. From what I've seen, filtered through my own experiences, I think Dawkins is also engaging those complications, despite some people thinking he's acting like an asshole using his "power of the stage" or "white male privilege" to silence others. The injustices of existing Judeo-Christian bias in the West may make him appear like that at times, but I think the unavoidable discomfort of that reality is part of his point.
Also, a lot of what you said about your upbringing made me think of Angel Haze, a new young rapper who grew up in a cult and has talked in interviews about the damage religion did to her (I interviewed her last year). I wondered if you hear any sort of kinship in songs like ‘Black Synagogue‘?
No, I think I can relate more to that bit in ‘Cleaning Out My Closet', where she talks about sexually turning to other women as a result of abusive experiences at the hands of men, which made sex with other men impossible. I totally get that - understanding how one arrived at one's "sexual object choice(s)" not because of some innate predisposition, but because of how social experiences led one to exclude particular bodies from the sexual sphere as dangerous or untrustworthy. I think that's also how dominant heterosexuality is constructed in the majority of people, through the internalization of socially acceptable sexual object choices from an early age. The same sex becomes dangerous and untrustworthy - the mythical "global gay conspiracy," right? I think homophobia is a result of that educational process.
I'm always aware of how this theme of "socially conditioned sexuality" is much more accepted within lesbian cultures than in gay male cultures, which tend to be more essentialist about the whole "born this way" thing. And this definitely has to do with how gender is experienced under patriarchy, and the disproportionate violence enacted upon women by men. Like, I've known many lesbians who were blunt about the fact they could never have sex with men because of past sexual abuse - and the absence of any talk of biological predisposition didn't discredit their lesbianism in any way. To the opposite, most of the women around them are like, "Yeah, I get it." I get it too. I can understand how I arrived at my own senses of sexuality and gender through social experiences. Meanwhile, within mainstream media, we are only fed "born this way" arguments for homosexuality, and I think that indicates an undercurrent of conventionally male privilege in the treatment of queer issues, in that it refuses to acknowledge those patriarchally biased and violent social realities which are capable of directing a person's sexual object choices. Like, when US TV shows say, "homosexuality is not a choice," I totally agree we have incredibly little choice. Only I would place that absence of choice in relation to the lack of social options afforded us under patriarchy, as opposed to leaping to supra-social arguments of binary biological predisposition. Those latter arguments basically exonerate people from the need to think about their capacity for choice, and how that capacity can relate to the acceptance of others, and to a reduction of violence.
Haze is still very young, so we'll see if her messages grow in complexity with time. Right now, this kind of conclusion in ‘Black Synagogue' about "finding god in yourself" is a bit too cliché. In a religious sense, it's Buddhist. In a secular sense, It's about self-empowerment. It basically boils down to, "trust yourself." I have always found that concept disconcerting because I always consider the sense of "self" as suspect - precisely because most people would attribute their senses of "maleness" or "femaleness," "heterosexuality" or "homosexuality," as unquestionably natural things they feel on a gut level, and which can never be questioned but are simply "known" to them. Ultimately, "trust yourself" is the default message of heteronormative culture, which demands we internalize patriarchal gender and sexual binaries, and feel them to our cores. In contrast, I am about perpetual mistrust of self, and inner godlessness. So this is quite a large ideological disparity between the views expressed in her work and mine.
For example, your remix of Hardrock Striker's ‘Motorik Life' samples Martin Luther King's most famous speech - but where the original passage was a message of hope, you've looped the words "mountain of despair" as if to remind us how monolithic and massive the obstacles minorities face are. Do you think it's important to focus on the negative sometimes, rather than pretending "it gets better"?
I've written several texts, and spoken often in interviews, about the necessity for cultural tools that allow us to act through negativity. I believe contemporary capitalism and globalization force us to adapt exclusively optimistic outlooks, and negativity is ardently rejected... despite everyone being miserable. This is particularly true of the UK, US, Canada and Australia - one can be a bit more openly nihilistic in continental Europe. This cultural aversion to negativity even affects the Left, which must always speak in terms of hope and moving forward. But I think our desires for the future are always trapped by our conditioning in the present, and in a way sets up the future in a way that forces future generations to live out our fucked up fantasies of freedom or mobility. A prime example is going on here in Japan, where a declining birth rate has the government pushing people to have more children simply to generate that next generation of tax payers who will pay for this generation's retirement pensions. So hope is always behind the times, and enslaving the future. In contrast, I think organising through negativity, or anger, in the sense of being motivated by an inability to tolerate the unacceptable any longer, leads to much different results. Hope is a quest for reward. Hopelessness is a quest to reduce violence. These result in very different ways of looking at the same thing, such as rape, or anti-transgendered violence. Clearly social changes happen, and I can make sense of the concept of change, but I can't wrap my head around needing to brand change as "things getting better" because any time one person attempts to quantify things like betterment and achievement, they are ignoring some other tier of suffering that does not register for them. Generally, a suffering linked to conditions of poverty. And this is how Marx's tying all things to economics still has relevance for me.
There is a historical foundation for this demand for optimism, and it is not a fluke that it is strictest in Anglo-related (UK-related) cultures. I believe it began a couple hundred years ago with a particularly Anglican rejection of Roman Catholic guilt. You know, the way in which Christianity has been transformed over the past few centuries by protestantism from a religion of martyrdom to one of the good reaping rewards from God in this lifetime. And it's all tied into the evolution of a particularly pro-captialist, petit bourgeois outlook - like the gap between an optimistic Smith and skeptical Marx. This idea that "God rewards" has since been taken to further extremes by US evangelicism: Mormons, Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc. And the prosperity of these cultures has really impacted secular life on a global level. Part of that is a total inability to think of the organisational value of negativity in one's own life, and having to always perform as a willing and joyful consumer. Consumerism relies on this myth of attaining rewards in this lifetime, right? Products are our rewards. Negativity is illness. Pop your prescription pills and enjoy! It's sad.
I love this way of putting it - "any time one person attempts to quantify things like betterment and achievement, they are ignoring some other tier of suffering that does not register for them. Generally, a suffering linked to conditions of poverty." And it links to the other part of your answer too, where the corollary of "God rewards" is that poverty itself is seen as a moral failing on the part of the individual - and inequality becomes a dirty word in debate. And this has become a political and media trope that's constantly self-reinforcing. How harmful do you believe putting the idea of work as inherently virtuous is?
I think it's harmful in two ways. The first is through our internalization of this "morality" as a way for justifying and accepting one's struggles within capitalist society as natural or excusable - and for the majority of people in the world, this means a naturalisation of poverty. The second is how that naturalisation of poverty becomes the ideological weapon to reject those who fail to socially perform in the same way, or who actually resist something like minimum wage slavery. We lose our ability for solidarity with others based on a recognition of mutual struggle. For example, think of all the lower income people who fall prey to right wing propaganda of child welfare going to "lazy and loose women who only have children to get rich off of government paycheques," resulting in massive numbers of lower income people voting against their own class interests through supporting the reduction or elimination of social services. We are tricked into only recognising solidarity in celebrations of power, or aspirations of power. It is the deception of dressing in your Sunday best and going to church, to praise a god who begat your poverty. Or the deception of dressing in your LGBT best and going to a Pride[TM] parade, but resisting associations with queer struggle the rest of the year. Or the deception of dressing in your weekend best and going to a night club, but seeing it as nothing more than a place to party away the worries of your work week - ie. a tool of capitalist relaxation. These are all similarly troublesome and uninteresting for me.
Related: when people ascribe their success to "hard work" - why do you think the ideas of individual talent or luck are rarely acknowledged in this context?
Well, I believe in skill, but not talent in the essentialist sense, like "innate talent." I think talent is a result of time, cultural access and repetition. Any musicality in my own projects is a deliberate performance of music-as-signifier, in that a person like myself with no talent at playing instruments can simply present the right sonic signs and people will hear "talent," because we are conditioned to do so. And I assume by luck you mean a kind of random, chaotic variable - not superstitious luck? So why would people choose to speak of "hard work" over "talent" or "luck?" Maybe for people who don't necessarily consider themselves strict materialists like myself, focussing on the notion of "hard work" is a way of trying to locate their praxis in material struggles, whereas "talent" and "luck" carry connotations that lead away from the material and into things that are too vague? I can imagine talk of "hard work" sometimes being the result of people just not having better vocabulary for discussing the material.
But I can also get what you are implying about that notion of "hard work" being a way of people taking credit for perhaps random elements of chance, or of explicit-yet-unfelt privileges, and feeding back into the mythology that "work pays off." Work rarely pays off, right? Society is set against class mobility, despite preaching it as a possibility. Could you imagine how pissed off people from the 1920's would be if they learned of all the technology we have now to accomplish more work faster, but instead of using it to shorten the work week and free up more time to enjoy life (which was the dream, right?), we simply increased our expectations for how much work a person must accomplish in a day? Like, people are still struggling to only work eight hour days, when we should be down to three or so. In the end, though, I think most things do trace back to a condition of class, and labor. So, although that connection between success and hard work is a cultural myth, hard work is real and familiar to most people. And that promise of success leads us back to some totally standard desires to overcome or transcend one's present circumstances. It's not so different from the desire to believe you'll have fun in a club, when chances are you'll go home thinking, "that sucked."
Part Three: Queer Identity and Drag
Do you consider your work intersectional, as the term is used by someone like Kimberlé Crenshaw, and do you have any thoughts on the concept beginning to go mainstream?
As an anti-essentialist, I have always spoken about the often ignored dynamics of simultaneity and contradiction within identity constructs, and the fallacy of singular identity, so I think that is generally in line with some basic notions of insersectionality. What's going on around that term these days in the Western mainstream? I've been living in Japan for 13 years now, so I'm not up to date on some of that stuff happening abroad. It's most apparent when I talk to younger trans people, who have an entirely different vocabulary around transgendered experience.
I don't come from an academic background, so my definitions might be reductive - but in terms of the mainstream debate in the UK and US, intersectionality has largely been a talking point in the context of feminism: as the writer Flavia Dzodan put it, "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit". And the key battlegrounds have been race, transgender and sex worker issues. Race - mostly relating to pop culture, where supposedly "feminist" actions ignore or belittle the experiences of women of colour; transgender - where you can still detect a latent suspicion of transgender issues among mainstream feminists; sex workers - where their battle for their voices to be heard has been at odds with anti-sex work rhetoric in mainstream feminism.
All the old issues are ongoing, aren't they...If they appear to be gaining mainstream visibility only recently, that is because dominant media has a way of "forgetting" similar discussions held in the past, which is also a way of stopping certain discourses from developing. It's really sad and frustrating. It's similar to how dominant media and fashion create a kind of cultural amnesia while perpetually recycling the past. They claim everything is new for younger generations who haven't been around long enough to see the cycles (usually averaging 20 years). That same cultural momentum used to sell things is also used to reframe discontent. And so we have ongoing amnesia around counter-cultural struggles and discourses. When something breaks through, we're suddenly told by the press things are "finally getting attention," when in fact that statement is itself a diversion from the fact proper attention has never been given, and is not actually being given now. How can it, when a lot of ground-level organising against dominations deals with things for which there is no humanist, liberal representational model - and is therefore forever invisible, so long as dominant discourse is only about power through visibility?
Re: intersectionality and ground-level organising against dominations. I went to a Kimberlé Crenshaw lecture last week during which she said that the problem with activism from an intersectionalist standpoint is that within any activist movement, the most privileged rise to the top: so anti-racist movements are dominated by men and male interests; feminist movements are dominated by white women and white interests. Is this something you've witnessed and do you see a way around it? (FYI: if you're interested, the audio of the lecture is here.)
Definitely, back in the '80s with ACT-UP NY, that was the whole dynamic between what was referred to as the "main floor," which was dominated by GWM's, and all the various caucuses organised around issues faced by other genders, sexual variances, races, ethnicities, homelessness, etc. Those caucuses arose out of the need to internally represent issues that were being ignored on the "main floor," as well as work within local communities that were not reachable by GWM's. With time, a lot of those caucuses went on to become institutionalised as CBOs (Community Based Organizations), which some caucus members took as "selling out," leading them to further split off into less institutional practices, and so on, like a fractal. So I think that very "problem with activism" Crenshaw spoke of is real, and I think it is also one of the mechanisms that pushes people to reorganise and question things further - which is how one actually arrives at the concept of something like "intersectionality," right? It emerges from experiences of crisis, not just from hypothesising. That's certainly how I got to those kinds of ideas and practices, although I don't explicitly use this term "intersectional." So, without romanticising that process of discovery through crisis, I point it out as one generator of cultural momentum that arises amidst inevitable and endless dominations.
I also think there is an important distinction to be made between "activism" and "organising." I think most people associate activism with demonstrations. Demonstrations become the moments of representing issues to a dominant context that is typically deaf to those issues. They are also moments of interference with the smooth function of dominant systems. Organising has more to do with the facilitation of spaces where people can safely interact around specific issues. For example, organising the availability and distribution of clean needles for IV drug users, so as to reduce the rate of HIV infection caused by sharing needles. Around this objective, you have all kinds of self-organisation, community outreach, demonstrations, lobbying, fundraising, etc. And each of these activities involve "representational strategies." This combination of activities - of which activism is just a part - is what I would label as intersectional. It will always be a bit open and unstable, problematised by questions of privilege and access, in doubt by the organisers themselves, etc. Hopefully, as a result, it does not explicitly revolve around a quest for dominant culture to acknowledge and institutionalise the needs of a specific identity-based class, but rather focusses on the facilitation of spaces and praxis.
You were playing in Moscow when the anti-LGBT education law was passed in St Petersburg. What was that experience like? Having worked in Russia as an openly trans woman, what can you tell us about how ordinary Russians view queer people?
Although I refer to myself as MTF (...TMTFTMTF...), I wouldn't call myself a trans-woman, since that term is generally associated with a reconciliation with the female gender. I find no reconciliation with male or female genders.
I actually wrote a little synopsis of that trip shortly after I got back, and posted it on my website. It was pretty intense. I have a gay friend who runs a record label in Russia, and before my show he was talking to me about the continued necessity for closets, because although something may be legal today, it can quickly become illegal the next. So, for example, although his label does not release explicitly queer content, his coming out could put his label on radar as a "gay propaganda machine." Then if the cultural tide changes, one can have everything taken away. And indeed, as we all know, the law that went into effect locally in St. Petersburg on that day has since gone federal.
When I think of Russian social organisation, I think of an experience I had when transferring flights at the Moscow airport. I was following signs to my transfer - huge arrows permanently tiled into the floor - walking for what seemed like miles. Then, suddenly the next arrow in front of me was cut in half by a wall that was built over it. A permanent wall. It was a total dead end. I thought it was quite a good metaphor for "Second World" social organising (the former U.S.S.R. being the generally unspoken "Second World" implied by the terms "First World" and "Third World"). At the same time, I can recognise how this kind of faulty bureaucracy also comes with different types of "between spaces" that can be twisted by locals into new kinds of mobility and resistance - simply because the "official system" itself is fraught with contradiction and confusion. I can imagine each restriction gives rise to new forms of queerness - not in a Prideful way, but simply queerness as deviance. Queerness as the unsanctioned. And this is how queerness differs from Pride[TM], in that it is not about finding one's reflection within the mainstream, or being able to buy custom-marketed goods with rainbow flags that speak to your inner LGBT child. The dilemmas of queerness are not resolved by Pride[TM]. They are further problematised by it.
Yes - I see what you're saying and agree about the unhelpfulness of the corporatisation of Pride etc. Is queerness inherently deviant, though? Or - is homosexuality inherently queer? As a gay man, I've understood the need for "queerness" but at the same time reject its imposition of deviance on me. I don't feel deviant. I don't feel the desire to assimilate, but neither do I feel the need to be an outsider...
When I speak of deviance, I mean as judged through dominant cultural mores. The perception of deviance is always contextual. And "queerness" has come to mean very different things, depending on whom you speak with. I am not using the term "queer" as simply "gay," nor am I using it to refer to institutionalised "queer studies" programs - although those are part of the term's current usage. I refuse to forget the meaning of the term as it has been used against myself, as a pejorative and indicator of the socially unacceptable. It is about placing oneself within a system of domination, and understanding how one may be a threat to heteronormativity. It is a reclaiming of the term, a bit like African Americans reclaiming "nigger" - only I use "queer" without a desire to make it "our word, not theirs," if only because all possession is plagued with problems of territorialisation and power.
But I think the most useful way for people to think of the term "queer" is how it was used in the '80s, as an anti-essentialist rejection of the hetero/homosexual binary. If one could describe that binary as dividing all sexual activity into black or white, then queerness was about reframing sexuality in relation to all the greys between. It rejects the notion of pure heterosexuality or homosexuality, much as one would reject the impossibility of racial purity, and attempts to rethink sexuality in relation to actions instead of identities. It is a kind of parallel to anti-essentialist transgenderism, and the identification of the female/male binary as a construct, as testified by the wide ranging reality of biological bodies on this planet that do not conform to the binary. Queerness is particularly important for understanding transgendered sexualities, since the heterosexual paradigm immediately falls apart if one cannot define their "gender opposite." So this is not only theoretical word play, but really about pointing out that the sexual and gender binaries we have been encouraged to internalize are enacting violent exclusions. Exclusions that affect all areas of social interaction, from the moment our genders are documented on birth certificates, through to the ability of people not fitting within the definitions of a heteronormative family structure to be in our hospital rooms when we lay on our deathbeds.
So when I'm talking about queerness on this level, it is about trying to get people to think about their sexual and gender identifications - be it "straight woman" or "gay man" - as outgrowths of the same binary-driven heterosexist systems of domination. The way I use queerness is not about imposing deviance, like, "C'mon, show your true gayness by being all freaky!" None of that bullshit. It is about sexuality and gender variance as still taboo, despite the advances of LGBT agendas - at times because of those advances, and the types of LGBT identities which gain mainstream acceptance at the exclusion of others. It is about the systematic eradication of social interstices, and the "between." So in that way, I can understand how the notion of queerness may seem strange or unnecessary to identity-reconciled lesbians or gays. Like it's just some imposition of campiness. But that is a stereotype. I would guess that uneasiness you describe around queerness in relation to your own life as a gay man perhaps has parallels to women who see "feminism" as an oppressive thing, and dismiss feminists as bitches trying to tell them how to be a "woman." I think the three main reasons people who identify as women would dismiss "feminism" are: a lack of access to information about feminism; or denial as a result of already being pushed to the limit by patriarchy and barely being able to keep their shit together; or else because other class relations grant them certain privileges that reduce their sense of urgency around gender issues, making social mobilisation around those issues seem gratuitous.
And I think queerness works similarly. For identity-reconciled lesbians and gays on the edge, I empathise and don't mean to tilt you over. For those with experiences that just make them feel queerness is esoteric and unnecessary, I would ask them to be aware of the possibility of other experiences, and try not to dismiss queerness (or feminism) as a tool of importance for others. Particularly at bureaucratic and legislative levels. It may feel like queerness or feminism are trying to impose things on people, but in fact they are responses to pre-existing impositions. They both strike most people as awkward because they both declare dissatisfaction with social norms. They declare being damaged by that which most people accept as right or natural. How can that not be awkward, or not come across like someone making a scene? It's like if I were to hear someone screaming, and at first think something judgmental like, "How annoying! What the fuck is their problem?" Then I look and realize, "Holy shit, they're being run over by a car!" Not every social revelation is about the self. Sometimes we need to have revelations about others. That's the beginning of listening.
Other than music, what are your preferred forms of protest?
I am never comfortable with this kind of portrayal of audio production in and of itself as protest. It relies on a lot of the same ideas deployed by "political art" in the fields of Fine Art, which confuses the product of analysis (an art work) for organising. Like, a song or painting or whatever is considered to embody active protest, when at best it is simply offering a theme for discussion. And usually not even that, because the artists prefer to "let the piece speak for itself" - that is part of our conditioning as "mute producers" that led me to include large texts with my projects, because this whole pressure to "let things speak for themselves" is precisely what keeps us from developing our ideas. For example, it's socially acceptable to simply present a theme or key word - like, "oh, she does work about the body." What the fuck about the body? It's ridiculous how people in music or art refuse to clarify their positions, and simply presume everything has a kind of Leftist or critical potential. The Vatican does a lot of work about the body, too, by restricting education on birth control and safer sex. How do I know you're not some extreme rightist? The refusal to develop more precise language of analysis and organisation is exactly why most music and media is vapid and worthless bullshit.
It's no mystery why "nobody gets art." Most people are outside the required spheres of linguistic and social indoctrination that allows art to perform as though it has intrinsic meanings comprehensible to all, timeless and universal. It's hyper-specific! Meanwhile, most people who laugh at art are totally forgiving of the same stupidities in music! So, yeah, music does not equal protest. And protest itself can be so many things. A lot of people might associate it with direct action groups and public demonstrations. I think groups like Ultra-red take things in much more interesting and effective directions, by emphasizing ongoing acts of organising. Personally, I am interested in tactics of non-cooperation, and culture jamming. Not as some kind of abstract punk gesture, but as research, to learn from personal experiences related to social boundaries and limitations.
Who were some of the artists or songs that helped you most as you came to accept your identity? Who do you think some of the most important artists are now in terms of identity politics?
I am anti-essentialist, which means I do not believe in - or feel - a kind of innate identity. My gender, my sexuality, my race, my ethnicity, my class - these are all things I can understand in relation to social conditioning and experience. For example, I grew up being branded and socialised as a "faggot" well before pubescence - not in the LGBT Pride[TM] way of being nurtured and supported, but through inextricable relations to shame and abuse... you know, the usual ways. So by the time puberty came and the kids around me were struggling to come into their sexual identities, I was struggling with this other experience through which it was painfully obvious how all identities are inflicted from without, and just a kind of internalized role play. That's why I only think of identities as having value when they are strategically assumed in order to position oneself in relation to dominations. They can be a part of strategies of organisation as "periphery" in relation to a dominant "core." But I never take identity politics to heart, because it generally relies on a presumption that power is always equated with visibility - when the history of gender and sexual deviance has demonstrated how certain kinds of mobility can only be found in the invisible, unnamed, secret... Still, I am always very clear about the fact that societies never grant us spaces in which we are freed of identifications. That's the stuff of liberal fantasies, and like I said earlier about clubs and churches, I am always suspect of language of openness because it is invariably linked to processes of ideological production aimed at concealing the social workings of other exclusions. So identities are traps. We are stuck in those traps. And we need to actively recognise them as traps, but without adapting some meaningless liberal bullshit about "people are people," which inadvertently once again encourages people to "ignore" the inescapable traps. I mean, we're all walking around covered in bear traps, but trying to act like we're comfortable...Like the bear traps actually make us comfortable!
Could you give me an example of using identities as strategies for positioning oneself against dominations? Do you mean in a drag sense? I was talking about gender to a friend recently, and it was interesting to realise how little we could pin down why we felt gender identity at all: the only definitive way in which I can call myself cisgender is a lack of transgender or genderqueer feelings. But beyond that, my masculinity or femininity ends up relying on social stereotypes. Why do you think so many people are so attached to fulfilling those stereotypes? Every day, the mainstream media's approach to gender seems more like propaganda: men are like this, women are like this...
Think of the civil rights movement in the US, and how African Americans and other people of colour have worked to redefine their racial and ethnic identities within both local communities and dominant culture. Ultimately, identities are representational devices. They can be the images around which people attempt to gain visibility and representation within a system that has historically excluded them. They can be a way of shattering systemic invisibility. The problem is that these images can also be internalized to a point of naturalisation, at which point people forget they are constructs, and believe in the identities outright. For example, a white supremacist might truly believe at their core, or "essence," they possess a racial purity that you and I can easily recognise as biologically impossible. And this kind of "essentialism" quickly leads to exclusionist politics, and non-democratic claims of entitlement. Gender and sexual binaries are also examples of identity constructs most people believe in on an essentialist level.
People fulfill those gender and sexual stereotypes because society punishes us if we don't. On a base level, that's it. So we internalise, essentialise, and naturalise what is incredibly difficult to learn. Think of all the girls who had trouble learning to wear a dress, but as women don't think twice about it. That stage of rebellion was not about childishness, but about a struggle to retain a kind of social freedom disallowed non-males, and the confinement of feminine behaviour. Boys go through a corollary conditioning. As kids we don't know what we're resisting on a conscious level, but we know the rules being forced upon us are confining and uncomfortable. It can be something as ridiculous as a boy learning not to wear a pink shirt to school. This "silly stuff" is all about the lessons of patriarchy. And it gets brutal through an abundance of emotional violence inflicted between girls, and an abundance of physical violence between boys. We are encouraged to beat the differences out of each other in our own gender-coded ways. It gets that neurotic. And most people choose to survive, which means they agree to conform.
From that point on, once we choose to survive, life becomes all about drag. Conservative business people are all in drag. And they are all messes. Religious clergy, total drag. You and I are also in drag right now. I am in drag whether I am wearing women's clothes or men's clothes. I am always aware of how both contort and reshape my body. And I am always aware of how both are related to issues of personal safety. Most people lose that sense of just how dangerous it is to cross dress, simply because they lock into one gender's apparel early on and stay there. I really think everybody should have the experience of cross dressing on a random, ordinary day. Your first task is dealing with dirty looks as you buy the clothes. Then go about totally ordinary things like going to work, going to a restaurant, buying groceries, riding the bus, passing the neighbors in front of your house, hanging with friends or family, maybe going to church... A lot of people want to believe today's world is open and accepting, but try it. Really. You'll learn a lot about yourself and others, that I promise. (Spoiler alert: you may lose your job.) And when you switch back to your usual clothes, you will have a totally different understanding of the unjust respect and power that comes with something as asinine as clothing conformity. Then the real problem hits you... once you have that understanding, can you allow yourself to do something with it?
Part Four: Japan, and Thaemlitz's Musical Output
What was behind your decision to relocate to Japan?
I get asked this question a lot, but it's hard to answer briefly in a meaningful way. Part of the problem is that I'm a nihilist, and basically think humans are a pretty shit animal, so I am immediately denied all that easy, romantic language about "Japan is so amazing," or whatever. Similarly, immigration is never about autonomous mobility, pursuing one's dreams, the quest for freedom, and all that garbage that gets associated with immigrant mythologies. It's more about operating within a limited field of options, and hoping one isn't stepping into something worse than the place they came from. It's more about departure, yet people usually speak of it in terms of arrival. In that way, it is kind of like gender transitioning being spoken of as a way of arriving at a reconciled gender identity, when it is more often about unbecoming an unbearable gender relationship to one's body, and hoping the alternatives on offer will be survivable.
The main thing for me is personal safety in daily life. In the US, if people don't like you, they immediately feel entitled to scream or spit or throw or punch... Like, before I moved here I was 32, living outside San Francisco, and still getting called "faggot" on a daily basis. In Japan, if someone doesn't like you they completely ignore you. For my Japanese friends, that silence has been internalized, and registers as oppressively for them as a punch does for me. Actually, many of them say they prefer being yelled at, because at least they feel acknowledged and alive. So I would never want to romanticise the silence. But for me, taking personal experience into consideration, that silence is golden.
In general, people here are more friendly in daily life, and I think it has to do with the lack of individualism. Most Westerners are paranoid that a lack of individualism means everyone is a robot, but to the opposite, it means people don't all feel self-entitled to be treated like fucking royalty, and scamming off each other. For example, there isn't that immediate antagonism between customers and employees you find in the US. You know, a customer walks in and the employees are all upset that they have to work, so it's like, "Great, because of you now I have to work... what the fuck do you want?" And in response, "the customer is always right," wanting as much of everything for as cheap as possible - the power dynamics of which are made worse by mandatory tip culture, and the ability for businesses to avoid paying the minimum wage. The tension is just immediately palpable when you go to the US.
When I think of how people here in Japan cooperated after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the lack of looting and rioting, it really demonstrated a kind of "common sense" caring for others on a scale that one would be hard-pressed to find examples of in the West. So, yeah, I've never been one to find safety in numbers, but in a way I could say in Japan there is "safety despite numbers." And generations of men raised without the mental poison of military experience? How amazing is that?
Social Material, K-S.H.E., DJ Sprinkles, Terre Thaemlitz: you go under many aliases. (My favourite name is Terre's Neu Wuss Fusion.) Is there a specific reason for each of them? Are you trying to do different things under each name?
Yeah, sometimes they are specific to a project, like Social Material was specific to a 12-inch where the A-side track was titled "Class," and the B-side was "Consciousness." (Social-material, class consciousness, get it?) And they do have different things going on stylistically. Like in comparison to DJ Sprinkles releases, I think K-S.H.E releases have a louder queerness factor. And I usually reserve "Terre Thaemltiz" for ambient and electro-acoustic projects, which began as a sarcastic joke about imposing my personal identity on music that was primarily about eschewing ego and melody. Basically, I was skeptical of the commercial music industry allowing producers to function in non-ego terms, and sure enough the ambient scene ended up with the DJ as star, like DJ Spooky, or The Orb transformed into a rock spectacle on stage with guitarists and drummers.
My using different aliases is also a way of diffusing the amount of visibility and coverage around myself as a single producer. It's also about producing in ways that reflect the multiple and often contradictory identities we all carry. Like, we change radically depending on whether we are at home, at work, with family, with friends, with lovers... it's a schizophrenia that flies in the face of Western identity politic's obsession with the individual, and this bullshit notion of life as a process of discovering our "true selves." I don't buy it. Diversity, simultaneity, hypocrisy... that's what people are about. I think a lot of social bias and violence comes out of our lack of tools for accepting and dealing with hypocrisy in peaceful ways. And this is also what makes me uncomfortable with mainstream LGBT Pride[TM] movements that fixate on terms of visibility, and the marketing of Lesbian and Gay identities that are reconciled with Neo-Liberal agendas of marriage, family, home-owning, financial success, etc. It becomes about power sharing within dominant systems - whereas I am not interested in power sharing. I am interested in divestments of power.
The interwoven samples on your remix of Oh, Yoko's ‘Seashore' are incredible. You use a television sample that does the opposite of your MLK sample, in a way: it takes the words of a character whose attitude towards the gay men in the episode is limited and makes them beautiful despite the source. And it's mixed with a sample from an African-American artist mostly known for being a politicised, musical activist - but one of his most homophobic, transphobic, least-mentioned songs. What was the reasoning behind choosing those particular samples?
Well, when I make a house track I am always thinking about that genre's relationship to queer and transgendered scenes in New York, which is how I came to know the music back in the '80s. So the original track's title, ‘Seashore', got me thinking about the West side piers as a waterfront that had a strong connection to queer and trans sex work, cruising, and the vogue ball scene. A part of that situation was about interacting with traditionally antagonistic identities. Like in trans sex work, most of the johns are straight identified. And this means you are constantly dealing with verbal harassment, sometimes physical harassment, at times even escalating to murder. This was also part of the tension of the clientele at Sally's II, where I used to DJ around 1991, which was a primarily a scene combining Latina and African-American trans sex workers, and generally straight-identified johns of all races. As you said, the one vocal sample about "balling" comes from a straight African American poet ranting about seeing a crowd of African American queens trying to get into a transgendered ball. I start it out by just repeating "Balling, balling, balling...," but then let it get into the verbal bashing as a bit of a reality check, basically. Similarly, that drama dialogue is like a pep-talk about the queer mythology of migration to big cities, and the hope waiting for us there - which was also part of my own past, basically running away from Missouri rednecks to New York at age 18 - but at the end, a second person who had been receiving the pep talk says, "Thank you, john." Of course, John was the first character's name, but for me it's about "the john." So I was really going for this convoluted image of a sex worker getting a pep talk from their john. Basically, trying to conjure this larger, often hypocritical, blurring between community and outsider.
But, you know, when it comes to a person's ability to decode all this stuff we are back to the limitations of the genre, as well as limitations of the listener's own sexual experiences. Like, some people mishear "balling" as "falling," and just settle for the affect of a soothing floaty feeling. Or they take the pep talk at face value, and buy into the optimism without considering the cynical flip at the end - perhaps missing the themes of queerness and transgenderism entirely. So, despite however many people may hear something I produce (which is never really that many), I am always aware that only a fraction of those are likely to "hear" the main theme I'm thinking about. And this also means accepting that the main conversations around my projects will often be totally wrong for me personally. This is not about me being jaded. I mean, yes, in general I am jaded, but this here has to do with how consumers are trained to absorb music and other media almost exclusively in relation to a "positive consumer experience." We aren't taught to willingly pay for disappointment, right? That is no longer commerce, but taxation, right? But maybe this taxing model makes more sense for me, in that it assumes a relationship of burden, and responsibility of social participation from both producer and listener - as opposed to everyone simply stopping at masturbatory self-gratification and passing it off as depth.