Few people talk about dance music with quite such razor 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 analysts, 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 and worldview, 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.
Today: queer identity and drag.
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/4)
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.
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 2/4)
Ultra-red – ‘Esperanza (en la frontera)’
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.
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 3/4)
Soulnessless performance at CTM.13
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?
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 4/4)