Club Theory: two recombinant texts on the impossible space between theory + experience by Sally Olds & DJ Sezzo

In anticipation of the PRECOG club night for this year’s Next Wave Festival in Narrm/Melbourne, editor and writer Sally Olds [SO] and DJ Sezzo /SZ/ pen two texts contemplating the liminal space of queer expression and sensory experience within club culture. Here, they’re reconfigured into a single piece, accompanied by artwork by Brisbane-based artist Claudia Greathead.

Claudia Greathead, ‘Boys pose with Renaissance statue’ (2015). Courtesy the artist.

[SOx01] Reading about clubbing is to have missed the party. This almost seems to be the point of club theory. Even as writers attempt to close the gap between experience and representation, the poles move further apart. There are autoethnographies of heroic nights out, fieldwork interviews at raves, nostalgic tales of lost youth, and accounts whose lag behind the immediacy of the club experience is betrayed by breathless first person, present tense narration.

These methodologies tacitly, sometimes explicitly, endorse the idea that clubbing can only ever be experienced directly, not thought abstractly. Much of the writing on clubbing seems like an apology for theory. Theory is produced in order to point to its own shortcomings in the face of sensory overload and, in doing so, to enshrine the sensual experience as something that cannot be captured; this lets the writing off the hook of writing about it.

\SZx01\ Like all ambitious DJs who don’t produce, I decided to start a club night. And like all ambitious DJs who put on club nights, I decided to give mine a cool-as-fuck name: PRECOG. The club night would gesture towards the widely-held conviction that dance music can envision and create futures for outsiders. It would draw on Afrofuturism, and it would reference current trends that tap a similar vein of futurity: psychics, astrology, and identity politic utopias—a millennial holy trinity.

Claudia Greathead, ‘Hungry Eyes’ (2018). Courtesy the artist.

[SOx02] Faced with the club, my impulse has often been the same. I intuitively avoid general theories, write from my own experience, excuse myself in the face of the sublime. How do we theorise something that is supposed to be embodied, immediate? Kodwo Eshun offers one method; we change how we do theory: “When painters paint, they are theorising immanently in the field of paint. Sonically, when you compose, you are theorising tonally.” Theory does not only belong to the field of writing or cognition, but also to the realm of experience. Club theory turns out to precede itself; it pre-exists writing about club theory, has its own canons, methodologies, experts, amateurs. It generates its own conceptual apparatus, which we can apply to itself, or to other fields of inquiry. To club is to be a club theorist.

\SZx02\When people hear ‘Precog’ (short for Precognitives), they might think of Tom Cruise in Minority Report running through a shopping centre carrying a bald psychic girl in a hospital gown. Fine with me: the precog aesthetic of the 1999 sci-fi movie is the 2017 to 2018 club Insta-queer aesthetic de rigueur. But this idea of precog as clairvoyant streamlines a complex etymology. Its roots can offer a different meaning, one that reformulates club politics as pre-Cartesian and pre-colonial. ‘Pre-’ denoting ‘before’, combined with ‘cog’ from the Latin ‘cognoscere’ meaning ‘get to know,’ leads to a more refined definition of PRECOG: “before you get to know.” Cognition, the process of thinking things, is related to reason or rationality. For cognitive psychologists, this is our ability to consciously deliberate and coherently understand things. Thinking appears to us as the most primary activity of human experience, an all-too-human conclusion famously captured by Descartes’ grand sceptical dictum, cogito ergo sum (I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am).  

Claudia Greathead, ‘Round and Round’ (2018). Courtesy the artist.

[SOx03] Still, clubbing is not writing, and this does not solve the problem of how to write about clubbing. We wind up in this impasse precisely when we view writing as a method of capture, measuring its capabilities against embodiment. In doing so, we unwittingly posit experience as the yardstick of aesthetic success, as if the only way out is for the world to become flesh, an extension of us: one plane of sensuality unbounded by past or future. Nothing to look back on, nothing lost. Writing bows out.

\SZx03\ However, recent neuroscientific research has come to the Humean empiricist conclusion that decision-making isn’t logical but emotional. Writing in the 18th century that “Reason is the slave of the passions” (a shocking statement during the reason-worshipping Enlightenment), Hume argued that rationality alone is unable to motivate us. Reason is an interpretive faculty; passions are the driving force. But where Hume concluded reason’s function is to guide our thoughts and actions towards our desires, contemporary studies claim that it is only instrumental in a post hoc sense; we move through life largely motivated by instinctual forces that we later interpret with so-called ‘reasons.’ PRECOG invokes a category ontologically prior to cognition and logic, one aligned with the psychoanalytic idea of the unconscious.  

[SOx04] In the club, especially on one of a range of drugs including but not limited to alcohol and MDMA, this is sometimes how I feel. I am either melting into the room, or the room melts into me (it’s like wearing all black in winter and stepping into the sun). Interiority convexes like a trouser pocket turning inside out, and whatever was stashed tumbles out. Or better: it’s as though there never was an interior or an exterior to begin with. In queues for the toilet, I tell strangers I love them. I kiss my friends on the mouth. I can love or desire anyone, and I do. My proclamations are not hauled from some deep cavity but are produced in the act of speaking. This is why some of us, later, or those who are not high at the time, lament the speciousness of these declarations, the fake-deep camaraderie produced by drugs. The high person does not give credence to the depth of feeling that loving usually implies, instead substantialising this depth, if at all, only after the fact of producing love

Claudia Greathead, ‘Enter the void’ (2018). Courtesy the artist.

\SZx04\Indeed, the club has a kind of Freudian dreamwork of its own — an elastic, associative logic, where sucking a pacifier or dressing in costume is as reasonable as flaunting designer kicks. Performing childishness in the club — or any affect that taps into this illogic — stages a kind of regression, allowing the clubber to indulge the whims and fancies they might usually deny. But more than this, the club allows traffic between unconscious and conscious systems of thought, transposing the unwieldy logic of desire into a structure that allows for interpretation.

[SOx05] Describing such an experience seems wrong, or at least ineffectual, not only because the experience is squashed into the orderly corridors of narrative, but because the ability to do so comes after the fact of clubbing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that writing is the irresponsible “brother” of speech. A piece of writing is available to anyone and therefore open to attack; it is undiscerning in its choice of interlocutors—promiscuous, even—and helpless without its “father”, the writer, protecting it from being misconstrued. Plus, it corrupts memory, offering a cheat sheet rather than the deep engagement spoken knowledge demands. Phaedrus agrees. The written word is a “mere image” of “living, ensouled speech”. The same privileging of immediacy and presence informs club theorists whose methodologies posit dance, play, and partying as an excess to language.

Claudia Greathead, ‘Magnus o’pus’ (2018). Courtesy the artist.

For others — JG Ballard, for example—the role of the writer is to access “inconceivable alienations.” And for Mark Fisher, the British theorist also known as k-punk, the point of theorising is to affirm infidelity: “theory’s role is not opposed to that of dancing […] in fact, theory stands in the same relation to music as does dance. Its function is to complicate and estrange music, not to simply ‘respond’ or ‘assess’ it.” Estrangement is the production of new forms of engagement. Attempting to theorise an experience is useful not in spite, but because the theory produced will always be an abstraction.

\SZx05\ It is easy to see why early dance music theorists saw the club as a utopian space. Clubbing looks like a metaphor for what is possible when we are with and responding to others while being totally ourselves: a communal celebration of each person’s desires and actions. But the Afrofuturist theories we use to frame the revolutionary potential of early genres of dance music like Chicago house, Detroit techno, and jungle have not lead to the free worlds they predicted. Apart from the persistence of post-colonial material inequality, each of these styles originating from marginalised, queer people of colour have been transformed into scenes dominated by white ‘bro-ppressors.’ Further, queerness is a coveted aesthetic, detached from its history as a hard-won political category and reconstituted as a club look.

Claudia Greathead, Untitled. Courtesy the artist.

[SOx06] So far, I have written about clubbing as though theory is the only pole moving away from a stable centre: as though clubbing — contained, immediate, and embodied — comes first and theory comes second. But what exactly do we think we’re abstracting from?

At first glance, the club appears to mark the broadest possible parameters of the club experience. Clubbing is dependent on clubs, and anything called clubbing happens within. But the more you try to pin a definition on space, the more it slips away. Are you clubbing when you put together a look three days in advance, or only when you step onto the dance floor? Does clubbing begin in line or at the door to the venue? Does it end in the cab home?

When I think of clubbing, I think of shouldering down a bustling sidewalk with a group of friends. Others think of DJs, or their Uber rating. At the club, there is drinking, and there are Adidas bumbags filled with bags of speed. There are looks. There is the kind of militarised dancing that is both scary and exhilarating to watch. There is a hospitality industry furnishing bartenders popping bottles of Club Mate, and there are queues forming for the single cubicle bathrooms. To write of ‘clubbing’ is to corral a roving herd of concepts, actions, and relations into a single beast. This is not a matter of writing’s capability or inadequacy, but because clubbing as a discrete phenomenon can only be encountered through its abstraction into a moniker. Clubbing, as the sum of its parts, is no less real than each of its parts—but nor does clubbing pre-exist the abstraction. The function of the abstraction is to infuse each part with its sum, so that even when walking down the street I can be clubbing.

Claudia Greathead, ‘Little cheen’ (2018). Courtesy the artist.

\SZx06\ If clubbing’s ability to materialise a better future has faltered, perhaps its power lies in the past. Underground labels such as NON and NAAFI have been forging Soundcloud communities that promote an ethno-clubbed up sound, repurposing their Indigenous sonic cultures. Milo Gooding, writing for Tank Magazine, argues that Elysia Crampton’s pre-colonial Andean drum music reorients dance towards a ‘historical bent.’ Turning her back on the future, Crampton uses geological analogies to explore the observable effects of colonisation. Just as the landscape was lacerated and remains so by colonisers, so are indigenous minds and bodies; both are concrete reminders in the present of a traumatic history. Similarly, at a recent performance in Melbourne, Black Quantum Futurism (Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips), screened a powerful short film in which a black woman attempts to guide another through past trauma.

Our bodies are vessels in the present of our inherited pasts. Intuitions, which are often associated with clairvoyance, are embodied, and informed by the past. For oppressed peoples, the past is a history of colonial trauma. If free-form dance is an intuitive expression from the body, it follows that our inherited past is present as we dance. To club, that is, to dance around other people who respond to your movement, is to affirm the past in present intersubjective agreement. It cuts through the colonial topsoil and acknowledges the apocalypse that Indigenous people’s ancestors suffered, the effects of which continue today — a collective corporeal resistance to colonialism.

[SOx07] Of course, clubbing involves clubbers gathering together at one place and time. The much vaunted cooperative element of clubbing, the sense of individuality, bowing and snapping, its contents gushing into a communal pool, comes not just from being physically together but from occupying this abstraction. Similarly, if a club experience is ineffable, hard to capture and recount, it is not solely because such an experience is embodied, or whisked away immediately as the moment passes. After all, it is usually simple enough to explain the conditions surrounding a transcendent club experience: the drugs were strong, everyone was dancing, the DJ played a track between 128-133 BPM then mixed something by LSDXOXO into Sonique’s It Feels So Good.

Claudia Greathead, ‘Boys beneath cherubs’ (2017). Courtesy the artist.

Still, we do not know where, exactly, to locate the experience: how to find it and how to recreate it, on the page or otherwise. We appeal to materialism and are rebuked by an idealist remainder; the experience is not contained in any particular thing—not exactly in dancing or drugs, nor in the lights or CDJs—or even in the full constellation of things. The ineffable quality of an experience is also because the synthetic function of abstraction is intangible. It is legible only in the synthesis: as synthesis.

\SZx07\ The club space itself is engineered to create an atmosphere that encourages an intuitive and direct engagement with your environment. There is the pleasing sensory confusion of lighting, loud music, and a crowded space in total flux. Unless you’re on your phone or waiting in line for the loo, you are forced to occupy your body—to take up space, and to navigate other bodies. This is also why clubs can be the most experimental art spaces, as social preconceptions and formal theoretical distance do not configure in a space heavily curated to be wild. For club theorist Madison Moore, the staged elements of a club are precisely what lead to the potential for performing spontaneity and birthing artistic genesis. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that the universe consists of Dionysian (deindividuated and debaucherous) and Apollonian (formal and structured) energies, both of which were provided by Athenian tragedy, and both of which are essential to experiencing the entire spectrum of the human condition. What matters in the club is not the privileging of unconscious instinct over conscious reason, but facilitating both.

[SOx08] To club is to be a club theorist, and the theorist is relieved of producing or applying theory — though not exactly for the reasons we thought earlier. Clubbers and clubbing do not need to be rescued by methodologies that attempt to protect experience from abstraction. To do so is to miss the point of club theory, which is not to force the poles together or lament their division, but to celebrate their inseparability.

\SZx08\The ambitious DJ who doesn’t produce starts club nights. The good DJ is a utilitarian entertainer. They want what is best for the group (this is why individual requests are so annoying). The better DJ will also challenge the crowd, confounding expectations and breaking through the interpretive cycle of the conscious, reasoning mind, deconstructing your head until you are just a body. The best DJ will reconstruct your mind, bringing the fragmented Dionysian energies into harmony with the stable Apollonian forces that comprise us.**

The PRECOG club night is on as part of a Next Wave Festival x Liquid Architecture co-commission at Narrm/Melbourne’s The Tote Hotel on May 6, 2018.

Ed’s note: Part of this piece was redacted July 21 at the request of the authors.