McKenzie Wark Interview
Interviewed by M.C. Overholt
McKenzie Wark is an Australian-born writer and scholar. She is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and the Program Director of Gender Studies at The New School in New York City.
M.C. Overholt is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design in Architecture History and Theory and a graduate of the Master of Environmental Design (M.E.D.) program at Yale School of Architecture.
McKenzie, as a nod to your more recent autoethnographic work — I’m thinking here of Reverse Cowgirl (2020) — I thought we might begin here with the personal. When was the first time you remember encountering the intersection of gender and architecture in your own life?
I’m wary of retrospective stories we tell ourselves about these things. Every trans person I know is tempted to create a story of how these are all these things, but it’s after the fact that you discover the precursor events that end up in this story. And there could have been other stories and we could have been other people. So with that caveat…
It was when my mom was still alive and she took me to daycare and there was a yard out the back that had what you call it a slide in American English — we would say slippery dip in Australian English — and two little girls used to have a tea party under it every recess. A little teapot with the extremely weak tea kind-of-thing. I really wanted to join and I was friends with them, but somehow I was excluded from the tea party. In retrospect that seems gendered. They finally relented and let me join them. But then it rained, so it didn’t happen… It’s sort of like the slippery dip was a “house,” you know, like these little girls who were playing house. That was architecture.
Yeah, the modeling of domesticity amongst children at such a young age. And this is in Australia?
Yeah, this is in Newcastle, New South Wales. It’s still a coal town, a hundred miles from Sydney up the coast. A place I left as soon as I could, which was 18.
When did you leave Australia and arrive in the US?
I left Newcastle for Sydney in 1980, and then I was in Sydney until 2000. I fell in love with a New Yorker who was going to come to Australia. And then I was offered a one year visiting job at Binghamton University. I threw caution to the wind and gave up tenure and came to the United States. Career-wise, probably the dumbest thing I ever did. But I was in love. And now I’ve been a New Yorker for 20 years.
In preparing for this interview I was thinking about the long trajectory of your work and engagement with Marxism. Architecture has a long history of intellectual outsiders of Marxist expertise looking at the discipline from the outside, providing critique and often generative pathways forward that shape the discipline from the outside. Tafuri, someone we read a lot in architecture, is one example, but also Jameson, Lefebvre, and many others. Given your commentary and architecture of late, I think you could be added to this list, or a para-list. I say all this as a kind of prelude to a really basic insight: that critics from outside of the discipline of architecture often bring us new sets of ideas and figures with which to rethink architecture’s role in the world.
You’ve recently brought two different figures to architecture. More explicitly John Desmond Bernal. And then I would maybe argue — and this is probably not quite as explicit — Juliana Hable is another figure who can come to bear on ‘space’, certainly, and perhaps even we could say ‘architecture’.
So I’m curious if you could talk about your encounters with these two very different figures and how they led you back to space and architecture.
Yeah, it probably starts with Walter Benjamin for me, who’s a writer. And then, Andy Merrifield — I want to give a shout-out to — who consolidated a lot of thinking about Marxist in the city across several books. And he was also attuned to that Bohemian-Marxist nexus. So yeah, I think those are all my people. The only thing I’d like to say is I want to differentiate and modify that a bit and, we can think of Richard Wright and Claude McKay as writers of the city in the Marxist tradition too, and who understand also how it is racialized. I think there’s a Marxist thread in how they write about Chicago and Marseille. I wrote about Situationist International cofounder Michèle Bernstein’s two novels about Paris and how we think of gender in the city.
I’m a big fan of Juliana Huxtable’s work in all media. I’ve been to her techno sets, as well as going to her art, reading her books, and so forth. That connected a few dots to me in terms of the current era of the city: commodification, race and transsexuality, and it’s domination by forms of information management and counter-practices of opacity. Inhabiting nightlife is less visible but sonically is a more resonant space. In Juliana’s work that’s very much to do with Blackness and femininity and transness and finding margins of possibility in which to exist. One should talk about transphobic violence, and one should say the names of murdered trans people. But we can’t just do that. Strategies of building the space in the city for oneself and, dare I say, for ourselves—to the extent that I’m not entirely included, but sometimes included in that. That’s where Juliana’s work is interesting to me.
I do a lot of different things though. My writing on Joseph Needham and JD Bernal is like a whole other vector. And it’s just this lost tradition of British scientific Marxists from the 30s to the 50s. They were the left wing of what used to be called the social relations of science movement.
Bernal is a very compromised figure. He was a Stalinist till his dying day. He’s not somebody to celebrate, but someone who addresses my interests in what happens to architecture in an era of climate instability, given that the very word itself ceases to make sense. “Arche”—the idea of foundation — something that can be anchored and founded — is not the kind of building we’ll need. There’s this other thing I call kainotecture. Bernal turned out to be an interesting figure thinking about it.
Most people in architecture school are probably aware of Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology, which is about the failure of massive defensive structures that the Nazis built. It’s a historical turning point — It’s not only possible to think of space in terms of the boundary, but the vector that overcomes the boundary. To me, that’s the most important thing in Virilio’s work. We’ve got this magnificent book and all Virilio’s photographs of these abandoned bunkers, but what kinds of structures did it take to actually overrun the bunkers? How was that actually done? So to think of the texture of the Normandy invasion as this massive temporary structure built on the premise of extreme instability — of being under attack, of not knowing what the weather was, of having to negotiate a landing in an era when very little was known about the conditions of the landing.
To make all that possible, Bernard came up with this genius set of research techniques, figuring out when the tanks land on the beach and whether they could even get up the beach. So all the various research strategies: Let’s gather holiday snapshots. Let’s gather postcards. Let’s look not just at the map, but the history of map making because all the little tiny islands get left off. Let’s talk to fishermen who have names for the various uncharted rocks. Let’s send scuba divers to sample the sand as we don’t even know what the sand is. Let’s research a medieval manuscript about how there’s peat underneath the sand. Let’s look at the history of the Romans there because they used to use peat as fuel. So, alright, there’s peat under the sand, so we know we need tracks for the tanks to get up the beach. Let’s find a beach in the British Isles that’s as much like this beach and mock-invade it — which they did — much to the consternation of the locals.
How do you construct the knowledge of building in an era of instability and unpredictability? Maybe it looks more like Bernal than Virolio, more like kainotecture than architecture. I’m interested in the tension between these two things. But then that approach to kainotecture is a sort of militaristic, hyper-masculine war story. Survival for a lot of us is something that’s very different to that. Hence my seemingly very different interest in the practice of space-making for trans people of color. It’s a thing that I want to hold a little space for and learn from at the other extreme of ways one might think about whatever kainotecture is going to be.
I guess the key word I hear you articulating is instability, right? It’s the instability of climate, of war. But also the instability of trans* life and our contemporary moment of extreme anti-trans violence.
Yeah, my father was an architect, so I grew up around it. He built quite a lot in our hometown.
I grew up in buildings that he designed, and talked with him about it. I remember once telling him I thought he’d perfected the layout of the apartment because I’d seen him play with certain variables of it over the years. And he’s like, “No. You have to lean over the bathtub to open the window.” And to solve that problem undoes all the other solutions, right? So the thing I came to appreciate about architecture — with all of these constraints — is its lamination of different kinds of practice.
In the lamination, there’s aesthetics but that’s a small part of it. You have to understand materials and understand budgets. You have to know the local planning office, the regulatory envelope, and also how negotiable it is. You have to deal with clients, you have to deal with a workforce…So, to me, what makes architecture is the way it laminates these different knowledges on top of each other —and its capacity to laminate is more what the field is than the building. Even if one is a paper architect, there’s layers to laminate, you know?
It’s always open ended as to what the layers are that architecture would need to think about. How you think about instability — it’s a relatively new thing. A least in its current form.
I’m from Australia, which has a very variable climate. The Southern Isolation Index, which generates a lot of the weather across the Pacific Ocean, drops all of the rainfall either on Chile or on the east coast of Australia. So it’s drought, drought, flood, flood, drought, flood, flood, drought, flood…that’s the experience of it. The parameters of it used to be predictable, but the variability was sort of intense.
An architect I really admire, Glenn Murcutt, designs the dimensions of the pitch and gutter of the roof based on a calculation of the highest rainfall that would ever happen at a given location. 99% of buildings in Australia are not built like that. So you get water shooting down the walls once every four years, you know? Murcutt would pay attention to that. But now we’re outside the boundaries that someone like Murcutt could think. Yeah. So even that as a method…
I’m struck by the fact that your father was an architect.
I was being taken around building sites as a little kid a lot. He didn’t want me to become an architect, but a whole other story.
What about this term laminating? It’s kind of a cliché to talk about architects as composers or conductors of a symphony bringing together different professional actors, but I think there’s something different in this term laminate. You seem to think about it topologically — the layers the architecture needs to negotiate.
I guess I’m wondering if you could kind of expand on that.
People are most familiar with laminated materials. Wood has grain, it’s much stronger in one direction than the other, so when you make thin layers and glue them together and cross the grains you get a material that has different qualities. And then maybe you put like an epoxy on the outside and maybe there’s a glue that holds it onto something… You can laminate it again to other materials. You’re sort of thinking about how the differences press together to achieve a certain strength, flexibility, impermeability. There are other ways of thinking about it, but to me that’s what a good practicing architect is able to do: laminate practices, kinds of expertise, like the way you can laminate materials.
I got to see all this in my father’s practice, which was a partnership: Mayo & Wark. I saw the big drawing desk—this was way before computers. The office staff. But then there was the syndicate of investors—the local dentist and lawyer class. They had to be managed. It’s a small city, so you have to actually personally know the town clerk, to make sure you get permits and all that. You need to know the weather. How do you angle the building on the site for that. Good to know local history. There were convict mine tunnels under the city that aren’t on any maps. Local builders and architects have to have some knowledge of where those are likely to be.
I don’t practice architecture, so this is a strictly amateur observation about it. For what it’s worth, that’s how it looked to me as an outsider, as laminating knowledge, competences, of very different kinds. And I’ve been engaged with architects in various ways and that’s always what I admired about it as a practice: that ability to cross one way of working as a layer across another. Most professions or fields of study don’t have half as much of that as architecture.
You’re teaching a class right now called Black Techno Queer Rave at the New School which, from my understanding of reading the course description, is about the techno movement in Detroit, augmenting common narratives these days that place the movement in Berlin or New York.
I’m curious about the materiality, spatiality, opacity and texture of the Detroit techno movement. What kind of affordances you find in those spaces for collectivity, anonymity, reciprocality, and something beyond neoliberal notions of consent that I think many of us find unworthy.
It’s important, particularly in the context of the United States, to always reinscribe Blackness in cultural creation. In this case, anchoring the techno story in the creation of mostly Detroit producers and then modulating the story a little bit.
Like, the “founding fathers” of techno are mostly straight men, but it’s the Black gay clubs in Chicago where it starts to take off. And who was their intermediary to that? You can queer the story a little bit. In the class, and in my book Raving, I’m interested in how these days techno is this kind of default, sonic space for New York queer culture. How did it sort of mutate into that?
In its current queer New York form, it does involve drug use, whereas a lot of the early Detroit people were mostly anti that. How do cultural forms migrate? How do you pay honor to forbearers when it’s become something else? How do you center Black, but also queer, and trans producers in the present? And producers other than DJs? How to come up with a fresh language for these practices of sonic placemaking? I don’t read them as resistant or subversive. I don’t think that language works any more, or ever really did. I just don’t think that’s a language you would impose on it.
Not everyone would call ourselves ravers in that world, but to me that’s a useful term to repurpose. Queer and trans rave world in these interstitial spaces. It takes over corners of Brooklyn junkspace, as Rem Koolhaas might call it.
I came back to raves after a twenty year absence. It was after I transitioned. I felt a lot better once I came out as transsexual, but there’s a level of gender dysphoria that is diffuse and never goes away. The way I can lose that is on the dance floor. Techno works best. It’s like a music made for aliens so I don’t feel alienated from my own body in it. What started a cultural studies fieldwork became a part of my life again.
I love the idea of dancing as field work.
Yeah, I’m not the first person to do that. It’s a whole project, to document and understand these practices. It’s also a kind of kainotecture, maybe. The making of what Constant Nieuwenhuys called constructed situations. Improvised, temporary, meant to reorder the senses, including sense of time, to generate nomadic movements of the body, encounters, and so on.
Have you seen pictures of what early rave spaces looked like? Do they look different than they look now?
I mean, the interesting thing about the visual sense is that the better parties now in New York and Berlin are very strictly no photo. So it’s about not picturing it. I do have some pictures of ambiances – I played around the edges of that rule, but I really want to honor that almost religious prohibition on extracting the image.
Lowering visuality raises the kinesthetic and auditory senses. That’s key to it. So, the answer to what’s a good space for techno is—its barely seeing a damn thing. It’s thick with fog, your visibility down to inches. I’ve inched my way across dance floors where the light’s bouncing off the fog rather than through it, it’s so thick. Changing the sense-profile is part of it. Light, sound, fog, and the curation of who’s to be there. Bringing together ravers who know how to create a situation with what’s given.
It’s interesting that this space-making now is off the shelf. The components of sound, light, and all that, they work. And there’s people who have the technical knowledge and improvising skill to make a really good space pretty much anywhere by plugging those components together.
It’s relatively new to be able to do that. We’re out of the era of the handbuilt sound system and into one of all of the components that are already there. Making space with those components is interesting, it’s a kind of kainotecture, a laminating. I didn’t write about nightlife workers in the book, but I’m super interested in nightlife workers and the skills they have, not just in laminating the space but also the people who’ll come to it.
This kind of lowered visuality, heightened kinesthetic sensorium – has that been around since the origin of techno? Or is that kind of a recent invention? I mean, certainly these off the shelf plug and play technologies you’ve mentioned seem like a modern or more recent invention.
There’s so many different aesthetics of nightlife spaces. Sometimes they are about being able to see other dancers for the purposes of display or hooking up. Sometimes there are dark rooms — like circuit gay nightlife includes rooms that are completely dark for (semi) public sex. So there’s a wide spectrum. The one that interests me most is the spaces that are lowering visibility. It’s not club kid culture. It’s not about checking each other out. It’s not about turning looks so much as movement of bodies together in relation to sound.
There’s all sorts of ways you can tweak all of those variables to create different kinds of sensory experiences and that favor different kinds of emergent collective actions. The situationists wanted a lot more from constructed situations, they wanted a revolutionary potential. Whether that’s there or not, raves create a kind of sideways time, a time orthogonal to historical time, that makes a sideways time. Given how badly historical time is going, it’s not nothing.
As a follow-up question, how do you understand the relationship between spaces of Detroit techno and the broader networks of solidarity that are unfolding within and around them. I’m curious, here, about the relationship between discrete places and a transnational or global community.
There’s a whole panoply of electronic dance music — it became a lingua franca. There’s interesting distinctions within techno. Part of it got built out as business techno, mostly in Europe, as a large-scale, commercially viable music for festivals and the like.
There was this weird offshoot of it called Intelligent Dance Music, which is the most racist thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s done by white people, so it’s intelligent dance music? Like, what the fuck? As if there wasn’t a whole other kind of “intelligence” in making it funky, in arranging rhythms in layers to let the body engage. There was techno made to pair well with ecstasy. These days I think there’s a whole subgroup of techno sounds meant to pair more with ketamine.
The kainotecture question might be: How does the stylization of sound create the possibility of certain kinds of coming together? Music as space built out of air. For example, the way jungle and grime articulated the embodied sense of certain kinds of working class Black youth in the UK in their respective moments.
Lately, techno weirdly migrated into, among other things, being a soundtrack for a certain kind of queer sociality — that’s not gay because house music is gay. Part of the story passes through the innovations of the Berlin scene, but while it’s smaller and more itinerant, my heart belongs to the Brooklyn rave world.
They’re connected, though. Habits of comportment in the space translate from one to the other. What you’re drinking, carrying your fanny pack across your shoulder, your phone will have a sticker on it. It’s all come from Berlin back into New York, and those little habits have been modified here.
The ways these things travel about makes solidarity fleeting and difficult to manage. Like, nightlife, friendship has a sort of particular quality that could be quite ephemeral and specific to that space and time. I certainly have community connected to that world, but it mostly exists in that world.
And maybe that’s not a bad thing. The quality of weak ties that can happen around specific ritual occurrences. There’s a way people talk about house music and the gay club is church. Techno, I think, has less of that sensibility, although there is some sense of ritual. If it’s something like religion it’s become an abstract one, all form and very little content. There’s no lyrics, right? I really love techno that’s got no vocals at all. Is it even music? It’s sonic engineering. Sonic architecture. Sonic kainotecture. So, what does it mean to create a collective ecstatic experience with that?
So on the one hand there’s these behaviors, gestures, habits that circulate transnationally in a way that might kind of build this network in a potentially productive way, even if it does stay within the interior of the community. On the other hand, when things move transnationally there are risks of appropriation, of losing the origins of a style, a form of music, or a form of practice. So there are both risks and rewards embedded in the way that techno travels.
I think it’s always worth centering the labor question: who gets the work and who gets paid. Why are there so few Black artists in the big festivals? Why so few women in big festivals, where the big money is? So to think about it less in terms of cultural property, but more in terms of labor and getting paid.
The DJ is an artist who curates all sorts of sounds, but who do we recognize as a valid curator? How do we honor people who have cultural continuity with the creators of this style without getting too nostalgic about it? Techno wasn’t meant to be too backwards-looking as a sensibility. It’s best when it’s open ended in that sense.
The problem with nightlife is it’s a business, so it relies on people for whom it’s leisure. That’s valid. It’s a release from the stress of work for those who basically wanna get hammered and get laid. And for whom there isn’t really a lot of quasi sacred aura around coming together and dancing, you know? The hardcore that make the scene finds a lot more than that in it. Something like a communal practice of ecstatic co-performance. But ravers like my friends and me hardly spend any money.I don’t drink when I go out. I put a grand total of $6 across the bar to buy a mate, with a $4 tip. That’s it. But I might be the first person dancing, you know? Or my friends are. We don’t hang back waiting for someone to start the party for us. So there’s the built tension in the space, the interesting cultural work relies on people who won’t financially sustain it, so it is also a space of leisure and alcohol sales for people who just want to be entertained.
Need to be. Work got so stressful and endless for a lot of people. People who’ve got these ridiculous jobs where you’re never off the clock. Like your boss has your freaking cell phone number and will call at any time. And the rent’s too damn high and all that. So you wanna go out, be pounded by this incredibly loud music. Get really drunk and maybe hook up. I get it. That’s an important need. But that’s not the people who are the rave community to me. So these spaces can be heterogeneous as to the needs they meet or stimulate. The program can be complicated.
Zooming in here on kind of the rave community you’re referring to, particularly the queer and trans rave community, one of the opportunities emanating from this Paprika! issue that Audrey and Chong have so wonderfully put together is to kind of think about or dwell on how the transient and solid rub up against each other. In queer and trans theory certainly, but in the lived experience of queer and trans people.
So how do those things rub up together in the space of techno? By exposition, queer theory owes a lot to José Esteban Muñoz for theorizing the ephemeral as a transgressive mode of material expression — one capable of elidingregimes of oppression and suppression.
I definitely see this line of thought kind of arising in your work, particularly in your engagement with techno as a transient and nocturnal space. I’m also thinking particularly about the way you treat Juliana Huxtable’s works, like Corporeal Anarchy (2017) and S.H.A.R.P. (2019), which attempt to recover ephemeral material evidence from the rave. I think on the other hand, looking at queer and trans activism today we see, for example, trans activist groups organizing for housing justice. I’m thinking of the Trans Housing Coalition in Atlanta and My Sista’s house in Memphis. I think it’s very possible to see these movements as asking for something different, for material stability. For the opportunity to build a community with a really fixed and permanent sense of place.
My question here is, how are you thinking about negotiating the affective and maybe political affordances of the transient as it comes into contact with these simultaneous queer and trans* demands for stability and the solid, like housing? I also find myself in this question of lapsing into a dialectic or the binary. So, I’m wondering if you see this dynamic as exceeding this binary form?
I’m not the only person who would now wanna sort of separate trans from queer. They’re overlapping categories, but entirely overlapping ones. Queer theory is able to think the figure of the transgender person, but it’s not really able to think the transsexual, particularly the transsexual woman. We’re allegorical figures understood as mascots by cis queer sensibility. I’m a bit over that. I love Muñoz, but that’s still going on when he writes about Kevin Aviance, for example.
I’m interested in writing that centers a transsexual experience that’s not about queerness as somehow in and of itself some political subversion. Transsexuals don’t often have that luxury. I do, because I’m white and middle class and older. No one gives a damn if you’re an older woman walking down the street. I have a margin of safety.
But young trans women, particularly trans women of color, don’t have that luxury of also being somehow radical. They have to exist, so safety and housing and policing and access to care become much more central preoccupations. That to me is the core of a kind of politics and culture and research that would center the transsexual experience within trans and queer experience, without privileging it. That’s very important to not privilege that, but to just say that’s what’s often getting left out. The medicalized trans woman is sort of like the bad object of queer theory because she takes it all too literally and is too normie in her gender presentation.
It’s like, well fuck that. She has to walk down the street in her own neighborhood without getting clocked. Let’s center that need in those practices and the struggle for some kind of non-ephemerality because the lives, particularly of trans women of color, are disposable. How do we not have them be disposable?
That’s what breaks my heart. How do you make the possibility through addressing those kinds of infrastructural questions? Nightlife is one temporary solution for some kinds of trans people. It’s not like it’s a safe space, but it’s a space where other conventions apply, a heterotopia in Foucault’s sense. A place to exist. The nightlife transsexual women make is already kainotecture. It’s premised on instability. A kind that’s becoming a general, global, condition.
In that reading, where is the survival network that would make that possible? Where are the spaces in nightlife for trans people? Because there is no safe space in nightlife, where are the safest spaces for people? People who aren’t safe at home, aren’t safe on the street, aren’t safe at work, sometimes have a little corner of the club…that space matters. Is it fair to say that ephemerality in the context of these very dire conditions is a luxury that most trans people don’t have access to?
I love queer theory, but a lot of it is product of elite higher education institutions. It didn’t come out of a direct experience of struggling to get on hormones and being kicked out by your family and having to make a living and doing sex work and possibly ending up in the criminal justice system. My connection to that is very indirect, as a middle class person who doesn’t have those dangers. But that the life experience of my brothers, sisters and others and my work has to connect to that and be resonant with those priorities.
Thank you so much for that response. It’s a question that I’ve been thinking a lot about in my own work.
It’s an interesting time to be a teacher of trans theory in an American university right now. I’m a doctoral student at UPenn and here we’ve witnessed the American right take up the story of Lia Thomas, a trans varsity swimmer, as part of a national campaign of vitriol and violence against the trans community. As an aspiring teacher myself and someone who does teaching, I’m thinking a lot about my position as a teacher, as someone who’s invested in queer and trans theory personally.
I’m interested in how you’re thinking about pedagogy at this moment and your role specifically as an immigrant educator who teaches to American students or an international group of students in the context of the American university.
I mean, I’m the most privileged kind of immigrant you could imagine. Being white, educated, legal, English as a first language…it doesn’t get any easier. So I wouldn’t make too much out of that.
Not being a product of the American Higher education system means I don’t really share in the cultural capital that accrues in it. So I’ve had to chart a path as an outsider because I don’t really get included. But that’s been fun and available to me. I found a niche. I’m not going to complain. It’s a privileged position to be a native speaker of a different English, to sort of see the minutiae of how American culture works through its language from that difference. I’m very fluent in this language and I see exactly what you’re all doing with it here. Which is maybe not always obvious if you had to learn English, or practiced it in a context where it wasn’t the lingua franca.
It was a pretty easy ride compared to most immigrant stories, you know? All I lacked was that kind of cultural capital and polish that’s hoarded within the Ivy League schools and related institutions. I try to keep that little angle of difference a little bit. Instead, I became a New Yorker. I’m of the city rather than the academy.
I’m more a city person than most of the Americans around me in that sense. Like I always lived in cities and understand what that means, you know? I teach undergraduate liberal arts mostly and it’s sort of teaching the ways of the city to people who are often suburban in their formation.
I had a student transfer out of New School to one of those liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere because they didn’t wanna see the homeless people on the street anymore. And I’m like, “but they’re still gonna be there!” The city makes certain things visible to you in a way, and that’s part of the gift of it for thinking and for practice. And then more specifically: the city makes possible certain kinds of trans lives that would be hard elsewhere.
In New York, we’re gonna have to be a refuge for trans people, but it’s come at a time when it’s really expensive to live here. The ratio between rent and income got really hard to manage at exactly the time we need it to be quite literally a refuge from people fleeing elsewhere in the country, or even the state. The visibility of trans people via the media has been something of a trap.
I’m attentive to the contradictions of teaching in a very expensive, private liberal arts school. One of my student populations are people who kind of have to be here. Taking on debt to try to hopefully create the possibility of a life that would keep them here in the city as they can’t really go home.
And I think that affects the curriculum. It is great to have a liberal arts education where you get a sense of some threads of how the world works, but what’s the thing that’s gonna make your weird brain pay the rent that you get to stay here? Like that to me is the thing to try to figure out.
The current political economy of the city feeds on weird brains. Classic industrial capitalism had people standardized like hands to operate machines. The office work model extruded out of that also ran on sameness. But the emergent kind of information political economy really loves weird brains — people who’ve got some cognitive kink that’s high functioning to plug into and extract value out of.
It’s all forms of exploitation, but without figuring your weird brain out, you don’t even get to stay here. You know? Your option is permanent service work that’ll destroy your body or sex work — which is fine, but maybe psychologically unable to handle in the long term.
Here in New York you pay the federal tax, the state tax, the city tax. But then some of my people pay what my friend Nonlinear calls the queer tax as well. A space where you can just walk around and not get killed and harassed all the time — you pay a tax for that. Education can also be training, frankly, to be able to manage it. It’s a responsibility. I want students to graduate, to be able to earn income that will justify having gone into debt.
I love this phrase “teaching the ways of the city.” Chong mentioned a past talk of yours to me in which you were calling attention to the fact that the Situationist International archive is largely inaccessible at the Beinecke. It’s incredibly closed off — on the inside of the university (another ‘inside’). Access is layered in the American university. And in a way, teaching the ways of the city offers a radical reversal, moving away from the inside and towards the outside.
I find that really interesting. Mad respect to Kevin Repp, who put that collection together at the Beinecke — I’m glad it exists and I’m glad people get to study it — but to me, that’s when it’s over. Like now, it’s for Ivy League art historians. I don’t get to do that work because I don’t have the research budget, I don’t get the time off, I’m not in New Haven.
But I am in New York. I get to study what’s happening here now and be in the middle of it. What’s the advantage of the resources you have where you are right now? I worked on the Situationalists over 10 years ago when there was still work to do, you know? But now it’s the province of more properly trained specialized scholars with access to resources, which I don’t have. So what comes after that? What replaced that? Sometimes you need to know a little bit of the history of what was done by previous vanguards and radicals in the space of the city to figure out how not to repeat their mistakes, you know? I’d like to think I’m writing now about what will end up in the archive, later.
I do get students who come to New York and their entertainment is coming from TikTok. They’re ordering food from Seamless. Everything’s delivered by Amazon. They meet people on dating apps. And it’s like, why are you here? You know, you’re not gonna really be a creator in anything — you’ve gotta get into the space of the city and find the thing that’s not available on the apps—yet. That’s your edge if you’re gonna be a dweller of the city — to be able to negotiate and find out where interesting things are happening and make it, contribute to it. Show up three times and you’re part of it, you know, but you gotta show up.
That’s such an important lesson for my students today too. I will relay that to them.
You’ve mentioned the SI as one of the thought partners you’ve encountered in your career, but you’ve also found partners for thought in other fugitive world-making genres, such as games in places and cities and lovers and historical figures. I’m wondering who and what you’re thinking with?
I probably should go back to the book project that was the companion to Molecular Red. The middle was gonna be the British Marxists, but the book got overly long, so I left it out.
Then I transitioned and couldn’t write at all for a while. That was distressing, re-learning my whole practice. I got my groove back with the Raving book. It’s maybe where my style is headed now.
But I’m still fascinated by Bernal. By Needham, who created this multi-volume history of Chinese science and technology that is just one of the absolute Marxist classics. China Studies people still mine its footnotes but the whole worldview is fascinating to me, and timely.
Like with the work on the situationists, I want to put the women into the story. Like JBS Haldance’s sister Naomi Mitcheson. They’re super interesting people from the governing classes in Britain. They came into the left with an assumption that it was their right and duty to run things, which is eminently questionable, of course. It’s charming because they failed.
I don’t know if I could still write theory books. I became a marked subject in a sense, you know? The Raving book is sort of the sequel to Reverse Cowgirl and the book on Kathy Acer as part of a whole autotheory or autofiction project. This next one’s called Love and Money. Sex and Death. It’s a book I’ve tried to write for 20 years and finally have a form for it. That’s the elevator pitch: Love, money, sex and death—in a book.
After that, I’m a bit open ended as to what happens. I’m 61. If it takes two or three years even to write small books. I don’t get to do many more. And so I have to get a little more focused on making choices about, quite frankly, what my “late style” is gonna be like. But it’s all been just so much fun. The thing about being an undergrad liberal arts teacher is I really got to write about whatever I like,
Like writing is so pleasurable, so enjoyable. I hope that shows. I’m finding new readerships with these things. People keep discovering my old books, which is adorable.
As a closing question, I’m wondering what text you would recommend to architects, architectural historians, and students and theorists.
That’s a difficult one.
It doesn’t have to be about architecture. Probably shouldn’t be.
Yeah, I dunno that I’ve got an answer to that. It’s so dependent on people’s particular needs and interests. I was always opposed to that “You must read these great books” approach to education. There’s a lot of really good books and maybe the repetition of looking at the same ones is sort of the problem.
My one piece of advice is to read, like really read. I don’t mean Twitter, you know, I mean find a book, not a collection of random articles — a lot of academic books are really just collections of articles — but who is able to think at the unit of the book?
A book is like a building. It has a certain structural integrity and form. So I, I think that would be like my meta. I’m a bit of a formalist.
Read things that are actual books, aesthetically speaking as a kind of form.
Yeah, this may come as a surprise, but that’s kind of a big ask for architects. So, I think it’s good for them to hear it.
If you can’t work your way through a book, can you work your way through a building? I think to see those as linked challenges a little bit. There are certainly architects who could do both. Whether you like Rem Koolhaus’ architecture or not, Delirious New York is an amazing book. Aldo Rossi’s books are great. I learned so much from them. I saw the city in a fresh way. Not surprising that some of the more interesting architects in terms of building were also interesting writers. So I don’t think it’s too much to ask architects to read a book or two. Even if they’re just mine—lol.
Thank you so much, McKenzie. This has been really wonderful and so insightful. I got a lot out of our conversation. Thank you.