Tuesday, 20 August 2013

DJ SPRINKLES in-depth interview part 2

Here's part two of my hour-long interview with Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ SPRINKLES, from Glasgow's Tramway Theatre earlier this year, as part of Arika Episode 5: Hidden In Plain Sight. In this section we discuss politics and the difference between activism and organisation, how Terre's rejection of the "soul" goes against notions very commonly associated with "deep house", and how being an aetheist can effect her own position within the transgender community. 

You are primarily known as a "deep house" dj and producer, and yet so many elements of that culture have to do with "spirituality", and not even a religious spirituality. In the UK, I feel, house music culture and the drugs that surrounded it was in a way a kind of secular spiritual rebirth, though it didn't have a language to express that necessarily. I find it very interesting that you are directly oppositional to that. 

I am directly oppositional to that, but I also have no hope of crowds of people overcoming those spiritual subtexts.  But the promise of overcoming is not what is important, resistance is what is important. 

But do you find that your position alienates you from certain parts of the house music genre? Are there songs you wouldn't play? 

Absolutely there are things that I won't play. But there are also things like that I will play, I just happen to like them in some way. And I will deal with them. Like "Inspiration" by Arnold Jarvis, a track that is politically antithetical to my own nihilism. But I love it! And the irony of a track like that in one of my sets is not lost on everyone. You have to allow for humour, and camp. And hypocrisy, and "the fake" and all these things that are also a part of drag culture and transgender culture... I guess for those reading this who don't know anything about me, we should mention I identify as transgender, by the way...

So do you find your nihilism puts you in opposition with members of the transgender community? 

When it comes to spirituality among trans-folk, I do think that, especially with the dominant movements of transgenderism and transsexuality, in terms of their approaches towards transitioning strategies and stuff, that they lend themselves towards metaphysical interpretations because they often rely on a perceived division between physical body and inner self, and position that division as something to be resolved or transcended. In particular, that "mental health" comes through binary gender reconciliation. And of course, if that is the dominant discourse heard from trans-support groups and medical professionals, it then makes sense that this is a belief pattern many people ideologically fall in to, and I am sympathetic to that process. At the same time, that's not everybody's position nor experience, and there are also a lot of people who are very precise about the material implications of what they are doing, and what exactly it is about gender that they are trying to culturally resist, such as from a feminist perspective within patriarchy. These kinds of approaches are usually not about reconciliation within a binary gender system. Even though this latter group may be the minority in terms of vocality, I don't care, they are who resonate with me, and those practices are what I need to focus on. And I try to do that in a way that *does* interfere, that *does* "culture jam" – not just with dominant culture and society in general, but also with dominant subcultures. With queer communities, with trans communities. And one immediately finds sexuality and gender also interact with issues of race, ethnicity, spirituality and religion, faith and also, of course, class. In the end it all boils down to poverty: who can afford transitioning procedures, who has access to health care, and what lifestyle are they putting themselves into to continue a life of debt due to body maintenance? For me these things are all intertwined, so "solidarity" means I have to find ways to deal with people who are ideologically opposed to myself. When one's own views are in the minority, you would be a fool to think that your task is to get other people to agree with you, but rather how can you continue to work productively with people despite disagreements. And certain types of non-cooperation can also be productive.

I like that way of putting it, as personally I think there's too much emphasis in atheism on making people "change their minds" rather than just learning to co-exist with different opinions 

Again, that comes down to conversion, and I believe that the widespread deprogramming and de-indoctrination of spirituality is a social impossibility, even under secular humanism, so "atheist conversion" is off the table. I don't have to worry about it. I can attempt to be as clear and concise as possible, and at the same time I can assume that language will fail, due to unfamiliarity or whatever, but that does not invalidate the necessity of the gesture. To the contrary.

That strikes me as being a minority position among atheists? 

Clearly I'm rejecting liberal humanism. I think it's much better to regard atheism as a position of self-defence amid an onslaught of indoctrinations, rather than to position it as a competing ideology. Religious people position it as a competing ideology because they cannot perceive of knowledge or learning as anything other than attempting to grab onto some "truth" floating in the ether that is put there by a divine power, blah blah blah. Everything becomes religion to them because they place the construction of knowledge itself outside the human experience. They see human experience as "trying to understand why we are here" – trying to understanding the intentions of a spirit-energy-god-moster-creator other – whereas materialists see understandings as socially contextual human constructs. So disbelieving something is not always simply substituting one belief with another. From a materialist perspective, religious or spiritual belief is off topic from the necessary discussions of the social and cultural power dynamics behind existing ideologies – religious or otherwise. Similarly, believers tend to think understanding and belief always go together. They manage to fold their disbeliefs back into their beliefs through "leaps of faith." So any actual claim of disbelief is seen as a sign of non-understanding. That's not the case. Some disbelief is a social action born in response to ideological impositions. It is a refusal to cooperate with the social systems giving rise to particular oppressive ideologies, and comes from a deep understanding of what is disbelieved. It's both sad and ironic that non-believers often have a deeper understanding of a subject than those who believe – not only of the ideologies, but of their consequences. Particularly for those of us who have arrived at non-belief as a result of violence from believers. That kind of disbelief is an action-response. Not simply an ideological response, or theoretical tit-for-tat. And our understandings are not fodder for pride. In relation to gender constructs, I think we find this combination of non-belief and deep understanding within non-essentialist transgenderism as well. And that's precisely why atheist non-belief and transgenderism are inseparable for me.

And yet this position, to me, seems very much at odds with traditional modes found within the "deep house" subculture. How do you square your own disbelief in the soul with a genre that is so tied up in ideas about the soul, about "soulful sounds", expressing your "soul" through the music and the like? 

What music could I make that doesn't demand those criteria of soul and authenticity? There is none. So that again goes back to this thing that I mentioned in the beginning, it would be a false mission if I set out to make a true "soulless" sound. I mean, what could be more soulless than the very commercial pop the majority of people inscribe with so much soul? The very idea of some sort of different, authentic language betrays the reality of how we live, subjugated within domination. Internalizing the sounds and associations of domination until we "feel" them, even "love" and take pride in them. That's why my audio often sounds the same as others, despite different intentions. The word snippets that I put into my tracks are hints of where I am coming from, but I have no hope of people on a dance floor picking this up, especially if they are high or drunk or whatever. On the floor, if there's a build up they start screaming, or if the energy goes down they wait for the next build up. So the dance floor is not the moment of organisation and information dispersal, right? That actually happens elsewhere. And that "elsewhere" is how I actually came into house music. House and deep house clubs – in particular the trans clubs in the late 80s and early 90s – these were the spaces where community based activists, mobilisers and organisers went. They were often the spaces they met before they ever became organizers. At the time I was working with a number of organisations, such as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Women's Health Action Mobilisation (WHAM!), and some others. And the club spaces I stepped into as a youth were politicized. For example, they were the first places to distribute condoms, or do things that were about harm reduction. So the spaces themselves were not just for relaxation, they were places for people trying to protect themselves. They also became testing grounds and templates for implementing harm reduction and educational policies elsewhere in society. So for me, clubs and house music are inherently politicised within that history. Even though most people don't want to annunciate it so bluntly. I don't know if it's because they think some romance or mystique would be lost, or if it's something people these days are just not familiar with, but for me that history and context is something that's impossible to let go of. 

I completely understand that, and I agree. However, I am part of a queer/trans* collective in Manchester called Tranarchy, and while we do do some political acts, I find the language of politics can be very alienating for people. The way I see it, I would rather DO a political act than talk about how it is political, and if people want to read the political aspect into it afterwards, then that's great. 

I think it comes down to how precise language you need, and in what spaces. If some momentum within a space – let's say a dance floor or a ballroom – facilitates a social moment that leads to something else outside the ballroom, then that becomes something that fits in to what you are talking about. But I feel it is important to distinguish between that sort of positioning of music in relation to politics as something that is a time-based and transitional thing carrying us as groups into other social actions; versus the pop culture way music is portrayed as being political, like the "fundraiser" or those kinds of things that for most people aren't rooted in any kind of political investment at all. The politics of music charity are all about feel-good consumerism without consequence. I think the thing we both seem to be interested in is how to trigger political investments, by which I mean commitments of solidarity. But I think the charity idea, or the idea of the protest song, is something that is basically institutionalised at this point, and detaches the consumer or audience from commitment. It actually becomes a cop-out to avoid political investment. This is a distinction that I think is important to make. Otherwise, people will assume that people coming together to a peace-rock-out festival is inherently political. I think it *is* inherently political, but the politics behind it is related to capitalism, and the petit bourgeois' problems, rather than other types of liberation most people imagine.  

It becomes tokenism. 

Yeah. very much. 

That's one of the fascinating thing about vogue culture to me - it doesn't have to be overtly political, because its very existence is inherently political. It's the self-organisation of a minority within a minority within a minority, and it celebrates aspects of culture rejected by society at large. 

I think it is overtly political. There is this idea that overt politics means telling people things. If you are an activist you have a bullhorn and you are shouting, when in fact the real politics of the ball scene have to do with people organising amongst each other around homelessness, addiction and poverty. Trying to deal with problems of sex work, etc. Offering protection is how many houses began. But we can't get all feel-good, because if we're honest we have to confront the fact that a lot of "protection" is also complicated by issues of "pimping." So these are things that are happening internally, but not on the activist bullhorn. Shame and fronting one's class are definitely at play here, but I think things are not off-horn just to hide them. Within a violently transphobic and homophobic world, it's more from the point of view of "who the fuck are you that you need to know my business?" So I think it is a really important thing to get away from this stereotypical model of politics as being activists with bullhorns. But also not to retreat into feel-good "political art" vagary, where "personal feeling" and "dance performance" or throwing a party are seen as in-and-of-themselves "politically enough." That danger is there, especially within music scenes that push people to just go with their feelings, "Love is the Cure," etc. Going with essentialist feelings is what keeps us in a lot of these social messes, particularly around gender and sexual binaries. All too often the results of our "activism" are "happenings" devoid of organising. I think the Vogueology project, and Ultra-Red too, are trying to help people distinguish between political organisation, and political activism. They way I see it, activism is more about the strategic, situational amplification of an ideological message, whereas organisation is more focussed on social responses to crises. Those social responses, through their practices and protocols, ultimately contribute to the construction of ideologies, which in an activist moment can be strategically deployed as an informational bullet. But organising is putting out fires. Activism is the sounding of an alarm. So it's important to distinguish between activism and organising, if that makes sense.

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