Features I by I 30.04.14

Deeper underground: FACT meets Terre Thaemlitz (Part Two)

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Read Part One here, Part Three here and Part Four here.

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: faith, and the importance of negativity.

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Still from Thaemlitz’s Soulnessless film, 2012

I was intrigued by your description of your upbringing. When and how did you realise you were a non-believer? How did you reconcile that alienation from loyalty to a minority community itself being oppressed?

I knew I disbelieved by age 13, when it came time for me to be confirmed as a Catholic. I actually talk about that whole story in ‘Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning’, on the Soulnessless album. Basically, my parents were both quite religious and had links to the clergy. My father was a Christian Brother for 19 years before leaving to start a family. A brother is like a male nun, who takes a vow of celibacy, but cannot say mass like a priest. And during my childhood my mom was still in touch with the nuns who educated and cared for her as a child, so I had a pretty deep Catholic upbringing in that regard. We then moved to an area dominated by quite extreme evangelicals – Assemblies of God and Baptists. Springfield, Missouri, was the AG world headquarters. The evangelicals considered Catholics to be satanic graven idol worshipers, with the Jesus on the cross, and statues of Mary… Although the Evangelicals worship around crazy symbols as well, like putting books and records to the “test of the sacred flames” – you know, book and record burnings, where anything that cannot survive the holy fires must be satanic.

One would like to believe anyone with half a brain who is exposed to such things will automatically see it all as ridiculous, but that’s not how the world works, is it? Some of the brightest kids in my school were also the most devoutly religious. I’ll never forget one of my best friends at the time, a top student, telling me he had thrown his prized collection of Blondie import EPs into a fire (they didn’t survive), and telling me that fossils were tricks of the devil placed into stone to test humanity’s faith in creationism. I’m pleased to say he is now away from all that, and even came out of the closet as gay. But you asked about loyalty. I guess with all of that madness permeating every aspect of my life, from family to friends to strangers, loyalty was simply about doing the best you can to care for those you care about, without letting it completely destroy yourself in the process. There is certainly a self-destructive component to loyalty. Militaries exploit that to extremes in soldiers, right?

Re: the obviousness of religion as folly. Are you familiar with the UK philosopher Richard Dawkins, who’s turned atheism into his own little cottage industry? In so doing, he’s revealed some of the problems with dogmatic atheism – for example, his intolerance and prejudices towards Muslims. How do you reconcile rejection of religion as an oppressive force with tolerance of a diversity of faiths?

Well, despite how perfectly Dawkins might fit a particular image of the godless infidel indicating the arrival of the end times (not only for Muslims, but Christians and others as well), let’s keep it real and understand that the overwhelming majority of religious oppression throughout history has always come from members of other religions. Not from those who disavow all religion. So I get really upset when I hear people complaining about how anyone openly calling themselves “atheist” must be “bad non-believers,” because “good non-believers” are modest enough to never call oneself by a name, or ruffle the feathers of believers. That strikes me as the contemporary, secular-spiritual equivalent of those old religious tyrannies that have always forced non-believers to remain nameless, silent and hidden. I really do believe atheism’s current bad rep is just more of the same old shit, making people feel shame about not believing. So within this larger context of intolerance of non-believers, even within Western secular humanism, I can both understand and appreciate the need for people to actively “perform” non-belief in front of others, without compromise. It is part of a “self-outing” process that should be familiar to all queers as an act of resistance, despite being seen as an act of arrogance by the mainstream. The way people get upset about “atheism” is really similar to straight people accusing two gay men holding hands in public as “flaunting it.” I mean, I have a friend there in the UK whose kids are total non-believers, and they had to sit through public school lessons on “religious tolerance and diversity” which never once even raised the possibility of non-belief as an option in life. The classes were only about respect between dominant faiths and minority faiths. My friend went and complained to the school board, but they did nothing, of course. Another friend in Missouri went through something similar with his kids’ schooling. So within this reality where belief is still demanded of us, and based upon how I hear people discuss both Dawkins and “atheism-as-religion,” I really associate “athi-phobia” with a kind of heteronormative intolerance.

“There is certainly a self-destructive component to loyalty. Militaries exploit that to extremes in soldiers, right?”

At the same time, I can understand a kind of emotional reaction that emerges if one is able to see religious people as “victims.” Victims of cultural indoctrination. Victims of brainwashing. There is a kind of pity and desire to help people break free of the cultic. I think this emotional reaction is familiar to most people – even religious people – such as that feeling a moderate Christian might have upon discovering a friend is becoming a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon in order to get married to someone in one of those churches. Anything extremely different takes on the appearance of “cultic,” and what could be more different to the eyes of a believer than non-belief? Hence “atheism” is transformed into a “religion” in the eyes of many. It’s bullshit. But I can understand the cultural mechanisms through which that perception is formed. As a result, anyone who publicly speaks out against religions is seen as enacting a kind of domination on the masses, despite the greater cultural dynamics of imposed belief clearly making any such public gestures primarily acts of self defense. That image of domination becomes all the stronger when a “minority faith” is questioned by the faithless, because dominant culture has no mechanisms for interpreting an atheist rejection of all faith as in any way culturally different from inter-religious intolerance. How can non-believers speak of religious oppression, and a desire to live without religious interference, without being heard as intolerant? We can’t.

I had what you might call a “Dawkins moment” during a talk while performing Soulnessless at the CTM.13 festival in Berlin last year. In one part of the performance I discuss the overall weakness of religion in Japan, calling it “one of the world’s least religious societies.” A lot of Westerners have a kind of orientalist concept of Japan as being a spiritual place filled with Zen Buddhism, etc., but that image of active spirituality and religion is misinformed. Although it’s true most everyone in Japan would say their family is either Shinto (a kind of indigenous Japanese paganism) or Buddhist (primarily imported through China), the overwhelming majority of people only interact with these faiths through ceremonies related to births, weddings and deaths – and then it’s generally just a matter of handing money to the monk, who puts on a little performance. Without a doubt, anyone who actively goes to a shrine or temple with regularity is considered a bit cultic, and to be avoided. Well, at this show, a Japanese woman in the audience stood up and announced that she was “very religious.” She went on to explain why Japan must be one of the most religious societies in the world because in Shintoism there is the possibility for every thing to be occupied by a god. Therefore, in Japan there are millions of gods everywhere, making the country incredibly religious – as if a religion’s cultural strength can be determined by the quantity of gods it allows for! “My religion has more gods than yours, so it’s stronger!” Totally bizarre reasoning, but welcome to the logic of the faithful.

In that setting, in Germany, with a Japanese woman declaring her culture’s deep religiosity before a lot of people whom I am sure held orientalist misconceptions about Buddhism in Japan, I really had to counter her quite strongly. And this was uncomfortable for me, because of course I know how the signs of body and race read in Germany, with this white person who lives in Japan contradicting the testimony of an “authentic” Japanese woman, etc. But it was precisely because of the “authenticity” her voice invoked within that context that made it all the more important for me to be very clear about how she was misrepresenting things to the audience. She kept challenging me, and I ultimately had to say, point blank, “If you are so religious, then you of all people know how incredibly unusual it is for you as a Japanese person to stand before an audience and declare oneself ‘deeply religious.’ You absolutely know that if you said that in Japan, people would look at you with suspicion.” I think I even said something like, “You’re full of shit, and you know it.” After the show I was talking to some Japanese friends who were in the audience, and they were like, “Yeah, she was a fucking nut! I’m glad you said what you did!” But I’m sure a lot of people that day thought I was acting like a real asshole, using my “power of the stage” to silence her. Reality is more complicated than that. I was refusing to allow her to perform a problematic and orientalist image of Japanese spirituality to a Western audience. That was something I felt compelled to stop. From what I’ve seen, filtered through my own experiences, I think Dawkins is also engaging those complications, despite some people thinking he’s acting like an asshole using his “power of the stage” or “white male privilege” to silence others. The injustices of existing Judeo-Christian bias in the West may make him appear like that at times, but I think the unavoidable discomfort of that reality is part of his point.

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Angel Haze

Also, a lot of what you said about your upbringing made me think of Angel Haze, a new young rapper who grew up in a cult and has talked in interviews about the damage religion did to her (I interviewed her last year). I wondered if you hear any sort of kinship in songs like ‘Black Synagogue‘?

No, I think I can relate more to that bit in ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’, where she talks about sexually turning to other women as a result of abusive experiences at the hands of men, which made sex with other men impossible. I totally get that – understanding how one arrived at one’s “sexual object choice(s)” not because of some innate predisposition, but because of how social experiences led one to exclude particular bodies from the sexual sphere as dangerous or untrustworthy. I think that’s also how dominant heterosexuality is constructed in the majority of people, through the internalization of socially acceptable sexual object choices from an early age. The same sex becomes dangerous and untrustworthy – the mythical “global gay conspiracy,” right? I think homophobia is a result of that educational process.

I’m always aware of how this theme of “socially conditioned sexuality” is much more accepted within lesbian cultures than in gay male cultures, which tend to be more essentialist about the whole “born this way” thing. And this definitely has to do with how gender is experienced under patriarchy, and the disproportionate violence enacted upon women by men. Like, I’ve known many lesbians who were blunt about the fact they could never have sex with men because of past sexual abuse – and the absence of any talk of biological predisposition didn’t discredit their lesbianism in any way. To the opposite, most of the women around them are like, “Yeah, I get it.” I get it too. I can understand how I arrived at my own senses of sexuality and gender through social experiences. Meanwhile, within mainstream media, we are only fed “born this way” arguments for homosexuality, and I think that indicates an undercurrent of conventionally male privilege in the treatment of queer issues, in that it refuses to acknowledge those patriarchally biased and violent social realities which are capable of directing a person’s sexual object choices. Like, when US TV shows say, “homosexuality is not a choice,” I totally agree we have incredibly little choice. Only I would place that absence of choice in relation to the lack of social options afforded us under patriarchy, as opposed to leaping to supra-social arguments of binary biological predisposition. Those latter arguments basically exonerate people from the need to think about their capacity for choice, and how that capacity can relate to the acceptance of others, and to a reduction of violence.

Haze is still very young, so we’ll see if her messages grow in complexity with time. Right now, this kind of conclusion in ‘Black Synagogue’ about “finding god in yourself” is a bit too cliché. In a religious sense, it’s Buddhist. In a secular sense, It’s about self-empowerment. It basically boils down to, “trust yourself.” I have always found that concept disconcerting because I always consider the sense of “self” as suspect – precisely because most people would attribute their senses of “maleness” or “femaleness,” “heterosexuality” or “homosexuality,” as unquestionably natural things they feel on a gut level, and which can never be questioned but are simply “known” to them. Ultimately, “trust yourself” is the default message of heteronormative culture, which demands we internalize patriarchal gender and sexual binaries, and feel them to our cores. In contrast, I am about perpetual mistrust of self, and inner godlessness. So this is quite a large ideological disparity between the views expressed in her work and mine.

“Within mainstream media, we are only fed “born this way” arguments for homosexuality, and I think that indicates an undercurrent of conventionally male privilege in the treatment of queer issues.”

For example, your remix of Hardrock Striker’s ‘Motorik Life’ samples Martin Luther King’s most famous speech – but where the original passage was a message of hope, you’ve looped the words “mountain of despair” as if to remind us how monolithic and massive the obstacles minorities face are. Do you think it’s important to focus on the negative sometimes, rather than pretending “it gets better”?

I’ve written several texts, and spoken often in interviews, about the necessity for cultural tools that allow us to act through negativity. I believe contemporary capitalism and globalization force us to adapt exclusively optimistic outlooks, and negativity is ardently rejected… despite everyone being miserable. This is particularly true of the UK, US, Canada and Australia – one can be a bit more openly nihilistic in continental Europe. This cultural aversion to negativity even affects the Left, which must always speak in terms of hope and moving forward. But I think our desires for the future are always trapped by our conditioning in the present, and in a way sets up the future in a way that forces future generations to live out our fucked up fantasies of freedom or mobility. A prime example is going on here in Japan, where a declining birth rate has the government pushing people to have more children simply to generate that next generation of tax payers who will pay for this generation’s retirement pensions. So hope is always behind the times, and enslaving the future. In contrast, I think organising through negativity, or anger, in the sense of being motivated by an inability to tolerate the unacceptable any longer, leads to much different results. Hope is a quest for reward. Hopelessness is a quest to reduce violence. These result in very different ways of looking at the same thing, such as rape, or anti-transgendered violence. Clearly social changes happen, and I can make sense of the concept of change, but I can’t wrap my head around needing to brand change as “things getting better” because any time one person attempts to quantify things like betterment and achievement, they are ignoring some other tier of suffering that does not register for them. Generally, a suffering linked to conditions of poverty. And this is how Marx’s tying all things to economics still has relevance for me.

There is a historical foundation for this demand for optimism, and it is not a fluke that it is strictest in Anglo-related (UK-related) cultures. I believe it began a couple hundred years ago with a particularly Anglican rejection of Roman Catholic guilt. You know, the way in which Christianity has been transformed over the past few centuries by protestantism from a religion of martyrdom to one of the good reaping rewards from God in this lifetime. And it’s all tied into the evolution of a particularly pro-captialist, petit bourgeois outlook – like the gap between an optimistic Smith and skeptical Marx. This idea that “God rewards” has since been taken to further extremes by US evangelicism: Mormons, Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc. And the prosperity of these cultures has really impacted secular life on a global level. Part of that is a total inability to think of the organisational value of negativity in one’s own life, and having to always perform as a willing and joyful consumer. Consumerism relies on this myth of attaining rewards in this lifetime, right? Products are our rewards. Negativity is illness. Pop your prescription pills and enjoy! It’s sad. 

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Hardrock Striker, ‘Motorik Life’

I love this way of putting it – “any time one person attempts to quantify things like betterment and achievement, they are ignoring some other tier of suffering that does not register for them. Generally, a suffering linked to conditions of poverty.” And it links to the other part of your answer too, where the corollary of “God rewards” is that poverty itself is seen as a moral failing on the part of the individual – and inequality becomes a dirty word in debate. And this has become a political and media trope that’s constantly self-reinforcing. How harmful do you believe putting the idea of work as inherently virtuous is?

I think it’s harmful in two ways. The first is through our internalization of this “morality” as a way for justifying and accepting one’s struggles within capitalist society as natural or excusable – and for the majority of people in the world, this means a naturalisation of poverty. The second is how that naturalisation of poverty becomes the ideological weapon to reject those who fail to socially perform in the same way, or who actually resist something like minimum wage slavery. We lose our ability for solidarity with others based on a recognition of mutual struggle. For example, think of all the lower income people who fall prey to right wing propaganda of child welfare going to “lazy and loose women who only have children to get rich off of government paycheques,” resulting in massive numbers of lower income people voting against their own class interests through supporting the reduction or elimination of social services. We are tricked into only recognising solidarity in celebrations of power, or aspirations of power. It is the deception of dressing in your Sunday best and going to church, to praise a god who begat your poverty. Or the deception of dressing in your LGBT best and going to a Pride[TM] parade, but resisting associations with queer struggle the rest of the year. Or the deception of dressing in your weekend best and going to a night club, but seeing it as nothing more than a place to party away the worries of your work week – ie. a tool of capitalist relaxation. These are all similarly troublesome and uninteresting for me.

“It’s not so different from the desire to believe you’ll have fun in a club, when chances are you’ll go home thinking, “that sucked.” 

Related: when people ascribe their success to “hard work” – why do you think the ideas of individual talent or luck are rarely acknowledged in this context?

Well, I believe in skill, but not talent in the essentialist sense, like “innate talent.” I think talent is a result of time, cultural access and repetition. Any musicality in my own projects is a deliberate performance of music-as-signifier, in that a person like myself with no talent at playing instruments can simply present the right sonic signs and people will hear “talent,” because we are conditioned to do so. And I assume by luck you mean a kind of random, chaotic variable – not superstitious luck? So why would people choose to speak of “hard work” over “talent” or “luck?” Maybe for people who don’t necessarily consider themselves strict materialists like myself, focussing on the notion of “hard work” is a way of trying to locate their praxis in material struggles, whereas “talent” and “luck” carry connotations that lead away from the material and into things that are too vague? I can imagine talk of “hard work” sometimes being the result of people just not having better vocabulary for discussing the material.

But I can also get what you are implying about that notion of “hard work” being a way of people taking credit for perhaps random elements of chance, or of explicit-yet-unfelt privileges, and feeding back into the mythology that “work pays off.” Work rarely pays off, right? Society is set against class mobility, despite preaching it as a possibility. Could you imagine how pissed off people from the 1920’s would be if they learned of all the technology we have now to accomplish more work faster, but instead of using it to shorten the work week and free up more time to enjoy life (which was the dream, right?), we simply increased our expectations for how much work a person must accomplish in a day? Like, people are still struggling to only work eight hour days, when we should be down to three or so. In the end, though, I think most things do trace back to a condition of class, and labor. So, although that connection between success and hard work is a cultural myth, hard work is real and familiar to most people. And that promise of success leads us back to some totally standard desires to overcome or transcend one’s present circumstances. It’s not so different from the desire to believe you’ll have fun in a club, when chances are you’ll go home thinking, “that sucked.” 

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