The Death of the Dance Party

by Kane Race

© all rights reserved

My drugs require me to dance with at least ten thousand people at a time.
– Anonymous professor

The singularity or distinctive significance of the culture and institutions of Mardi Gras, dance parties, and the spectacular practices of gay, lesbian and transgender inner city subcultures is becoming apparent only now as they transform and disappear. Recent years have seen a substantial loss of interest in the large-scale dance party, for example, a form that had come to comprise one of the primary sources of independent revenue for gay and lesbian cultural, political and health institutions. The subsequent insolvency crisis of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2002 echoed similar events in other gay urban centres, spelling a substantial challenge for the funding of gay and lesbian cultural and political initiatives. I want to examine briefly here the impact of drugs on the viability of the queer dance party form, with a view to challenging some of the more common assumptions surrounding their conceptualisation. These tend to fall into two camps. If pharmacological determinism imputes a fixed and essential set of effects to the biochemical activity of drugs, social constructionism tends to deny the materiality of biological processes as a meaningful social force.2 The respective frames of realism and idealism reproduce extremely limited distinctions between body and mind, nature and culture, the biological and the social, the natural and the artificial, which the history and significance of the queer dance party contest. I want to argue that drugs are important social actors with effects frequently exceeding common assignments of value, harm, effect, and productivity. But if drugs do complicate distinctions between the biological and the social, they do so in ways that are rarely predictable and often surprising.

The queer dance party is often seen as a sort of mass escape from the realities of queer life, or else as a scene of excessive consumerism. But I want to suggest that it had a series of effects that were less ambiguously productive. If the dance party formed a major source of revenue for community-based organisations, it was also a crucial apparatus within which the notion of community was given popular resonance – indeed became widely imaginable as a viable way of contending with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To entertain this argument, we need to consider community not as a pre- existing entity out of which politics and culture somehow naturally spring but, rather, as made and apprehended actively, through the representational and embodied forms within which it constitutes and recognizes itself. InThe Motion of Light in Water, Samuel Delany writes of his first visit to St Marks Bathhouse in 1963. The dimly lit sight of an ‘undulating mass of naked male bodies, spread wall to wall’ gives him a new ‘sense of political power’.3 This is not because of its intimation of a ‘cornucopia of sexual plenty’ but, rather, because of the altogether new light in which it casts the history of homosexuality. Though he had participated in similar scenes before, in darker and more concealed conditions, on this occasion the dim blue lights, the gym-sized room, the sheer mass of bodies allow him to imagine an altogether different history than that implied by the image of the isolated pervert. ‘[T]he first direct sense of political power,’ he writes, ‘comes from the apprehension of massed bodies’.4

In an influential essay, Joan Scott uses this account to illustrate the now common post-structuralist proposition that the truth of experience does not exist independently of our means of access to it.5 ‘For Delany’, this event

marked what in one kind of reading we would call a coming to consciousness of himself, a recognition of his authentic identity, one he had always shared, would always share with others like himself. Another kind of reading …sees this event not as the discovery of truth (conceived as the reflection of a prediscursive reality), but as the substitution of one interpretation for another …. Moreover …“the properties of the medium through which the visible appears – here, the dim blue light, whose distorting, refracting qualities produce a wavering of the visible,” make any claim to unmediated transparency impossible. Instead, the wavering light permits a vision beyond the visible, a vision that contains the fantastic projections (“millions of gay men” for whom “history had, actively and already, created … whole galleries of institutions”) that are the basis for political identification.6

In Scott’s analysis, the vision of the bathhouse is not the transparent revelation of some truth about homosexuality, but an event that makes it possible for Delany to see, understand, imagine, differently. Nor is it merely a matter of representation, if representation is understood as immaterial: existing only in language, capable of being willed into existence or willed away at whim. As this example makes clear, it involves physical structures and procedures – the room, the light bulb, the moving bodies, the diary form in which the memory is recorded; the distinct technical practices and conditions of perception that make up all discourse, knowledge, and imagination.

What if we were to understand the dance party not as the transparent radiation of community, but as a mediated event through which a sense of community was hallucinated? The massed bodies, decorations, lights, drugs, costumes, and music combined to produce a powerful and widely accessed perception of presence, belonging, shared circumstance and vitality at a time when the image of the gay man, dying alone, ostracized from family, was the publicly proffered alternative. To describe this experience as hallucination is not to say that it was false or untrue, for this would be to imply, incorrectly, that there is some pure, unmediated reality which it is possible to access transparently. The sense of community that was animated at dance parties was real with real effects. It was realized in the affirmative apprehension of thousands of bodies presumed affected in similar ways by the accidents of history and the exclusions of heterosexual society.7 It was worked out in the minutiae of caring practices, the forging of dependable relations outside the family form, the inventive expression of memory and grief, the commitment to a safe sex ethic. It was tapped into by agencies seeking to advance the public rights of gay men, lesbians, and people with HIV/AIDS, to deliver health programming, and to conduct research. It helped sustain a collective sense of predicament, power, care, and commitment – a shared ethos enabling wide-ranging co-operation and transformative activity. Each of these activities depended for their existence on having ‘community’ as an intelligible construct: a source of popular conviction and collective feeling (and against the odds of 1980s individualism). The dance party comprised a popularly accessible assemblage – a concatenation of bodies, discourses, affects and artifice that made the sensation of community ‘mighty real’, to borrow a phrase from Sylvester, in both its impact and its effects.8

Moira Gatens has written that the political imagination is always attached to bodies – distinct, specifically engendered bodies.9 A staple and notorious component of dance parties was of course the recreational use of drugs, in particular ecstasy and its derivatives, which produce quite specifically sensitized bodies. Ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine, releases large amounts of serotonin (the neurotransmitter said to control mood) into the synapse, increasing serotonin receptor binding and leading to significant changes in the brain’s electrical firing.10 Though culturally and individually variable, its ‘most predictable feelings are empathy, openness, peace and caring,’ 11 feelings of relaxed euphoria, belonging, interpersonal understanding and emotional warmth. At dance parties people took ecstasy, bonded, hugged each other, and felt community spirit. And this community spirit was carried over into the day to day tasks associated with dealing with an epidemic. It contributed to an overarching frame and structure of feeling: an enabling fiction within which a whole range of activities gained meaning and coherence.12

Of course, while ecstasy was an important actor in the creation and recreation of community, it was not the only or immediate cause of it. To be sure, community was conceived in other domains of discourse, practice and politics, each interweaving with the dance party phenomenon in direct and indirect ways. Clearly I’m not suggesting that people engaging in community-minded activities needed a constant supply of ecstasy to do so – at least not all of them, all the time. But if the dance party provided a key context in which the notion of community was imagined, practised, and remembered on a popular scale, and the consumption of ecstasy was one of the biochemical and embodied preconditions of the overall atmosphere and sensation of these events, it would be foolish to ignore the activity of this biochemical agent in this network of meaning and practice. Ecstasy was an active component in the effectiveness of a community response to AIDS.

Nor should this argument be seen to amount to a prescription for ecstasy, to ‘promote community attachment’, as health promoters might put it.13 Though the effects of this drug are widely shared (and in some circumstances harmful) they are not meaningful or predictable in a straightforward or linear way. Taking ecstasy does not give an individual an enhanced propensity for fighting AIDS, except in the historical context of these institutions and discourses in which its use was embedded. It made sense and acquired value within broader conditions of practice and experience, an observation that brings me to my next point. One of the conditions that made the sensations of ecstasy particularly resonant was, precisely, the context of the crisis.14 While the traffic in ecstasy in the 1980s gave rise to a general culture of partying – the rave and so on – in the queer context the dance party took on an additional significance, becoming one of the central forms within which an empowering sense of community and sexual belonging was performed and embodied. The wide-scale experience and intuition of death – the death of hundreds of gay men a year – was the backdrop against which the experience of coming together en masse – the presence of thousands of vibrant and sexualised bodies – made a powerful, exciting, and profoundly political statement of resilience and possibility. The halls of the Royal Agricultural Showground were steeped in amazement and wonder. The chemically facilitated feelings of togetherness, euphoria, caring and love took on a critical significance. In addition, the temporality of AIDS – the radically reduced life-span an HIV diagnosis meant at this time – generated a variously articulated practical philosophy of living for the moment. While this phrase can (and sometimes did) invoke a sense of reckless hedonism, a better way of understanding it is in terms of a pursuit of intensified experientiality, in which the pleasures of the self are appreciably bound up in the nature and quality of relations with others, in practices of care, hope, memory, dance, excitement, transformation, and disclosure. In the living, this generated some pretty wild parties. And recognition of this as a practical frame substantially affecting the atmosphere of dance parties makes it possible to comprehend how drugs may have killed the dance party.

Not the recreational but the medical sort.15 If anything, the abundance of recreational drugs kept the large-scale dance party going for a few years past its expiry date. But the introduction in the late 1990s of effective medical treatments – combination antiretroviral therapy – profoundly altered the temporality of HIV. We can glean some insight into the sort of impact this may have had on the affective life of the dance party from an account by David Menadue, writing in 2002. Menadue describes how the introduction of effective treatments has his system ‘feeling fairly relaxed about the future, enough to start thinking beyond the old one or two year timeframe which AIDS used to suggest for many of us.’16 Depicting himself as an ‘extraordinarily regular attendee at Mardi Gras’ acknowledging that ‘they do act as a kind of “Gay Christmas” for me, chronicling much of my adult life as a gay man and as a person with HIV’, Menadue finds himself‘tied up in psychological knots during some quiet moments on the edge of the party dancefloor’ at Mardi Gras 2002.

I was contemplating Mardi Gras gone by and thinking about issues like how survival with HIV has changed over the years .… For the past few years my dancefloor musings have been less about the incredible luck of my survival and the desperate hope that I would live to see another Mardi Gras with my health relatively unscathed – a common thought for much of the early to mid-nineties for me – and more about supposedly normal things. Like: what am I doing sauntering around Mardi Gras dancefloors in my fiftieth year, admiring but being tortured at the same time by the beautiful young bodies parading before me? In other words, I was preoccupied with the same dilemmas about growing older which I imagine most people entering their sixth decade are thinking about as well, regardless of their HIV status.

For Menadue, this shift in temporal horizons produces the party as an experience of a qualitatively different sort, imbued with different and more general concerns, desires, and emotions. Note this is not merely understood as an effect of ‘growing older’, but indicates an alteration of the conditions through which age becomes apparent.

Walter Benjamin’s notion of auratic value may help us understand how the time-frames of AIDS affected the culture of the dance party. Benjamin uses the concept of aura to describe the singularity and uniqueness of the work of art prior to the age of mechanical reproduction. This singularity relates to the distance and inaccessibility of the work of art in space and time: there is only one of it, it’s hard to get to, and access is steeped in ritual and cult value. ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence in the place it happens to be.’17 The singular existence of the work of art ‘in the place it happens to be’ conveys a sense of authenticity and authority, a character of individual uniqueness that Benjamin terms the aura. But in the context of its mechanical reproduction, we reach for other attributes and aspects of the product to deliver this sensation. Now, while in spatial terms the queer dance party is usually fairly easy to access for inner city denizens (as the outlandish trail of stragglers across Moore Park the morning after attests), Menadue’s description makes it possible to see how the distinct temporalities of HIV may have produced each dance party as one of a kind. They created a sense of singularity: what I want to call the queer dance parties’ auratic value. The mood of a party depends of course on the multi-varied activity of the entire mass of its differentiated consumer-producers;18 and the crisis was only the most intractable of its historical backdrops. An early-epidemic HIV diagnosis generated two interrelating optics that took on special significance in this context: the heightened value attached to repetition and yearly remembrance (the sense of chronicling a life), and the poignant sense that this party could be the last one.19 Perhaps these temporal conditions combined to produce the cult value of the queer dance party, or the exhilarating sense of singularity and uniqueness that was felt to imbue this experience. One needn’t have been infected with the virus to have a sense of these meanings, even if only subliminally, in terms of the intense inter-affective mood they inspired. Nor does one have to be adjusting to the new futures enabled by combination antiretroviral therapy to have experienced the deflation in atmosphere and ambience to which these pharmacological products may, however happily, have contributed. If the temporal orientation that characterized the crisis delivered the queer dance party up as an experience of an exceptional sort, then in the presence of treatments and their altered temporalities, the dance party is liable to be experienced in terms of lack: a pale imitation of former years.

I don’t want this to be an occasion for paralyzed nostalgia – it’s not. Nor do I intend this to somehow ‘redeem’ queer dance parties, rendering raves by implication lacking in meaning or value. For what it’s worth, I still think it’s ‘ok’ to party. I’m simply trying to approach an historical (and necessarily partial) account of this moment, to make a faithful attempt to affirm it. My point is that it no longer makes sense, or the same sort of sense, to revel in the mass, scale, and specific neurological and corporeal dynamics of the queer mega-dance party event. The drugs just don’t work like they used to – and not because of any change in their biochemical properties.20

There is a further sense in which the recent popular disappointment in queer dance parties convinces me of the aptness of Benjamin’s account. Community pundits have characterized the changed atmosphere of dance parties in various ways, often perceiving it as a question of scale. Writing evocatively in the Sydney Star Observer, for example, Geoff Honnor observed:

There was a time when 3 000 people at a party represented an incredibly powerful statement about being here. And that 20 000 people can be more about the quantity of numbers than it is about the quality of power. 21

And Fiona McGregor’s finely observed account of the gradual changes to Sydney’s party culture and urban landscape over the 1990s, Chemical Palace, contains the following passage:

The parties got bigger the tickets more expensive, strangers outnumbered friends the community grew. Splintered multiplied mutated atrophied, sprang up elsewhere. The random march of queer seeding the world. People were always looking for something new, so much good partying led to high standards. There were never enough places to go for afficionados. Rebel parties became institutions.22

McGregor’s prose forces disparate elements into close proximity: they hang together like a Sydney street, or else a queer event. On the one hand, changes in scale are experienced as a problem, strangers outnumber friends. But strangers are also enfolded into community here, in a volatile process of growth and mutation. When a visceral sense of belonging has been encountered with complete strangers in a space like the dance party, the torsion between friends and strangers under the sign of community is an ambiguous but tangible process. The concept of community is made to strain against the force of given understandings: those that would prescribe a zone of mutual recognition, sameness, and natural intimacy.23 In fact, strangers have always been a vital part of the excitement and appeal of the big dance parties, bringing us out of our homes to flirt, to dance, to party. What McGregor is conveying here is a subtle recontextualisation in the apprehension of the stranger. To be clear, I am suggesting that what these accounts are registering is not merely an effect of scale, but a much more subtle and evasive shift. They detect a loss of singularity, a transformation from the qualitative to the quantitative, a conversion of auratic value into commodity value.

Benjamin’s essay is, in part, a meditation on the commodity form. In his account, the aura of the work of art is challenged, almost fatally, by the advent of technologies enabling the mechanical reproduction of cultural objects. Benjamin hoped that the awe reserved for the unique work of art would decline in this context, so that the democratic possibilities of mass reproduction might be realized. Quite a touching and momentous idea in his essay, however, is that auratic value doesn’t just disappear in these conditions, but finds a temporary and evasive lodgement in other domains. In the case of film, the aura reconfigures in the cult of the celebrity. In the case of photography, cult value ‘retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance …. the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty’.24 More topically, Sarah Thornton has suggested that the mass reproduction of music embodied in the record relocates the attribution of ‘authenticity’ from the live performance to the dance floor, where the aura is supposed to manifest in ‘the buzz or energy which results from the interaction of record, DJ and crowd,’ giving rise to the cult of the DJ.25 In sum, in conditions of mechanical reproduction we come to invest new surfaces of the cultural product with the task of delivering upon the culturally rampant desire for authenticity and immediacy.

Now, dance parties are a commodity par excellence, and ever were – an interactive scene involving multiple (some would say excessive) forms of cultural consumption, repeated in time and space, with a predictable formula and very expensive tickets. I have argued however that the distinctive temporality of the crisis would produce the queer dance party as an experience that seemed especially unique, even in repetition. The condensed futures of AIDS would lift the dance party out of the circumstances of its mass reproduction, providing the broad (though by no means only) frame through which a sense of uniqueness emanated. With the transformation in these conditions, then, it makes sense that the dance party loses something of its aura. The party gets stripped bare: reduced to the thinly veiled machinations of mechanical reproduction. Its yearly repetition no longer bears a special poignancy, but smacks of seriality. The undulating mass no longer appears as a diverse community bound together by a singular sensibility, but takes the shape of a chaotic and alienating crowd. The congregation of bodies is no longer ‘an incredibly powerful statement about being here’,26 but an aggregate of individual consumers. The dance party starts to manifest ‘the phony spell of a commodity.’ 27

The insolvency of Mardi Gras formed the occasion for an intense round of public debate, a recurrent theme of which was that Mardi Gras had become ‘too commercial’. Mardi Gras had lost touch with its roots, on this view, and – whether through commercialisation, mismanagement, or sheer size – had become an impersonal and alienating experience. The dance party took the shape of a particularly loathsome bête noir in this discourse. Apart from embodying the politically unpalatable image of gay men as consummate consumers, unvirtuously frittering their incomes away on party drugs and gym memberships, it seemed somehow to encapsulate people’s sense of alienation and exclusion from their community institutions: the perceived loss of political resonance. A hankering for ‘community’ and ‘transparency’ was the thematic resolution to these overtures, a move that saw ‘community’ set up in contradistinction to ‘commerce’ and operating as a siphon for people’s frustrated desires to access some purified experience of communal presence and belonging. An alliance of Community-Based Organisations, New Mardi Gras, successfully channelled these desires into support for its vision of a leaner, more inclusive, more ‘community’ Mardi Gras, stripped of all explicit trappings of the market.

But surely the distinction between community and commerce is misleading here. Mardi Gras has always depended on commercial transactions, and always will. Like its predecessor, New Mardi Gras is a community business – a membership-based public company.28 Like any competent commercial enterprise, it appreciated the declining demand for dance parties, and budgeted accordingly. It canvassed possibilities for new markets and new events for fundraising and revenue. It maintained and developed relationships with various businesses, big and small, and anticipates a turnover of several million dollars. The community that it is at pains to include in its ventures will not be accessed ‘without theorizing the contexts and strategies in which [it] could be represented.’29 In short, New Mardi Gras is not the utopian alternative to commerce, but a much more skillfully run commercial venture. It’s to be hoped it will continue to play a creative role in queer cultural economies in Australia.

If the large-scale queer dance party is a form in decline, this is not because it became any ‘more’ commercial, but because one of the primary conditions within which it accrued meaning and value has radically altered – and thankfully so. The discourse and sensation of community, which was initially and ecstatically embodied at these events against the terrible backdrop of the AIDS crisis, has come back in an intense but barely recognized form: a nostalgic and displaced memory of community, haunting and obfuscating the Mardi Gras post-mortem. The complaints of commercialisation and alienation that pervaded this discourse are the mourned trace of the intense relationality whose fabrication was necessary to address the crisis.30 In its wake, the commercial apparatus that sustained this political and cultural vitality is exposed for petulant inspection.31

This raises questions for concrete inquiry: about how the relations of the market (and which ones?) inflect cultural and political production, and about the constitution of political, cultural, and remembering bodies. But these questions will not be usefully answered by partitioning off some bodies as pristine. Indeed, Benjamin might be read to suggest that the forceful dismemberment and reconfiguration of auratic value has a broader political applicability. An arbitrary and potentially violent swing between the designation of the authentic or natural, and the designation of the inauthentic or artificial, may be a perennial feature of existence in commodity culture, and ever available for political deployment. While this might provide some hope for the trade in authenticities, the potential for reactionary deployment carries a grimmer set of implications. What the discourse surrounding the insolvency of Mardi Gras reveals is how quickly and deceptively drugs and their metonyms can turn into fetishised symbols of all that is experienced as artificial, inauthentic, alienating and untrue – always capable of implying a purer, unmediated, natural space that claims to exist before consumption, politics, and contest.32 But this space does not and cannot independently exist,33 leaving the pressing question, who or what gets crushed or distorted in the mad rush to occupy the space of the natural? As Helen Keane has argued, even ‘in the realm of neuroscience, the distinction between the natural and the chemical breaks down, because the brain is itself chemical’.34 Neither community nor brain are naturally complete or self-enclosed systems, whether on or off drugs. What drugs therefore also supply is a useful model for thinking about how our perception of the real, the authentic, the true, is impossible to separate from the dense, interpenetrating, embodied circumstances – those historical, cultural, and biochemical conditions of mediation – through whose means we gain even the most sober access to it.35


Kane Race is with the National Centre in HIV Social Research, University of New South Wales. His work takes up questions of consumer culture, medicine and the body, and is published in journals in sociology, the humanities, and HIV/AIDS.


1. Acknowledgements: This essay wouldn’t have been written without the encouragement and input of Gay Hawkins. I would also like to thank Richard Cobden, Ros Diprose, Suzanne Fraser, Helen Keane, Adrian Kerr, Brent Mackie, Marsha Rosengarten, and Niamh Stephenson for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.

2. For an extended discussion of this problem see Helen Keane, What’s Wrong with Addiction? (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), 12-35.

3.Samuel R. Delany, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965. (New York: New American Library, 1988), 174.


5. Joan Scott, “Experience,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992).

6. Ibid., 34-5. Citing Karen Swann and Samuel Delany respectively.

7 .In my view, the reference to the production of affect in the policy phrase ‘communities affected by HIV/AIDS’ is a better formulation than notions of collectivity based on sexual identity or HIV status. The ‘community’ I am referring to here was not delimited by sexuality or serostatus, but materialized through a set of affective responses to the epidemic; the gradual cultivation of sensibilities.

8. Sylvester/Wirrick, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). (Fantasy Records, 1978). Perhaps my sense of this is inflected by the Sydney experience, where at the height of the epidemic the biggest dance party of the year attracted a crowd of between 14 000 and 28 000 people, and was preceded by a spectacular parade, which made possible more inclusive and widely accessible forms of participation and identification than perhaps is possible in the more regimented conditions of what in North America is known as the ‘circuit party’. However, I don’t think my argument is irrelevant to that context.

9. Moira Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

10. Elizabeth A. Wilson has challenged gender theorists to fathom the materiality of the body implicit in neurological, physiological and biochemical accounts. See, for example Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Somatic Compliance – Feminism, Biology and Science,” Australian Feminist Studies 14, no. 29 (1999).

11. Nicholas Saunders, Ecstasy and the Dance Culture (Exeter: BPC Wheatons, 1995), 36.

12. But I don’t in any way mean to suggest that all participants took drugs, that the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (or its successor) condoned drug use, or that one needed drugs ‘to have a good time’. Nor am I the first to note the significance of illicit drugs in the generation of queer community. Michael Hurley raises the idea of ‘designer drugs’ as ‘a primary inducer of tribal belonging’ in gay and lesbian Sydney in his lively essay, Michael Hurley, “Sydney,” inQueer City: Gay and Lesbian Politics in Sydney, ed. Craig Johnston and Paul VanReyk (Sydney: Pluto Press, 2001). More detailed analyses of the significance of drug use in this context include L.A Lewis and M.W. Ross, A Select Body: The Gay Dance Party Subculture and the Hiv/Aids Pandemic (New York: Cassell, 1995), Erica Southgate and Max Hopwood, “Mardi Gras Says ‘Be Drug Free’: Accounting for Resistance, Pleasure and the Demand for Illicit Drugs,” Health 3, no. 3 (1999) and internationally, Claudio Bardella, “Pilgrimmages of the Plagued: Aids, Body and Society,” Body and Society 8, no. 2 (2002).

13. AIDS educator Alan Brotherton has remarked on a time when it was not unusual to find ‘promote community attachment’ listed as a stand-alone objective in health intervention outlines. Alan Brotherton, (paper presented at the HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and related diseases social research and education conference, University of New South Wales, 2002).

14. Claudio Bardello has traced the connections between AIDS, dance parties, and the use of ecstasy in more detail in Bardella, “Pilgrimmages of the Plagued.” See also Lewis and Ross, Select Body.

15. I am aware of the tendency of drugs to overorganise the terms of social explanation and response, particularly in the field of health. In this essay, my rhetorical strategy has been to indulge this tendency in order to demonstrate the need for a more situated, qualitative, and cultural analysis of their effects than that monopolised by the notion of ‘cure’ (or, in the case of illicit drugs, ‘evil’).

16. David Menadue, “How I Got Tied up in Knots at Mardi Gras!,” Positive Living, May-June 2002. The shared nature of Menadue’s experience is suggested in one of the few other commentaries to acknowledge the affect of the AIDS crisis on the experience of the dance party, Geoff Honnor, “Looking for That Rush,” The Sydney Star Observer, June 27 2002.) Further support for the proposition that the sense of crisis was a significant condition of the experience of the dance party can be found in Bardella, “Pilgrimmages of the Plagued.”, Lewis and Ross, Select Body. While the viability of large-scale raves has also declined over the course of the 1990s, and this no doubt shares some similar conditions (including a simple change in fashion), raves were also subject to different pressures and logics (including legal and policing pressures which Mardi Gras managed to avoid or contend more successfully).

17.Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (England: Fontana, 1970), 222.

18. For a theorisation of queer dance party practice along these lines see Jonathan Bollen, “Sexing the Dance at Sleaze Ball 1994,” The Drama Review 40, no. 3 (1996).

19. The changed qualities of time in the context of terminal illness are conveyed wonderfully in Robert Dessaix’ novel, Night Letters: ‘[N]ow that time seems severely limited, I’ve lost interest in ticking things off, in accumulating credit, in ‘laying up treasures’ of any kind. Funnily enough, I’d have thought the opposite. But no, time now is for beguiling, not for spending profitably.’ Robert Dessaix, Night Letters (Sydney: Macmillan, 1996), 21.

20. In fact, I’ve taken a little license here – ecstasy’s street quality always varies, and while it is still a staple component of party culture, in recent years other drugs with different effects have increased in popularity, such as crystal (methamphetamine), special-K (ketamine), and GHB (gamma hydroxy butyrate), each affecting the interactive dynamics in these scenes. Indeed, the radical volatility of subjective experience in the context of drug consumption dramatizes the necessary failure of any attempt to give a ‘total’ or ‘objective’ account of the dance party – hence my interest in the topic.

21. Honnor, “Looking for That Rush.”

22. Fiona McGregor, Chemical Palace (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2002), 27-8.

23. For a critical discussion of such conceptions of community see Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 226-36. For an alternative and enabling conception of community that lives in difference, see Rosalyn Diprose, “The Hand That Writes Community in Blood,” Cultural Studies Review 9, no. 1 (2003).

24. Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 227-8.

25. Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (London: Polity, 1995), 144.

26. Honnor, “Looking for That Rush.”

27. Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 233.

28. New Mardi Gras does acknowledge this in its background paper “Mardi Gras: Dodo or Phoenix?,” (New Mardi Gras, 2002). Note that by ‘commercial’ here I do not mean ‘for-profit’.

29. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 175.

30. Again, by fabrication I don’t mean that it was false, but that it was actively made through particular techniques and practices. There are many reasons to continue to forge a critical relationality, by the way. This entails building the necessary extensive and conceptual relations so as to apprehend the contours of, and counter-activate, the present embodiments of exclusion in our political culture (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, in Illuminations, ibid.) My current research is an attempt to use the theme of drugs to this effect.

31. Michael Hurley has commented that this sort of unease ‘marks out community as in part a political space that is separate from commercial interest, even when that interest is a major player in representing Sydney internationally and in organising the scene’. (Hurley, “Sydney,” 254.) The point is a good one. The problem is, if taken to its logical extreme, the complaint of commercialism effectively hamstrings marginal or independent cultural production. The cultural association and repudiation of homosexuality as the ‘merely recreational’ provides an additional reason to be wary of this discourse.

32. In a context where ‘Our Strongest Defence Against the Drug Problem’ is said to be ‘… Families’, the strategy is all too familiar. (I refer to the title of the booklet mailed to ‘every home in Australia’ as part of the Australian National Drugs Campaign, 2001). For a suggestive discussion of how drugs have been enlisted in reactionary mobilisations of cultural nostalgia by the Howard government see Guy Rundle, “The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction,”Quarterly Essay 3 (2001). For the U.S. context, see William E. Connolly, “Drugs, the Nation, and Freelancing: Decoding the Moral Universe of William Bennett,” in Drugs and the Limits of Liberalism: Moral and Legal Issues, ed. Pablo DeGreiff (New York: Cornell University Press, 1999).

33. Not, at least, in the contemporary context of mass reproduction and exchange.

34. Keane, What’s Wrong with Addiction? , 29.

35. I have in mind here the concept of ‘embodied vision’, which Donna Haraway uses to elaborate the situated nature of scientific knowledge. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).


Bardella, Claudio. “Pilgrimmages of the Plagued: Aids, Body and Society.” Body and society 8, no. 2 (2002): 79-105.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 219-53. England: Fontana, 1970.

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Brotherton, Alan. Paper presented at the HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and related diseases social research and education conference, University of New South Wales 2002.

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