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But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.

—Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Is there an intellectual history of disco? If there is or will one day be, such a history will surely not neglect Tim Lawrence’s 2003 study, Loves Saves the Day.1 Nestled within what is broadly billed as “a history of American dance music culture” in the 1970s—a phrasing that cannily duplicates the music industry’s own code-switching from “disco” to “dance music” at the end of the decade whose history Lawrence charts—is a story at once more generically precise and geographically diffuse. It is the story of a scene, style, and mode of self-fashioning whose suddenness of apogee and rapidity of fall has not been since repeated except, perhaps on a smaller scale, by the premillennial advent of “rave” culture. As with that latter nightlife movement (or was it a moment?), the backlash against disco was so immediate it felt premeditated. The fear and loathing of disco seemed to result from the music industry’s determination to force an unwilling contact between the underground and mainstream in the name of a “crossover” that, it turned out, only succeeded in crossing out the flavors most valued by those in the know, while failing to rid itself entirely of that odor most noxious to outsiders: the pungency of gender, racial, and sexual difference. The unhappy hybridity of disco is still evinced in the uneasy status of its foremost cultural avatars—the Bee Gees and John Travolta, playing Tony Manero—white men occupying vocal registers and striking choreographic poses that usurp the disco diva and the gay man while at the same time infringing [End Page 101] upon, even denaturing, the very white masculinity that such a colonizing move is supposed to secure.

Lawrence’s contribution to the historiography of disco pays attention to both sides of this unease, revealing it to be in both cases less a straightforward rejection of disco than a queasy and partial recognition. Consider the icon to which disco is so often reduced: Tony Manero striking a pose in a white suit amid the glittering colors cascading off the mirror ball. Based on a magazine story about working-class discos in Brooklyn (one later revealed to be mostly invented), Saturday Night Fever encapsulated for many the drawbacks of crossover, granting as it did center stage to a racist, misogynist, and homophobic antihero, and passing the musical torch to the Bee Gees, admittedly great songwriters who nonetheless accented pop accessibility over faithfulness to the underground sound.2 But as Lawrence shows, skeptical reactions also surfaced among the ostensibly catered-to masses. While one insider told Lawrence flatly, “The dancing was ridiculous . . . nobody danced like Travolta,” the film proved equally threatening to the uncoordinated multitude (LSD 306). Travolta’s moves augured the potential capture of working-class white masculinity by its singing, dancing doppelgänger. The stylized and preening white male subject—who needed to know, as Rod Stewart put it in a hit song, da’ ya’ think I’m sexy?—led to much acting out. On this score, at least, one is inclined to partly credit the denials of Steve Dahl—the Chicago radio DJ and instigator of the infamous 1979 “Disco Demolition Night”—that his motivations in that action were straightforwardly “antigay” (LSD 378). The parody Dahl recorded—“Do You Think I’m Disco? (Am I Superficial)”—seemed primarily to target other straight male bodies who might be inviting a desirous gaze through their style, movement, and “superficiality.” More than antigay, it evinced unease with the ritualized pursuits of heterosexual display, which were somehow being perverted from within. Such a prospect is of course enmeshed with the loathing of gay men and women. But it is also mobilized by the panicky fear that such gender and sexual distinctions might dissolve or prove porous in the ecstatic, amorphous ambience of the disco round.

So it was the sex that straight white men wanted, and not merely that which they did not, that made disco and nightlife threatening. If Saturday Night Fever captured the pathos of this dilemma, another film from the same period, Thank God It’s Friday, captured the farce. Thank God It’s Friday abandoned urban realism for nightlife picaresque, and shifted the setting from New York City to Southern California.3 Jeff Goldblum portrayed Tony Di Marco, an older, dorkier, and wealthier version of Tony Manero, now the white-suited proprietor of his own disco. The film followed a range of characters—jailbait teenagers sneaking into the [End Page 102] dance competition, a funk group desperately awaiting the arrival of their equipment van, a hustling DJ and a wannabe singer, to name a few—who seem united only by their determined pursuit of something other than a relaxing night out. Although in every respect the inferior film, Thank God It’s Friday turns the spotlight from Saturday Night Fever’s showboating protagonist to the frantic, clumsy, and frequently comic romantic pursuits of a more average grade of nightclubber. Its representative couples are not glamorous dancers, but a middle-aged schoolmarm on a computer-arranged date with a bemused trash collector, and a married couple who are subjected to a variety of humiliations, sexual predations, and illicit substances over the course of the long night.

On this score we might heed Lauren Berlant’s observation that sex is exciting but disorganizing.4 Pursuing sex at the disco, Thank God It’s Friday seems to suggest, always leads to some sort of unexpected and uncomfortable excess: a garbage man instead of Prince Charming, speed instead of alcohol, infidelity instead of a rekindled marriage. The disorganizing prospect of such excitement was evident in the “Disco Sucks” movement, which sought to wreak, with its shock-jock rants and record-smashing parties, a social disorder in some ways commensurate to the felt inner turmoil of being forced to move with the times, to update one’s wardrobe, and put oneself “out there.” “Disco Sucks” represented a kind of collective stage fright, an aggressive shyness that transmogrified into a male demand for a return to the position of gazer rather than the gazed upon, a demand whose condition of possibility was the fear that the sexy male body might already be, irrevocably, on display.5

The vicissitudes of sexuality and gender in the 1970s are only the backdrop to Lawrence’s narrative, but they also intersect in various ways with his leitmotif of “love.” His primary interest is the love of music and its scene, and the lovingly detailed chronicle and thick description he provides of both is unparalleled. Love Saves the Day valorizes a moment that is both carnal and innocent, and at once extols and laments the diffusion of this intimate alternative dance music culture in the commercialized spectacle of disco. By so situating the commercial phenomenon of disco within the cultural economy of discotheques, loft parties, DJs, producers, performers, record labels, and trade magazines and conferences, Lawrence is able to recover the historical difference between disco and what one participant, in a marvelous phrase, called the “disco, which did not know it was disco, which was simply a song played in a room where we gathered to dance” (LSD 333).

“The disco that did not know it was disco” captures perfectly the social process of reification, which seizes a fluid social process and crystallizes it into a commodified image of itself, an image whose name henceforth [End Page 103] becomes the precondition for any retrospective narration of its alienating force. “In a world that is really upside down,” Guy Debord observed, “the true is a moment of the false.”6 Lawrence shows how this was the case with disco. But in so doing, he perhaps inadvertently suggests an alternative perspective on the ethos of love, oneness, and alternative sexuality that provides the ambience for his work. It is easy to romanticize the disco that did not know it was disco, and to yearn for that prelapsarian innocence before, beneath, or somehow outside capitalist reification. But if we hold in view the lessons of such commercial cash-ins as Thank God It’s Friday, with its unapologetic depiction of capitalist reification at its worst, we might also see how, in the world bequeathed to us in disco, the false is a moment of the true.

We all have a friend, wide-eyed, eloquent, and often highly talented, who is what one might call a “true believer.” The varieties of religious experience notwithstanding, a certain regularity to the features of this type, or at the very least, to our relationship with them, permits some generalization. For a certain circle in downtown Manhattan circa 1969, that friend might have been David Mancuso, with whom Lawrence’s book begins and ends, and from whose party “Love Saves the Day” Lawrence borrows his title. A bridge between the sixties of Timothy Leary and the seventies of Gloria Gaynor, Mancuso opened the decade of the dance floor by welcoming invited guests into a clean, warm, decorated loft, where, aside from the “contribution” at the door, all the beverages, fresh fruit, and “delicious breads” were gratis, and where the music slowly lifted the multiracial, mixed-gender, and polyamorous crowd to a collective high. Mancuso sought, in Lawrence’s words, “the potential power of the party, through which congregants can reach a point of spiritual and joyful unity where egos disappear, where there is no stress, and where life energy is high.” As Mancuso himself told Lawrence—with a Buddhist emphasis on the syllable “om” that the latter dutifully transcribed—“Music helped us reach that place. Music was the key to get back h-om-e” (LSD 22, 441, 13).

For the founder of psychoanalysis, by comparison, that friend was Romain Rolland, mystic, poet, and Orientalist, whose objection to Freud’s formulations on the origins of religion in wish fulfillment served as a spark for Civilization and Its Discontents. Agreeing with everything Freud had said about religion, Rolland nonetheless insisted that there remained an irreducible basis in experience for the illusion Freud intended to dispel: “This, [Rolland] says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling as of something limitless, [End Page 104] unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic.’”7 Rolland, no less than Mancuso, sought a joyful unity where egos disappear, the key to return home, and he prevailed upon Freud to admit that this feeling, when achieved, provided an experiential basis for the spirituality that Freud dismissed as “illusion.”

The oceanic feeling forms an unlikely bridge between the concerns of Love Saves the Day and Civilization and Its Discontents. Indeed, the former title seems almost to answer the latter: in a discontented civilization, love (the oceanic feeling) will save the day. So, at least, would the Romain Rollands and David Mancusos of the world lead us to believe, and a critical mass of the dance-floor contingent has always held fast to this faith.

Freud, for his part, was respectful but doubtful. The oceanic “feeling-tone,” as he termed it, was, Freud speculated, but the vestige within the adult psyche of the unbounded plenitude we have all experienced as infants, a state in which polymorphous sensuality, unspoiled by the sense of a division between self and other that we later accrue, still holds sway. “Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (CD 12, 15). In his description of the Loft, Lawrence appears to be channeling Freud’s conceptual schema regarding infancy, memory, and the oceanic feeling-tone:

The Loft—which was dark, warm, and at 1,850 square feet, really quite cozy—also symbolically re-created the irretrievable scene of the womb, where the constant and memorable sound is that of the mother’s beating heart, which pulses along at, roughly speaking, the rate of a dance record. The secure and cocoon-like contours of the dance space created the perfect milieu for experimental regression—there was always lots of screaming and growling and whooping—and the sheer density of bodies accelerated the transformation from autonomous adult to childlike dancer. Unable to avoid body contact on all sides, individual dancers had little choice but to dissolve into the amorphous whole, and, as their distinctions between self and other collapsed, they relinquished their socialized desire for independence and separation.

(LSD 25)

Much as the name of the party, “Love Saves the Day,” not so subtly referred to the “love drug” LSD, Lawrence’s description nods to a variety of techniques that were popular in the sixties and seventies—from “rebirthing” ceremonies, to “primal scream,” to group therapy—with which [End Page 105] a generation sought to defy Freud’s civilizational dilemma by restoring a womblike, oceanic space. In addition to Timothy Leary (a direct influence on Mancuso), intellectual prestige for such experimentation could be found in the Freudo-Marxist syntheses of Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and, in France, Felix Guattari. The revolutionary dreams of 1968 were somewhat scaled back, to say the least, in the free food and “tribal” vibe of the Loft and a dozen other underground locales. But insofar as the utopian premise persisted at all in these new forms, it remained grounded in the experience of the oceanic feeling-tone of love, ecstasy, and oneness.

If I look past the immediate intellectual and political context from which ideas like Mancuso’s emerged to Freud’s much earlier formulations, it is in order to pick up on the interpersonal context of Civilization and Its Discontents, the exchange with Rolland that, as Lawrence’s exchange with Mancuso, initiates the text. Such an interpersonal context permits us to situate the oceanic feeling-tone in relation to another sentiment, unnamed by Freud himself, the analysis of which is equally important to any discussion of disco and its discontents.

It ought to be recalled here that Civilization and Its Discontents does not end but begins with the oceanic feeling-tone. For Freud, at least, oceanic love represents not the answer that “saves the day,” but the initial problem that prompts his pessimistic diagnosis of civilizational discontent. His argument that civilization makes us unhappy, and that our attempts to remedy this unhappiness through more civilization make us unhappier still, is often used as the rationale for the kinds of experimental regressions proposed in the 1970s and today. So it is all the more chastening to learn that, for Freud at least, such oceanic feeling produces “no small difficulty.” As he freely admits, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself” (CD 12). Tone-deaf to the oceanic feeling-tone, or at least so he claims, Freud offers his subsequent analysis in the spirit of a mood that seems to admit equally of melancholy, envy, suspicion, loyalty, and ironic distancing. This unnamed sentiment, which Freud presents as the impetus for his essay, must also strike anyone tempted to take seriously the kinds of claims made by our true believer friends on behalf of underground dance culture and its regressive, tribal ecstasies. Or, at least, so it has always struck me.

It would be tempting, but ultimately dissatisfying, to associate this unnamed sentiment with what Freud eventually comes around to identifying as the death drive. In Archive Fever Jacques Derrida shows with triumphant irony how Freud, at the end of the book, solves the difficult task of producing an original argument in Civilization and Its Discontents merely by reinventing the death drive, a concept he had already established much earlier.8 For Derrida, the repetition compulsion Freud identifies with [End Page 106] the death drive is unwittingly exemplified in his own glaringly unoriginal attempt at originality. However, a more proximate affect than a cosmic tendency toward entropy seems to be at work, textually speaking, in Freud’s essay. This unnamed but specific affect felt in relation to an oceanic feeling to which one is tone-deaf, but which one’s highly respected friend seems to enjoy in spades, this failure to embrace the love and kinetic oneness that is so effortlessly possessed by others, I want to suggest, is embarrassment.

It is embarrassing to be left out of something as exciting as the oceanic feeling-tone. And the compensatory drive toward the clinical analysis of it as the residue of childishness bears more than a trace of this affect of the shy or awkward onlooker at the spectacle of ecstatic virtuosity. If Rolland and Mancuso seek to express the “emic,” inside experience of oceanic oneness, Freud’s dyspeptic account takes the “etic,” or external, viewpoint. “Pathology has made us acquainted,” he grumpily observes, “with a great number of states in which the boundary line between the ego and the external world become uncertain or in which they are actually drawn incorrectly.” Even more dismissively, he later refers to “obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies” (CD 13, 20). I am not offering up Freud’s embarrassment at being unable to feel oceanic as the obscure motivation for these dismissive characterizations. But I am suggesting that sympathetic but distancing observations of this kind come in handy when confronted with the aggressive demand to embrace instantaneous remedies to the unhappiness of the civilized ego. If we understand the oceanic feeling-tone less as a solution than as part of a problematic to which we remain connected, if only by our embarrassed inability to either embrace or relinquish its utopian aim, then we see how timely Freud’s essay remains.

Freud’s account of the oceanic feeling-tone is surely reductive. And to the extent that Lawrence relies upon the pop Freudian image of “regression” to a womblike state, he relies upon a model of the psyche that has been problematic for racial and sexual minorities (the very ones whose world-making his book ostensibly valorizes). The extolling of the tribal oneness of the rhythmic drum that colors many of the reminiscences of seventies dance music culture in Lawrence’s book seems to rely on equal parts primitivism—as applied to black people and music—and arrested development—as applied to queers. One informant recalls waiting to play Babatunde Olatunji’s 1959 recording of West African percussion, Drums of Passion, until he had the right crowd for it. “Straight people were clumsy and had no rhythm, whereas gay men were right on. They moved their hips, their bodies, and their arms, and the faster the music got the crazier they reacted” (LSD 33–34). Although these regressions were valorized within the underground, it is unlikely that such valorization could permanently [End Page 107] overcome the ultimately punitive consequences of fixating on black and queer cultures as simpler, freer, more in tune with the body—in a word, both “crazier” and more “oceanic.”

Dubious etiology aside, Freud did at least situate the oceanic feeling-tone within social relations that were complexly structured by a psychic life into which we possess only uneven insight. And he was not entirely pessimistic about the fabric of those social relations, which he viewed not simply as a constraining cage upon our primitive drives, but also as a kind of interface extending the human sensorium and faculties. “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times” (CD 38–39). This is Freud at his most Deleuzian, positing a body with multiple, extended, and interchangeable organs through which to feel, taste, see, hear, smell, and remember the world. Given the technologically mediated context of dance music culture, it seems much closer to the mark to identify the oceanic feeling-tone it struck not with psychic regression, but with an exhilarating extension into an environment aided by the auxiliary organs of the mirror ball, the DJ, the drugs, and so on.

Unlike celebrants of the posthuman, however, Freud retained a deliciously twisted viewpoint on the long-term effects of our magnificent prostheses: “The sexual life of civilized man is notwithstanding severely impaired; it sometimes gives the impression of being in process of involution as a function, just as our teeth and hair seem to be as organs” (CD 52). Technological revolution, according to Freud, also produces physiognomic involution, as repression exacts its toll from the organic: incisors into knives, pelts into clothes, sexual drives into cultured grandiosity. And on this score Freud is least Deleuzian, as he defiantly diagnoses oceanic love as itself a product of civilizational repression:

A small minority are enabled by their constitution to find happiness, in spite of everything, along the path of love. But far-reaching mental changes in the function of love are necessary before this can happen. These people make themselves independent of their object’s acquiescence by displacing what they mainly value from being loved on to loving; they protect themselves against the loss of the object by directing their love, not to single objects but to all men alike; and they avoid the uncertainties and disappointments of genital love by turning away from its sexual aims and [End Page 108] transforming the instinct into an impulse with an inhibited aim.

(CD 48–49)

So do we, the embarrassed, achieve our revenge upon the cheerful optimists of oceanic oneness. It is they, and not just we, who are truly inhibited, only this time in their redirecting of their aggressive, sexual aims toward the placebo of an objectless love. Insofar as genital love proves uncertain and disappointing—in Berlant’s words, disorganizing—another plateau of bodily disorganization can be sought in collective, dance-floor ecstasy. But this will no more escape the repressions and involutions of civilization than the more privatized pursuit of romantic love. The escape hatch that a minority of people are able to achieve is effected through a displacement from being loved on to loving, feasible but not generalizable, enviable but not earth-shattering. The oceanic feeling-tone becomes, in Freud’s hands, neither more nor less than an ordinary affect, worthy perhaps of note, but not, in itself, a means for social transformation.

Is Freud just being a killjoy? Even if the ecstasy felt at the height of an all-night session of dancing to the best DJ spinning the best music represents an “inhibited aim,” why spoil the fun? The answer to this question returns us to the utopian scenario of a disco that did not know itself as disco, and that in lacking this name could simply move, feel, flow, and be oceanic. But it also returns us to the incursion disco made into what one critic described as “manhood rights (rites)”—an incursion, I have already suggested, that was also experienced as an interpellation demanding the panicky, punitive response of a destructive acting out (LSD 383). For what made disco complicated in ways Freud could understandably not anticipate was its simultaneous foregrounding of “sexual aims” and the oceanic “feeling-tone,” the presence within disco of an alternating current of object-driven and object-less love, of loving and being loved, of “manhood rites” and ecstatic outness. Undermining Freud’s distinction between inhibited and uninhibited aims, what comes to the fore in disco is what we might call a modulated aim. Working through and revising Freud enables a new perspective on the oceanic feeling-tone that avoids the dichotomy of civilized and regressed egos, and the primitivist, developmental model of the psyche upon which that dichotomy depends. This modulation produces both a sonic counterpart to the cyborg, as well as an alternative genesis for the oceanic feeling-tone as arising not out of a regression into the past, but as jumping out of the surfaces of present, ordinary affects.9 If many examples of the former are available in the recording career of Donna Summer, a good example of the latter can be found in her less stellar, but [End Page 109] no less telling, portrayal of the aforementioned wannabe singer in Thank God It’s Friday.

First, the music. As made clear in CD compilations such as Nicky Siano’s The Gallery (Soul Jazz Records, 2004) and David Mancuso Presents the Loft (Nuphonic, 1999), the disco that did not know it was disco had a much broader musical range than what would be seized upon and marketed in the moment of its reification. Soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, and funk were all in the mix, and to the extent that dance music culture bounced back from the disco backlash in the form of house music, it never really left it. The warmth and musical virtuosity evident on proto-disco tracks like “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and “Love Is the Message” by MFSB organically connect the disco sound to the black American popular musical tradition. But what has sounded off or wrong to some, in terms of this tradition, was the “Eurodisco,” synthesizer-driven sound of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, whose sound drove American-born singer Donna Summer’s records to the top of the disco charts. As Lawrence aptly notes, “Gloria Gaynor might have been the first queen of disco, but Summer, blending with Moroder’s technology, had become its first cyborg princess” (LSD 254). Particularly on the extended album version, “I Feel Love” marked the launching-off point of a colder, mechanical sound of techno, a music that has often failed to strike Americans as having much to do with the black American musical tradition, and correspondingly written off as a European thing (even though European and Japanese aficionados faithfully trek to the techno mecca of postindustrial Detroit). Donna Summer’s transnational career subverts this distinction between warm, funky black music and its robotic European placebo. Reclaiming “I Feel Love” for a genealogy of afrofuturism would be important for moving the analysis of black music beyond primitivist frameworks imposed and embraced.

“I Feel Love” is the quintessential recording of a modulated aim, layering the sonic emblem of the “disco diva” into a pulsating dance-floor scorcher built entirely out of the “artifice” of synthesized sounds, out of which the voice raises and back into which—courtesy of a judicious echo effect—it merges. Where her earlier hit, “Love to Love You, Baby,” deliberately mimicked Jane Birkin’s orgasmic heavy breathing on “Je t’aime (moi non plus),” the feeling-tone on “I Feel Love“ was not a mimesis of heterosexual lovemaking. Rather, as its straightforward title had it, the track expressed an autotelic but not quite masturbatory pleasuring that constantly modulated between self and other, alternating an object-driven and objectless love. Equally adapted to scenarios of interpersonal seduction and ecstatic communal dancing, “I Feel Love” seemed to refer most directly to the feeling-tone of singing itself, whether that singing came in the form of [End Page 110] the prerecorded song pouring from the discotheque’s speakers, or from the lips of the dancer-listener prompted to sing along—“oooh, I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, I feeeeelooove”—less in imitation than in collusion with the now extended vibration produced by organs attached to machines attached to organs, reverberating and echoing a feeling-tone between the live and mediated.

The artificial, machinic, and/or technological operates within popular music cultures, as Lawrence notes, as ambivalent icons of capitalism, whiteness, and homosexuality. Defenders of disco, from Richard Dyer to Brian Currid, have sought to reclaim these derogatory labels as generating a specifically queer difference.10 The flustered, embarrassed, aggressive response to dance music culture, however, seems to spring as much in response to the disorganization of the oceanic feeling-tone as to the prospect of specifically same-sex desire. That it might emerge on the surface of the most commercialized, commodified, and technologically mediated moments, as well as within the circle of primitivist tribal rites, seems to be the message of Donna Summer’s performance as Nicole Sims in Thank God It’s Friday. What makes the movie important to analyze is its yoking of another transcendent, ecstatic dance-floor classic with a crass and clunky cash-in, a union of the sublime with the ridiculous in which the two refuse to either merge or separate from each other.

Although she graces the movie poster, Summer is more or less confined to the narrative margins, driven by an inextinguishable but inexplicable urge to sing. It is not easy to make the case for Summer’s acting performance in terms of quality, and the best that can be said of it is that her lack of acting experience or confidence somehow merged perfectly with the characterological needs of the scripted role of Sims, who spends the bulk of the movie sneaking into the DJ booth looking for her big breakthrough. As the picaresque plot flows around her, the “cyborg princess” is transformed into an ungainly, embarrassing presence that is anything but diva. When at one point she manages to squeak out a couple notes for the DJ, she is totally off-key, disrupting our expectations that when Sims is finally allowed to sing, Donna Summer’s voice will come out of her mouth.

In the final moments of the film, however, less as a way of bringing the plot to a traditional climax, and more as a means to wrap things up, Sims is finally allowed to sing. To everyone’s surprise, including perhaps her own, she belts out the film’s Oscar-winning song, “Last Dance,” as all the Rabelaisian plot mechanics come temporarily to an awestruck halt and watch. While Summer’s virtuosic performance fulfills the mainstream film’s obligation of a happy or at least lighthearted ending, it doesn’t do anything [End Page 111] to resolve any of the myriad unhappily fulfilled desiring projects set in motion by the long evening’s events. At best, it keeps the whole ramshackle enterprise of the nightlife utopia together for one more night, one more hit record, one more performance, one last dance. Kathleen Stewart has written about how affects leap or jump out of the ordinary, not so much caused as attracted, not so much pushed as pulled. This seems true of both the oceanic feeling-tone and the voice that announces its potential, both of which are fully complicit with the comic dystopia of Tony Di Marco’s discotheque, but which float over it as a modulated autotelic desire. Perhaps it is time to put the disco back into our discontent.

Tavia Nyong’o
Tisch School of the Arts New York University


1. Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). Henceforth cited in text as LSD.

2. Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham, Paramount Pictures, 1977.

3. Thank God It’s Friday, directed by Robert Klane, Columbia Pictures, 1978.

4. Lauren Berlant, “Starved,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 3 (2007): 433–34.

5. The period of the late 1970s and early 1980s is also when Calvin Klein and Bruce Weber introduced the homoerotic spectacle of the male body into underwear advertisement. When Weber’s iconic image of Olympic athlete Tom Hintnaus unfurled in New York City’s Times Square in 1982, the disco question—da’ ya’ think I’m sexy?—inched closer to the skin, where it has remained since.

6. Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (London: Rebel, 2005), 9.

7. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 11. Hereafter cited in text as CD.

8. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

9. See Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

10. Richard Dyer, “In Defense of Disco,” in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, ed. Corey Creekmur and Alexander Doty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Brian Currid, “We Are Family: House Music and Queer Performativity,” in Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality, ed. Sue Ellen Case, Phillip Brett, and Susan Foster (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). [End Page 112]

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