From Disco Inferno to Disco Pedagogy Aneshka Mora, Annie Munrie and Melinda Reid

[Melinda Reid]

Aneshka, Anastasia, and I are going to talk about a work in progress tonight called From Disco Inferno To Disco Pedagogy. We’re slowly working towards a disco pedagogy and disco unionism among other ideas. Aneshka, Annie, and I are approaching disco as outsiders to a degree – we aren’t music theorists nor disco theorists. We’re coming at this as friends, art theorists, and teachers. And, importantly, we’re talking about the labour of teaching in a really particular way: as casual academics who have been teaching both before and during a pandemic for universities that are neo-liberalised and settler-colonial. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s complication of study as something where working, dancing, and suffering converges (which we’ve all mentioned tonight) is very much at the heart of our research. 1

This project partially germinated out of the early days of ‘emergency remote teaching.’ I was listening to a lot of disco music at that point to ease the anxiety I was feeling about trying to replicate my pedagogy online. Eventually, the disco music started to leak into my classes. I started playing different disco songs as a kind of break time bell to call students back to the Zoom or Teams meeting (a bit like a recess bell, but if the recess bell was composed by Earth, Wind, and Fire, or the Bee Gees, or Gloria Gaynor). This led to some interesting conversations with my students, some of whom suggested I read about Disco Demolition Night (an event I that they had learnt about in another course). This sparked an excitement which I took to Aneshka and Annie, and they spurred the development of this collaborative project. So this has very much been a collective writing experience from the get go.

Tonight, we’ve divided this little talk into three sections, each with a different theme song, if you like, about different aspects of our research: I Will Survive where Aneshka will provide a quick history of disco as an endurance genre, Disco Inferno where I’ll talk about some contemporary conditions, and Your Disco Needs You where Annie will talk about dancing through crisis and the spaces we want to open up through/as disco pedagogy. I’ll now pass over to Aneshka.

1 This is a reference to Moten and Harney’s description of study in The Undercommons (2013) which acted as a thematic hinge for the talks presented during the original Study Session event: “When I think about the way we use the term ‘study,’ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.”

[Aneshka Mora - I Will Survive]

To contextualise why we pursued disco, I want to give you a short summary of what disco is, where it comes from and why we get so excited about it.

The term ‘disco’ in its common usage today describes both a style of music and the particular spaces in which it was popularised (the discotheque). While these two elements developed somewhat separately and have distinct histories, they merged in the late 1960s and early 70s in New York and Philadelphia.

This time period also saw a growing intensity of various emancipatory movements in the US - we can think here of civil rights, 2nd wave feminism, LGBTQ+, disability rights, anti-war movements to name a few. This contextual underpinning informs part of how disco emerged as a countercultural music. The dominant music at the time was rock music. Rock is distinctly individualistic it was dictated by a few producers, places where you went to enjoy rock music (concerts) were often pay-walled and concerts were about seeing/worship rock stars (who were mostly white, hetero and cis-masculine). Most significantly, rock wasn’t really about dancing

In contrast, disco was developed by predominantly Black, Lantix, Hispanic and queer folx. It is a music based on simple beats that could be connected into never-ending remixes to extend dance time. The first disco’s were private parties hosted for people who were ostracised and criminalised in regular clubs and society– but they were private in order to be inclusive. People didn’t come to see someone perform instead it was more about playing records together, gathering, having intimate encounters, dancing and finding solace and collective euphoria in the infinite thump of a 4/4 beat.

So, in the context of the turbulence and activism on the streets disco was a place of survival, regrouping, feeling safe, feeling pleasure and persevering through radical joy.

It is important to note that the survival contained in disco is a particular type of survival, which is tied to the origins of its sound. Disco has roots in jazz, soul and r&b which stems from music brought over from Africa to America via the Atlantic slave trade and developed as ante- and anti-colonial resistance. As many of you might know, these roots had already been co-opted by whiteness  and formed the essential rhythms and sounds of rock.

By the late 70s, going into the 80s disco started to become mainstream too – think Saturday Night Live, the Bee Gees, and ABBA, for example. The mainstreaming of disco led to aggressive ‘anti-disco’ sentiment which coincided with adverse reactions to the then newly visible effects of civil rights movements (e.g. desegregation and the legality of homosexuality). Historians trace the pinnacle of this anti-disco hate to an event called ‘disco demolition night’, which Mel mentioned in the introduction. The event was held in 1979 in Chicago during the halftime pause of a baseball game. In short, a prominent anti-disco radio host blew up a large crate of disco records that were exchanged at the door by anti-disco supporters for cheaper tickets to the game. Through this symbolic action supporters declared the “death of disco” (and revival of rock)

What we saw in the late 70s and early 80s, then, was a double attack on disco by whiteness, heteronormativity, capitalism and neoliberalism – one was an aggressive attack and the other was subsumption. But rather than fight for a ‘revival’, like rock, disco was content to disperse, spread out, and form the basis of the vast majority of popular music and dance culture from the 80s onward. DJs, house, techno, hip hop, post-punk, rave and more, all owe their foundations to disco. So, as Tan Lim writes,

this is what disco is: technologies of sound mixing and reproduction in an era when the idea of medium-specificity and discrete mediums such as painting, photography, music, literature, and video are being supplanted by the idea of a more general operating system or generic culture of software whose purpose is to continually redistribute a range of materials across a single platform. 2

So this is the disco fable we take inspiration from: the co-opting of and violence against disco did not kill it – it just became something else by letting go of its form. Disco didn’t disappear, it dispersed. We find this useful for thinking about how we’re being atomised as casual labourers and as a consequence of covid-19. But mostly, we’re interested in thinking about disco as an endurance genre; we want to think about remixing, dispersal (moving into / dancing in the undercommons?), redistribution and change rather than destruction.
2 Tan Lin, “Disco as Operating System, Part One,” Criticism, Special Issue: Disco, 50, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 89.

[Melinda Reid - Disco Inferno]

In addition to thinking about disco as a fable of endurance, we’re also thinking through the idea of disco inferno. Disco inferno is a concept we are using to try and talk about a set of contemporary conditions that we’re trying to teach through.

The phrase disco inferno comes from a couple of key referents. The first is the Trammps’ song, Disco Inferno which was released in 1976 and made famous by the film Saturday Night Fever (it was one of a few songs not by the Bee Gees that really blew up). In the chorus of the song, the Trammps encouragingly sing: “Burn baby burn, disco inferno. Burn baby burn, burn that mother down!” The song rhythmically impels movement and destruction in a pleasurable manner: you get the feeling that you could dance so hard that you burn the building down.

The second referent comes from a tweet that my partner shared with me early on in the pandemic. The tweet came from Ryan North, a computer programmer turned author. Basically, in the tweet North claims that the Latin words disco inferno translate to the phrase “I learn from hell”, but that this only happens if you translate the words independently of one another in Google translate.

While Google Translate is infamously unreliable, it turned out (as we continued our research together) that disco and inferno have elsewhere been independently translated to similar ends. Disco is indeed the Latin for ‘I learn,’ ‘I study,’ ‘I come to know,’ or ‘I become acquainted with,’ while inferno is linked to suffering, hell, and fire.

Whether disco inferno as a phrase actually translates to ‘I learn from hell’ is another question (one we do not have time to talk about tonight). However, if it is a mistranslation, it’s been a generative one for us.

This tweet from Ryan North tickled my gallows sense of humour. It felt like a dark and apt way to describe what we were teaching through. We’ve seen a number of infernos – including some actual burning infernos – this year. We opened the year with catastrophic climate disasters (including the Australian Black Summer bushfires), we’re still living through the COVID-19 pandemic;  health systems in a number of countries brought to the brink; separation of kinships and communities as result of pandemic lockdown measures; the start of the deepest global economic recession since the Second World War (so a great number of people were becoming jobless, food insecure, and displaced); a powerful resurgence in Black Lives Matter protests which is of course a response to an inferno that has already been burning for centuries in the form of systemic violent suppression of people of colour by disciplinary institutions controlled by (mostly white) beneficiaries of colonialism, and not just in the United States.

Interwoven with all of these infernos was the one unfolding inside Australian universities this year. Now, we’re assuming everyone on this call is already aware of what’s been happening, but the short version is that the pandemic era Australian university has been characterised by exhaustion, panic over financial deficits, ‘task forces’ recommending beloved staff be pushed through ‘spills and fills’ or ‘disestablished’ (as if a person can be taken apart like a piece of furniture), messy amalgamations of faculties, emergency remote teaching, increases in unpaid labour for casuals especially, and sparse support for students.

And it’s easy to look at this situation and think: well, it’s a pandemic, what was the university meant to do?

Well, the problem is that these things aren’t just products of the pandemic; the seeds for all of these changes were already planted by preexisting structural inequalities maintained by settler colonialism, the so-called ‘meritocracy,’ capitalism, and the neo-liberalisation of the university. In other words, universities have been prioritising very specific types of knowledge and profit over people, teaching, creative research, and learning for many decades now. So, in this regard, disco inferno feels like a useful way to talk about not only this year, but learning enmeshed with suffering, something that has taken place at the university for a very long time.

However, we can think about disco inferno not just as learning from suffering, but also as learning from fire, especially the generative qualities of burning a structure down, the ways an inferno can clear space for something else.

This is where we begin to find more exciting ideas.

Our Google algorithmic Trammps-inspired translation of disco inferno is not intended as the end game of our work together. If the tweeted translation of disco inferno (albeit with a little refining) is put back into the Trammps’ original lyrics, the chorus becomes: Burn baby burn, learn through suffering. Burn baby burn, burn that mother down. When that happens, disco inferno becomes an instruction: learn from the thing that’s making you suffer, and burn it down. We do not want to just abandon ship. We want to learn from this moment and propose other ways to study and support each other. Annie will speak more to this aspect of our research now.

[Anastasia Murney - Your Disco Needs You]

We are thinking about study as a speculative mode of practice. We are dancing and learning through suffering, we are learning more about our circumstances and each other.  

I wish to come back to survival – as Aneshka said, this describes fugitive and non-hierarchical spaces for intimate encounters. But I want to highlight a potential risk, in the university context, where ‘survival’ might translate into neoliberal adaptation, continually doing more with (and for) less. In terms of disco survivalism, however, at least Gloria Gaynor had the courage to walk away – to not re-invest in a relationship that is clearly bad for her. So, what if we refused to smooth out the crisis, refused to partake in the unremunerated work of repair, and instead: let it burn. I don’t want to be glib and suggest this is easy. Many of us believe very strongly in education, we are energised and enriched by teaching, and we care about our students.

But I think of disco as a way of summoning courage and speculative energies. If nothing else, as Aneshka said, disco is an endurance genre; but our endurance can be set to work elsewhere and to different ends – not to maintain the exploitative operations of the university but to strive toward new infrastructures that might be invented from this condition of brokenness – pushing us off the path back to normal. And what is “normal”? Normal is the aggressive individualism of academic achievement and the persistent devaluing of teaching. As Tom Melick and Andrew Brooks write in University.xlsx, it is the tyranny of the spreadsheet – where the bottom line is the destination. 3

Alongside refusing the romanticised nostalgia of a university that once was, we also need to continually refuse the reactionary nostalgia for the white male hero as the subject of struggle. The co-opting of disco is evident from the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta swaggers down the street while The Bee Gees sing: “well, you can tell by the way I use my walk/ I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.” We’re expected to sympathise with protagonist Tony Manero – who is angry, insecure, and stuck in a dead-end job. He forces a competitive logic onto the discotheque and sees women as accessories to aid his success. Tony Manero exemplifies the political subject that cannot be allowed to colonise the dancefloor. This is also the antithesis of our approach to disco: which embraces improvisation, pleasure, and failure. It is inclusive and imaginative in a way that speaks to our pedagogies but also sketches out a model for disco unionism.

Disco always takes the opportunity to dance. We want to counter the disparaging of disco and the occlusion of messy and moving bodies from politics. As Richard Dyer writes, “it’s not just that people whose politics I broadly share don’t like disco, they manage to imply that it is politically beyond the pale to like it.” 4  I am reminded, also, of an anecdote from anarchist Emma Goldman, where she recalls attending an event and being pulled aside by a young boy and told “it did not behoove an agitator to dance.” Indignant, Goldman writes “I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should be turned into a cloister.” 5 In this sense, I want to question what is expunged from struggle in the name of ‘real’ or ‘serious’ activism. We are at a juncture where we need to be keeping our toolbox and big and as varied as possible. For us, this means moving together and to the beat. This is the rhythm that pulses through Kylie’s 2001 call to action, a vaguely Village People homage that urges us to dance through our fears, and includes the lyrics spoken in French: “you are never alone, you know what you have to do … your disco needs you.”

3 Andrew Brooks and Tom Melick, University.xlsx (2020), unpublished manuscript.  
4 Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment, 2nd Edition (Routledge: London and New York, 2002), p.        151
5  Emma Goldman, Living My Life Volume 1 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1970), 56. 

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