Dissertation Distillations 1

Im almost done.
I'll be posting sections and pieces,abstracts and selections; follow along for a shorter read of the lumbering beast.

Transcripts of fieldnotes recorded the night of Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction from its two-month encampment at the doorstep of City Hall:

At around 11pm on November 29th, 2011, I began to receive emails, texts, tweets and Facebook updates about rumors of an impending eviction of the Occupy Philadelphia encampment at City Hall. I was chatting online with a friend, checking out bands for a benefit show he needed help organizing, when he shared word of police confirmation of the eviction, passed on to him by a friend who works for the local NBC affiliate. I suited up for the cold, wet night and hopped on my bike to alert a few friends before heading downtown.

I passed a local bar, where a Metal and Punk dance party was being held and shouted to Kathy, Jim and the other people smoking on the steps, most of whom I didn’t know. Though both Kathy and Jim had been working regularly with Occupy, neither seemed interested in leaving the music or the booze. The information moved quickly through the small crowd and, as I turned to leave, three people I didn’t know nodded at me as they hurriedly unlock their bikes. As I rode away, I heard a boy in a leather studded jacket loudly shout, “Who the fuck cares about that shit, [feigning a ‘hippie’ voice] the 60s are over man!” as the Dead Kennedy’s opined about Reagan on the stereo inside.

I turned north and headed to Mika’s house, a large Victorian duplex typical of this part of West Philly, where six self-identified ‘Queers’ were living collectively. Inside, I found twelve people, meeting to discuss plans for a series of events aimed at fostering Queer solidarity. When I shared the eviction news, blank stares told me quickly that the events at City Hall mattered little to this group. A person to my left commented, “Good, we weren’t made to feel welcome there, they deserve it” and a few others nodded. As I was leaving, a recent acquaintance, smoking on his porch across the street, waved me over; he helps out at a radical autonomous space in the area that has been around for decades. Though I knew he had not been involved with Occupy, I asked if he wanted to come along. “No,” he replied, “I haven’t been in the street since the RNC [Republican National Convention in 2000] and I’m pretty much done with that…Besides,” he chuckled, “someone has to keep the space running when y’all are all in jail or until you get bored fighting with the cops.”

When I arrived at City Hall, a close friend called me over and others made room in the locked-arm sit down the group was using to stall being moved by the police. She turned to me and said, “Of course, Tim, Mike, Sally and those kids aren’t here.”  I knew whom she was talking about, and I’d seen a few people from that group of friends once or twice in Occupy’s first few days, but I asked what she meant by her snark. “They’re just worried about not looking cool and, you know, they’re into being ‘grown-ups’ now, buying houses and starting businesses and [making a face] ‘serious’ politics…they go on and on about ‘community’ but I think it just means their community, vegan coffeeshops and all that. A few minutes ago, I saw Tim posted something on Facebook like ‘good luck kiddies’…what an ass.”

When the police finally moved us out of the street, we joined the much larger crowd that had formed on the sidewalk over the past hour. I was surprised to see a boy who had told me a week earlier that he was “done” with Occupy because of an interpersonal conflict he had had with a friend over organizing a march. He had felt that his friend hadn’t considered her own class and racial privilege when she argued that the march should try to get the cops to chase them. I smiled and said, “I thought you were done.” He replied, “Yeah, but I can’t pass up a chance to fight with the cops!”

That bike ride, quite literally, weaved through what can be described as the concrete, physical manifestation of radical-DIY culture in terms of networks of people and places, referred to here as Philadelphia’s ‘radical-DIY scene.’ The scene represents a combination of physical/spatial and sociocultural networks, linked via their radical-leftist political orientation and/or symbolic and cultural markers and practices that draw heavily from radical-DIY political culture (Leach & Haunss, 2009).

To most outside observers, many of these people and places would appear similar, and in many ways they are. They share a culture in the sense of shared ways of doing things, as patterns of speaking and acting that people practice in everyday situations; they share political convictions, styles of dress, tastes, social norms, signs and symbols, and specialized knowledge.

However, this passage also points to important differences, variations in what and how much is shared. Here we see not only significant variation in people’s opinions about Occupy Philly (they deserve it), but also variations in opinions about others’ opinions about Occupy Philly (60s are over), and political opinions about others’ lifestyles (buying houses) and how it relates to OP participation. Occupy Philly’s particular transect into the life of the radical-DIY scene reveals certain differences in political orientation, expressed here via the participation of some and the objection, disinterest, or even hostility of others. Indeed, as I continued research within the scene, I surprised at the variety of political orientations I encountered.

That said, despite differences in what and how much of the radical-DIY culture is shared by individuals throughout the scene, there is a striking similarity in the ways people talked about politics and expressed political belief. In the example above, while the reasons or justifications for nonparticipation varied, the manner or form in which these were framed, formulated, and expressed was surprisingly similar; here too we see the sort of rejection and difference expressed via moralizing talk.

As I continued my research, I found these forms of political talk and expression throughout Philadelphia’s radical-DIY scene, appearing in moments and around issues far afield from the concerns of Occupy. Years after Occupy, at Punk shows, in online discussions, at parties, at other protest mobilizations, and throughout the everyday world of the radical-DIY scene, I encountered forms political talk and expression replete with themes of rejection, difference-making, and moralizing.

Significantly, these wider patterns of rejection, difference, and moralizing actually hint at some of the concerns about the tactical and strategic viability of lifestyle or prefigurative politics that have been raised in debates among activists and academics since the 1970s. Of particular concern here is the possible tendency for lifestyle practices to “become targets of self-righteous moralizing and other forms of social policing,” or what Laura Portwood-Stacer calls “politicking over lifestyle,” and that this politicking over lifestyle “can fracture bonds of solidarity among activists who make different lifestyle choices” (Brown, 2001; Hill-Collins, 1998; Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 9). Further, the notion that one’s lifestyle is completely malleable via choice ignores (or at least downplays) the many issues of power and privilege at work in the formation of political identities and movements. Wendy Brown (2001) further suggests that such moralizing is not simply an issue of solidarity rupture, but that such moralizing represents an underlying political stance that actually “misleads about the nature of power, the state and capitalism; it misleads about the nature of oppressive forces, and about the scope of the project of transformation required by serious ambitions for justice” (Brown, 2001, p.37).

Brown’s argument in regarding moralizing behavior deeply influenced the development of this project and my initial guiding question – how does this happen? – began to make more sense reframed as “should this have been expected?” How can we explain these similarities, even in spite of the differences? How can we explain the behavior and its pervasiveness? Is the rejection, difference, and moralizing (RDM) I saw in OP and in the scene indicative of something about these politics and/or this culture more generally? If so, what might that be, and what are the implications for collective projects for social change built around these radical politics?

Many questions develop from this general line of investigation: when and around what issues do these RDM forms of political talk and expression appear, or appear more strongly; how is the discursive work of RDM done in interactions among individuals and groups; can a generalized basis or explanation for this behavior can be found within the political culture itself and its radical prefigurative political ideology; what are the implications of these findings for radical politics themselves and for movements and other collective projects of social change built around radical prefigurative political ideologies?

It will be argued here that explanations can indeed be found within the radical prefigurative political ideology itself, in the way in which it understands itself, the radical project of social transformation in which it is engaged, and most importantly, in how it conceives of and understands the forces of power and oppression it aims to confront in that struggle. This radical, prefigurative, lifestyle-based political ideology promotes a view of social change that places the individual and individual choices and actions at the center. But the same thinking that encourages individuals to ‘be the change you want to see’ also leads to a similar (though inverse) personification of the forces being struggled against, a reification of systems of power and oppression in their effects. Sources of injustice, systems of oppression, and histories of injury remain obfuscated as the focus is instead placed on their effects as manifested in specific remarks or events, embodied in individuals and their actions.

Thus, in the research presented here, we find endless accusations and condemnations of individuals and their ‘privilege,’ instead of a radical analysis of the systems and sources of racism, sexism, and economic inequality that actually create and sustain that privilege in the lives of individuals. We find two people accused of being ‘party operatives’ and ‘encouraging participation in an evil system’ through voter registration instead of any radical critique or analysis of the systems of power and oppression at work in that ‘evil system,’ and what participation actually means and looks like. Perhaps most ironically, we find a seemingly endless supply of ‘gentrifier’ invectives and condemnations, but an almost outright refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the systems of power and injustice at work in processes of gentrification, let alone a willingness to admit radical-DIY culture’s own significant role in shaping and even accelerating it.

The following chapters will further develop and elaborate this argument.


Brown, W. (2001). Politics Out of History. Princeton University Press.

Hill-Collins, P. (1998). Fighting Words: Black Women and the Fight for Social Justice. Minneapolis: Univerity of Minnesota Press.

Leach, D. K., & Haunss, S. (2009). Scenes and social movements. In H. Johnston, Culture, Social Movements, and Protest (pp. 255–276). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Portwood-Stacer, L. (2013). Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.



Rejection and Difference II: ‘Bros’ and ‘Highschool Brats’

[ This post builds directly from and is meant to follow the previous post: Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’ ]


Rejection and Difference II: ‘Bros’ and ‘Highschool Brats’

While authenticity continues to be a theme in prefigurative scene members’ difference-making, the basis for this rejection becomes more subtle and complex as we move fully into the scene and focus on interactions between scene members. The individuals discussed here share a greater number of prefigurative patterns of everyday life (i.e. deeper within the scene), though this does not mean they share political orientations. While they may hang out at similar places, eat and shop at the same places, and know many of the same people, this apparent ‘closeness’ obscures deep divisions in their understanding of what prefigurative politics are supposed to ‘do.’

For example, in the opening vignette, the Punk outside the bar who reminded me that ‘the 60s were over’ hints at one of these divisions in the scene, a particularly hostile one, between the scene groups seen in the first example and what, to use a recently created invective developed in a widely read local zine, could be called ‘Bros.’

This zine, titled Bros Fall Back, was written in May of 2013 and quickly spread throughout Philly’s radical-DIY scene; it is difficult to overstate the impact this zine had on conversations and interactions across the scene. It appears as part of a rising critical voice within the scene aimed at pointing out how supposedly Punk and radical spaces and scenes actually harbor racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and classist ideas, particularly when people come to the defense of someone accused of one of these demonstrating one of these behaviors (i.e. ‘he’s not a bad guy, he was just drunk’). From the zine:

A bro is someone who assumes that any space they enter is meant to cater to augmenting their personal experience. they “don’t give a fuck,” even at the expense of everyone around them. regardless of the presence of oppressive and problematic behavior, a bro will tirelessly try to appear aloof….interesting things, to a bro, are shocking, ironic, edgy, but vapid activities…a bro is too cowardly to express anything sincere.

            …Booking [Punk] shows isn’t a righteous, revolutionary pursuit. I just don’t want to have to tolerate the racist, patriarchical, queerphobic bullshit that I have to tolerate in most other spaces. I’m about alienating my enemies, not embracing them. If you’re thoughtlessly policing someone’s behavior or making fucked up jokes you’re acting like my enemy…claiming you didn’t have ill intent won’t save you and is not a thoughtful, thorough apology…

            When we have punk shows we are expressing a sentiment of ownership and belonging to the neighborhood, an entitlement to impose our culture on a specific geography. When we have punk shows we are paving the way for artists, hipsters, university students, and yuppies to feel safe and welcomed…We are the warning signs of gentrification…When we have punk shows we are inviting a historically white population [i.e. Punks] to take up space and make lots of noise in neighborhoods that are currently experiencing or already have experienced a certain degree of gentrification…

            …There should be more space to self-criticize ourselves, our friends, our scenes without a defeatist attitude. Instead we can utilize our politics for more than catchy song lyrics and patches, and try to employ them for uses that lend themselves to more valuable conversation.

The perceived problems with ‘bros’ are laid out with relative clarity here. In many ways, the zine is representative of a broader effort to reclaim or stake out a new understanding about what Philly’s Punk spaces should be. However, despite the very real and very important issues raised in the zine, the ensuing debates and discussions (many occurring online, where linked personal networks create a sort of ‘punk public’) were far messier and far more personal than the zine appears to have envisioned.

On one side, ‘zine supporters’ made repeated efforts to highlight how Punk spaces can not only be exclusionary but even hostile to those who do not fit the ‘traditional’ Punk archetype (i.e. white, nihilistic males). This is an issue that has been widely discussed in the literature on Punk, a long-term problem that has garnered intense debate over the past three decades. In interaction, however, these points were often made in a tone that suggested that ‘you are either part of the problem or part of the solution.’

Thus, while the zine does highlight significant problems facing this community, the tone of the writing and, more importantly, the tone taken by many of its supporters in online and real-life discussions ended up becoming the focus of debate and contention. In fact, the phrase ‘high school bullshit’ was an extremely common comment made by those who were made to feel alienated in these arguments. As one person put it to me after a show that featured physical altercations over this zine, they felt those rallying in support of the zine and it’s content were

…like snotty teenagers who think they know everything, like they’re the first to write about this, and that if you don’t know them personally, like hang out with them, then you’re automatically a racist patriarch who is ruining everything. And when you try to talk to any of them about it, they act like you’re too stupid to possibly get it, you haven’t read the right stuff, you never will, and you’re just not cool, or a punk, or radical enough or something. It’s fucking high school shit!

Online trolling, physical altercations, refusal to interact or discuss in scene spaces, and a great deal of gossiping appeared to infect this important discussion about the manifestation of racism, sexism, queerphobia, etc. within the radical-DIY scene, leading many people to remove themselves entirely from any discussion on these issues. This is clearly not an ideal outcome for the zine’s authors who, at least nominally, were seeking ‘valuable self-critical conversation.’  However, it is inline with what a supporter (and possibly one of the zine’s multiple, but anonymous authors) told me the ‘real goal’ was: to be an explicitly trolling text, meant to incite anger and discontent. This again pushes us to reconsider what prefigurative, identity-based lifestyle politics are suppose to do in these situations. Was the prefigurative thrust in the zine’s development aimed at modeling the values of a new world, or, was it aimed at the selective, particular and even opportunistic deployment of identity in pursuit of starting arguments and ‘getting in their faces and kicking them out for the new crew,’ as one supporter claimed it was?

In fact, this confrontational tone quickly mutated into an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic that pushed even small, tangential discussions into heated and contentious arguments. The very definition of a ‘bro’ became a key point of contention as interactions across this scene gulf became more hostile; some were clearly interested in determining whether others considered them a ‘bro,’ while others wanted to point out perceived hypocrisies in the positions of those defending the zine’s arguments.

The latter, often took the form of simple rejection of the authors and their approach to these issues as being ‘self-involved,’ ‘written by graduate students,’ ‘too PC,’ ‘written by people who haven’t been involved in the scene for decades like I have,’ or ‘classist in its very use of big words and theory.’  Another major problem for many of those who felt alienated or targeted by the zine was the refusal of the authors or their supporters to further explain their positions or the issues raised, with the consistent refrain: ‘It is not the job of the oppressed to explain their oppression to their oppressors,’ or ‘read a book.’  It was this response that usually led to explosive confrontation, with one bro commenting to me as she walked away from an argument at a show,

“Who the fuck do these people think they are?  Of course there are problems. I’m a goddamn woman who plays goddamn punk, you think I don’t know about these problems, you act like I DON’T KNOW [shouting back toward argument]. But I don’t get all bratty about it, I actually work against it, where it lives. But to just sit there and complain and say people are being awful to you and then refuse to explain yourself further and only say ‘figure it out yourself’…I don’t know, its just so fucking self-righteous. I mean, I honestly don’t know much about this stuff and I don’t know where I’m supposed to start…I never went to college, I don’t know how to dig into this theory or whatever.”

In fact, the direct responses of ‘bros’ to these sorts of accusations are equally interesting given our interest in authenticity. Perhaps the most telling example comes from the many, many discussions and exchanges that revolved around issues of privilege. Over and over again, when white male bros were accused of not recognizing their white privilege, their responses could be consistently summarized as ‘I don’t have privilege, I grew up poor.’  Here, the recourse to class (‘I grew up poor’) is a return to the working-class aesthetics and ideals that form a fundamental part of Punk’s overall mythos. In fact, many of the most visible symbolic cultural markers of Punk in general could be read as an exercise in down classing, or even living without class privilege – dirty clothes, dumpster diving, train hopping, squatting, cheap alcohol, etc.

In the examples given above the theme of authenticity rises again, in two forms. First, the responses of bros consistently rejected the notion of privilege by emphasizing their ‘authentic’ Punk self as being ‘in the scene for over a decade,’ ‘the kind of person who actually does the work of punk like setting up shows,’ exuding nihilistic irony, and (at least symbolically) living a working-class life. Further, the more personal criticisms and invectives lobbed at the zine’s authors and supporters generally either tried to frame them as inauthentic Punks (‘new kids in the city who just want attention,’ ‘graduate students,’ ‘just want to destroy the community’), or, as hypocrites and, thus, inauthentic in their own self-presentation.

Second, it also possible to see issues of authenticity at work the behavior and discourse of zine supporters, particularly in sense of in/out-group dynamics . Here the complex radical politics presented in the zine appear to speak in terms of essentialized identities, particularly in the sense of reifying systems of oppression into specific, particular people and actions rather than viewing these people and actions as manifestations of much deeper and more complex systems of oppression).  By using essentialized identities to do the work of rejection and difference, these individuals can also be seen as constructing their own identities as more authentic radicals than the Punks who were not “welcome in the cool club” as a zine supporter phrased it in a screaming match outside a Punk show.

My project is built around a series of questions about what this sort of political culture offers or means in terms of collective projects of social change.  It seeks to raise some concerns that in reifying power within individuals and actions, power remains obfuscated.  The leftist-radical obsession with lifestyle choices as the self-directed and self-conscious construction of political identity not only encourages the commodification(as fetishization) of political identity [i.e. the assumption that we are free to choose and make identities however we want; that we are not limited in this endeavor, or, that the ability to do so may be a privilege many do not enjoy; wherein the process of the selection and display of a radical identity mirrors the process of self-creation via commodity consumption], buuuut, the flip-side of this views ‘bro’ individual and ‘bro’ actions not as manifestations of power, but as oppression itself.  Again, this is not to discount micro-level impact of individuals’ actions (saying fucked up things is fucked up).  Rather, it is to suggest that this line of thinking means that as long as the individual-reified-as-oppresion, bro, can be targeted/avoided/estranged/removed, then power too goes with them; however, power remains lurking in the corner.

DrunkPunks who self-construct as ‘outside of capitalism,’ and those who self-construct as ‘outside/above bros’ are doing similar things. Just because you start every Punk show or event noting that (an elusive) ‘we’ are “against -isms of all kinds,” does not mean that the -isms aren’t at work in the room.  Unfortunately, the politics themselves, the Western left-radical-DIY politics of identity and prefiguration, imply otherwise and they lack the tools to pursue systems (not manifestations) of oppression and power any further than the gates of the marketplace of ideas.

Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’

[As the dissertation work takes real shape, I find nuggets and sections like this that I can share without need to preface it with an entire history of everything]

In the final sections of Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, Portwood-Stacer argues that questions about the effectiveness of prefigurative lifestyle politics (or any political action) can only be asked in relation to specific historical and spatial contexts. She is echoing Robin Kelley’s (1996) observation that “certain forms of resistance create their own limits,” and that these are “limits that can be understood only in specific historical and spatial contexts. It is hoped that this historical and spatial specificity can be achieved here through the application of scenes to the concrete reality of everyday life for today’s Punks and radicals in Philadelphia.

My project aims to explore a number of interrelated issues within this specified context. It asks after issues of power and privilege at work in the formation of prefigurative political identities and how this relates to the tendency for lifestyle practices to “become targets of self-righteous moralizing and other forms of social policing,” or what Laura Portwood-Stacer calls “politicking over lifestyle” (Portwood-Stacer 2013:9). Further, the project investigates how, in this case, such politicking can “fracture bonds of solidarity among activists who make different lifestyle choices,” with dual interest in fracturing within the scene itself and in relation to Occupy Philly, thus taking up Leach and Haunss’ call for research into the “negative effects scenes may have on movements ” (Leach and Haunss 2009:21).

Therefore, the project takes issues of solidarity and rupture as a means to approaching its empirical work, with the understanding that rupture or ‘distancing’ can occur in a variety of ways. Indeed, because identities “are constructed through, not outside, difference” and can “function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside,’ abjected,” the project is interested not only individuals’ conscious rejection or dismissal of other groups or people, but also the rejection and difference embedded in the very formation of prefigurative political identities (Hall 2000:18).

Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’

My first encounters with the rejection and difference work done by scene members in and around Occupy Philly (OP) were difficult to ignore. In fact, the high tension and strong emotions expressed in these moments were what inspired the focus on rejection and difference work in the first place. While it was easy to see the obvious points of contention between radical leftists and, say, the Ron Paul supporters who maintained a significant presence at OP, the divisions and distancing that occurred between prefigurers and more moderate leftists was surprising and, at times, entirely unexpected.

One example stands out in particular; the following passage is from my fieldnotes taken at a GA held in January of 2012:

Two middle-aged men brought a proposal to a sparsely attended GA asking if OP would support voter registration drives in Philadelphia, particularly in the poorer sections of the city where voter registration and turn-out is incredibly low. They were not asking for material support or even door-to-door help; he asked to use the OP logo on the voter registration materials. They ended their presentation by asking, “Is the GA going to vote in line with the interests of disenfranchisement?”  It is important note that Pennsylvania is at the center of a nationwide push to make voting more difficult through ID requirements other hurdles.

Scene members seem to outnumber other groups at the GA (plus they are all sitting together, on a bench in the back of a huge mostly empty room). Their response was overwhelmingly negative. They began ganging up on the presenters and accusing them of, among other things, ‘trying to trap people in a broken system,’ ‘using guilt to and shame to make us [the GA] do things,’ and ‘being Democratic Party operatives.’  This finger-pointing quickly escalated as one or two older, white Quakers commented that ‘people died to get the right to vote’ and were immediately met with middle-fingers and accusations of ‘classism,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘privilege’ by the bench full of scene members. The scene members, at this point, were standing on the bench, getting in people’s faces, and some were crying. I’ve written ‘everyone is being awful’ four times in a row in my scribbled notes.

I followed the two men who brought the proposal back into the hallway and encountered them telling the facilitator leading the GA, “We don’t care so much about the ‘no’ vote, but the disrespect we felt was ridiculous. We are two black men trying to raise political consciousness in poor black neighborhoods in this city and we were shouted down and accused of all kinds of things by a bunch of radical kids…I mean, they were acting like children.”

It was clear in this moment that the focus of the scene member’s ire was the act of voting as an element of formal, institutionalized politics. This was a message repeated across the Occupy movement; further, the movement’s resistance to engaging in formal politics (by supporting candidates or shaping clear demands into a platform) was frequent point of criticism of Occupy, as suggested by Pickerill and Kinsky’s observations. In later interviews and online discussions, many scene members (both those involved in OP and not) made it clear that they thought voting didn’t encourage people to ‘think for themselves,’ and only helped to ‘support’ and ‘justify’ a ‘corrupt’ and ‘evil’ political system.

However, when asked for examples of work OP was doing that did encourage people to ‘think for themselves,’ people found it difficult to specify anything beyond the basic existence of OP as a visible form of resistance. To be sure, the spectacle of OP certainly spoke to and encouraged some people to ‘think for themselves.’  But as reflection in the years following OP have revealed, it seems that for many Philadelphians, this message-via-presence wasn’t so clear for everyone.

While this position vis-à-vis formal politics is expected and manifested itself in interactions throughout OP (e.g. resistance to dialogue with city government, tensions with unions engaging with OP), what is most interesting for this project is the manner in which this political orientation was commonly expressed. This example highlights the deeply personal way in which prefigurative perspectives tended to be set against those of more mainstream leftists. One person’s suggestion that registering to vote might ‘help people start thinking critically about politics in ways that you [scene members] already do’ was met by shouting, jeering, and what can only be described as scene members ganging up and forcing this person into silence and, eventually, early exit from the GA.

Indeed, it is not hard to hear scene members’ statements about voting as something akin to: ‘I don’t vote because I’m smarter than that.’  In fact, in many situations, the ways in which individuals’ critical opinions about formal politics were presented in interactions with others were deeply imbued with condescension. Crucially, this condescension is intimately tied with notions of authenticity, the idea being that authentic radicals don’t vote. A deeper look into the scene helps us tease out these authenticity struggles from what looks like simple condescension.

Gonzo Ethnography Collective

I’ve had this idea floating around for a while.  It began when I accompanied a friend to an Insane Clown Posse concert to do some ethnographic work for a (undergrad) course paper he was writing.  It was an amazing event, with a lot of unexpected experiences and his write-up was great.

Yesterday a friend sent me a link for an event being held nearby: A ‘Sound of Music’ Sing-a-long.  What is interesting is that there is a “for kids” version held earlier in the day and a “18+” one being held later at night.  Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was: what kinds of adults are spending their night (and buying tickets to) an ADULTS ONLY Sound of Music sing-a-long night.  What on earth could this event be like?

I have found myself asking similar questions about other events and phenomena: civil war reenactments, tweed bike rides…the list could be nearly endless.  So, posted on facebook asking if others might be interested in some sort of ethnography collective that might hit these types of events.  It seems like a popular idea!

So, I am proposing forming a gonzo/radical/rouge ethnography collective for precisely this reason.  I think the key requirment is that the collective is fun.  This is all inspired by marveling at ridiculousness and I don’t really have an interest in trying to produce something super serious or all starry-eyed like NYTimes or New Yorker articles.  I want to go out, take notes, film, record and have fun with friends.

That said, I also think this is something people would like to read.  We could set up a website/blog where we could post reports with video and whatnot.  Anything is possible really.

Finally, I also think this might be a cool way to run an ethnography training course.  I could teach people what I know and, like in classes, go out and put it into practice.  It’s a field school…with more booze and smiles.

What do people think?  You can comment below and/or email me and I will get some sort of list together.  We could share upcoming potential field sites and just see if anyone feels like going and hanging out.  Once we get some under our belt, we can start thinking of publishing online, etc.  What do you think the best way to proceed might be?

Perhaps begin with a Google Group: https://groups.google.com/d/forum/gonzo-ethnography-collective



Occupy Anti-Politics | Jacobin

The link above is to an article in Jacobin Magazine titled ‘Occupy’s Anti-Politics.’  In it, author Shawn Gude attempts to connect that apparent ‘failure’ of the Occupy movement with Occupy activists’ aversion to what he calls “acting politically,” arguing:

[C]ommunity is important. Occupiers were wrong, however, when they viewed it as a resounding step towards a more egalitarian, just society.

Politically, Occupy accomplished little because we were often too wary of acting politically, of making demands on the political system, of acknowledging conflict and structuring our movement accordingly. Many in the movement thought structure carried the patina of the establishment, that demand making would simply serve to legitimize the malevolent state. So we got an amorphous, highly decentralized movement that, after a miraculous flourish in its embryonic stages, tapered off.

…Even for those who find the state of American politics repulsive (and I, emphatically, do) the principle, the idea, of politics and the democratic process must be defended. Jaundiced resignation redounds to the benefit of the Right. They relish anti-political cynicism. They oppose concerted collective action, so they harness the sentiment to subvert politics itself. They adopt a sort of aloof, cooler-than-thou detachment from the political arena, a pernicious posture that ineluctably elevates apathy and inaction to the status of beau ideal.

…Acting politically means confronting power, not side-stepping it. It means reshaping existing institutions, not just building alternative ones. It means directly and indirectly engaging the state, not cocooning oneself from it.

First, there is the irony of an article supporting engagement with established political institutions being published in an magazine called Jacobin, which prides itself on being “hostile to liberal accomodationalism.”  But let’s not get into petty shit.

There is something larger that this article helps to highlight.  Gude is responding, and largely mimicking  an Thomas Frank article that similarly bemoans Occupy’s supposed lack of ‘acting politically;’ he argues that where most (especially academic) coverage asks what made Occupy so successful  we should instead ask:

Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing?

What I find interesting about this position, which is equally common as the celebratory accounts, is that it elevates and reifies ‘acting politically’ in the same way that they claim Occupiers have ‘fetishized feelings.’  This argument criticizes Occupy’s (and other/previous movements’) rhetorical/ideological celebration of prefigurative politics, of community building through mutual aid, of ‘being the change you want to see.’  In doing so, authors who follow this line of argument often just come off sounding grumpy.

It’s important to make clear that the defense of ‘acting politically  is often  pretty vague   It focuses on Occupy’s appranat lack of impact as evidence that it ‘needed to do more.’  What ‘doing more’ by ‘acting politically   means is  rarely specified; usually it signifies a collection of ideas and practices that say more about the author than any essential qualities of ‘democracy’ or ideal tactical choices. ,’

In fact it usually just seems to mean voting, or supporting people to vote for. It signifies a resigned politics of the old Left..literally old.  The tendency to view the world in a way that valorizes ones historical experience: ‘the greatest generation ‘the radical 60s and 70s.’  But the source of Occupy’s ‘antipolitics’ is born out in the history of movement of the 60s/70s: a path of institutionalization that raises important questions about ‘acting politically,’ questions that cannot be addressed with general talk like:

Even for those who find the state of American politics repulsive (and I, emphatically, do) the principle, the idea, of politics and the democratic process must be defended.

What does this mean?  What is detestable and what must be defended?  I might even argue that part of Occupy’s story is a frustration with this conundrum: deadlock and powerlessness.

Instead he says that what prefiguration and ‘community’ avoid is the brave recognition of conflict and compromise that ‘acting politically entails.’  Yet, in my experience, those Occupiers who most avoided conflict were those pushing for engagement with institutional politics, and they started leaving early.  As soon as things ot messy, out came the calls to “get back to work” and move on to a campaign.

But is this not politics?  What is political?  this is not philosophical bullshit im asking. what do you mean?

And here is a crucial issue.  And it pivots.

We can also ask of community/prefiguration: aren’t communities embedded in a wide and diverse set of social contexts, in which electoral, party, institutionalized poltics figure heavily?

To the Pennsylvanians: if corbett could have not been elected, perhaps through organizing around voting or if strategic voting weren’t so distasteful to white male anarchos, there might have been fewer fracking permits, fewer ruined watersheds?


Anyway, the Jacobin stiff: What is even stranger about this whole (and again common) argument is the implicit suggestion that celebration, prefiguration, and community are not involved in the creation of a more egalitarian society.  I am not arguing for these ideas here, but simply against the factual basis on which tthis line rests, and the fact that it seems to presume to know everything.

Indeed and  besides, Jacobin’s own intro about obama signs is precisely the point.  movements are not controllled. it may be appropriateion, but there are more people involved in social change than activists and their critics.



Occupy occupy occupy

Are we doing something?

There is endless journalistic ‘coverage’ of occupy: fawing (link), possessive (link, blah), exploitative, etc.  There is also a bloom in the life of the academic field of social movement theory.  I’m willing to bet $100 that social movement theory journals have seensubmission rates the likes of which haven’t been seen since seattle99.

Yet, there is something worrying in the tones across the board.

As a movement, the approximate cannon approaches occupy with tools that are biased toward a particular rationality: liberal democratic governance.  The notion of seeking rights and recognition encounters the lived realities of imagined communities, seeking expansion and realization.  The term movement is limiting in itself.

Are movements marches, demonstrations, or riots?

Are movements media time/spotlight?

Are movements facebook or twitter activity?

Are movements the same thing as change?

Perhaps, are movements simply the cresting waves in tides of social changeNetworks form like flotsam: relationships and coalitions.

Video of Recent Talk at Occupy Philly’s Dissecting Capitalism Series

Below is video from a talk I gave last week as part of Occupy Philly’s Dissecting Capitalism series.  This particular session as devoted to the discussing ‘the political economy of the environment,’ and I presented along with Amy Roe.  The bulk of my portion is based on work I did for the ‘Energy Commons’ article, citation below.



My portion is based on this article:

Article Published in ‘Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society’

I realize that I have neglected this space for a week or so now, but with good reason. I have tried to give myself some time away from the computer having finished my Thesis and, instead, have been working diligently in the garden.

But rainy days give me the opportunity to return again.

Some good news, an article I co-authored was recently published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. It is titled “Relocating Energy in the Social Commons.” At its heart is a critical analysis of unaddressed issues of scale and justice in the changing energy landscape. Polished visions of huge turbines in untouched green pastures are spreading, however, this future simply offers a trade of inputs. Our relationship with energy, the hierarchical systems that produce it and the blind ways in which we consume it are left intact.

Here is the abstract:

Climate change, rising energy costs, and other dilemmas raise the prospect for major change in energy-ecology-society relations. Two prominent proposals for change include: a nuclear power renaissance; and mega-scale renewable energy development. Both suggest that modern society will receive a rising stream of less CO2-rich kilowatt-hours, so that increased energy consumption and economic growth can continue. The article doubts these CO2 claims and finds both options lead to deepening unsustainability and environmental injustice. A third approach is proposed. A new institutional and community strategy called a Sustainability Energy Utility. The SEU looks to reduce energy use and seeks to support remaining energy needs by community-scale renewables. To accomplish deep energy change, the authors show how an SEU can move society from an energy commodity to energy commons regime. Commonwealth economy and community trusts are key means to significant change: a future commons is offered as the more appropriate strategy.

It can be found through SagePub here


Dinosaurs of the Left: Theorizing Reality

It never fails to astound me how out-of-touch the press-hound movement activists and scholars of the 1960s and 70s can be. Case in point, Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr.’s essay in the Nation, Reimagining Socialism.

The piece is a short wail and moan tract that reads something like this: This isn’t the way it was supposed to be, there was supposed to be a socialist revolution. It was supposed to be easy. Well capitalism has entered a crisis stage and ‘we’ don’t have a plan. ‘We’ need a plan. Solidarity is important, an emotional core to some larger plan that will come into being. It ends,

And we have to be serious, because the capitalist elites who have run things so far have forfeited all trust or even respect, and we–progressives of all stripes–are now the only grown-ups around. (Source)

Where to begin? There seem to be two key issues worth addressing. First, the notion that there was ‘supposed’ to be anything. Second, the view that ‘we’ don’t have a plan; who is this ‘we,’ because you and I do not have a plan, Ehrenreich and Fletcher, but me and my friends do. In fact, that is a whole lot of ‘planning’ going on that you appear unsurprisingly unaware of.

First, the idea that ‘something’ was supposed to happen. No, friends, ‘it’ doesn’t happen, you do. In fact, the implication that the flawed logic of capitalism would inevitably create a situation where, as you put it, ‘seizure’ would occur is rather lazy. Contradictions in capitalism create crises, but not the wedge needed to exploit the crises. Indeed, you cannot wait for crises, you must be prepared for them and then push for them.

So, ok, ‘we’ weren’t prepared. But who is ‘We’? I assume you are speaking to ‘socialists’ and yet, right there at the end (in the quote above) you try to link with ‘progresives of all stripes.’ But what about those progressives that take issue with activists of the 1960s and 70s stealing energy and legitimacy from today’s activism with tracts like this. You’re right, YOU don’t have a plan. Dr. Eherereich, your United Professional, a union for “white collar workers” whose mission is to “protect and preserve the American middle class,” is probably not in any shape to create the necessary institutions to support deep, radical social change. Protect the middle class in what way, support what sort of habits? The kind spread through your most beloved channels of communication: The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine and, clearly, The Nation? Yes, the advertisements for handmade hardwood kayaks, escapist ‘eco-sensitive’ log cabins and rare books are exactly what Marxist thinkers had in mind when calling for a class consciousness capable of elucidating a vision: protected white people who pat themselves on the back for things that took place a four decades ago.

The authors’ assertion that there is no plan so clearly demonstrates the disengagement and false radicalism of the Dinosaurs of the Left. No, there is no plan that includes your Audi with the ‘Fuck Bush’ sticker on it. There is also no plan that includes Obama, as you seem to suggest. In fact, this socialists support for Obama is perfect: the co-option of the farm workers’ ‘Si Se Puede’ lends radical cred to an aging hippie’s dream: ‘Yes We Can’ while sipping a nice Bordeaux in a Brooklyn loft, feeling so pleased that the soft revolution, using familiar methods in the normal routes of economic and political power rather than the ugly yet turgid with potential route it is more likely to take. I have gotten more upset about this elsewhere there (see Bakunin in NYC Part I and Part II and some of the document scans below), I will stop right there.

Fortunately, in a reply to Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher’s (E&F) that also appears in the Nation, Rebecca Solnit seems to understand the apparent willful ignorance of their position. She first points out that the authors assume that because they haven’t seen it, it hasn’t happened, pointin to multiple uprising and challenges that DO have a plan, out side of the US including the Zapatistas, Argentineans and South Africans.

Most importantly, she notes that there are changes happening here in the US. I’ll let her speak,

“Do we have a plan, people?” Ehrenreich and Fletcher ask. We have thousands of them, being carried out quite spectacularly over the past few decades, for gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better. The underlying vision is neither state socialist nor corporate capitalist, but something humane, local and accountable–anarchist, basically, as in direct democracy. The revolution exists in little bits everywhere, but not much has been done to connect its dots. We need to say that there are alternatives being realized all around us and theorize the underlying ideals and possibilities. But we need to start from the confidence that the revolution has been with us for a while and is succeeding in bits and pieces. Enlarged and clarified, it could answer a lot of the urgent needs the depression brings.

Well put Rebecca Solnit. There are so many thing happening and it’s not like people aren’t trying to theorize them. Indeed, that has been the focus of my work for he last five years or so. It has also been the work of, to take a small slice, Uri Gordon, Chris Spannos,Chris Carlsson and, one author E&F do mention, Michael Albert. All of these people are working on those connections, so am I, so are lots of people.

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean its not there. Indeed, a big problem is even gaining the ability to see it. To return to the beginning, part of the problem is a social movement theory and a liberal press circuit that romanticizes a largely irrelevant 1960s and 1970s. The fact that contemporary radicals, usually homogenized and labeled the Movement of Movements (MM), spent a significant portion of its early career distancing itself from the 1960s and 70s is telling. In the analytical disorder of the early 1990s, these movements were, to a certain extent, ignored; handled with the theoretical and methodological practices of the past. They did not begin to receive innovative attention until November of 1999 when images of anarchists in Seattle were seen around the world.

Since then, social movement literature has attempted to embrace these communities and movements. However, mainstream approaches have generally only modified old models or forced the movements to ‘fit’ with established theories. Early literature frequently homogenized the MM, sidelining its constituent submovements and communities; they were see as peripheral, tangential to the presumed coherent ‘movement’ that made headlines in Seattle.

Now, ten years after Seattle, the problem persists. Now more than ever there is a real need for relevant theory; activist communities are still plagued by confusion and frustration. Richard Flacks observes,

Green Regime Change

Everyday I am astounded to discover the strange and unexpected threads of journalism that are working their way into the ‘normal’ press circut. In the past four months, two of these have surprised me in particular: the running dialogue surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana and the depth of the discourse on ‘green’ social change. The marijuana debate may be something I will handle later, when the tone of the debate becomes more established; here I want to make a point about the notion of an American Green Revolution. (This article links the issues, though not to any real productive end).

Less that two decades ago, the idea that non-polluting energy sources would figure so prominently in forecasts, plans, and proposals was a fantasy. However, for all the celebration of the prominence of ‘green’ energy sources, another pervasive aspect of the debate has been overlooked: scale.

Indeed, virtually all popular discussion about the future of renewable energy is predicated upon the assumption of centralized generation by large-scale systems. For example, wind power is symbolized by images of massive farms, huge turbines dotting the coastline or prairie by both sides of the debate. Wind resisters cite noise, bird mortality, insufficient transmission capacity and, most commonly, view pollution in their arguments against farm construction; wind supporters muster ornithologists, acoustics experts and artists in their defense. The scale of the farms is not part of the debate. The same is true for nearly all of the most popular renewable energy systems. Geothermal, hydropower, hydrogen and bioenergy, the main renewables supported by US DOE grants, are all large-scale projects based upon a centralized generation paradigm, either because grants push research in that direction or because of the nature of the source, as in the case of geothermal.

In this sense, the renewable systems touted as saviors of modern society, glorified and worshipped through ad campaigns full of calming, green vistas, have more in common with coal power plants of the past than any energy independence utopia of the future. They continue the tradition of monolithic energy systems, bringing with them the attendant social and political characteristics, the political economy of the energy of the past. Langdon Winner refers to the social and political dimensions associated with a given physical energy technology as an energy regime.

To provide the variety of goods and services that sustain then, modern societies have created elaborate sociotechnical systems that link production, distribution, and consumption in coherent patterns. Within such systems, the activities of work, managcment, finance, planning, marketing, and the like are coordinated in highly developed institutional arrangements. These institutions, together with the physical technologies they employ, can well be characterized, borrowing a term from political theory, as “regimes” under which people who use energy are obliged to live. Such regimes of instrumentality have meaning for the way we live not unlike regimes in politics as such. It is possible to examine the full range of structural features contained in a particular sociotechnical arrangement and to identify the qualities of its rules, roles, and relationships.
(Winner 1982: 271)

The energy regime of the past, and the one large-scale renewables stand to replicate, is characterized by “extremely large, complex, centralized, and hierarchically managed” systems reliant on, and constantly reenforcing, a social contract that is predicated upon a highly developed technocrat class, the political will to support them and the positioning of ‘energy users’ as ‘energy consumers,’ purchasing from an amorphous energy system, “black boxes – input/output devices whose internal structure is of no particular public concern” (Winner 1982: 273;272). Winner observes that cost reductions offered by economies of scale has generated tactic support for the continuation this energy regime. Indeed, as the US electrical utility system became more centralized, the political system expanded to support it. The government response to public outcry over monopolistic utilities was a large, complex and hierarchically managed set of government programs, namely the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration. The cost reductions of economies of scale meant these programs only helped to reenforce the physical and social support structures of a centralized energy paradigm through construction of massive grid networks and generation facilities. Bundled with the spread of these massive physical systems came social systems, a subliminal indoctrination that energy systems only come in ‘extra-large.’

Regime Obesity

There should be little doubt that the relatively quick realignment of social systems in order to better support a centralized energy regime is directly linked to modern notions of affluence, that is, that ‘living well’ is being materially secure with high rates of consumption. Indeed, industry lobbyists and politicians rely on images of wealthy suburban families and the fabled ‘American dream’ to encourage support for the maintenance and expansion of these regimes. This wealth-energy association sets up a kind of feedback loop: the physical processes that produce material wealth are reliant on obese energy regimes and continued growth of output; production interests push for the resources and demand needed to grow (through political action and advertising), political and consumer advertising campaigns create and reenforce social norms encouraging increased consumption in the pursuit of material wealth; increased demand encourages expansion of the physical processes that produce material wealth, and around again. In this cycle, energy systems are a means to an end; the focus is on the product rather than production. Energy is commodified and efficiency, quantity and profitability become its central benchmarks.

While this chain of events and the reflexive interplay of the material and the social are clearly visible in contemporary contexts, they have their roots in the very birth of modernity. Beginning in the Industrial Revolution, dramatic scientific and technological breakthroughs meant (for the West) longer, disease-free lives whose sustenance relies less on soil and water than chemistry and biology (Byrne, et al 2002:271). Further, more recent advances in information technology have not only collapsed space and time but also reenforced the notion that modernity (and all the material benefits it bestows) stem from this unfettered pursuit of a ‘knowledge society.’

We have inherited the energy regimes of the Industrial Revolution, the “alliance of science, capitalism and carbon power,” and we must see them as part of this history of Western knowledge production and application (Byrne, et al. 2002:267). The separation of means and ends mentioned above is simply an extension of Western civilization’s veneration of objectivity and abstraction, central tenants of its ‘reason as religion’ approach to knowledge (Alvares 1992:74). The material benefits of a ‘knowledge society’ mask and override its other impacts; this is particularly true of the social order it engenders.

Lewis Mumford famously noted the dramatic reorganization of the social order around these principles of quantification: “Quantitative production has become, for our mass-minded contemporaries, the only imperative goal: they value quantification without qualification” (Mumford 1961:57). Thus the measure of an energy system is quantitative rather than qualitative; it is judged in terms of volume and efficiency rather than social or ecological impacts, let alone questions of ethics.

The result is alienation from energy. In Marxist terms, the social contract with energy we have inherited conditions us to judge energy in quantitative terms, that is, price per unit (exchange-value). However, when we compare the exchange-values of energy sources, we are necessarily assuming they are comparable in terms of their inherent use-value. However, when we speak of needing ‘energy’ to heat our house, get to work and run our TVs, it is not oil, gasoline or electricity we want, but warm houses, vehicular motion and entertainment, ‘real things’ characterized by their end-use, to borrow a phrase from Lovins (Lovins 1977:39). The user-as-consumer aspect of the Obese Regime implores us to simply seek the cheapest input to achieve the desired goal.

Thus, when the user/consumer lines up energy sources in terms of their exchange-value in order to choose based on price per unit, they abstract the use-value of those sources. Ten watts produced with coal has the same exchange-value as one watt produced by wind; coal is power is cheaper. The fact that the processes that produced those watts are qualitatively different is unaccounted for in the calculations.

Green Titans

The predominant energy systems of the past 100 years are part of an energy regime, a particular configuration of material, social, economic, political and psychological patterns and institutions. This particular regime is typified by its complex, centralized, and gigantic physical technologies and the technocracy, commodification, and hierarchy that support and reinforce their primacy. There is constant reciprocity among these factors, each one deepening the strength and logic of the others.

Enter renewable energy systems.

Given the breadth and depth of its influence, there should be little surprise that the Obese Regime would draw renewable energy technologies into its fold. This should not necessarily be thought of as a sinister act; modern society is so ingrained with the logic of the regime that it’s difficult to even imagine a new arrangement, let alone construct one.

Consequently, renewable energy systems are ushered in in the same, large-scale, centralized and complex form as their predecessors. The technophilic awe inspired by massive coal plants and nuclear reactors in previous decades is replicated in visions of vast wind farms, huge tidal capture systems, lonely desert solar arrays, a complex hydrogen infrastructure, and so on. The old energy regime is maintained in that we are simply exchanging our sources, in the same extra-large form, while leaving the rest of the Obese configuration intact. The unique opportunity to question our relationship with energy offered by the decline of fossil fuels is lost in a seamless swap of inputs.

There is, however, a critical problem raised by the incorporation of renewable technologies into an Obese regime. The inherent commodification of an Obese regime not only alienates the user/consumers from the energy production process but also the resources consumed in that process. While the physical technologies of the past did rely on organic sources, these were discrete inputs, that is, non-renewable sources. A commodified renewable energy not only maintains the alienation of the production process, but also its resources, in this case the Earth’s renewable, organic and omnipresent resources. The problem is not that the seemingly ceaseless march of commodification continues into the realm of basic ecosystem services, but that the economic logic of the Obese regime that accompanies commodification stands to erect barriers around these most pervasive of resources, these renewable energy commons.

Some might argue that by their very nature these resources cannot be appropriated or privatized and, thus, are not susceptible to the same capitalist economic logic as fossil fuels. To be sure, it is true that, for example, wind resources are not technically excludable, in that you cannot prevent others from using them, and that they are not technically rival, in that one person’s use does not affect the ability of others to do the same. However, when government grants, investment portfolios and sheer technophilia support the development of wind farms over distributed, small, home-based turbines, the cost incentives for research effectively privatizes the commons. It is privatization through economies of scale, appropriation through (unbalanced) competition.

Here we can see clearly the issue before us: the shift to renewable technologies is seen by many as inevitable, however, these technologies are no magic bullet. They are not any more likely to free us from the technocratic managerialism of centralized energy regimes than clean coal technologies are. Of course, they do have the potential to be implemented in a decentralized manner. But it must be remembered that renewable technology “can also become a corporate technology – the bases for solar power utilities, space satellites, and an ‘organic’ agribusiness comparable only to the highly chemicalized one so prevalent today” (Bookchin 1980: 131).

But, there are, of course, bright spots. I hope to point out some of these in the next few weeks. The first, and the shortest, is Smart Metering

Google’s jump on the Smart Metering bandwagon has popularized the idea that, gasp, we should be aware of how much energy we use (Info on Google and Smart Metering and Smart Grids here and here and here). While many parts of the nation are far from achieving widespread use of such meters, it is a step in the right direction. Establishing a way to put people in touch with their energy usage can break down the user/consumer barrier and instill a sensitivity necessary for further steps.