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.

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  1. Pingback: Rejection and Difference II: ‘Bros’ and ‘Highschool Brats’ | A War of Position

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