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.



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