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.