Schlemihls and buffoons: the spatial-political margins of punks and pariahs in the city

Presented at: Philosophy of the City, San Francisco CA

Abstract: Like many “undesirables” in the history of cities, punks find themselves regularly forced to adapt to shifting physical and political environments or relocate to increasingly marginal spaces in the city. The freedom to transform spaces that exist outside the mainstream scope that might otherwise enforce prohibitive zoning and other normative regulatory structures, also makes these spaces vulnerable to absorption by the system they seek to escape. While the punk scene in Ottawa, Canada—like many cities—is strongly anchored to physical spaces such as music venues, the tendency to occupy off-the-radar (i.e. cheaper and less regulated) spaces make them susceptible to social and economic changes that affect the desirability of different spaces throughout the city. It is a dynamic and (r)evolving scene that experiences regularly changing names and locations and a shuffling roster of acts, yet it maintains a certain traceable lineage through the people behind the venues and bands. The scene, which intersects people and place, is intensely rooted in (underground) space, yet perpetually uprooted and forced to re-make both space and place elsewhere. The longstanding tradition of ephemera and DIY aesthetic that define the material presence of the scene, along with its somewhat nomadic and underground tendencies, make it difficult to study within the conventions of urban planning. In this paper, I look to critical and radical philosophies including Hannah Arendt’s schlemihl and Dick Hebdige’s buffoon as a potential epistemological shift through which to examine the obscured alternative narratives of punks and pariahs; with Ottawa as case study. I link diaspora and subculture insofar as they speak with those whose place-making is preceded by a need to make space in the often unwelcoming and incompatible other spaces of dominant culture and official plans. It speaks with those for whom the right to the city is often a fight.

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