Physical Cultural Studies, Praxis, and the DIY Ethic

– By Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In their article, “Toward a Physical Cultural Studies,” Michael Silk and David Andrews (2011) explicated the need for a “complementary field of study” (p. 6) alongside the sociology of sport, presenting Physical Cultural Studies as a project with the potential to “empower and compel ourselves, and others within the academy, to develop and apply critically-informed physical culture-oriented research in a manner that impacts, and is meaningful to, the range of communities who we have the potential to touch” (p. 5). Contextually, their target audience were academics within the sociology of sport field, with their intent being to suggest a rethinking of both how sociology of sport scholars could study the myriad everyday and historical forms and practices of physical culture, as well as recognize the political implications of such work. But, within their argument was a distinct separation between their conceptualizations of academia—a term flushed with contingencies and necessary historical implications—and of the masses experiencing the overlapping relations of power PCS scholarship purports to reveal. This preserved a perspective on practical applicability based not on the construction of new, alternative means of communication, but on the creation of space within intellectual institutions aligned with the ongoing processes of neoliberal capitalism, with the purpose of cultivating havens for dispersing emancipatory information. The proletariat need only to pay the tuition for the classes and join the exclusive spaces of academic journals, associations, and conferences to become conscious of inequality and their relation to it. The academics remain the agents who only need to become more politically engaged and seek to intervene through their writing and research to make a difference in the world.

As a PCS graduate student self-effacingly cognizant of my currently-low standing in the arena of academic production, I have increasingly found such an approach to theorizing the link between politics and praxis unsatisfying. Politics and pedagogy are not inherently synonymic. Universities, education, and intellectualism are terms and concepts historically-conditioned, notoriously unstable in definition and context, and implicated in the evolution of the logic of capital. In attempting to bridge academia and the realities of political struggles by calling for intellectuals to become more nuanced and critical in their present work and ready to politically intervene in terms of what their work can do for communities, Silk and Andrews miss enduring questions looming over PCS as the project ponders how to advance such goals. Why focus on academics and university spaces? Why continue to advance energy and critique as fodder to the means of academic production and communication which are both founded upon and help reproduce the problematic logics such critiques target?   At what point does a project like PCS begin to look outside the confines of institutions mythologized as bastions of higher learning? As PCS scholars and students, we must begin to ask ourselves if our theories, frameworks, and approaches are properly calibrated as purveyors of consciousness and self-emancipation within the shifting historical conditions upon which we now find ourselves. We must continuously rethink our conceptualizations of politics and how we are to become political, according to the needs and openings of the contemporary moment, if we are to find a way to close the gap between our theories, our academic writings, and their political implications. And we must find inspiration from those outside of academia who in their everyday experiences have successfully subverted exchange value and found a way to link the theory of their politics with its unmediated expression.

In the 1980s and 90s, a band from Washington, D.C. named Fugazi were regarded for how they approached the production and dissemination of their musical expressions, their views on the commercial music industry, and their collective ethical stance on how they conducted their business. Guitarist Ian MacKaye started a record label, Dischord Records, to release theirs and other local band records. They oversaw the production and dissemination of their own records, down to the artwork and construction of the cd packaging. They organized their own tours instead of outsourcing it to a third party, capping the prices of their cds and concert admission prices to $8 and $5, respectively, and refusing to commercialize their band with excess merchandise. Helping to spearhead the punk “straight-edge” movement, their concerts were open to all ages, with alcohol, drugs, and the aggressive rituals of hardcore punk concerts prohibited.   The band, reportedly, would often refund admission to any concert goer who was asked to leave.  They eschewed security surrounding the stage, opening up the potential for different kinds of engagement with audience members and the stage during shows. On one occasion, during an incident with a fan getting up on the stage, the band spoke of seeing the playing stage as “our stage” (meaning the stage for the band and audience alike), rather than “their stage.” Despite purposefully and consistently shunning industry and media attention, and despite limited self-promotion by taking the reigns of the means of production and dissemination, Fugazi amassed a worldwide legion of fans and followers, and is routinely cited as one of the more critically-acclaimed bands since the 1980s. According to their biography on Rolling Stone’s website, “The quartet stuck firmly to their status as an independent entity, but even with relatively little promotion, Fugazi amassed a huge following, consistently packing large venues on the tours it booked without outside help and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of each album.”

Fugazi’s politics surfaced not just through their musical creations but also their do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic, in which they intentionally subverted the communications apparatus of the music industry and decided how they would advance their music, promotions, and performances. This did not subsequently harm their accessibility and dissemination to fans, and elevated the group’s legacy both in terms of international popularity and influence upon later bands. By taking the controls of the promotion and production of their music and refusing be co-opted by the music industry, Fugazi controlled their expression of art and music, allowing their politics to become integrated within the production of their cultural messages. Their politics continuously countered the dominant narratives and discourses swirling around the music industry at the time, and influenced the enduring nature of unpublicized communities of independent musical artists.

The DIY ethic, illustrated by Fugazi’s story, stands out as an illuminating example of the spaces—continuously being made, lost, and remade outside the world of American humanities and social science research—that impact and self-emancipate the daily lives of people in a myriad of complex, meaningful ways. Theory is inseparable from praxis in such experiences because the vehicles of self-consciousness are directly employed in the creation of expressions implicated in the requirements of one’s sociohistorical and cultural location. The politics employed and expressed were themselves molded by the conditions and contexts of the human agents and their social ecology. The gap between theory and praxis narrows and the capacity for self-consciousness expands as a result of the agentic necessities of the DIY ethic.

Such everyday experiences offer a compelling new perspective on Michael Atkinson’s assertion (2011) that perhaps PCS scholars will need to “lead the proverbial double-life as a traditional scholar by day and rogue researcher/activist” in order to advance the project’s goals (p. 138), and that “The survival of the “sociology of sport” subdiscipline, therefore, may very well depend upon a new sense of praxis and communitas among us; one including a reconceptualized understanding of what the hell it is we do every day (and for whom)” (p. 135). Rather than focusing exclusively on the issue of how academics can intervene in contemporary political moments, we should also ask ourselves why we allow our participation in the neoliberal academy’s means of (re)production to serve as our primary bridge between our theories of politics and our attempts to practice them in our everyday lives. PCS scholars should not eschew the uncertain, murky potential that the political impact of the project may lie in the creation of alternative means of communication outside the confines of institution walls and journal pages.

Before he died, the scholar C. Wright Mills was working on a project he had titled The Cultural Apparatus, in which he argued that intellectuals had lost control of the cultural and technical means of communication, “cut off from possible publics and such publics as remain are being turned into masses by those businessmen or commissars who do control and manage the effective means of communication.” Mills did not delineate beyond broader structural analysis what he meant by the cultural apparatus, but John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney have argued that Mills was pointing to a conceptual equivalent to “the cultural means of production including the technical means themselves.” Emphasizing agency and process, Mills was arguing that what intellectuals “ought now to do is repossess our cultural apparatus, and use it for our own purposes” (pp. 217-8, 221). However, as the historian E.P. Thompson noted in a letter to Mills at the time (Geary, 2009), this approach involved a problematic assumption: the idea that such intellectuals and publics have had access to effective means of cultural communication in the first place. “You argue that intellectual workers must repossess their cultural apparatus and use it for their own purposes,” Thompson wrote. “In what sense have they ever possessed it?” In Thompson’s view, the question lay not in the co-opting of the dominant cultural means of communication for proletarian purposes, but in the slow, progressive construction of an alternative means of communication (p. 196).

Perhaps Thompson had a point.  So did Fugazi.




Atkinson, M. (2011). Physical cultural studies [redux]. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28(1), 135-144.

Geary, D. (2009). Radical ambition: C. Wright Mills, the left, and American social thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C.W. (2008). The politics of truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Silk, M. L. & Andrews, D. L. (2011). Toward a physical cultural studies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28(1), 4-35.


One thought on “Physical Cultural Studies, Praxis, and the DIY Ethic

  1. Great post, Sam! I love how you mentioned DIY music practices of the late 80s early 90s as a form of praxis that works outside of mainstream systems of capital (to an extent). Admittedly, I had never heard of Fugazi, but their approach seems similar to that of Ani’s (i.e., development of her own record label at the age of 19, Righteous Babe Records) as well as the riot grrl movement’s DIY ethos. Fugazi did seem to have white male privilege on their side, however, shaping how they were able to eschew norms of the music industry and form a different connection with fans. For instance, audience members in the front of Bikini Kill concerts also formed barriers, but as a way to protect the band members and women who wished to be in front near the stage from men. In a clip from the documentary about Kathleen Hannah, it was mentioned that when a ‘fan’ would get on stage, it was often a man trying to be disruptive, if not violent, as opposed to a perhaps welcome, well-meaning lover of their music. So in that way the sense of community that was established–or able to be established–was very different.

    One thing I struggle with is what an alternative, sustainable system that allows for research to be disseminated widely and make a difference in the lives of marginalized populations would look like. Would you consider a non-profit that funded particular social justice-oriented research projects and related work (e.g., advocacy, community partnerships, etc.) to be an example of what you–and Thompson–envision(ed)? Though that brings up issues of funding: depending on who or what organizations are funding such efforts, researchers may continue to be stifled.

    Time to practice guitar. Let’s start a riot grrrl revival–we can weave in research. I’ll bring the tambourine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s