Frank Stoner / July 8th, 2012 / Blogs
Second Place: The Nature of Power in Rollerblading (Part 3)

To get a good look at the kind of violence that functions as power within rollerblading, we have to go back to the theorist I wrote about last time.

That, of course, is Pierre Bourdieu.

So, as you’ll recall, Bourdieu came up with a theory that deals with symbolic power. And as we saw, symbolic power isn’t some kind of fake or wishy washy power. It’s the ability to control people’s means of interpreting the world. It’s the capacity to define what’s cool and have everybody agree with you and do things how you want them done—from stand-up postures when grinding, to what kind of music to listen to, to what outfit to put on when you go to hang out with the boys.

So that was one aspect of Bourdieu’s theory. The other aspect has to do with violence—specifically what Bourdieu called symbolic violence.

The shorthand version of symbolic violence, if you want to think of it this way, is a lot like what you might think of as “verbal violence.”

But there’s more to it than that. Symbolic violence has to do with all the things someone in power has to do (and have happen) so that he stays in power.

It also has to do with hierarchy.

See, most structures of power are hierarchical. That means there are “stages” of power, usually with fewer people “at the top” and many more people “down below”—like a pyramid.

You could also think of it like a playoff bracket we saw during the WRS video contest.

While I’ve got you looking at that WRS graphic, let me remind you that the top seeded guys (Aragon, Haffey, Broskow, Bailey, etc.) were matched against the lowest ranking guys in the contest. That means that comparatively lower ranked guys like Tyler Hester, Dave Lang, Stefen Horngacher, or Daniel Prell practically have to outskate the Haffeys and Aragons right out of the gate. Talk about keeping power in power!

But that’s just a microcosm. Almost every (hierarchical) system of power is designed and built specifically to keep everything where it is. Out in the rest of the world, that’s what’s called the status quo—which, in Latin, means, “the existing state of affairs.”

So, back to symbolic violence.

We know that power is a hierarchy in which influence is disproportionate. In other words, the people “at the top” of the pyramid have the most power and influence and the people “at the bottom” have much less.

So symbolic violence is any action that supplies an injurious meaning and reinforces to a person his position within the hierarchy. Assuming you’re a mid-level guy (or gal) in skating, symbolic violence against you would be anything that reminds you just how far you are from the top.

And that takes on many forms in rollerblading, and it works the same for everyone from the lowliest grommet to the wealthiest company owner.

So where symbolic power had to do with influence, symbolic violence has to do with respect. To put it in a single phrase, symbolic violence is “putting you in your place,” or, if you like, “reminding you (in a bad way) what your place is.”

Racism and sexism function in exactly the same way. And both function in concert with pastoral power and symbolic power.

Let me give you an example.

For many of us, our highest aspirations in rollerblading are to be “sponsored.” Few of us really care much about getting beyond that level, because there is a certain amount of respect that’s built in to “being sponsored”—even as a comparatively lowly flow rider. It just means that you get a new pair of skates for free whenever your sugar momma skate company comes out with a new model. Depending on who you ride for, that’s between about one and six free pairs of skates a year—probably some t-shirts too, and maybe a hoodie here and there.

One of the things that is built-in to that “sponsored” status is a (somewhat) false sense that you “could make it to the top” if you really committed yourself.

So, suppose you’ve got yourself a skate sponsor and maybe you get a few other things likes frames or wheels or backpacks from some shop or some other distribution-company kind of connection. You’re awesome. You can do a lot of tricks that the “big guys” can do, and you’ve probably got a pretty decent sense of style and decent amount of status. People you’ve never met know your name. That’s pretty cool, and it’s really quite an achievement.

Now, suppose you fly out to some city because you’ve got some homies there or maybe some kind of long distance booty call that you can stay with for a few nights in Such-and-Such City. Being a rollerblader, you know which cities all the big time pro guys live in, and one or two of them just happens to live in this town.

So you make some calls, do some Facebooking, and get somebody you know to give you the phone number of this big name dude in whose town you’re currently finding yourself.

You call him up, and HUZZAH! he answers the phone.

“Hey man, it’s Billy Rollerblader from Smalltown, State. I got your number from Fanboy McDoogle over at Blader Shop. I’m in town for the weekend and I was callin’ to see if you wanna go skate sometime today or tomorrow.”

At the height of your pride as a sponsored rollerblader, you’re crushed by Big Name Pro when he says he can’t because he’s got something going on with his girlfriend’s parents or his dog is sick or he’s got other shit happening this weekend. If the guy is really a jerk, he might just flat out tell you “no,” or, “sorry, man, never heard of you.” At best, he’ll politely give you some excuse so you both can save a little face.

A session with a Big Name guy would be something really memorable for a dude in your position, and it might even be a chance for you to “move up” a little.

Unfortunately though, you’ve been put in your place. You’ve learned the hard lesson that power is exclusive and those who have it don’t always want to share it.

So that’s what symbolic violence is in rollerblading. It can be as demeaning as a slap in the face, or a humbling as a good look in the mirror.

It’s important to keep in mind though, that not everyone (big name pro or otherwise) is like that. Some guys are really nice and know that you aren’t a threat to their power. On the other hand some guys are real jerks and wouldn’t give you “access” to save the world.

Something to keep in mind, though, no matter who you are, is that there are almost certainly guys “below you.” And, to some extent, you have the same amount of symbolic power over them as the Big Name Pros have over you.

And you have just as much potential to exert symbolic violence on those below you as anybody higher up does. It’s really only a matter of your character.

And all it has to do with is whether you think power and violence are the same thing.

If you think violence is the same as power, you’re probably an asshole. If you’re smart enough to know that they’re different, you’re probably a pretty decent dude.

If you spend some time thinking about it, I think you’ll find that symbolic violence is rampant in rollerblading, and there are very few of us who understand just how pernicious a thing it really is.

Thanks for reading,


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Discussion / Second Place: The Nature of Power in Rollerblading (Part 3)

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  • The Humboldt Roller - July 9th, 2012

    Frank, I have to give it to you for this third installment of Power in Rollerblading, and for the whole series, but for this subject in particular and how you have related it to the sociocultural power structure within our community. I have friends who I consider to be good people, and yet I find them acting in this fashion quite often because of the special access they may have in terms of knowing particular rollers and events they frequent. From this I often feel alienated because I am not invited to go to a skate sesh or an out of state event, whether by their choice or even just “protecting” the interests of the coveted skaters themselves. It’s unfortunate that I feel this way in large part because it does serve to “put me in my place” but also because I know that this is occurring to thousands of other aspiring Rollerbladers who just want to skate, see amazing skating and have a Good Time. There are many reasons why our sport has been in such a recession, not the least of which is this pervasive elitist attitude that is continues to keep the sport we love in the dark because of selfish and egotistical actions by the gatekeepers of access. If those of us who have some influence and connections would only reach out to the younger and less privileged skaters and make a lasting impression by showing them how amazing our sport is, then perhaps the sport could begin to grow in numbers and eventually the industry could begin to make a real comeback and we as Rollerbladers could regain these forms of power and harness them in a positive way to promote Rollerblading rather than ourselves. Thank You Frank, for you words of wisdom and encouragement. ~ The Humboldt Roller

  • Billy - July 10th, 2012

    Power relations do exist in blading, albeit in an impoverished, underaged vacuum.

    Being an important blader is about like being a top badminton pro; only that badminton is far more lucrative. Famous pro rollerblader? The illusion is clear: nobody respects that authoritai at your pizza delivery “side job”.

  • Frank Stoner - July 10th, 2012

    Hey The Humboldt Roller,

    Thanks so much for your support. I’m glad to find that these articles are being (mostly) well received. I’ve thought for a long time that one of the strengths of rollerbladers, by and large, is that they are kind, caring, introspective, and otherwise good people to know and hang out with. Personally, I think we’ve gotten that way as a result of being a marginalized sport. Minority cultures tend to stick closer together.

    It’s also what keeps our community small, and to me, enriching. About ten years ago I spent a good deal of time traveling around Europe and found couches, floors, and even sometimes beds to crash in solely by virtue of “being a rollerblader.” Several times I couldn’t even speak the same language as guys who put me up for days or even a week at a time—but we spoke the common language of rollerblading, and that was enough for a rollerblader to welcome me into his home. That, to me, is one of the best parts of rollerblading—the tricks are pretty fun too though.

    I’m also glad you brought up some of the guys you know. There was a part of this article that had to be cut (for length reasons) that dealt pretty extensively with how unaware people typically are of “committing” symbolic acts of violence. It’s actually a huge part of Bourdieu’s theory. The idea is twofold.

    First, people are largely unaware of their own behavior. That means that if you make it “to the top,” you might not even have a good sense of just how you did it. The consequence of that is that if somebody asked you how you achieved your status, you couldn’t really answer them (in sufficient detail) EVEN IF YOU WANTED TO.

    The second thing is that people are largely unaware of the symbolically violent acts they commit, usually because of how subtle symbolic violence is. Something as simple as mentioning the new skates you got from your sponsor could be enough to remind somebody (not sponsored) specifically that you have some power or status that they don’t.

    These things often get embedded into language and they manifest in very subtle ways. For instance, if I’m close friends with a top-level guy, you might hear me refer to him by his first name, despite the fact that everyone else recognizes (and talks about) the high-end guy by his last name (Haffey, Farmer, Stockwell, Broskow, Bailey, etc.).

    That represents an interesting shift in the power dynamics of rollerblading, especially when you consider the extent to which that’s changed. For instance, in my day, most (or rather, many MORE) pros were known by their first names (or one-word nicknames), but sometimes first AND last: Arlo, Angie, Brooke, Wedge, Webby, Roadhouse, B Love (or just B, which is short for Brandon), Rawlinson, Dustin, etc. and then you moved into the rest of the gang who got referred to by their whole names: Dave Kollasch, Dave Paine, Shawn Robertson, etc.

    One-word names and first names show a familiarity, both in rollerblading and culture at large. It seems to me that whole name use was the shift towards symbolic power. Which is to say, rollerblading language started immolating culture at large, where you see powerful or “high status” people get whole names, for instance, Tom Cruise, Wayne Gretsky, Bill Gates, Henry Rollins, etc.

    An interesting note on that last point, is that a lot of punk rockers used first names (only) or nicknames that suggested a kind of informality and implied a kind of “accessibility”: Fat Mike, Greg G., Joey (Ramone), Johnny (Thunders), Ian (Curtis), etc. And you see that same trend continued through punk bands as late as Greenday (Billy or Billie Joe) and The Offspring (Dexter).

    The sucky thing is that brings us back to symbolic power again, because punk became allied with skateboarding, and so that influence was largely lost on rollerbladers (that, and the fact that Offspring wouldn’t play shows at the Warped Tour if rollerbladers were on the ramps in the background).

    Anyway, symbolic power and symbolic violence is everywhere. And it’s subtle. My point of view is simply that if rollerbladers want to see (and cause) more change in rollerblading, they should really be paying more attention to the larger systems at work.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Humboldt. I really appreciate it, man!


  • Frank Stoner - July 10th, 2012


    That’s a good observation. Personally, I would say that power for the people “at the top” is only as real as the people “down below” confirm (or license) it to be. I was really pleased when I saw the “Imaginationland” theme ONE put to these articles, but it makes the point in a much simpler way: things are as real as we let them be, from Santa Claus to voting rights.

    Thanks so much for reading, and thanks also for commenting, Billy!


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