Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Regna Darnell


This is an ethnography of the everyday lives of street-involved youth in London, Ontario, Canada. Fieldwork was conducted throughout downtown London over the course of one year. I argue that the subjective experience of my informants, all of whom are “participants” in Ontario’s workfare programme, Ontario Works (OW), has been riven by some form of existential trauma (i.e., problems with anxiety and depression due to difficult personal histories of abandonment, substance abuse, etc.), which has led to an alternative process of being and becoming at odds with the hegemonic moral economy of the province of Ontario—specifically its rules and regulations regarding the provision of OW. This hegemonic moral economy is based on neoliberal regulatory logics of self-development, self-sufficiency and self-entrepreneurialism, which seeks to domesticate the “economic potentialities” of the self. In reaction, the alternative process of being and becoming of my informants can be characterised by: 1) a tactical posture of débrouillardise (“social manipulation” with partial accommodation) regarding everyday life; and, 2) an approach to healing as a broadly conceived and processual existential project; a precarious project wherein the focus is on the reconciliation of one’s past with one’s present through a creative enterprise of becoming (existential transformation through poetry, drawing and performing as raconteurs), and not on simply "overcoming obstacles" (lack of skills, motivation), or overcoming impediments of the self (addiction, psychiatric disorders, etc.) that may block one from reaching OW’s rehabilitative goal of acquiring a base-level of cultural capital (skills, training, education). As such, my informants get by day to day as wounded bricoleurs. Left little room to maneuver the “disconnect of becomings” between state and self, they are forced to creatively re-invent their lives in the face of haunting and destructive personal histories. The dissertation closes with a re-conceived understanding of agency regarding the possibility “to act rationally” according to one’s own “self-interest”. I argue that my informants’ agentive capacity is marked by the contradictory striations of “zones of awkward engagement”: the refractory lines of disconnection between the moral imperatives of the state and the existential imperatives to heal and “make do”.