Working With Others
Issue #14, May 1994
Over the course of Bad Subjects' two years of existence, one of the points we have argued most aggressively is our belief that the left must develop collective projects that will encourage people to stop working 'all by themselves.' In issue #1, Joe Sartelle discussed the problem of 'how an 'identity' based on shared taste preferences in consumption too often gets confused with an identity formed through practices of commitment and community,' suggesting that we need to get less of our feelings of belonging from buying things alone and more of them by doing things together. In issue #3, Annalee Newitz wrote that 'a socialist fantasy is one in which personal pleasures are recast as communal pleasures' and that the practice of therapy must be redirected from healing individuals to healing groups. Such a socialist therapeutic 'might teach us to take responsibility for society as a whole, and not just for our personal needs.' In issue #10 Jillian Sandell emphasized the utopian potential in group therapy of the sort practiced by Twelve Step programs, urging us to not only zero in on their shortcomings, but to 'take seriously the fact that they encourage and foster exactly the kind of collective, interpersonal politics that is needed as part of any socialist vision.' These articles and others, not to mention the working practices of the Bad Subjects collective itself, undertook to develop the implications of the Louis Althusser quote from which Bad Subjects' name originates: the idea that the ruling powers under capitalism are perfectly happy when we are working 'all by ourselves' and intervene in our lives only when we are engaged in the sort of collective activities that threaten their hold on us.
As Bad Subjects begins to prepare for its third year, those of us in the collective have been reflecting once again on the work we have done so far and the work we need to do in the future. As I began to assemble ideas for this article, I realized that our collective endeavor at Bad Subjects to work together instead of all by ourselves offered the seeds, however underdeveloped, of solutions to the problems on the American left. I also realized, however, that I was sometimes myself the victim of the very problems I wanted to discuss. What follows is thus both a critique of many American leftists and a critique of myself. In brief, it aims to question the notion that a leftist must be capable of doing everything that needs to be done, from college campuses to the inner-city. I believe that the American left spreads itself too thin because too many leftists are not content to do something in particular and do it well. Believing that one should aspire to do a little bit of everything is very close to believing that one should do everything all by oneself.
In the debates on popular music that have developed again and again on our Bad Subjects electronic discussion group (the 'list'), one vociferously argued thesis is that music that originates in do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) scenes is inherently superior from a political or moral standpoint than music that does not. I have said enough about music in other contexts; what I have found most interesting about this debate's more recent appearances is the way in which so many well-educated, reasonably privileged individuals take it for granted that it is necessarily better for people to do things themselves than to let other people do it for them. I do not speak here of apologists for capitalism. On the contrary, most of these individuals have asserted that there is an undeniable link between do-it-yourself cultural productions and the battle against capitalism. What this belief in the supremacy of the do-it-yourself approach amounts to is a blind faith in the power of artists to communicate honest and forthright feelings and thoughts, so long as no non-artists interfere. The less artists' work is mediated by the 'helping hands' of conglomerate networks of distribution the better.
Reading this type of argument in conjunction with the study of American cultural history I've been undertaking this semester, I have been struck by the ways in which advocates of the do-it-yourself approach represent the latest incarnation of one of U.S. citizens' deepest-seated fantasies of identity: the belief that a person is truly free — and truly American — only when they are capable of 'going it alone,' of embodying all the social roles needed to sustain her or his civilization of one. People caught up in this fantasy of identity thus imagine that their identity as brave and free individuals is only secure when they transcend the limits of their particular jobs, their particular position in a class hierarchy and play all the social roles a 'society' requires all by themselves. Discernible throughout American history, this fantasy of identity emerges most distinctly on the various 'frontiers' Americans have imaginatively occupied: the series of 'Wests' pioneers have made 'safe' for the timid; the borderland between the darkness of ignorance and the new day of awareness straddled by Henry David Thoreau in Walden; the frontier with the un-American past of Europe settled by America's expatriate intellectuals since the turn of the century; and, in recent years, the electronic frontier explored by hackers and computer programmers. This is not to say that everyone on these frontiers lives this fantasy, but merely to note that those who do live it stand out better there.
What this fantasy is really about, I would argue, is a desire to transcend the division of labor, to free people from the chains of particularity that bind them to a specific place in society. At the beginning of 'The American Scholar' (1837) Ralph Waldo Emerson offers a famous expression of this desire, speaking of an old fable in which 'the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself, just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.' Man is the sum of all men, 'present to all particular men only partially.' He is 'not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all.' He adds that 'the fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to the multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.' Unable to perceive the relationship between their own particular experience of life and the totality of human existence, men are reduced to metonyms for their occupations: 'the priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.'
Advocates of the do-it-yourself approach seem to think that we become symbolically castrated 'walking monsters' whenever we submit to being merely one component in a highly differentiated system that mediates our interactions with the world; or that, to extend the logic of Emerson's argument, we even become things when we consent to occupy a particular — and therefore limited — position in such a system. Participants in the debate on our Bad Subjects list were talking about artists for the most part; yet there is a way in which do-it-yourself ideology is available for all Americans — at least those not excluded from citizenship or a livable life — who, even if they are not artists in the narrow sense, are capable of transcending the particular to become 'artists' of their lives. Thus, just as do-it-yourself musicians are supposed to be their own producers, managers, bookers, and van-drivers, do-it-yourself Americans are expected to be as self-sufficient as possible, to resist becoming organization men or women (the 'organization' itself is usually figured as feminine, linking it to symbolic castration).
I am intimately acquainted with this fantasy of identity, for it is one I have not rid myself of to this day. I spent my pre-teen years in rural Pennsylvania, in what had been a farmhouse. We lived far from any neighbors and even further from children my own age. Despite my isolation, however, I still loved games that required many participants, baseball and football in particular. While I played both sports during recess and baseball in Little League, I still passed most of my free time alone, particularly in summer when I had the most of it. In order to play these games in the long hours all by myself, I therefore had to act out little dramas in which I was the sole actor. I made up elaborate leagues for both sports (and later on for basketball as well) with teams I knew by heart and acted out each player's part in great detail. My baseball league was so elaborate that I even knew players' batting averages and E.R.A.'s! I also extended this method to my other pastimes, such as war games. By the time I moved to suburban Maryland, where there were many children nearby, I was so used to playing alone that I found playing games with others awkward and committed many a social faux-pas in my interactions with them. While all children act out roles in their game-playing, most do so, at least part of the time, while working together with other children. In my case, on the other hand, I was only proficient at playing all by myself.
What I learned growing up in solitude was how to imaginatively transcend the limits of any particular position in a 'team', system, or organization and act out a wide variety of social roles all by myself. Now I certainly won't deny that this was in some ways a useful skill to acquire. As we grow older, social norms encourage us to think that working together with others can be — and usually is — a detriment to our personal success; the vast majority of messages that flood into our consciousness from the outside world, even if they superficially play lip service to collective goals, are really telling us that only the ruthless and selfish succeed. Although there are a few exceptions — Bad Subjects being one — the profession I have chosen — scholar in the humanities — has historically been especially resistant to the idea of collective work. Indeed, despite cultural stereotypes that make us think scientists work in isolation, they are actually far more likely to engage in collective projects than their counterparts in the humanities. Of course, what matters in all this is less the actual state of things than how people imagine their relation to that state of things. Because of the complex interdependencies that constitute our economic system, few people really work all by themselves; yet many imagine themselves to.
At some point in my high school education, I began to realize the shortcomings of working all by myself. I went out for the basketball team and discovered that, although I could hold my own in one-one-one games, I was a terrible team player. I also began working for student publications like the yearbook and student newsmagazine that demanded collective labor, yet found it hard to exercise responsibility towards other staff members. I would do prodigious amounts of work when I felt like it — when it felt 'heroic' to do so — but sometimes failed to do the little things that my position in the organization required me to do. Unfortunately, when I came to UC-Berkeley as a freshman, I found myself in an environment ideally suited to individual labor. I was in large lecture classes, barely knew any of my classmates' names, and was only required to take exams and write essays — things it's easy to do all by oneself. At this point in my life, however, my political outlook was no longer so inchoate, and I made efforts — though sometimes halfheartedly — to seek out collective projects in broadly leftist political organizations. By the time I had become a graduate student, I knew I wanted to work collectively. Indeed, I was certain collective labor was the only sort of work an avowed Marxist like myself should aspire to. Since in the classroom we were still expected to do most of our work all by ourselves for individual grades, I joined my classmates in several groups with more collective goals: C.L.I.T., a reading group devoted to difficult theory and good times; The Politics Collective, the large English Department discussion group from which Bad Subjects spun off; and, like so many others, A.G.S.E. and the striking graduate students in the fall of 1992. Despite the problems these groups faced, I often found myself more willing to do work for them than for my actual classes.
Of all the groups I have ever belonged to, however, Bad Subjects has meant the most to me. In our first year, before the collective was formed, I was happy to contribute what I could — printing — and already felt myself to be part of a group less concerned with individual success than collective achievement. Since the establishment of the collective in June of 1993, Bad Subjects has evolved into an organization with well-defined roles. My happiness at belonging to a group has only increased. At the same time, though, I have frequently found myself fighting to reconcile my commitments to the collective with that part of me still invested in the do-it-yourself approach. I have sometimes balked at occupying any specific role in our organization and even to this day find myself occasionally wondering what my specific responsibilities are while failing to take the initiative in assuming any. This is no one's fault but my own and the product of that persistent belief that occupying one particular position in an organization results in a loss of freedom.
This fantasy of identity, as I have already suggested, recurs throughout American history: my belief was and is shared by many — perhaps most — Americans. You may well be wondering at this point why I'm so anxious about my resistance to collective projects. After all, isn't Bad Subjects always offering critiques of fantasies of identity that don't enable people to imaginatively transcend particularities of race, gender, and sexual orientation? The answer, of course, is yes. Yet there is a crucial difference between social roles that one occupies voluntarily in an organization and social roles one occupies on the basis of 'permanent' characteristics such as skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. It is true that a person can voluntarily assume a fantasy of identity based on such characteristics. Still, there is a world of difference between becoming, say, the publicity coordinator for a collective whose goals you share and identifying oneself with a personal characteristic that is hard to change: it is unlikely that one will face political or social oppression because she or he volunteered to send out press releases.
Forgive me if I seem to be stating the obvious, for I firmly believe that much of the American left is blind to it. One of the hard political lessons I've learned at Berkeley, from my undergraduate days hanging out with anarchists and Queer Nation activists to my experience of the graduate student strike, has been that all too many leftists — no doubt caught within the same fantasy of identity I sometimes fall prey to — resist the imposition of organizational structure on the 'movement' — whatever it is — by refusing to occupy defined roles within it. Surely this has the benefit of making everybody feel like a 'leader,' but is usually not a good way of getting things done. When everyone imaginatively transcends their particular roles, particular tasks are either outright neglected or haphazardly and redundantly executed.
Just as many American leftists resist the division of labor within organizations, they also resist it across organizational lines. Again and again academic leftists are told that they can't be 'real' leftists unless they're out in the street, just as political activists outside the academy are chastised for being inadequately nuanced or 'vulgar'. Few seem content with the split between the academic and non-academic lefts. But should the solution to this conflict be a left where everyone tries to do everything? I think it is time that American leftists — myself included — thought seriously about our unconscious assumptions about politics. What we supposedly all have in common is a goal: to supplant this capitalist society with one less exploitive and more equitable. Marx did suggest that the realm of freedom would be a place where everyone could do what they wanted, that one could be a fisherman one hour and a scholar the next. He did not, however, advocate abolishing the division of labor within political organizations dedicated to supplanting capitalism. Collective work requires that people assume particular roles. Organizations function better when different people do different tasks. Just because we lament the effects of the division of labor within capitalist practice does not mean that our goal should be to eradicate all divisions of labor.
As Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz wrote in the editors' column for issue #1, 'a bad subject is also a subject unafraid to imagine what it would mean to participate in a Utopian community in which freedom does not mean anarchy and structure does not mean domination.' In renewing my commitment to Bad Subjects for a third year, I will seek to do precisely that. Fantasies of identity that categorically equate the assumption of any particular role within a system or organization with unfreedom are every bit as destructive for the American left as the fantasies of identity we associate with identity politics that essentialize on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. We must not reject the division of labor within our organizations and the left as a whole merely because it makes capitalism work better. Rather, we should be devising ways of making it work for us. Otherwise we will not have truly collective projects, but merely collections of individuals wasting time and energy duplicating each other's efforts. Learning to work with others means learning that one can't do everything by oneself.
Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley who is really interested in electricity even though he is scientifically illiterate. He can be contacted by email at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.