Introduction: Personal Space

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Questioning the authoritative, 'objective' generalizations about contemporary culture that underlie the work of the Foucaults and Jamesons of this world.
Charlie Bertsch and Jonathan Sterne

Issue #17, November 1994


While scanning the shelves in the basement of San Francisco's famous City Lights Books recently, Charlie noticed a new section across from 'Commodity Aesthetics' called 'Topographies.' Although it was still being filled, it was clear that it would include books not only from the traditional 'terrain' of cultural geography, but also from less established fields for which thinking about spaces and places is a primary concern, from gender studies to the study of virtual reality. What the books there all have in common is a desire to 'map', some aspect of contemporary life, whether literally or metaphorically. Many of the articles in this 'Geographies' issue have little in common with traditional approaches to geography; yet they would all feel at home in City Lights' new section. So will the articles for our next issue on 'Cyberspace.' As many people have been saying, 'Space is hot.'

Before we begin to sound too self-congratulatory, however, let's stop to think about this statement. Why is space hot? For decades cultural critics like Michel Foucault have been emphasizing the ways in which 'time' is losing its war with 'space', something especially obvious in our current age of instantaneous satellite transmissions and global e-mail. We are, they tell us, only able to think about the past as a backward place, the future as a theme park. Other cultural critics, while often agreeing with such analyses' descriptions of reality, have tried to make thinking about the world spatially less a symptom than an imperative. Frederic Jameson, for example, has repeatedly called upon leftist critics to provide the mental — or 'cognitive' — maps people need to connect the scattered dots that comprise their experience of contemporary life under capitalism.

These two kinds of thinking about space have certainly influenced the contributors to this issue. Jameson's call for mental maps has always held a special appeal for Bad Subjects; our attempt to provide 'political education for everyday life' attempts to answer it by redrawing the left's political map. At the same time, however, Bad Subjects has also tried hard to remap the 'relation between the personal and political.' This has led us to reject the sort of identity politics that collapses that relation altogether, imagining that our human 'essence' as woman, Asian, etc. is inherently political. On the other hand, it has also meant questioning the authoritative, 'objective' generalizations about contemporary culture that underlie the work of the Foucaults and Jamesons of this world, thinkers who provide a sense of the big picture, but usually at the expense of smaller, more detailed ones.

Beginning with the piece by Doug Henwood (whose State of the USA Atlas is highly recommended), the articles in this issue are arranged according to their relative proximity to what we traditionally call 'geography': the first pieces deal more with objective geographical 'facts', the latter ones with personal responses to either geography as a topic or geography as a reality. All, however, encourage us to look carefully at the physical spaces we inhabit and share, to see not only the dominant landscape, the most visible trends, but also those exceptions to the norm that broad generalizations leave out. At one point, Doug Henwood writes of inequalities in our society so obvious that, like the purloined letter of Poe's tale, we cannot see them. In their own way, all the articles here concern themselves with what we can't see for looking, what we have, indeed, been trained *not* to see. Thinking geographically has its advantages in this regard. For one thing, what we fail to really see in our physical environment is easy to spot: industry, malls, ghettoes, the homeless, etc. There's an awful lot of denial at work when people overlook stuff this obvious; so much that it's not very hard to expose with a little critical effort. The other advantage to thinking geographically is that our physical environment matters so much. Politics does not merely use the organization of space to its own ends; politics *is* the organization of space. As Foucault would put it, the spaces we define *produce* us at least as much as we produce them. We give you this issue with the hope that it will make you better able to see both the glaringly obvious and its effects. So look at the world around you. Look at yourself. Take it personally. Take it politically.

A Note:

This issue marks the departure of co-founder Joe Sartelle (please read his farewell) and long-time collaborator Carlos Camargo. We wish them well; their contributions will be sorely missed.

Copyright © 1994 by Charlie Bertsch and Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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