Looking Back and Moving On
Issue #17, November 1994
Shortly before the completion of Issue #15 ('Apocalypse'), I decided it was time for me to step down from my position of leadership within Bad Subjects. Beginning with Issue #16, that position has been filled by Production Directors Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell. Before departing completely from Bad Subjects, I wanted to say a brief farewell to you, the readers.
What all of us connected with Bad Subjects have achieved is truly phenomenal. When Annalee and I started the publication back in September of 1992, we had lots of dreams and fantasies about where it might go and what sort of impact it might have. The amazing thing is that so many of those dreams have become realities. The publication is now in its third year and has a worldwide readership numbering in the tens of thousands (largely through the Internet — exact numbers are hard to get). Bad Subjects articles have been (and continue to be) taught in classrooms and reprinted in other publications. And the publication's readership and reputation appear to be growing still.
Bad Subjects was founded as a political action, in protest against the tired orthodoxies of left-progressive ideology — otherwise known as identity politics and 'political correctness.' As a political intervention, it has been a limited but very real success. As Marx famously stated, the point is to change the world, not simply to critique it philosophically. And there is no question that the world has changed because of Bad Subjects, even if it's only a small part of the world that has been affected. We have made a difference. We have influenced hearts and minds, and inspired hope, courage and critical engagement in many individuals — most especially those of us fortunate enough to have worked together as part of the Bad Subjects Collective.
For me, the most important story to tell about Bad Subjects is a personal one. In the beginning, Bad Subjects was a raft of hope that I clung to desperately as I recovered from a bad 'friendship' that had left me emotionally broken and devastated, my self-confidence and self-esteem at a new low. I was empty. I wasn't happy with myself, my profession, my intended career as a leftist academic. I was also profoundly disenchanted with the general state of left-progressive politics. Bad Subjects provided a basis for changing myself as well as for changing the world around me, and in that it has been a model of what political engagement should be about. Transformation of the world must go hand-in-hand with transformation of the self, and vice versa. Seeking one without the other will not take us very far in either direction. We will only be able to tinker with minor reforms (political or personal) while remaining trapped in endless repetitions of The Same. What has perhaps most distinguished Bad Subjects from other leftist projects is its commitment to the principle that Marx's call for a 'ruthless criticism of everything existing' is something we must apply to ourselves as well as to the world. And that's a hard, hard thing to do, my friends — of that you can be sure. But it's the only way out of the nightmare of history, for individuals and for humanity as a species.
In my mind, what will always mark Bad Subjects as special and unique has been its ability to serve as a site of personal transformation for those involved with it. Two and a half years after the founding, I look back at the journey I have taken. Because of Bad Subjects, new possibilities came into being for me along with new ways of thinking about myself and the world. I've decided to leave academia, probably (and hopefully) for good, in order to pursue a career writing for audiences outside of academia. My friend Kathy Moran and I are working on a book about Star Trek, and one reason for my departure is that I need to be able to concentrate my efforts there. (We have an agent, and our prospectus has been sent out to six major mass-market publishers. As I write this in mid-November of 1994, we are waiting to hear back. We hope to have the book out sometime next fall.) Bad Subjects also brought me together with my lover and partner, Carlos Camargo, just as Bad Subjects helped him to cultivate the courage within himself to start a new life as a gay man. Both of us have never been happier.
There are many things I will miss about being a part of the Bad Subjects team. But I also must confess that I am enjoying a new freedom as a 'private citizen' which I lacked so long as I was serving in my capacity as 'Chief of Operations,' the representative of the larger group. I am able to speak my mind more openly, for example, in debates on the Bad Subjects mailing list. Moving on from Bad Subjects seems to be the logical next step, at least for me personally. I will continue to pursue the same principles that motivated my work with the group, but without the responsibilities and duties of leadership. I'm also stepping away from the more overt forms of political struggle, but it's only a pause to refresh myself, to try something different, to get more fully acquainted with the new life that Bad Subjects has helped me to build for myself.
I think that leftists in general (and left activists in particular) need to be more understanding of the fact that there is more to life than the political struggle. The world is indeed a horrible place, but that's not all it is — though you wouldn't know it from an awful lot of the rhetoric that passes for progressive thought these days. Too many people on the left do a disservice to the cause by making it their whole world, scorning those who will not surrender themselves to it completely, or can make only a 'part-time' commitment. The resulting burn-out and disillusionment rate among leftists has been far too high, and is ultimately self-defeating. It's as though we're supposed to measure the sincerity of our commitments by the degree to which they make us exhausted, bitter and skeptical of the good intentions of others. This is a situation to which Bad Subjects has always said: No, that's not the way it's supposed to be. There must be something better, and we're going to do our best to show you what it is.
I hope that Bad Subjects will continue to show people what's possible, and to keep alive the faith that there is a better way to live — as individuals, as societies, as truly human beings.
Happy holidays, and best wishes to all of you.
Joe Sartelle can be reached through e-mail at: email@example.com