Introduction: The Many Names of Politics

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This issue takes its title from Australian culture critic Meaghan Morris, who has suggested that we need a way of connecting 'the politics of culture with the politics of politics.'
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #21, October 1995


If someone actually believes that a squabble between two children over a ball is as important as the El Salvador liberation movement, you simply have to ask them if they are joking.
— Terry Eagleton

In this age of reflexive reflexivity, it might bring you a laugh to pick up or download or click on a publication subtitled 'political education for everyday life' that just issued a special issue on...politics? That's it. Have a good hard laugh. Laugh 'til it hurts. It should hurt.

Or maybe you see no irony in the title. You never understood all this discussion of culture, of everyday life. After all, like the quote says, why should we be talking about trivial matters when there's a liberation struggle right now somewhere in the world? Now after all this 'Bad Subjects' talk of novels, movies and fishpools in Turkey, we're finally going to have some good hard political discussion. 'Finally,' you say as you pick up the issue, 'a good subject'....

This issue takes its title from Australian culture critic Meaghan Morris, who has suggested that we need a way of connecting 'the politics of culture with the politics of politics.' Why not just culture and politics? Well, the short answer is that in this day and (post-) age, everything is political. But that explains away the question, rather than answering it. The problem lies more acutely with our use of the term 'politics' itself. The danger in claiming that everything is political is that we take the punch out of the term 'politics' itself.

Since its inception, Bad Subjects has been concerned with the politics of everyday life. We're founded on a simple enough proposition — that everything we do has some political content to it. We can choose to confront that political potential in everyday life or we can choose to ignore it, and Bad Subjects is clearly committed to the former route. The problem arises when we try and connect that critique with other kinds of left practice.

This is not the first time we've confronted this vexing issue. Bad Subjects has previously had issues asking questions like 'what does it mean to be 'left' now?' or 'what should our stance be toward belief?' We've even tried to come to grips with the contexts in which we dwell — the University, the internet, and 'zine culture. But still, no answers to the big question: what is Bad Subjects' specifically political contribution to left activism? Where do we fit into a grander scheme of political action and mobilization for change that extends beyond ourselves and our immediate audience? And just what the hell is this politics that we keep talking about?

'It Just Keeps on Growing'

'Political' is a crucial adjective for a whole range of activities. What does 'political' mean when we say that there's a political dimension to almost everything we do? At the simplest level, this results from several related lines of thought coming together: the feminist credo that the personal is the political; the insistence that Marxist thought be the total critique of all aspects of social life; and Michel Foucault's suggestion that power is everywhere. This puts us in a difficult bind every time we invoke the word politics: either the term becomes uselessly narrow or impossibly broad. If we try and restrict politics to 'politics as such' we're always leaving something out, always excluding something crucial. On the other hand, as we move toward a more inclusive definition, we start down a slippery slope. Consider the following phenomena, all of which are 'demonstrably political': the war in Bosnia and our response to it, the purchase of cheap produce at a super-or hyper-market, the use of sexist pneumonic devices in medical school classes, the exploitation of service workers by Manpower Temporary Agencies, the association of the words 'Nixon' and 'greatness' in a poster promoting the next Oliver Stone movie, sweatshop workers organizing themselves, the building of a freeway over a poor neighborhood in Chicago or driving on the freeway or driving on another road to avoid that freeway or choosing to drive or ride public transit in the first place. What's an appropriately 'political' response to those events? Should we organize people, attend a protest, write an essay, tell a friend, reflect critically? What does such a laundry list tell us? And yes, there are also political dimensions to making lists and doing laundry.

If everything is political, but everything is not the same, then we need to distinguish among classes of 'political' phenomena. This is one motivation behind prefacing both everyday life and politics with 'the politics of.' Still, the danger is that we'll get the reverse of what we wanted. Instead of suggesting that the political dimensions of popular culture are not necessarily the same as the political dimensions of poverty, we can wind up flattening out the field of politics itself. We can wind up squeezing Hollywood movies and the World Bank into some bizarre relationship of equivalence.

Intellectuals and Activists: Stories That Make Us Feel Better

Politics — and specifically leftism — is often experienced (if not understood) by its practitioners as a vocation. It feels as though the whole thing ought to fit together. In a very real sense leftism is a calling — at its most basic, a leftist political vocation is based in the belief that there is something radically wrong with the world and that we should do something about it. But the leftist political vocation is often further divided into two kinds of activity: intellectual and activist. That's not to say there are two kinds of leftists; on the contrary, many of us occupy both roles.

So while the difference between activists and intellectuals are generally cited by each group to verbally abuse the other, there are some important distinctions. Speaking from my own experience, I find that when I'm behaving like an intellectual (discussing ideas, writing, thinking, reading, etc.), it's a more personal exercise. That is to say, my intellectual work is grounded in various convictions I hold, but the work addresses itself to a particular school of thought, academic discipline, or community of readers — such as the listserv or the readers of this publication. Intellectual work is the work of abstraction, recombination and imagination.

Conversely, when I'm an activist, I work for a particular group to particular ends. Currently, my activist time is spent with a group called the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) that is trying to unionize graduate employees at the University of Illinois. I've written all sorts of literature for them, participated in various organizing efforts, run meetings, and helped train other organizers. So my activist work is based in allegiance to a specific organization to which I'm quite monogamous. I'll show up to other peoples' rallies and actions, but my activist time is concentrated in one place. Activist work is much more clearly ends-oriented and based in immediate and tangible results.

So while activist undertakings refer back to a specific organization or project, intellectual undertakings many times do not. Instead, as in this essay, the left is 'left' unspecified. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the American left. As intellectuals, we're 'left' with the uneasy task of specifying our own positions without recourse to a specific party or organization. Instead, terms like Marxist or feminist are generally emptied of any specific meaning and hitched up to adjectives like rail cars. I'm a neo-modernist antifoundationalist feminist antiheteronormative multiculturalist eco-Marxist! All aboard! I just said a lot, but didn't tell you anything. Similarly, Bad Subjects has always claimed to be something of a Marxist project — but it is has no formal attachments to Marxist organizations beyond itself. We all agree that we're leftists, but from there, we go our separate ways. So if intellectual work remains 'unattached,' what is its political utility? How can intellectual work have political significance beyond its immediate context?

The World Beyond and Other Utopias

People who ask these questions are sometimes accused of anti-intellectualism, which is really an effort by the accuser to shut down the issue. How dare we separate ideas and actions? How dare we say that creative thought is outside the realm of everyday life? But intellectual work is only one kind of action, and nowhere has it effected social change by itself. A more promising proposition is that intellectual work is valuable politically because of its double character — the negative move of critique, and the positive move of strategy and narration. The negative moves — critique, demystification, consciousness-raising — all of these are really important parts of a leftist project. Yet these undertakings can become self-serving; they can become ends in themselves. Consciousness raising in second wave feminism was understood as a necessary prerequisite to political action (the personal is the political!), but it also fed into a giant therapy industry where the personal was turned away from the political and back toward itself. The personal is the political, but the political is not merely the personal. Critique for the sake of criticism is not an effective politics. Similarly, a positive move divorced from critique leaves us to 'history for history's sake' or manifestos full of fire and rhetoric but that reproduce the very problems they were written to overcome. The latter are a dime a dozen on the internet — the Unabomber's rag being a prime example.

Ideally, this intellectual two-step puts thought into political practice — literally and figuratively. Our world is both matter and spirit. We build it, shape it, and tear it down again through thought and action. Either by itself is but a step in an unknown direction. A modest anecdote: when I teach my students media studies, we develop a critique of the existing structure of media ownership. My negative move here is demystifying the economics of the mass media; my goal is to show how the system itself is not given or natural but contingent. The positive move is to imagine another possible organization of the mass media — for instance, a set of communications institutions dedicated to communication over profit — as well as the means to achieving that change. This is already a lot to accomplish, as any teacher will tell you. But politically, it is only one half of the battle. The other half is to take apart the existing institutions and rebuild them. A student asks me what she should do if she believes the system is wrong. My answer — organize, visualize and mobilize! But of course, the institutional context of the University means I can only carry this process so far in my role as a teacher. University teaching suffers from the same problem as consciouness raising in general — it can too easily become a personal and not a social process.

Negative and positive moves — one step forward, two steps left, one step back. So it is in thought, so it is in action.

As an intellectual enterprise, Bad Subjects has been committed to the two-step. Our pages and computer screens have been filled with the critique of existing institutions and practices — and with the insistence on some kind of positive move. But these positive moves remain partial, fragmented, vague. The problem is, in a word, utopia. The Unabomber is right, leftists generally tend to see a lot of problems and injustices in the world and want to fix them all. At least I do. We all know what to be against. The problem is what to be for — even the most die-hard Marxists, feminists or multiculturalists can't agree among themselves or with anyone else what Utopia should look like. Why? What kind of world are we building?

Envisioning utopia is hard. What kind of world do we want to live in? Do we really know what we're fighting for? Do we have an idea of what would happen were we to succeed in our quest for social change? Roberto Unger says the problem with utopian vision is a lack of imagination. Either we remain stuck in the present, simply turning the world on its head (whether you consider this a dialectical move or not), or we posit something so impossibly vague that it's of no practical value. Matriarchy, the Workers' State, and 'Wild Nature' are all examples of the former. The honest admission in our own manifesto that we have no clue what utopia will look like is an example of the latter.

Imagination, then, is one of the most important challenges for intellectual work on the left. We need to attend to the double character of our own work. We also need to attend to the double character of the leftist project in general. Clearly, it is a huge task to disassemble the social institutions and daily routines which keep so many people down. But we also need to pose a real alternative. To put it another way, politics is not simply a matter of who's in power, but the character and exercise of power itself. That's why everything we do has a political dimension to it. And that is why we've got to take politics seriously as a varied and contested terrain. Bad Subjects is a place where we can exercise critique and imagination. It is a step in the process of looking beyond ourselves and forging new and revolutionary connections, but it is far from the final step.

The Politics of Politics

This essay and this issue are intended to open up Meaghan Morris' question about culture and politics in the context of Bad Subjects. The only ready-made approaches for connecting intellectual and political work are inadequate: either the intellectual becomes the instrument of a political organization (i.e., a propagandist or researcher), or the political organization becomes an instrument of the intellectual (vanguardism). This is not to say that we should never give our services over to organizations, or offer them strategy suggestions. To the contrary, for my own life, I like the model of the professional intellectual who devotes a significant amount of his intellectual work to the service of a specific organization or goal. Still, intellectual work and activism cannot be tied to one another in some kind of easy, preordained correspondence.

This lack of some simple correspondence should not be cause for despair or even forfeit. It is the job of both the intellectual and the activist to make connections in all sorts of new ways — to keep political work thoughtful, and to keep thoughtful work political. Clearly, in devoting an issue to these concerns, we are opening up questions around intellectual work and politics, not putting them to rest.

In these pages, we've tried a few different angles on these questions. Along with this essay, Joel Schalit considers how radical right-wing groups use history in their construction of the future, while Radhika Mongia analyzes the Beijing conference and Anthony Arnove reminds us of the vitality of working class politics. Jillian Sandell thinks through her own political practice, while Carrie Rentschler considers her women's self-defense pedagogy as a political strategy and offers a few a tips along the way. Finally, Steve Macek and Anthony Arnove present powerful cases for their respective organizations, the New Party and the International Socialist Organization. Together, these last two essays pose the question, once again, of what forms leftist activism should take — reform, revolution, or something else?

While I believe it's a big step forward to bring activism into the pages of Bad Subjects, we also need to step out. We need to take the conversations you'll find in these pages and on the listserv beyond our familiar contexts and our comfortable communities. While transforming ourselves is a move toward political transformation, we must get beyond ourselves — personally and socially — if we are to see that political transformation through.


For Further Reading:

Robert Mangabeira Unger, Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.


I would like to thank Carrie Rentschler, Radhika Mongia, and Charlie Bertsch for their thoughtful suggestions on putting this essay together.


Jonathan Sterne is a grad student in Communications Research and Critical and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation will be on the history of sound and the invention of the sound media. He is also an officer of the Graduate Employees' Organization and bassist for the band, Nastybake. His email address is jonathan.sterne@mcgill.ca.

Copyright © 1995 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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