Issue #28, October 1996
In this issue of Bad Subjects we return to a topic we covered a lot in our first few years, but haven't dealt with as much lately: popular culture. When we started up the Bad List (our electronic discussion list) in the fall of 1993, it rapidly became a forum, not only for exchanges about politics, but also for conversations about movies, TV, and popular fiction. Some of our most fully developed threads originated in comments about specific pop-cultural texts: Hard Target, an album by The Frogs, TV coverage of police cars 'chasing' OJ Simpson's Ford Bronco, the writings of Harlan Ellison, Barney and Friends, True Lies, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Rob Roy — the list goes on and on.
Over the last two years, however, the tenor of debate has shifted away from the analysis of particular texts. In short, the Bad List has become a forum where a more traditional concept of politics often prevails. It has also taken on a decidedly more international flavor. Indeed, we picked the thread excerpted in "Voices from the Collective" because it does such a good job of exemplifying these changes: it showcases a discussion from list members around the world of the compromises political progressives have made in an attempt to secure more mainstream political power.
However, Bad Subjectsremains committed to analyzing the political dimensions of all aspects of everyday life. Sometimes this means focusing on what passes for 'politics' in the media. But it also requires that we work with a broader definition of politics than most people would. It means revealing the politics implicit in what lies outside of the world of politics. This is what the contributors to this issue of Bad Subjects try to do.
Cynthia Hoffman, Steven Rubio, Tomás Sandoval, and Charlie Bertsch discuss moments from recent popular culture. Hoffman examines the works of filmmakers who refuse to accept the standard right-wing Christian fundamentalist line on religion so prevalent in American culture today. Hoffman argues persuasively that films such as The Rapture and Priest, where religion is taken seriously but critiqued as an ideology, also implicitly criticize the fundamentalist position and its prominence in contemporary discussions of faith.
Bertsch discusses the hit TV show, The X-Files, arguing that the workaholism exhibited by Scully and Mulder (the two protagonists) exemplifies the situation of many of today's working professionals. Focusing on the relationship between the personal, the professional, and the paranormal, Bertsch suggests that the show can be read not only as a drama about aliens, but also as an allegory about alienation within capitalism. This crucial aspect of the show -its "blindspot" — remains hidden, almost as if it were another mysterious "X-File."
Sandoval offers a reading of the John Sayles independent movie Lone Star, arguing that memory and history should not always be the primary referents for understanding cultural, familial, and social events. By discussing the role of "blood" in the movie — via the violent murder of the town's sheriff, and the issue of incest between the two protagonists — Sandoval suggests that although history can be a guide for making the future, it can also be a prison. He reads Lone Star as a paradoxical statement about history, a film deeply concerned with historical memory that seems to advocate forgiving and forgetting.
Murder is also the subject of Steven Rubio's essay, but in this case a real murder — of Tupac Shakur, who died on Friday 13th, September, 1996, after being shot a few days earlier. Combining his initial thoughts on Tupac's death with reflections made a few weeks later, Rubio argues that while gangsta rap celebrates a notion of community, a macho individualism negates many of those feelings of community. Moreover, he demonstrates that the relationships between Tupac's "real" life, his art, his audience, and the material realities of his community are extremely complex, defying those who would fall back on a simplistic analysis.
In an essay that also foregrounds the material realities of popular culture, Mario Salimon writes about the Internet and other forms of popular technology in Brazil, arguing that despite such technological changes the gaps between the rich and poor, the technologically privileged and the computer illiterate, and between the hyper-employed and the unemployed are getting wider and wider. Using Bad Subjects as a space to educate readers outside of his country, Salimon describes and criticizes the economic and social forces at work in Brazil today.
Tackling the more abstract notion of "art" and "creativity," while still grounding them in the materiality of human life, Jonathan Sterne criticizes the stereotype of the "suffering artist," and argues that art can more properly be seen as a form of "practice" in a literal sense. In making this move, Sterne challenges the notion that pain and suffering are necessary for any creative endeavor, and instead offers a more liberatory and egalitarian version — anyone can be an artist, you just need to work at it. By placing the creation of art within the realm of production he is not celebrating the circulation of art as product, but rather emphasizing the material practices that comprise any artistic creation.
All of these writers share our conviction that the politics of everyday life matters, that the little things we do are not as insignificant as we are taught to believe. Seeing a movie, playing in a band, listening to music, or surfing the internet - all these activities are worth looking at in a critical light. Many people say "It's a just a movie" or "It's only music". What they fail to realize is that their unwillingness to look beneath the surface prevents them from seeing the connections between private life and public action. The contributors to this issue have looked a little deeper. They haven't all seen the same thing, but they have seen something worth talking about, something worth sharing with you. Their articles are an invitation to remember that popular culture is worth taking seriously, whether it comes in the form of a commodity, an aesthetic process, or the means by which popular cultures are produced.