Introduction: Read This First!

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For this issue, we tried hard to pull in pieces that would be different from the standard Bad Subjects fare.
Charlie Bertsch and Jeremy Russell, Issue Editors

Issue #34, October 1997


During the on-line editing process leading up to this issue, a member of the BS Production Team asked whether one submission could rightfully be considered "an article." This got us thinking. As the editors for this issue, we tried hard to pull in pieces that would be different from the standard BS fare. We wanted to do something a little different, maybe not take ourselves so seriously even. These articles therefore represent a new eclectic mix, but because the pieces in this issue raise questions — not only about what constitutes a BS article, but what constitutes an "article" at all. The best way to frame the different pieces here is to do some of reflecting on what we've been publishing up to now.

When BS began in the fall of 1992, co-founders Annalee Newitz and Joe Sartelle confronted the problem of self-definition. They needed to make the readers of BS understand why this new publication should matter to them. In the editor's column for the first issue, they stated their goal for BS: "We hope that this newsletter can help to promote radical thinking about the political implications of everyday life." But instead of explaining directly what they meant by important terms like "radical," "political," or "everyday life," they chose to concentrate their energy on explaining the type of article they wished to publish: "The purpose of a BS article is to take a stand, preferably one which is defiant of conventional leftist wisdom in the service of leftist politics." In making this move, they implied that the meaning of "radical thinking about the political implications of everyday life" would be self-evident once readers understood what a "BS article" should look like.

Six years later, the goal behind BS remains the same. However, our sense of what constitutes a "BS article" keeps changing. As the diversity of the articles in this issue attests, we now have a much broader sense of what sort of writing will help us to achieve our goal. In this way we hope to avoid some of the mistakes other politically minded publications have made, embalming themselves in their own agenda (sometimes so much so that they look scarily like the dogma they oppose). Some BS articles still conform rather closely to the model proposed in the first issue. Self-consciously polemical, they make it clear that they are taking a defiant stand. But they have become the exception to the rule. Taken as a whole, BS articles have grown progressively less strident over the years.

As BS has become less polemical over the years, it has revised its editorial policy in interesting ways. In its first two years, BS was a text-only publication. The Production Team worried that the use of graphics would compromise its iconoclasm. In an increasingly image-saturated world, the stark black-and-white look of BS implied a refusal to be "slick." In addition, despite the fact that the Production Team wanted to make room for writing that would be deemed "unacceptable" in scholarly circles, it was rigorously opposed to work that appeared to be creative at the expense of being critical. Members of the Production Team felt that the introduction of poetry or fiction into BS would make it too much like other leftist magazines.

BS still hasn't published any poetry or fiction. But the Production Team made the decision in 1994 to start using graphics, and that opened a can of unruly worms. At first, most members of the Production Team regarded graphics as a sort of "necessary evil" that would make the publication more appealing and therefore more easy to read. Eventually, the more visually inclined members of the Production Team started to question the idea that graphics were less important than text, asking whether BS had underestimated the capacity to be critical. Does something have to take a clearly-defined stand in order to promote "radical thinking about the political implications of everyday life?"

When members of the BS Production Team review submissions for possible publication, they still tend to prefer pieces that are "closely-argued," that get to the point. There are good reasons for this. However, as new members are added to the Production Team and new ideas about what constitutes "closely argued" come into circulation, we see the old academic model slowly eroding away. We have to be careful not to lose the strength of that model. Insisting that writing stay focused on proving its point helps to prevent it from lapsing into sort of fanatical or meglomaniacal rants to which "radical" thinkers are particularly prone and for which they are duly criticized. But we also don't want this model to limit our sense of possibilities. If we try too hard to transform people's writing into a "BS article," we risk missing the point ourselves. It is difficult to communicate emotion and capture the imagination of a non-academic audience with a traditional essay, even on the most controversial topic. Sometimes it's more important to move one's readers than it is to present them with polished arguments. We're excited about the range of articles in this issue. They don't cohere around any one topic. They don't always have a clear-cut point. But they share an interest in opening our readers' minds to new perspectives. It's not that strong a link. And we haven't even tried to make it seem "closely argued." What matters to us is that BS itself remain open to novelty. We can't transform the world unless we're willing to experiment.

In "Paranoid Visions," Christian Divine reviews the best examples of an underexplored genre, explaining them in terms of their cultural context, social value and artistic merit. Why were these paranoid films made and, perhaps more important, why aren't they being made the way they used to?

Megan Shaw returns to a theme from our last issue, "Race," musing on her experiences growing up with "two fathers," both of them working-class white men. In the course of her reflections, she focuses particular attention on the role war played in their lives and, by extension, her own.

Katie Simon's article pursues the questions we've raised here in a slightly different direction. She interrogates the way in which writing is taught, the rules and regulations that "successful" students internalize without question.

The article by John Brady takes a more traditional approach to argument, in order to provide critical perspective on the latest rave in cultural experimentation. John's article critiques the "Love Parade," a popular counter-cultural extravaganza he witnessed during his years abroad as BS's "foreign correspondent" in Berlin.

Jeremy Russell's piece also talks about a form of "alternative culture" that has been particularly popular of late, the limit-testing of self-consciously offensive performers like Marilyn Manson and John Waters, and how they inspire people alientated by the toil of mundane employment.

An eye-opening piece by Lauren O'Connor, "The Bottom of Sonoma," reveals the dark underbelly of a California Paradise: Grape vines drape Sonoma's hills in lush and verdant rows; decadent wealth dominates the winery manors, but what about the community which serves this tourist hub and survives at the edge of its agricultural fences? Wine Country will never look the same to you once you've read the truth.

And finally, Ron Alcalay's piece addresses the problem of perspective head-on. Far from home on a trip to Thailand, he experienced the limitations of the worldview his "mental home" provided him. Trust, he discovered, is not necessarily trustworthy.

Copyright © 1997 by Charlie Bertsch and Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.

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