Introduction: Bad Writing
Issue #44, June 1999
In his song, 'Everybody Knows,' Leonard Cohen points out that, despite the splintered nature of contemporary American culture, there are some things that still go without saying. "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded," he sings. "Everybody knows the captain lied." Likewise, everybody these days seems to know what good writing is. Worse, everybody thinks that this common knowledge about good writing is unalterable. To make matters more confusing, one of the most effective tools to break through this barrier of belief is writing itself.
Bad Subjects has worried about the politics of writing, our own and others, since its first issue. How shall we write in order to communicate both straightforward and simple issues of daily life, together with more complex thoughts about the ideologies that shape those experiences? Do radically democratic politics mean that we have to avoid the appearance of 'elitism' and simplify -- perhaps even oversimplify -- the encounter of experience and abstract thought? And on the other hand, how to express something progressive without a degree of intellectualizing -- even over-intellectualizing?
These kinds of questions have arisen and remained current in the context of a prolonged social debate over the academy's use and abuse of language. Both right and left-wing critics have hammered ideas emerging from humanities departments today by accusing their authors of impenetrable expression. New thinking sometimes demands new expression, but that seems to escape these critics, who far too often avoid any real engagement with the writing they criticize. They may even decontextualize their examples, cheating in their enthusiasm to point out expressive atrocities. The accusation becomes simply: 'You do not think like me.' The issue of clarity becomes peripheral.
Judith Butler recently took up the gauntlet thrown down by these criticisms. Writing for the New York Times op-ed pages, Butler pointed out that not only have the charges been restricted to writers on the Left "whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism," such criticism has also, and not coincidentally, in its arbitration of good prose, raised the specter of 'common sense.' Common sense is the logician's mirror for common knowledge; it upholds the 'common' good -- also known as the status quo. What "everybody knows" reflects the way everybody thinks. "Language that [challenges common sense] can help point the way to a more socially just world," says Butler. It is also true that this same language may end up ignored or reviled -- the same risk that any innovation assumes.
As any reader of Marx realizes, progressive writing has rarely been simple. Part of its progressivism lies in an effort to escape old paradigms and challenge readers to alter the conditions of their lives. What everybody knows must from time to time be dragged from the darkness of acquiescence into the bright light of interrogation.
Yet the writing debate is not without its benefits. It sensitizes us to the rhetorical demands of persuasive writing. Bad Subjects has had a years-long internal debate over accessibility in language. Our collective preference has been for writing that works toward easy readability but does not avoid more difficult terminology where necessary. Although the best progressive writing is just good writing, what constitutes 'good writing' is as flexible and contingent an idea as good politics. The collective model on which Bad Subjects bases itself and prides itself, is not only a collective of people but voices. And multiple voices are probably the most realistic way to affect a wide audience.
A significant proportion of the Bad Subjects editorial group teaches writing for a living. David Hawkes does too and his essay questions why composition courses should be taught at all. Hawkes has become especially concerned by the false promises of computer technologies to teach writing, which he suggests represents a triumph of capital over education.
In an essay on autobiography, Charlie Bertsch discusses the writer in the work, specifically in music criticism. Charlie focuses his thoughts on two periods, the early 1970s and the early 1980s, when distinctive voices dominated writing about music. He asks, does autobiography have a role in writing about music? If it does, what is that role?
L.A. Schildt speaks in her essay about the revolutionary and empowering experience of learning to write. It's easy to forget that learning to write is in so many ways learning to think, communicate and even understand. Likewise Jeremy Russell touches on themes current to all writers today -- both the issue of reception by a public hell-bent on censorship and work-related injuries exacerbated by the speed required to keep up with typing in the computer age. Productivity in writing encompasses both our expression and our physical capacity to express ourselves.
Questions surrounding an historic decline in 'progressive' politics inhabit Ewa Pagacz's essay. Her anti-romanticism concerning the repressive conditions of daily life in Communist-ruled Poland in the 1970s speaks towards the uninformed romanticism of too many U.S. leftists. Much like Richard Wright at his last May Day in Chicago, she had to leave the parade.
James Casas Klausen is concerned with the power of capitalist consumer culture to seduce us away from important political and economic issues. He examines the seduction dynamic in Nora Ephron's recent film You've Got Mail and compares it to the political seduction of the American public by the Clinton sex/impeachment scandal.
Tom/Paul and BS collective member Joe Lockard write in this issue about the malignant imagery and politics of conspiracy that have surrounded Monica Lewinsky over the past year and a half. They argue that surprising parallels inhabit this affair and the roiling nationalism of the Dreyfus Affair, in which theories of ethnic conspiracy have been globalized. The marriage between identity politics and conspiracy politics, they conclude, severely diverts both rational analysis and progressivism.
Finally we return to the future of writing in Mike Mosher's essay on hypertext and its ideological sources. Writing is an affirmation of the future and of continuing possibilities. Accessibility in writing is best conceived as popular and democratic access to writing and publication, in order that we may write our own futures.