Alternative Schmalternative

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Instead of politicized culture, we have "alternative culture," a leisure pursuit designed for educated liberals and disgruntled radicals like ourselves in search of morally self-conscious aesthetic pleasures.
Annalee Newitz and Joel Schalit, Issue Editors

Issue #46, December 1999


The work of art, by completely assimilating itself to need, deceitfully deprives men of precisely that liberation from the principle of utility which it should inaugurate.
-- Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment

What is the point of cultural production? Historically, the Left has considered culture's role in revolutionary politics to be at best ambiguous and at worst a propagandistic tool to spread radical ideas and nothing more. Neither position is particularly palatable to contemporary artists, nor does it create culture which holds people's interest. As a result, cultural production has been cut adrift from leftist and progressive politics.

Instead of politicized culture, we have "alternative culture," a leisure pursuit designed for educated liberals and disgruntled radicals like ourselves in search of morally self-conscious aesthetic pleasures. Whereas mid-twentieth century leftists like Adorno and Horkheimer made a political distinction between "good" art and "bad" mass media, today's radicals are less worried about art and more concerned about delineating between corporate and alternative media. What most leftists throughout the twentieth century share is an obsession with the social meanings of how culture is produced, rather than the content or reception of that culture. In other words, we've been more concerned about who and what is making our art and entertainment, rather than what it says about ourselves and the world around us.

It's always important to interrogate the modes of production -- in particular who owns them. But fetishizing "alternative" production does not teach us how to think revolutionary thoughts in a less-than-revolutionary situation. There is no way to produce mass culture outside the boundaries of capitalism, and therefore we at Bad Subjects believe that leftist cultural criticism must go beyond simply discerning whether or not something has been corrupted by its market origins. Rather, we would remind our readers that cultural artifacts -- music, movies, books, websites, television, whatever -- can respond critically to the circumstances under which they are produced. Nothing is wholly determined by its position within the economy. The point of this issue is to suggest ways that the left might find itself again within art and entertainment.

Culture is irrational. Quite often, it contradicts itself and leads its audience to reach conclusions that no corporate production company could ever imagine. Our task as leftists is to critique dominant ideology where we find it, but also to remember that resistance may be expressed in the places where we least expect it: on national television, in a major label record, on the pages of the New York Times. And the traditional venues for "radical art" such as the indie production house or the underground studio may be churning out stylistically brilliant but politically reactionary work.

With this issue, we hope to break from the bad faith principles of alternative culture and tackle the historically necessary project of opening up the left to the revolutionary possibilities in all forms of cultural expression. To that end, we offer a selection of articles which interrogate everything "alternative," from sex work, zines and music, to film, drugs and poetry.

Copyright © 1999 by Annalee Newitz and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.

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