Introduction: What We Talk About When We Talk About Strangers
John Brady and Steven Rubio
Issue #54, March 2001
One revelation that occurred to us during the production of this issue of Bad Subjects is that the experience of strangeness is extremely common. As the various essays came in for perusal, editing, and now publication, production team members commented on how this or that piece of writing recalled events in their own lives. Clearly, there is something about being a stranger that connects with many of us.
This is simultaneously charming, ironic, and a little frightening. Charming to realize that we, as readers, have personal ties to such a variety of experiences as are offered in this issue. Ironic that our feelings of isolation help connect us to others with the same feelings. Frightening that life in the 21st century is so full of isolation.
The mere recitation of personal experiences isn't sufficient to change the world. Bad Subjects has a long and proud history of publishing essays that are rooted in the personal but which make connections to the structural oppressions of the public world. However, an issue devoted to Strangers faces a perhaps unique problem in this regard: the more strange you feel, the more difficult it is to make the connections which can help lead us to a changed and better world.
As is often the case, then, this issue of Bad Subjects offers reflections from the front lines and more distanced analyses of current situations, at times in the same essay. While the topic of Strangers might seem to ensure an endless barrage of depressing missives, we were delighted to receive several submissions that turn depression on its head. There are dangers involved in taking too much pride in one's strangeness: isolation is anti-social in the worst ways, whether it is imposed from outside powers or nurtured from within. But here again, the recognition of a seemingly oxymoronic commonality of strangeness hopefully offers one possible step outside our isolated selves.
The Strangers issue begins with John Brady's examination of newly-elected George W. Bush. Brady sees, in Bush's attempts to redefine citizenship, a promise of community through a greater participation in civil society, a promise that for many will lead to greater estrangement from the political and economic realities of their daily lives. Howard Zinn, however, in a far-reaching Bad Subjects interview, has hope that those realities will result in an increased activism amongst the oppressed.
Brian Duff offers a different approach in his essay on strange bedfellows. Noting the similarities in the relationships of feminists Gloria Steinem and Catherine MacKinnon to significant others, Duff wonders what might be the appeal for feminists of men who are also animal rights activists. Mike Mosher speaks up for displaced artists in a counter-argument to a recent New York Times article by oft-chastised Gina Arnold, while Mahwash Shoaib and Jeremy Russell examine popular movies that reflect on strangeness. Shoaib explores how both The Beach and Vertical Limit reproduce an imperialist logic that effaces otherness. Russell's comparison of Easy Rider and the more recent Requiem for a Dream analyzes the failed logic of countercultural attempts to use strangeness as a tool.
Other essays construct a more personal relationship to being a stranger. Nick Lehner, in her tale of butch and femme identity, shows how feelings of strangeness can arise even within subcultures that pride themselves on that very strangeness. Deborah Shaller seems to be describing a far different world from Lehner in her essay on life in Baltimore, but her descriptions of the ways in which one internalizes the attitudes of others draw attention to the possibility of strangeness being simultaneously imposed from without and reluctantly accepted from within. Lindsey Eck interviews people associated with Casa Marianella, a shelter in Austin Texas for refugees and immigrants from Central America. The words of shelter residents draw a picture of a much different and underrepresented personal relationship to the socio-economic realities of America.
Marguerite Helmers shows what happens when capitalism embraces strangeness in her article on the commercial exploitation of UFO myths in Roswell, New Mexico. Wayde Grinstead sees strangeness from the worker's side of the bar in his look at life as a graduate student who is also a bartender. Finally, Steven Rubio climbs inside the life of a stranger and recognizes, with a great deal of regret, that strangeness is his home.