Feel Like Going Home: Notes on Self-Marginalization
Issue #54, March 2001
People are strange, when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
— The Doors, "People Are Strange"
This is not a pretty piece. It is about being a stranger; it is about self-marginalizing behavior. It is in many ways the antithesis of a Bad Subjects piece.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Lord I feel like going home
I tried and I failed and I'm tired and weary
Everything I done was wrong
And I feel like going home
— Charlie Rich, "Feel Like Going Home"
You don't want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
— Pee-Wee Herman, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Bad Subjects has been about community from its very inception. In an editorial introducing Issue #1 to the reading public, Annalee Newitz and Joe Sartelle explicitly tied the new publication to ideals of community. Quoting Althusser on the value of being a bad subject, they noted "we can't be Bad Subjects all alone — only good subjects work well 'all by themselves.'" They asked for help in getting the enterprise off the ground, and help arrived. Eight years and fifty-three issues later, one could say it was good help, and one would also note that the help just keeps on coming. Bad Subjects is many things; a community is one of them.
What fascinated me right from the start was the manner in which they connected being Bad with being part of a community. The stereotypical rebel, as it had usually been presented to me in American pop culture, was a loner, outside of community. And I liked to think of myself as a rebel, despite lacking any actual evidence of rebelliousness in my mostly mundane life. I thought I was a loner because I was a rebel (I was wrong: I was a rebel because I was a loner), so this new badsubjectian stance threw me. How could one be a rebel while rejecting the isolation of the loner? From that first issue, Bad Subjects has dismissed the self-marginalizing of the stereotypical American rebel in favor of a community of badness, a joining together of like-minded souls. It was easy to recognize myself in that self-marginal so-called rebel; I wanted to be better. I joined Bad Subjects, and embarked on a journey where I would attempt to be part of a community, hoping it would rub off on me and I would, indeed, break away from my false marginal status.
As far as anyone knows, the experiment worked. For all intents and purposes, to the outside world, I am a Bad Subject. But you see the problem: when I draw a distinction between the 'outside world' and myself I'm assigning marginal status to myself. Not to mention a slight problem with locating the center of the universe, for I don't claim to exist outside the world, but rather assume that I am the center and the world is outside. It's very difficult to give oneself fully to community with such a worldview. Perhaps it's enough that I've been part of the Bad Community for more than eight years; maybe that says it all. So, why do I feel like such a phony?
It's a sad man, my friend, who's livin' in his own skin
And can't stand the company
— Bruce Springsteen, "Better Days"
For the ninth issue of Bad Subjects, I co-wrote a piece on Bruce Springsteen. One of the only communities I felt a part of was that of Bruce Fans, and in that article, I tried to deconstruct the meaning of Bruce fandom. I wrote, "In Bruce, we had community.... We did not want to be confirmed as an audience ... we wanted to be confirmed as a community." I also knew this was largely a false community, as was evident when Bruce became an enormous star in the mid-80s, dragging what could only be called 'non-Bruce fans' into the community. But by the Bruce/E-Street reunion tour at the end of the 20th century, those non-Bruce fans were gone. What was left was the still-vital community we all came to rely on, with close to three decades of memories and experiences to bind us together. If, in 1985, Bruce concerts were punctuated by drunken frat boys thrusting their fists into the air while singing along with "Born in the USA," in 1999, we were once again secure in our community, in a land of hope and dreams with room for saints and sinners.
How startling it was, then, to find during the 2000 election that many members of the Bruce community were Republicans. It was impossible for me to reconcile their Republican-ness with their Bruce-ness. These weren't trendy frat boys, these were 'real' Bruce fans. And they were Republicans! (I'm sure they were having the same problems understanding the presence of us non-Republicans, of course.) It was enlightening in a way the mid-80s had never been. I was embarrassed to realize I'd believed in my own particular vision of this community with such myopic fervor that I'd misinterpreted the entire thing. We weren't a 'real' community. Instead, we were a bunch of people with a shared love for a commodity. The sharing was important, it touched the soul, but it wasn't community. It was not something you could dismiss, nor did I just give it up once the light went on in my head. I still love Bruce, and I still love the many friends I have met over the years of sharing Bruce love. But we're ultimately all just a bunch of strangers. I wanted us to be like each other; in reality, we were all who we were, and that was a good thing, but it was, at best, a different concept of community than I thought I was a part of.
Lord I tried to see it through
But it was too much for me
So now I'm coming home to you
Yes I feel like going home
— Charlie Rich
Ah, yes, the 2000 election. I will confess in advance that I voted for Ralph Nader for president. When it comes to presidential elections, I have often been a self-marginalized voter. Ralph Nader is one of the most ordinary people I've ever supported for president. My vote for Nader, in the context of my own twisted politics, was something of a move towards the center. I guess I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn't and I'm not. But one must start with the facts, and so I admit it: I voted for Nader.
I was attacked for my choice, it is true. To have opinions is to be open to attack, that's understood. What was surprising was the direction from which these attacks came. For it was members of the leftist community that were most virulent with their snarlingly vicious screeds. Everything that went 'wrong' in the 2000 election was somehow the fault of Ralph Nader, the Green Party, and everyone who 'wasted' their vote on anyone but Al Gore. In the very pages of Bad Subjects, for example, Nader voters were taken to task for not accepting a simple fact, that "Progressivism recognizes that its strength comes from the quality of ideas and expression, not from simplistic righteousness that alienates neighbors." There certainly is a problem of recognition here. The endless rants of Gore supporters against people who voted for Nader reek of the simplistic righteousness that constitutes the large portion of Demo VP candidate Joe Lieberman's entire political career (Joe, free of the rigors of the campaign trail, has already gone back to what he does best, trying to get Jackass off our televisions). And as for alienating neighbors, what has been more alienating to leftists like myself, who voted for Ralph Nader, than to listen to daily sermons about our perfidy?
If indeed Bad Subjects was correct back in Issue #1 when it rejected self-marginalization in favor of community, how can we reconcile this with the stance of those who, in the name of leftist community, alienate their neighbors in such a comprehensive manner? How do these tirades help the cause of Progressivism, if Progressivism is a concept that rejects the simplistic alienating of neighbors? The attacks on voters like myself do nothing to foster community; they only serve to make me question the very notion of community itself.
Cloudy skies are closin' in
And not a friend around to help me
From all the places I have been
Lord I feel like going home
— Charlie Rich
Eight years haven't done as much for me as I'd hoped. Bad Subjects was kind enough to take me in. There was room then, and in fact there has always been room, in Bad Subjects for marginal folks. All we had to do was commit to the attempt, and we were accepted into the community. The beautiful utopian vision of Bad Community has made a difference in the lives of all who have participated in it, myself included. But I've been fooling others and myself; I've been posing, I haven't been a true believer. I thought it would happen, but so far I've fallen short. At times, I've misrepresented myself, but for the most part, I think it has been clear where I come from. The anti-utopian in a group of utopians, the non-believer in the midst of faith, the loner in the middle of the community. It's a sign of the magnificence of the Bad Community that there has always been a place for miscreants like me, and always will be. But Lord, I feel like going home.
Many times over the years I have quoted Albert Camus in the pages of Bad Subjects. Most of the time, I draw my inspiration from his great novel The Plague. This novel inspires me because it suggests the better person I might become, while accepting that I'll always be me and recognizing the absurdity of the attempt to better oneself. I want to live up to the Camusian character who tries to cure the sick because they are needy. But now I'm tired and weary, and so I find myself re-reading Camus' earlier novel, The Stranger, perhaps appropriately given the topic of this issue of Bad Subjects. The central character of The Plague is a doctor trying to save the world, one patient at a time. The central character of The Stranger is a murderer whose best explanation for his act is that it was very hot outside. It seems transparently obvious why I'd rather be the doctor than the murderer, and in the past, the Bad Community has encouraged me to pursue that side of my personality. But I can't escape this skin I'm living in.
At the end of The Stranger, ready to face his executioner, the murderer, Meursault, has an epiphany:
I had lived my life one way and I could just as well lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why.... Throughout the whole absurd life I'd lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.
I lack the purity of Meursault. I wish I'd done some things differently, and if I really thought nothing mattered, I wouldn't be writing these words, indulgently morose as they might be. But I am a Stranger, in all its self-marginalizing non-glory. And it's been eight years, "burning down the road. Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."
I wish this was a pretty piece. I wish there was a convenient way to summarize what I might have learned, what the reader might have learned. I believe that it is better to be a doctor who cures than to be a stranger who murders. I believe that we are more likely to be our better selves when we work within a community, than we are when we work alone. These beliefs suggest, demand, that we reach out to like-minded others, for the betterment of all.
But I'm tired. Meursault didn't set out to kill someone, but he did it, nonetheless. It was hot. He was hot. His absurd salvation comes from accepting that there is no salvation; he betters himself when he takes responsibility for his actions. I must let people know who I am and what I've done. I must take responsibility at last.
I am a stranger.
Thanks to Aaron Shuman and Lindsey Eck for their kind assistance with this essay.
Everyone Steven Rubio meets seems to be a rank stranger.