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The Critique from Within

What does it mean to be a community? It means working together. It also means being willing to acknowledge that members of the community have differences of opinion.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #7, September 1993

When I first proposed the idea of doing a critique of Bad Subjects' first year, our March/April Issue #5 had just come out. I envisioned an attempt to come to terms with the most common misreadings and misgivings Bad Subjects had inspired. Ideally, readers' comments and criticisms would have provided a springboard for this effort. Unfortunately, the vast majority of complaints and questions people had about Bad Subjects never found their way into the editors' boxes. Perhaps cynically assuming that their confusion or dissent would be ignored, people only seemed willing to grumble or jab at us indirectly in private conversation or other relatively safe forums: direct confrontation with Bad Subjects' editors and writers was shunned. My idea of engaging in self-critique was thus motivated by a desire to give voice to many of the criticisms and complaints that I had heard secondhand. I wanted to open Bad Subjects up for public debate, even though the public I had in mind was largely unwilling to make its opinions public in any serious, dialogue-provoking manner.

Looking back on my initial plans for this piece I will confess to being embarrassed at forcing this public out of its cynical closet, for I have deep misgivings about any process of 'outing' that goes against the conscious or unconscious desires that the person being outed might have to remain obscured: the only outings I believe in are the confessional ones performed by people outing themselves. Luckily, developments within Bad Subjects helped me find better reasons for doing self-critique. As we have already noted in the manifesto at the beginning of this issue, Bad Subjects' transformation from a primarily individualistic forum for like-minded writers working 'all by themselves' into a full- fledged collective for writers writing to, for, and with each other has had a profound effect: Bad Subjects has become a community. What does it mean to be a community? It means working together. It also means being willing to acknowledge that members of the community have differences of opinion that should not be silenced for the sake of an illusory cohesion. For Bad Subjects, then, becoming a community has meant becoming a forum for debates between its members. In other words, becoming a community has meant becoming self-critical in the best sense of the term: we critique each others' ideas and improve them in the process.

Rather than follow my original intention of working 'all by myself' to produce a self-critique of Bad Subjects' first year, I have decided to do something a little different. What I want to show you instead is an example of the process in which Bad Subjects became a self-critical community. There are, of course, issues brought up in our publications of last year that have yet to be addressed; what amazes me looking back at my original plan for this article is the extent to which the issues I wanted to raise have already been discussed by the collective. Both at the many Bad Subjects meetings we had over this summer and over the course of the electronic debates conducted through the Bad Subjects electronic mailing list, members of the collective expressed their respective interests and dislikes, their own particular take on political culture, and indeed their differences of opinion in ways that ultimately strengthened individual and collective positions.

There is no accurate record of our actual meetings. Fortunately, however, we do have a record of our virtual encounters through our electronic mailing list. It is to that record that I now turn to illustrate my point. Instead of executing my own self- critique of Bad Subjects, I will let you 'listen in' on an electronic discussion that was collective self-critique in the making. Towards the end of May, after the sixth and final issue of last year's Bad Subjects, we began our first experiments with the electronic mailing list and experienced almost immediate dividends. John Brady, one of the first people completely unknown to Bad Subjects' founding editors to become involved with the collective, introduced himself to the other members on the net. He both began a 'thread' (= topic of discussion in netspeak) on the American Religious Right that soon segued nicely into a discussion of Wild Palms and the Right's appropriation of Left countercultural techniques, and also noted that he would like to write a Bad Subjects piece on the Expressionism Debate between Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs, particularly the ways in which this 'multifaceted' debate sheds light on 'the political potential of artistic creativity. Is creative expression in art necessarily political or is it in fact pre-political with little value for politics? Or does art have both a decidedly political and a decidedly pre-political or apolitical dimension?' John went on to add that 'this seems to be an important issue for Bad Subjects because, although we are not specifically engaging our artistic faculties, we are being intellectually creative and inventive in our work on the publication.'

For those of us who had been with Bad Subjects since its inception, John's message was both an occasion for delight, since our desire to be a true collective was materializing, and a provocation to rearticulate and rethink our own positions on the questions his words raised. Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz, the founding editors of Bad Subjects, had made it clear in their editor's column that their goal for Bad Subjects was to achieve 'political education for everyday life.' How would John's take on the intersection of aesthetics and politics fit in with their own? Hearing a new voice both different from and similar to theirs inspired them to respond. Annalee began with a question: 'is consumption as political as production?, then went on to add that 'one would also have to define what exactly 'political' would mean in this context. For it is certainly the case that some kinds of culture lend themselves much more easily to overtly political agendas. I would argue that an abstract painting or poem is necessarily less political than an allegorical narrative or an analytical and didactic essay simply because the abstract painting or poem is just too easy to interpret however one wants (which is hardly going to help convert anyone to any particular political philosophy unless they already 'know' about it). Writing or saying 'Capitalism is wrong because it forces some people to live in poverty while others live in luxury' is pretty hard to misinterpret. Writing 'The pure products of America/go crazy--' (from William Carlos Williams' famous 'political' poem 'To Elsie', 1923) is a little less easy to decipher and is, as Modernists would say, 'open to interpretation.' Of course, I would admit that I am biased toward the blatantly political and the flagrantly didactic--that's why I write non-fictional prose.'

Joe wondered whether it was necessary to frame a discussion of the intersection of aesthetics and politics in terms of the Bloch- Lukacs debate, but was not opposed to the idea. 'The challenge might be to find a way to make that debate fresh and accessible, to show its continuing relevance for a critique of contemporary, everyday life. I think I have a somewhat different take on the issue from those that have already been suggested here. The all- important factor, it seems to me, is the reception of particular forms.' He went on to argue that thinking about the relative political efficacy of various forms of art in the abstract ultimately failed to address questions of those forms' practical effects on specific audiences in specific contexts. 'So long as we are trying to privilege one form over another, in any absolute terms (e.g. didactic prose versus abstract expressionism), we are assuming that objects possess agency, that they control our responses to them. This is too formalist for me; I think we have to look at the situation and context within which any particular culture form gets received/consumed.' Joe noted that 'clarity of meaning is a separate issue from political effectiveness. In other words, some people might be turned off by the direct statement ('Well, that's nothing but propaganda') and dismiss it, while they might be more receptive to the oblique expression. On the other hand, I also share a deep suspicion of the whole concept of 'politically effective art,' since the more overtly political it is, the more it looks like 'propaganda' anyway, so why not just talk politics?'

After this discussion of the intersection of aesthetics and politics, debate on the net took a different turn. The 'clarity of meaning' Joe distinguished from 'political effectiveness' began to come to the fore as discussion turned to the appropriateness of using or analyzing 'high' cultural or literary theory in a publication like Bad Subjects, which was first intended as a forum for pieces that avoid being obscure and academic. Annalee began this new sub- thread by stating that 'it's important to study the kind of politics being consumed by people all over the globe in their everyday lives' and then adding, in reference to the Expressionism Debate, that while 'this kind of debate is certainly important' she was not sure it would 'be accessible to the Bad Subjects Bad Subjects we try to commit ourselves to explaining the politics of common culture to 'normal' (there's that word again) people. Perhaps the Bloch- Lukacs debate might be explained without the use of theory at all? This would be a very Bad Subjects kind of move...theory for the masses.' Another new member of the collective, Catherine Hollis agreed with Annalee: 'I'm in favor of bringing the argument into daily speech.' She cited Steven Rubio's article on Boomers and punk, 'Oh Bondage, Up Yours!' in Bad Subjects #6 as an example of the sort of piece she would prefer. 'I know there are valid reasons for getting away from first person journalism, but in this case the first person/eyewitness to daily life stance brought the theoretical point home.'

Annalee built on her own earlier points and Catherine's to clarify her position on theory's role in Bad Subjects. 'I want to make a point about the utility of theoretical analysis and its applicability to everyday situations. I think Bad Subjects itself is a collective effort to be 'differently theoried'--to have a strong and complex theoretical response to the social forces that shape our daily lives, but to present that response in such a way that it reaches a different audience than just peers in the academy. Being confessional and discussing the common culture does not automatically cancel out one's ability to be theoretically 'rigorous'. It means only that one has a double duty--to be critical in a political sense but also to make that critical edge palatable to an audience familiar with mostly 'everyday life' (as opposed to the weird 'mental life' we students and teachers lead). If we sometimes write about complicated theories which are hard to understand, then let us be hard.' She went on to explain that we bad subjects 'must do our best to speak plainly, but we cannot sacrifice critical complexity. I think professing an oppositional politics means going against what most people view as 'common sense'. Leftist or critical theory is occasionally difficult to understand because it is a kind of 'uncommon sense' which seeks to make people self-conscious about what appears 'ordinary and normal.' It seems to me that there is really no easy or simple way to explain how so many things we take for granted are actually part of what is wrong with human political and economic culture.'

Personally, I was not really sure what position to take on the question of theory. I stated my belief that the Bloch-Lukacs debate was still 'relevant and worth translating and transmitting to the masses,' but then went on to confess that my reasons for insisting on the debate's relevance were 'largely personal': it was extremely helpful to me when I first began to read theory and helped me arrive 'at an understanding of the theoretical issues...surrounding reification, mediation, and political art in general.' I went on to agree with Annalee that 'it might be most helpful to rewrite the debate without theory, raising the issues it raises without alienating' those readers of Bad Subjects not versed in the language of theory. I then paraphrased Joe's article on 'Public Intellectuals' in Bad Subjects #3 in which he wondered 'whether there's something wrong with sprinkling our writing with the names of theorists, rather than just saying what we have to say without supporting our assertions with theoretical proof that threatens to alienate or confuse our target audience.' I confessed that I was not sure whether I ultimately agreed with this position. 'Sometimes I wholly agree with this argument; other times it strikes me as disingenuous, since A) we really do read theory and B) many of us would never have gotten to the point we are at without working through theoretical complexities. I'm often torn between wanting to avoid the self-indulgent contortions of theory and feeling that I had to go through them to see past them.'

Joe responded to me. 'I share Charlie's ambivalence about the use of high-theory discourse--for any of us to totally avoid a certain amount of theoretical (difficult, elitist) language would indeed be disingenuousness given who we are...Some ideas are just difficult to think, and require expression in a form that's going to be demanding to read.' Joe went on to draw an important distinction. 'I think all of us know the difference between arguments that are intended to slay the audience with one's theoretical mastery and arguments that are intended to enable the audience to increase their own theoretical mastery.' John closed out a debate that he had himself initiated by expressing some reservations about other collective members' statements on theory. 'I don't know if I agree with the reluctance to use theory in order to make Bad Subjects accessible to a wider audience. We should avoid jargon and make clarity a goal of course, but theory is important and can be presented in an intelligible way. Bad Subjects should challenge its readers.'

While this example of the sort of electronic discussions that the Bad Subjects collective engages in is interesting in its own right, what interests me more right now is the way in which it reveals a process of accumulative self-critique. Each person that enters into the discussion must take into account the arguments of others who have gone before. What emerges over time is a collective decision both about what is really at stake in a given discussion and about where a consensus may be defined that is not so restrictive as to silence individual members of the collective. Here, for example, the progression of the thread indicates that we were ultimately more interested in hashing out a Bad Subjects position on theory than on art, for we gradually came to talk less about the content of the Expressionism Debate than we did about the usefulness and accessibility of the debate itself. We were also seeking some common ground in our arguments, which we found not in working 'all by ourselves' but in working as a group to accommodate differences of opinion and to use the productive tension between those differences in the service of a common goal. Obviously not everyone could be accommodated within the Bad Subjects collective: certain basic principles must be shared by each member. What has been both thrilling and tiring this summer, however, is learning from experience what the collective's political and social limits are and learning to work, not 'all by ourselves', but together within them.

Charlie Bertsch is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, who plans to write his dissertation on the relationship between Modernist aesthetics and popular culture. He is also a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.