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Introduction: The Use Value of High Culture

People in academia now study popular culture from just about every sort of theoretical, methodological and ideological point of view.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #11, January/February 1994

The idea for this issue came out of a conversation a few months ago among several of the members of our collective. Significantly, the conversation arose because of the fact that so many of us are graduate students in the English Department here at UC-Berkeley. On this occasion, four or five of us just happened to be visiting the department office at the same time, and we started talking in the hall outside the office (at the long table which was the original distribution site for this publication). At some point one of us remarked that the latest issue of a very high-theory academic journal associated with Berkeley was doing a Bad Subjects sort of move, since it featured articles about popular culture, including something about Homer Simpson.

My response was that while all of us at Bad Subjects would certainly agree that popular culture is very important as an integral and powerful dimension of the culture of everyday life, I thought there was nothing inherently 'badsubjectian' in simply writing about popular culture. Indeed, people in academia now study popular culture from just about every sort of theoretical, methodological and ideological point of view. The fact that this particular journal was running these articles should be taken as hard evidence that that there is nothing intrinsically 'progressive' or 'resistant' (let alone 'subversive') in the critical study of popular or mass culture. Rather, what matters is how we study, teach and write about something: the perspective we bring to it, the lessons we learn by engaging with it, and the audiences we share those lessons with. Being a bad subject involves (at the minimum) a certain way of understanding things — but it is not about the things themselves.

Half-joking, and thinking about the ironies of our professional identities, our political philosophies, and where we literally happened to be standing at the moment, I offered the opinion that so many people were 'doing' popular culture these days that maybe the 'radical' thing to do is to go back to the canon — the 'great masterpieces' of high culture that many of us at Bad Subjects turned to popular culture in reaction against. More seriously, I thought that, as a writing project for the collective, it would be a way for those of us trained as scholars in the humanities to reconsider our own backgrounds, as well as a way of making public use of our professional training and our other investments in the critical study of canonical texts. It would also be an opportunity to think at greater length about what exactly a Bad Subjects position on high culture might be. The idea caught on, and this issue was under way.

An important distinction quickly emerged in our discussions about the project between individual examples of canonical or high culture (particular novels, plays, paintings, operas, etc.) and the ideology of high culture as such — the belief that certain kinds of human objects are somehow intrinsically better than others, in and of themselves. In some sense, our task was to rescue the objects themselves from their fetishization into high culture. The purpose of a canon is to decide for us which objects are worthy of our attention and consideration; since the objects are somehow innately good for us, supposedly we can't help but be improved by spending time with them. Hence the ideology and practice of 'exposing people to art,' as though aesthetic objects give off some sort of ennobling radiation, which seems to be the way most people (and not just critics and professors) think about Literature and the other fine arts.

In other words, canons are ways in which power is ideologically projected onto a special class of objects and taken away from human beings. High culture is not much concerned with how people make use of great works of art. Rather, it encourages us to think that because the objects themselves are good, any use of high culture is intrinsically worthwhile. Thus what holds together an academic discipline like 'English' is an agreed-upon set of objects, the canonical works of Literature in the English language, and not any coherent shared methodology, theory or perspective regarding what we should do with those works (beyond the basic injunction that we 'appreciate' how good they are). And even though there is constant debate about which authors and texts should be canonical, the underlying belief in the innate superiority of some objects over others is not questioned.

However, contrary to what aesthetics (like capitalism) encourage us to believe, objects possess no intrinsic value, whether those objects are rare metals or great works of art. Rather, value is to be found in the ways in which those things are used . Value is made by subjects, not found in objects; it is a product of human relations with the object world. But this is exactly what the ideology of high culture, maintained and promoted by institutions like art galleries and departments of Literature, would have us forget.

What we know of as high culture and the great masterpieces of art are really just the preferred culture of a particular minority group within society — but a minority with the power to enforce its taste preferences, to impose its own values and standards and interests upon others. In other words, what they like becomes what is good for everyone . Of course, the proponents of multiculturalism have been arguing exactly this point for some time now. However, the multicultural critique of the exclusionary and biased nature of the canons of high culture as we have known them rarely challenges the more fundamental basis of the canon, the belief that value resides in objects rather than in their uses. Even when we open up the canon to 'diversity,' to the voices of the previously excluded (whoever they may be), we still preserve the distinction between high and low, the worthy and the unworthy. The question is still one of which objects — and not which uses of those objects — are better than others. We

But as bad subjects, we know that value is something we make. In the following essays, you will see how some of us make practical use of high or canonical culture. We do not 'appreciate' canonical texts for their beauty or elegance or complexity or sophistication, or for their place in a tradition, or for their glimpses into the eternal truths of human existence, or for their superiority to mass or popular culture. Rather, we appreciate them because they are useful to us, because they have helped us to become who we are today, or because they can be read in ways that help us to understand something important about the political implications of everyday life. As bad subjects, we really don't care whether something is high culture or popular culture. We ask to be judged not by the objects we prefer, but by the uses we make of them.

Joe Sartelle is Chief of Operations for the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached through e-mail at

Copyright © 1994 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.