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Introduction: Knowing Your Public

A critical approach to everyday life that is attentive to irony can sharpen our critical thinking.
Charlie Bertsch and Ana Cox, Issue Editors

Issue #20, April 1995

The feeling of being watched or framed is hard to escape in graduate school. The pressure of the deadline approaching, the scrutiny ones writing faces, the anxiety of being evaluated. If you're an exhibitionist like Courtney Love, this isn't a problem. But Jack Traven from the movie Speed knows the kind of anxiety were talking about.

Upon hearing that Ana is leaving graduate school, some might say that a student who doesn't graduate is like a cheap gold watch. As any graduate student will attest, irony is a great defensive strategy. When the pressure overwhelms us, we compensate by ironizing our plight and ourselves.

When Bad Subjects was first published, many people thought we were being ironic: the bold rhetoric, the little guns that decorated our cover. And in one sense we were. As Jeff Akeley and Jeremiah Luna's articles here demonstrate, a critical approach to everyday life that is attentive to irony can sharpen our critical thinking. But our use of irony must be motivated by more than the mere desire to protect ourselves. Irony for its own sake is desensitizing, as the reception of Pulp Fiction points out. However, even when irony and other rhetorical strategies, such as parody, serve a purpose, they are prone to misinterpretation. Kim Nicolini explains that women who assume a 'slut identity' for feminist reasons risk being gravely misunderstood: theres always the problem of the audience and its unpredictable reactions to consider.

This year Bad Subjects' widening gyre has brought it into contact with people far removed from its Berkeley origins. E-mail debates on our Bad List has brought this home to us again and again. We have also had feedback of a different sort. When Charlie and Joel Schalit presented a paper on the development of Bad Subjects to a Canadian audience in March, they were struck by how thorny geographic and cultural differences can still be, even in this age of global hyper-media. Peter Ives article explores this problem of translating ideas from one context to another, making reference along the way to Bad Subjects applicability to Canadian circumstances.

In the process, he implicitly raises questions about what we share and what we don't, what is public and what is private. Such questions are a major concern for most of the articles in this issue. Matt Wray focuses on Speed's portrayal of public space. Jeremiah asks us to rethink what constitutes legitimate decoration of our public spaces. Kim ponders the ramifications of taking on a vilified identity in public. Jeff urges us to rethink the bounds of respectable behavior in his discussion of the kiss of charity. Seth meditates on the dubious claims of an 'underground' which, though not a private space, still attempts to distinguish itself from the public arena in which mainstream culture circulates. And in discussing the situation of the artist in contemporary culture, Ted Byfield casts the debates surrounding public funding for the arts in a new light.

In its own way, Bad Subjects faces a similar quandary. Although most of us have been trained to write and think academically, we also try to cross the great divide that separates traditional academia from 'real-world' concerns. The impetus behind our engagement with everyday life and culture derives from this desire. So does our willingness to take a more playful or irreverent approach to critique than staid academia would allow us. While some of us don't mind balancing our academic commitments with the sort of work we do on Bad Subjects, others, including Ana, have found academia unnecessarily constraining. In a way, Bad Subjects has gradually shifted direction. What began as a form of alternative expression for UC-Berkeley graduate students is now a phenomenon that embraces a large number of people who aren't academics. Non-academics play an increasingly important role in Bad Subjects, both on the Bad List and in the production of this publication, as the articles here by Ted, Jeremiah, and Kim all non-academics suggest.

We believe that the future of Bad Subjects lies in this direction, in the creation of a forum open to critics regardless of their institutional or theoretical backing. In his critique of the reception of Pulp Fiction, Seth writes about the frustration we feel when binary oppositions dissolve. At Bad Subjects we feel this frustration. But we also recognize that it can be a sign of promise. From academia, but no longer of it, having thrown off the strictures of high academia, but unwilling to compromise our level of criticism, Bad Subjects finds itself occupying just such an unnamed territory.

Copyright © 1995 by Charlie Bertsch and Ana Cox. All rights reserved.