I checked out the Bad Subjects website a few minutes ago to see if there was anything new. I check it every few days, because I spent a lot of years working with them, because when new material appears it is often readable and insightful. There were four new reviews, and I read them, which led me to consider my (former) position with BS. What follows is not a critique of the content of Bad Subjects, which remains at a v.high level ... I often use Bad content in my classes, it's great to have such resources available to pass along to students. What I'm thinking about here is typically self-interested: why don't I work for BS anymore?
The four reviews discuss a political text about genocide studies, an anthology of revolutionary anarchist writings, an album by an underground hip-hop artist, and a book about left-wing workers' movements. The reviews are worth your time; the texts they discuss may be worth your time as well. I suspect my own encounters with those texts, though, began and ended with my reading of the reviews. Which sadly says a lot more about me than about the reviews or the texts, but again, I'm not here to critique Bad Subjects but am here to critique myself.
I looked over the entire recent history of Bad Reviews. The last time the text being critiqued was even slightly mainstream was almost a year ago, in mid-October of '02, when my friend Megan reviewed Bowling for Columbine. Prior to that, you'd have to go all the way back to July of 2001, when the excellent Jonathan Sterne discussed actual television shows (West Wing and various Star Trek permutations).
Not that I was necessarily more involved with writing about the popular in my Bad days: the last review I wrote for the website, on June 7 2001, was about a new DVD release of a 30-year old French documentary film. (Ironically, the review that came just before mine was of Pearl Harbor, which really stands out in this context!) Prior to that review, I'd written about Renoir's Grand Illusion, another French film of even more distant vintage, an album about a punkabilly band, an anthology of indie rock bands, a kid606 album (I ripped the shit out of it, at least, although a coupla years later a subsequent kid606 release got a good Bad review from someone else) ... in other words, while I wrote about movies and music rather than politics and academic texts, my subjects were no less obscure than other Bad reviews. On the other hand, I also wrote reviews of Buffy, Bruce Springsteen, and Ally McBeal.
What I'm saying is only that within the context of Bad reviews, my own subjects were, if not always "popular," at least in the realm of the popular, if not blockbuster movies, at least movies, if not the most popular teevee shows, at least teevee shows. And those kinds of subjects are not typical Bad subjects. My stuff didn't really fit.
What subjects did I take for Bad essays that appeared in the actual journal? My first essay was on Murphy Brown. Over the years I wrote about 70s punk, Bruce Springsteen, NYPD Blue, the Internet (several times), Chow Yun-Fat, The Rapture with Mimi Rogers, Tupac, fucking off, spectator sports, "alternative" health (I'm against it), and linguica. The typical Bad subject, meanwhile, has tended towards the more clearly political: two recent issues (for which I contributed a pair of essays on blogging) focused on privacy, and the war in Iraq. And they were good issues, as is the most recent effort, "Panic."
But nowhere in this stuff do I see "me." This is largely because I am dreadfully shallow, and too politically naive to write on politics with any usefulness. The "problem," such as it is, is my problem, not the problem of Bad Subjects. And I have been extremely lucky over the years that BS has made room for my writing; no one has ever been as generous in making space for what I can offer.
But the last thing I wrote before leaving the collective remains true: two and a half years ago, an issue I co-edited called "Strangers" concluded with my "Notes on Self-Marginalization," whereby I finally confessed that all the kind work of my Bad friends to keep a rocking chair in the corner for Steven had gone for naught: I was the Stranger, eternally cursed with purposeful, stupid, self-imposed outsider status. In that essay, I wrote:
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.
And what I want, 30 months later, is to hear what my old friends think of the news that Pink worked with the guy from Rancid on her new album, I want to know if any of them agree with me that The Wire is a great teevee program, and what I see is stuff about the non-popular, to such an extreme that there is clearly an editorial stance which finds nothing of value in mainstream culture. The writing in Bad Subjects remains intelligent and vital, reading BS is as strong a learning experience for me as it ever was, but who am I kidding? My thoughts on teevee don't belong there.
And I'm such a pathetic cop-out when I say this, because when I quit the collective, I was in the beginning stages of co-editing an issue on precisely the subject of television, and I abandoned my friends when I was needed, as if I was afraid to take part in subject matter that hit so close to home. And it was a great issue, no thanks to me. And it was also pretty much the last time mainstream popular culture was addressed in depth at BS, and I'm sitting on the outside, self-marginalized as usual, so who am I to say they should talk more about the new Tarzan series and less about kid606? I deserve to be on the outside, not because it's the romantic place to be, but because it's where the losers hang out, and I belong there.
The weird thing is, my old Bad friends are still so kind to me, they still speak to me with respect, they still act like I'm just on sabbatical. They deserve better than me. But despite their kindnesses, the last words of my piece from that Strangers issue remain true. "I must let people know who I am and what I've done. I must take responsibility at last. I am a stranger."