Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

  • Mood:
  • Music:

Collective Action

I have had several encounters over the past week that indicated I was being overly obtuse about my trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. I did mention that I was doing a reading for the new Bad Subjects book, but didn't go into details.

Let me try to set the record straight. Since the fall of 1992, I have been working with the progressive journal Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life. I was there at the beginning, though in a subordinate position to the journal's official co-founders Joe Sartelle -- who severed all ties with us many years ago -- and Annalee Newitz. I printed the first couple issues on the printing press at work -- I was employed by Black Lightning Notes -- and was also instrumental in securing the Graduate Assembly funding that enabled us to start photocopying Bad Subjects for a fee. For this reason, Annalee started referring to me as a "founder" after she and Joe had had their falling out. I think it's a fair characterization, though I wouldn't insist on it myself.

By the end of our first publication cycle -- we long adhered to UC Berkeley's academic calendar -- Joe and Annalee asked several first-year contributors, most notably Steven Rubio and myself, to participate in the formation of an editorial collective. It was in planning meetings for the collective in the summer of 1993 that I got to know Jillian Sandell and John Brady. Jillian didn't join the collective until several months later, but John became an active member immediately. At a later meeting, Joe Lockard, whom I already knew somewhat from one of my graduate-school courses, brought his friend Mike Mosher. John invited me to join a social theory reading group with him at the start of the fall semester, in which I met both Joel Schalit and Jake Myers. Kim Nicolini -- otherwise known as knicolini -- did not join the collective until Bad Subjects's third year of existence, but had already contributed a piece during the first year. Other significant participants in the early years of Bad Subjects included Cynthia Hoffmann, Matt Wray, Carlos Camargo, Ron Alcalay, and Catherine Hollis in the Bay Area, as well as Geoff Sauer -- lord of the awesome English Server -- and Jonathan Sterne in less sunny climes.

With major help from Steven, Bad Subjects debuted online in the fall of 1993. The worldwide web barely existed; it was concept more than fact. We were part of the venerable, graphics-free world of gopherspace. Once Geoff started working with us, though, we soon made the leap onto the web. To put the timeframe in perspective, our website predates the creation of both the first Netscape Navigator browser and Yahoo. This makes Bad Subjects, for better or worse, one of the oldest internet publications in existence.

At the same time we started putting electronic versions of our issues online, we also began an unmoderated discussion list that was rapidly deemed the "Bad List." Lively and intense, the Bad List expanded our readership while also forcing those of us with UC Berkeley ties to confront the specificity of our perspective. It was an enormously valuable lesson. Through the exchanges there, we "met" many fascinating people: Doug Henwood, Patrick Ellis, Ana Marie Cox, Richard Singer, David Hawkes, Patricia Williams,Ted Byfield, Carolyn Forché and many others. To give just one example that pertains to my current situation, University of Arizona English professor Tenney Nathanson participated in the Bad List for a time.

As the number of people with e-mail accounts increased exponentially, the quality of unmoderated discussion lists like ours took a serious dive. We kept the Bad List going for longer than we should have, finally pulling the plug in the late 1990s. By that time, though, we had already memorialized it in our first book, Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, published by New York University Press. The bulk of the book consisted of largely unmodified essays from our back issues, with most members of our collective getting two pieces each.

Over the past six years, Bad Subjects has struggled to cope with the demands on its all-volunteer collective's time -- almost everyone involved now has a full-time job -- while also trying to figure out what direction to take in a rapidly changing political landscape. Initially concerned that the glut of internet publications spawned by the dot com boom would render Bad Subjects superfluous, we now realize that it's more important than ever. Our legacy matters, not only because of what we've been able to do -- provide surprisingly accessible left-leaning cultural and political commentary that avoids doctrine like the plague -- but because of how we've done it -- making everything we do available for free on the internet, with no advertising and no payment for our editors and contributors.

The only exception to our commitment to being free was the book. We agonized over the decision to participate in the creation of a commodity. In order to assuage our guilt, we struck out the boilerplate in our NYU contract so that every piece in the book would still be available on our website at no cost. It may not have been the best commercial decision, but we felt a lot better about the book after making it.

Now we have a second book, Collective Action, just published by Pluto Press. This time around, we edited the pieces down to 2000 words. Like almost everyone in the volume, I have only one piece in it. It's a slimmer, more focused book than the first one, but one that will reward its readers amply.

Our guilt at having a book for sale has diminished greatly compared to 1998. The transformation of the music industry has given ample cultural precedent for marketing work that can be had for free. We know that people can still find Bad Subjects articles on our website, yet hope that they will buy Collective Action the same way a fan of a band like Wilco will buy an album she or he already had downloaded at no cost. The artifact matters.

Let me speak more plainly. I'd love for you to buy the book for yourself and any friends who might benefit from short, thoughtful analyses of contemporary society. And I'd be even happier if you'd donate a copy to your local library. Not only will your purchase justify the risk Pluto took on us, it will pave the way for similar projects to get published.

There, I've made my pitch. You have no idea how hard it was for me to do that. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.


  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.