I was reluctant to post this, thinking that it might make me look like a giant stick in the mud (a tree in the mud?). Then I remembered that I probably already am one, so it doesn’t really matter. The day after I wrote this I had a discussion with my friend Anwyn about similar concerns, and I think that sort of convinced me that it is worth throwing this down to see what, if anything, comes of it. First off, here’s a list of the things that inspired all these thoughts:
1. A comment on this blog from a person who asked if I’d be able to suggest writers for a new online magazine, which they described as ‘the love child of Frankie and Vice’. My reaction to this was, ‘how have I given this person the impression that I would be at all interested (and not completely appalled) by Vice and Frankie magazines? Are my politics so invisible, so lacking? Or is this person completely oblivious?’
2. A bit of discussion on Ciara Xyerra’s blog regarding changes in the zine world in general, sparked in part by the increasing propensity for folks to send PDFs for distro consideration. I have noticed this since we started the distro. The only thing that really bothers me about it is that we have to send an email requesting a hard copy, and thus waste time that we wouldn’t have had to, had the person actually read our submission guidelines. While this is irksome it’s not a serious indication of the impending end of all things good. What’s more worrying, for me, is this:
3) The enormous number of highly polished, professionally printed, full colour magazines (many with ISSNs or ISBNs) that are sent to Take Care for distro consideration. I’m not even sure how to describe these; they’re so outside my experience and the small pockets of the world that I try to inhabit. I suppose they’re like compilations of graphic designer’s CVs, with advertorial content and the added fetishism of being ‘limited edition’. This leads me to:
4)Further discussion on Ciara’s blog about the number of newbies in the zine scene who make zines with an apparently wilful disregard for what a zine actually is, or to their history. And finally:
5) The zine making day at Mag Nation in Sydney.
I will now wade into the murky waters of my own befuddlement to deliver what is probably not an incisive critique, but hopefully still a useful contribution to a discussion of these things, were that to happen.
Okee Dokee! First, as I just used the phrase ‘complete disregard for what a zine actually is’, I should clarify my position on this, and give a little context. It’s difficult, because zines can be many things to as many people who make them, and have almost as many historical antecedents. To name but a few: Sci Fi fanzines, artist books, punk and riot grrrl zines, political pamphlets, underground comics, chapbooks and on and on. So when I say ‘zine’ I’m really talking about the specific type of zine that I make, read and, lately, distribute through Take Care. I think most people, to some extent, will agree with what this is and how it evolved. What I call a zine – the photocopied, cut ‘n’ pasted thing with typed and handwritten stories that are generally about everyday life – is a direct descendant of 90s riot grrrl and, before that, hardcore/diy punk zines which originated in the States, and perhaps the zines of 70s UK punk. The sort of distro that I run is also a throwback to the various models of distribution that were undertaken by diy/indie record labels of the punk and post punk eras, and by those who adopted their ethos; and later distros like Pander in the States. So we see (if you squint a little) there’s a sort of holy triangle between zines, music and a hazy concept I’ve just called ‘diy’ which is a sort of code word that is meant to encompass some degree of radical, possibly anti-capitalist, critique, but is just as often a way to avoid such a critique. I suspect that my generation is perhaps the last (born late 70s, early 80s, give or take) for whom these three things, when we discovered them, were inextricably bound up. The idea was that we could build a culture that could somehow circumvent the logic of capitalist modes of production, distribution and exchange, in favour of something more human, that we had more control over, with the aim of building communities that would prove that we’re capable of organising our lives without a state or government. I suspect that encountering these sub-cultural forms together is not something that happens so much anymore, if at all.
One of the things I hear thrown around about this nebulous idea of diy and of zines is that they’re inherently political. Like I said, I think ‘diy’ is something that a lot of people hide behind as a substitute for having clear politics. ‘It’s diy man!’ can be pulled out to demonstrate the allegedly latent politics of anything from making zines to knitting tea cosies to selling cupcakes. I’ve always thought this was an immensely lazy oversimplification, but it’s only recently, dunderhead that I am, that I’ve realised what the consequences of this oversimplification might be. The argument that people site when they make this claim about zines, and I think this is true, and sort of crucial, is that zines’ potential for politics lies not only in their contents but in the manner (or ‘spirit’, if that word doesn’t seem too trite) in which they are made and exchanged. So a zine is political, supposedly, because when you ‘do it yourself’ you form a space outside capitalist modes of production, which is inherently subversive. As Anna Poletti rightly points out in her thesis-cum-book Intimate Ephemera, at best, zines (can) exist somewhere in the gift economy, where they’re not quite at ease in the world of commodified ‘things’. But that’s only potential. It’s not inherent, or intrinsic, or guaranteed, in any way. That little patch in the gift economy is an anomaly, and as such I think it has to be continually fought for if we’re to make any claims for the politics of zines, or ‘diy’ as a broader concept. That’s to say nothing about the extent to which capital is capable of, and has, and will continue to, encroach on those areas that we consider to be ‘ours’ and outside its logic. This may be an oversimplification itself, but I think it’s good to remember that we are within the culture and logic of capitalism to such an extent that to suggest that there is any way of completely escaping it would be naive. But I don’t think that means we should throw up our hands and embrace its logic as wholeheartedly as we desire to reject it, conceding that resistance is futile. This is where the beauty of zines can lie. They allow us to build our own ephemeral spaces (or ‘annexes’ as Anna P describes them) in which we may be able to write, think and learn in ways that are, as Ciara mentions, dialectical. But again, that’s entirely predicated on context, on how and why we make zines, and, I repeat, not in any way intrinsic to their form.
A little while ago I was with some friends in Melbourne who were talking about how strange it is that Banksy’s graffiti is so collectable among Hollywood millionaires. My ever wise friend Anwyn responded that it’s actually not strange at all: when your work has no politics it can be appropriated by anyone. Graffiti is a useful analogy when thinking about zines. For years I’ve been annoyed by righteous claims of graffiti somehow being the most cutting edge, political art. But, like zines, it only has potential, which is entirely dependent not only on its content but its context. And here, as with zines, I am not just talking about a literal, sloganeering politics, but rather the form an artwork (for want of a better word) takes, the mood it captures, the thoughts it inspires, and, most importantly, its historical context. So when graffiti is relegated to certain, prescribed areas (like Sydney’s May Lane), or when it is shown in galleries (as with Banksy), it’s much harder to argue that it retains an inherent politics. It might still be good art, it might be challenging and inspiring and so on. But more often than not it becomes purely decorative, all about surface, and far more boring, I think, than any ‘conventional’ art that appears in a gallery, because it often doesn’t even pretend to deal with ideas. It becomes, to use the prevailing catchphrase of people who are apparently bereft of principles and are involved in making the kinds of art that I’m talking about, reduced to the purely ‘creative’.
The idea of ‘the creative’ is a symptom of a wider cultural malaise related to late capitalism, where every inch of our lives is colonised and measured in terms of productivity. There are many people who have far more learned and articulate things to say about this than I, but I guess you could sum it up as the tendency for ‘work’ to subsume our whole identity, where in every moment of our lives we are meant to be promoting ourselves in terms of what we have to offer, or have ‘achieved’. Networking replaces friendship, so ‘friends’ become ‘contacts’ and vice versa. Self marketing and promotion increasingly becomes a substitute for what was once ‘leisure time’. This is related to the general phenomena in late (or globalised, post-Fordist, whatever you want to call it) capitalism of ‘precarity’, a neologism that describes the increasingly precarious nature of work: the casualisation of labour, the disappearance of the concept of a ‘job for life’, the expectation that we’re all meant to be ‘flexible’ and ready to hop to it at every moment of our lives, for work that offers no security, satisfaction or even reasonable remuneration. In other words, it’s the absorption of everything we do into the logic of capitalist productivity: our art, our friendships, our ideas, our private thoughts and desires; our inner lives, the places that are supposed to be untouchable.
So, what has all this got to do with zines? You have to return to what I suggested earlier about the generation who were born after people my age (and it’s a weird thing to realise that the people who are younger than you are actually a separate generation). They were born and brought up in a world in which capitalism is more consolidated than ever, and in which that particularly nasty and virulent strain of capitalism – neo-liberalism – was at its nadir. They didn’t have the spaces that I and my contemporaries had in which to encounter radically oriented sub-cultures. And it shows. Now, this is not anyone’s fault (except in the sense that it’s sort of everyone’s fault). Like I mentioned, all these thoughts were sparked to some extent by Take Care receiving an increasing number of really, and I’m sorry to be mean, but really naff ‘zines’ that had obviously been made by graphic designers to bolster their career portfolios, and sent to us without any regard whatsoever to the other zines that we stock, or our stated interests. Now, maybe that’s our fault for not being clear enough about our aims for the distro, in the same manner that it’s due to my own flaky, non-committal principles that led to someone approaching me about starting a Vice/Frankie style magazine. I acknowledge that’s a part of it. But it’s too great a phenomenon for that to explain it all.
And this brings me to what could probably be interpreted as a controversial point, and which I’m pretty loath to write. Today (I write this on the 6th of March) there’s going to be a zine making day at the recently opened Mag Nation on King St in Newtown. Mag Nation is a chain magazine store that has 6 shops along the east coast of Australia and in New Zealand. While I admire the enormous amount of work that the organisers of this event have done in pushing the Sydney (and Newcastle) zine scenes and introducing zines to a great number of people, for me, having a zine making day in a commercial magazine shop is like having a coffee appreciation day at Starbucks. Or a zine making day at Starbucks, for that matter.
But as I’ve said, when I first got into zines there were many shops in Sydney that sold them on consignment. They were the sorts of places – record stores, mostly – that simply don’t exist in Sydney anymore. Gentrification, the advent of chain stores and changes in the way music is distributed, among many other things, has completely changed the world that I first encountered zines in. So, since that’s the case, and there’s no public space that has not been colonised by capital, no where left for us to meet and chance upon sub-cultural forms, should we use spaces like Mag Nation if the opportunity arises? My gut reaction says no. And when I think about it, I still think the answer’s no. Hopefully I’ve made my reasons for thinking this clear in what I’ve just written. I’m not entirely sure what the solution is.
To be honest, despite the length of this post, I’m not actually riled up about this at all, I’m just curious about what it means for the zine scene as I know it. Maybe I’m just making a big deal over nothing. There have always been a multitude of different ways of making and thinking about zines, and all this might just be the result of my happening across a part of the zine cosmos that I’m not too fond of. Also, debates about ‘upstarts’ and newbies in the zine scene have been around for as long as zines themselves. A few years ago some folks made a comp zine that they distributed in McDonalds stores in Melbourne with the very aim of reaching people who might not otherwise encounter zines (a page from one of my old zines was included in one issue), and that never bothered me (though, thinking about it now, it seems patronising. Was the assumption that people who eat at McDonalds aren’t cool enough to know what a zine is?). Any number of galleries host zine events, which I happily participate in. Kinokuniya, another commercial chain store that I would never associate with zines, was having zine fairs a few years ago, which failed to rip a hole in the cosmos, or even really garner my interest. Shortly after my first encounter with zines the infamous The New Pollution came out, followed by a flurry of complaints that it had led to the creation of a whole lot of crap zines and generally signalled the coming day of judgement. But how many of those makers of crap zines went on to make good zines? Don’t people need a place to get started, practice, get better, do their own thing, not give a toss about what people think? Certainly. I’m not the boss, I don’t want to be. But I don’t know if this new trend in zines fits in to this ‘natural’ pattern of new generations discovering the medium, or if it is indeed an indication of how depoliticised and immersed in the logic of capitalism those new generations are.
Finally, you might be thinking, why do zines, or paintings, or knitting or cupcakes or any of the things I love that make it easier for me to live in this world have to express my, or anyone’s, political convictions? Why can’t I just enjoy these things without you coming on all heavy? What next, the Marxist critique of sunshine? Of kittens? Of cute little fluffy ducks? Stop enjoying organic peppermint tea because the world’s about to end? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I like crafts, silly zines, nonsense stories, comics about cats, cute animals, songs about riding colourful bicycles and highly decorated cupcakes as much as the next person. And I would be as bereft as the next person if those things didn’t exist, or weren’t a part of the zine scene. All I’m saying is there has to be some balance. Cupcakes are great, but you can’t live on them. You need roughage, or you’d never have evolved to the point where you could invent cupcakes (I am not suggesting that you, reader, invented cupcakes). Likewise, you need mental roughage. You need to be able to think and talk about hard, chewy, tasty questions, even if you don’t really know the answers, and I’m just worried that the space where that can happen is getting smaller and smaller. Perhaps what I’m talking about here doesn’t necessarily have to be called politics. Maybe it’s convictions, principles. In my experience the people who’ve held onto their principles with the most determination are the ones who end up ‘achieving’ the most anyway, not the people who spend every second of their lives ‘networking’ to get their names noticed. As one of my favourite mad singers once noted, you can just step s’ways from that grubby place…Yeah! So shut up, Emma!
As you probably guessed from the last paragraph, I’m getting hungry. Just shy of 3000 words! Holy sandwiches! Ok, I’m going now.