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I'm Sick of Cultural Awareness
GLOBAL ROGUE STATE
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Review by Christian Parenti
Zines are the kudzu weed of the publishing world. Much like that floral alien which so dominates the empty lots and waste ground of the U.S. South, zines have for years flourished on a social terrain long deemed worthless and inaccessible. "Zine" is short for "fanzine." The first of these home-made, micro-magazines were started by science fiction buffs in the 1930's. Their more common association is with the mostly white, heavily suburban, punk rock of the late seventies and eighties. With the advent of that "scene" came a veritable explosion of these small-circulation self-published journals.
Usually produced by youthful "outcasts," in a cryptic cut-and-paste, xerox-style, zines cover politics, music, psychosis and just about everything else that's crawled forth from the deep, shag-rug bowels of the American daydream. Only a sampling of zine-weirdness can begin to capture the genre:
There's Dishwasher, by "dish washer Pete" whose goal is to wash dishes in all fifty states, write about it, and have a good time doing it. There's burning America, the zine that says "fuck off to all the people who shit on the good things in life...," but not much else. And making it plain from the feminist-punk perspective are Riot Grrrrrl and Bikini Kill . For the ultimate outsiders there's Pathetic Life, ("you're a geek, just like me") and Loser, "for losers who strive to lose." The list goes on: barbie doll zines, commie-anarcho zines, whiny little personal zines, apoplectic with rage zines, Brady Bunch TV cult zines, nazi zines, zines about zines, and an endless sea of do-it-yourself punk rock music zines; like the one that provides a diagram of three guitar cords and then advises: "go start a band."
And now to cut through this blizzard of smudgy paper and map the multiple political meanings of "alternative" youth culture we have Notes from Underground Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, by the sharp young scholar and political activist Steve Duncombe. Despite its unwieldy title, Duncombe's analysis of zines is fast moving eloquent, critical, empathetic, and funny all at once. As a zine writer and former punk rock roadie turned college professor, Duncombe speaks from within the subculture he is describing. But unlike most cultural analysis of alternative and underground scenes, Notes is shorn of romanticism and brutally honest. Yet the book is playful enough to celebrate the humor and cultural sedition of zines.
For example, we learn of Crank whose editor "revels in being a jerk, solicits amateur poetry by pretending to be a literary journal," then reprints the poems, only to have sport viciously lambasting them. Duncombe, of course, finds this rather nasty.
For a more palatable target there's The I Hate Brenda Newsletter a zine exclusively devoted to lampooning actress Shannen Doherty, who plays Brenda Walsh in on the nauseating TV drama Beverly Hills 90210. There's even a "Shannen Snitch Line," for readers to phone in slander and gossip.
Post-suburban irony aside, Notes has a serious political story to tell. Two contradictory pressures define the underground world of zines. At one level zines are an authentic oasis of non-alienated life in the inauthentic, hyper-commodified world of late capitalism. "[Z]ines and underground culture provide the medium for all people to be intellectuals -- cultural creators-- and this is a radical act." Zines encourage a "participatory culture," an egalitarian do-it-yourself world that flies in the face of consumerism. Even the distribution of zines is inherently anti-market. Most are traded for other zines or passed through loose zine reading social networks, thus the flow of zines stimulates human contact and vault use values over exchange values. For Duncombe, all of this helps build cultural space that is relatively-autonomous from the pernicious influences of the profit motive.
Zines champion sabotage on the job, stealing from the boss, and the pleasure of "slack." For many zine writers and punk rockers, zines and iconoclastic music have been a radicalizing catalyst leading to organized political action. The insularity of "the scene" can be a steping stone toward real political engagement and coalition building. But mostly zines reassert the value of life as an ends in and of itself. "Zines," writes Duncombe, become nonalienated "havens in a heartless world."
But within this homemade Eden slithers the dangerous mercurial force. After decades of thieving at the edges of the mainstream and romanticizing marginality, these misfit manifestos have been "discovered" by corporate America.
"In the last years of the 1980's and the first few years of the 1990's, a lost generation was found," writes Duncombe. "Young people born in the sixties and seventies were dragged from anonymity and thrown under the spot light." This motley crew of 18 to 29 year olds were, among other things "a neglected $125 billion dollar market."
This emerging demographic niche -- now dubbed Gen. X-- was proving hard for advertisers to nail down. Business Week, Advertising Age and similar publications ruminated on the "quirky" and cynical tastes of this new generation, that seemed to elude their grasp. But finally, writes Duncombe, marketers-- like zinesters-- began to "understand that what mainstream culture lacks is 'authenticity.'"
The key to the wallets of the young seems be the ironic, low budget motifs of underground culture. And in no time mock corporate zines, and advertising with an underground edge, were on the rise. Warner Brothers started the zine Dirt; Coca Cola launched OK Cola; and Miller Beer is saturating the West Cost with black and white "Macro-brew" ads, aimed at stealing away young, white hipsters from the micro-brew market. And thus it was once again that bohemians were reduced to nothing more than "trade missionaries,"--as the 1920's critic Malcom Cowley once put it.
But Duncombe's critique goes deeper than charging "sell out" or merely charting corporate colonialism in the land of the underground. Even with the marketing onslaught, the underground thrives, zines proliferate, musicians with only a three cord repertoire still start bands. But does that mean anything politically? It's a simple but tough question.
Most scholars of bohemia, safely ensconced in the academic juggernaut of cultural studies, are satisfied divining for, subterranean veins of "resistance." But Duncombe holds the underground to a higher standard, demanding to know if the zine scene is as political as it pretends to be. Does it lead to political organizing, movement building and taking political power?
The fact of the matter is, bohemia is frequently rather short sighted, self-absorbed and unconnected to social change. The politics of zines often degenerates into an effete cult of marginality. Being politically effective gets in the paramount task of maintaining one's "authenticity." Writers routinely celebrate "our freakdom, our otherness." As one quasi-political zinester Amelia G, put it: "so what if we horrify the neighbors; we exalt in one another." Even more political but equally problematic is the blather from theorist Hakim Bey (a.k.a. Peter Landborn Wilson). Bey argues against formal political organizations, and for "Temporary Autonomous Zones" which "dissolve" before "state repression" is mobilized. But as Duncombe points out, such a movement will never have any chance of winning anything, "for it has no demands, no strategy, and finally no power."
Sadly these two fault lines converge. The fuzzy, individualistic, "freedom-from" politics of the punk inspired underground becomes the preferred plasma from which to grow market tendrils. "[T]he promiscuity of the commodity," writes Duncombe, "demands a libertarian culture." Too often that is all the underground delivers. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Christian Parenti teaches Sociology at the New College of California in San Francisco.