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Stephen Duncombe, Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, London/New York: Verso, 1997, pp. 288, 50 b/w illustrations, ISBN 1-8598-4158-9. (paper)
Other Voices, n.1., v.2 (September 1998).
Copyright © 1998 Jason Kuscma, all right reserved
Considering the recent onslaught of media attention directed at zines and independent publishers, it is perhaps overdue that a responsible work from the inside has been done on the subject. Stephen Duncombe fills such a void with his examination of zines that, in his words, "privileges the material interpretation, not academic translations." As a zine editor himself, Duncombe is all too familiar with the academic treatment of cultural artifacts that tend to obscure the realities in which many of these creations become manifest. Duncombe, after poring over thousands of zines and talking at length with zine editors, has been able to combine an insightful critical analysis of zines with a celebration of what may be one of the last remnants of autonomously created culture.
Key to such an analysis is the necessary recognition that the world of zines represents both "a radically democratic, participatory ideal of what culture might be" and the paradox of using cultural means to address structural problems of society. Duncombe distinguishes zines and their editors from common hobbyists by stressing the political self-consciousness of zines and the people who create and consume them. This is not to suggest that every zine is loaded with pages of in-depth dialogue focusing on overtly political issues, but instead that this political self-consciousness refers to the ability of zine writers to "articulate implicitly or explicitly the problems of present cultural, economic or political systems." This is what Duncombe refers to as the "politics" of zines, and a critical analysis of such phenomenon demands that we look at the role that zines play in addressing (and ideally changing) social ills.
Unfortunately, in powerful democratic societies such as ours, it is increasingly difficult to look toward cultural modes of liberation when the institutions of our society have proven capable of co-opting forms of rebellion and turning them into watered-down remnants of their radical selves. Duncombe wrestles with this paradox throughout most of his book as most of us located in our supposedly autonomous cultural enclaves should. In totalitarian states, it is easy to become enraged at the blatant censorship of dissenting voices, but what happens when those voices are allowed to speak freely to the point of actually becoming swallowed up as useful tools for selling automobiles or soda? That even zines are subject to such co-optation and disarmament is witnessed by there treatment in mainstream media which often patronizingly refers to zines as "quirky" or "playfully anarchic." The critical analysis of counterculture artifacts needs to recognize that freedom of expression does not guarantee desired radical results in a society that has the overwhelming ability to either marginalize or co-opt voices of dissent.
So how relevant are individually (or collectively) created zines to the issue of social change? This question remains unanswered at the end of the book, but Duncombe makes several noble attempts to shed light on this question. A great deal of the book discusses the active role that zine editors play in creating their own identities. An "authentic" editor or zine is according to Duncombe one that "cuts through the conventions of manners, norms and communication and connects to his or her 'real' self." In addition to this authenticity lending to the autonomous creation of culture, Duncombe also points to the invitation from zine editors to their readers to be active participants in making the zine what it is as an otherwise virtually extinct principle in contemporary society. It is a combination of these two elements that may lead us to the conclusion that zines are autonomous cultural creations in a society and economy that privileges the passive consumption of mass culture. Zines are not simply commodities in an underground market, but instead serve to create communities of individuals with similar interests and a space in which issues pertinent to those communities can be discussed and argued over at length. The communities of zine writers and editors are able create, by and for themselves, free spaces where there may have previously been none. For example, punk zines create a space in which members of the punk community can explore the role that punk plays in instigating social change while also combining resources to create their own cultural artifacts (i.e. more zines, records, festivals). They can accomplish all of this outside of the grasp of mainstream media while also creating a network that is global in its reach.
However, Duncombe also reminds us that the culture of zines is not as self-sufficient as we may be inclined to believe it is. He points to the fact that zines primarily speak in negative voices that stress what the editors are against in mainstream society. In other words, the identity of zine editors is constructed in opposition to tenets of mainstream society. The aesthetic of zines also convey a similar paradox in that they reflect an "anti-professional" appeal that relies on an established aesthetic of what "professionalism" constitutes. Consequently, we see an "autonomous" culture that relies heavily on mainstream society for its existence, which brings into question the true role of countercultures. Perhaps they aren't meant to provide solutions but rather serve as constant antagonizers of systems of power.
Another paradox highlighted by Duncombe is the conflict between the personal nature of zines and the community they supposedly create and support. The nature of zines, Duncombe stresses, is to focus on the personal. Issues of politics, for example, are filtered through the personal lenses of the editors and zine readers. In contrast to an academic feminist work that may seek to identify structural manifestations of sexism, zines and their editors often privilege personal experiences of sexism in the workplace, classroom or instances of rape or abuse, in order to articulate a stance against a patriarchal system. Duncombe suggests that this privileging of the personal often allows zines to turn their focus inward and lose sight of the general public. Accepting this, we can see how a large number of minute zine communities each privileging personal experience would have a difficult time creating a mass following that could fundamentally challenge mainstream beliefs. In other words, the belief that each personal account is unique and of its own reality often inhibits the ability for these communities to overlap and reinforce one another. Duncombe poses an appropriate question when discussing the phenomenon of punk culture, notorious for its factional squabbling while contradictorily seeking to mount a widespread challenge to dominant culture: "how can you change the tide if you are against becoming a common, communal countertide?" He also points out that the dynamics of such communities are what make each one unique and vibrant, however at some point these dynamics become debilitating and counterproductive.
By pointing out these paradoxes, it is not Duncombe's nor my intention to debunk the value of zines. Aside from the internet, there is increasingly few places in which individuals are able to make meaningful connections between each other, and zines are among those few. Whether one's interests lay in B-movies, punk, science fiction or scams, zines provide a place for people to interact while playing an active (rather than passive) role in those interactions. Zines also allow people, according to Duncombe, to escape "what is" and delve into the world of "what if," and it is this opportunity that is immeasurable. This doesn't suggest that utopian visions will be realized as a result of what some zine, or even community of zines, envisions within its photocopied pages, but if we side with Duncombe in believing that underground culture has an overwhelming power to radicalize individuals, then we can't deny the long-term role that certain countercultures play in effecting change on both personal and social levels.
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