Author's Comments on Notes from Underground
Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture is the first systematic study of zines-small underground publications-and the subterranean bohemia from which they come. In this book I uncover the cultural world that zine writers create, investigate motivates these cultural bohemians, and explore the frustrations they face building an underground media in a world dominated by corporate media giants. Using zines as a case study, Notes from Underground poses the question of whether it is possible to rebel culturally within our modern consumer society that eats up rebellious culture.
The book is made up of nine chapters:
I. ZINES. I lay out what zines are, where they came from, who makes them, and why we should be interested in this marginal world.
II. IDENTITY. Zines acknowledge and celebrate the "everyperson" within a larger society that worships celebrity. In this chapter I describe how and why zine writers do this, and the influence that privileging the personal has on their political ideals. The zine ideal is to be true-to-self, fashioning a "politics of authenticity." But defining this "authentic" character through a dissenting subculture often means erecting a negative identity: I am what you aren't. Ironically, by defining itself in opposition, the underground weds itself to the very system it despises.
"Loser Culture" is one of the more interesting results of this contradiction. Reprinting rejection letters, chronicling tales of failure with relish, narrating one's own Pathetic Life (as the title to one zine attests), zine writers wear the identification of loser like a badge of honor, redefining a label handed down to them by a society that glorifies winners. In an age of the fatuous veneration of "excellence" and the reality of downsizing, lauding losers seems to make sense, for through zines "losers" remind themselves that people and experiences that are nothing at all to the mainstream world are something after all to them.
III. COMMUNITY. Zines may be personal expressions, but they are also a communicative medium through which losers and other misfits forge connections with one another, self-consciously creating networks--or virtual communities--within an impersonal mass society. Networks of science fiction zine writers overlap those of personal zine writers which intersect the web of queer zines, but central to the greater network which connects all zines is The Scene: the loose confederation of publications, bands, shows, radio stations, cafes, and bookstores that make up modern Bohemia. But unlike bohemias of the past there is no Paris or New York, and so zines act as a way to link together a "Bohemia Diaspora": connecting individuals, charting shadow maps of the underground scene across America, and defining and continually redefining what is "hip" and what is not.
The problem is this: community demands customs, norms and shared meanings; but the world of the underground is that of the libertine whose motto is: No Rules. For those like Punks and Riot Grrrls, this paradox keeps The Scene fresh, as norms are continually torn down and rebuilt in the pages of zines. It also, however, keeps them from acting together and building institutions that could spread their ideals and expand their subculture.
IV. WORK. In this chapter I turn toward one of the dominant themes addressed by writers in their zines: work. Employed within the grim new economy of service, temporary, and "flexible" work, zine writers take to task the hypocrisy of this system: At the same time that an employee's power is being debased and eroded, demands are laid upon the worker--through quality control circles, customer satisfaction, and the like--for psychic commitment. In reaction zine writers plot their revenge: sabotage and "slack"; tales of and advice for destruction and doing nothing fill the pages of their publications. But sabotage and slack are not limited to the workplace. Estranged not only from work but American society in general, the underground adopts alienation as their own: reveling in the distance between themselves and straight society, continually--and sometimes nihilistically--striving to destroy the lines that connect them to it.
There is, however, one mode of work in which the zinesters don't counsel such strategies: producing their own culture. Clearly distinguishing work done for love from that done for money, zine writers delight in the hard work that it takes to produce and distribute a zine. As such, they use their zines as a way to assert that it is not work per se that's the problem, but work for what and work for whom.
V. CONSUMPTION. From here I look at the flipside of work, and also another topic that winds its way through nearly all zines: Consumption. Zines, beginning as science fiction fanzines in the 1930s, have long been a way for fans of literature, music, and sports to "talk back" to the one-way commodity flow of consumer culture. Through both what they have to say and the fact that they are creating a media through which to express it, zinesters force connections between themselves and what they consume: a process--for the most part--of mediating the distance between the consumer and the product.
Many zine writers go a step further, advocating not mediation, but rejection of consumer society. Central to the zine world is the ethic of D.I.Y., Do-It-Yourself: make your own culture and stop consuming that which is made for you. In many ways it is this act of creating within a society predicated on consumption, which distinctively marks the politics of zines. For through this practice zinesters redefine pleasure in a consumer society, moving its realization out of the shopping mall and into their own universe.
VI. DISCOVERY. The consumer culture industry, however, is at least as resourceful as the underground. And as the late 1980s passed into the early 90s, zines and underground culture were "discovered" as an exotic news item and the conduit into a lucrative 125 billion dollar market: Generation X. In this chapter I describe this discovery and the use of subcultural markers like D.I.Y., punk, slack, losers, and zines themselves as a way to speak to the "savvy--and cynical--consumers" who, business publications report, "feel alienated from the mainstream culture which ignored them." This most recent tale of subcultural discovery raises a broader question about the relationship between bohemia and capitalism, for in the 20th century at least, bohemia is at once a rebellion against capital, yet has frequently served to further it: breaking down traditions, creating novel styles, and opening up new markets.
VII. PURITY AND DANGER. In this chapter I narrate how the zine underground reacts to the fact that zines are becoming popular with the world outside. Some react by turning inward: refusing to cooperate with the mainstream media, layering messages in irony so thick that no one who isn't "in the know" can decode them, and celebrating the more and more obscure as a way to stay one step ahead of being discovered. But others, frustrated with tactics that back the underground into a tighter and tighter corner where preachers speak only to the converted, try to break out of their provincial subcultural ghetto. But in the effort to spread the words and the deeds of the underground aboveground, avenues of the commercial culture industry are often used, and thus the primary message of zines--Do-It-Yourself--is lost.
Opening Up or Selling Out? The debate rages in the zine world, symbolized by the controversy surrounding the transformation of the zine of zines, Factsheet Five from a relatively small political project created to link disparate zine networks into a larger alternative culture, into a successful consumer catalogue that sells zines to a mass audience.
VIII. THE POLITICS OF ALTERNATIVE CULTURE.. Using zines and their producers as a case study, in this chapter I