Zines: not dead, just retro
Tim Brown has a post in Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, about the “death of zines,” claiming, as though no one had heard the idea before, that zine culture is dead and has been replaced by the internet. There’s something a little bit too obvious and common sense about the idea, and like much that is common sense and obvious, easily disproven by a closer look at reality.
A zine scene exists, just as a punk scene exists.
Likewise, a jazz scene exists where young musicians play in the bebop style first created in the late 40s and early 50s. It isn’t new, but many people like it, and not only people from that generation. (I love that kind of music.) I don’t think Tim Brown would say that bebop is dead.
So that’s the way I see the zine scene. It is a part of Generation X culture, and seems like it must be dead to many people because Generation X is entering middle age (or already well into it), and many people who once read zines now feel too old for them, and feel that it was a part of their youth, like punk music. But many Gen Xers still make zines and still play punk rock, and many younger people like that style as well (just as there are young people who continue to adopt the hippy culture of the 60s here and there, or go to 80s nostalgia dance clubs to dance to music that was made before they were born). And many Gen Xers have a certain nostalgia for the youth culture of their era, which also keeps it alive.
Now that we are close to a century into the age of recorded media, there is an unprecedented cultural situation of the past being available to the present. It is such a determining factor of our time that it can be difficult to identify a movement or style that belongs to the present but not to any time in the past. The challenge when approaching many cultural objects is to imagine what it must have been like when that kind of thing was new and had never been seen or heard before. I think that challenge exists for zines, and that that is what makes them a part of the past as well as the present, though they are still being made. I think it is something that makes the preservation function of zine libraries important; however, I think that in terms of preservation, zines being made today are far less important to preserve than the ones from the 80s and early 90s, which at that time were an original response to the cultural situation, rather than simply participation in an already established form, often for nostalgic “style identity” reasons.
One interesting intersection that may emerge is between the zine scene and the letterpress community. Letterpress people use old printing technology to do very fine and very creative work, publishing chapbooks in very small runs. One thing that digital technology seems to be doing to print is enhancing the “magical” qualities of the physical object as artifact, which leads to an emphasis on fine physical details. Perhaps zinesters are becoming craftspeople. Something that digital media can’t reproduce is the unique texture of physical materials…