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about the “death of zines,” claiming, as though no one had heard the idea before, that zine culture is dead and has been replaced by the internet.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…

4 comments on “Zines: not dead, just retro

  1. Thanks for this, Rory. In my research on slow reading, I discuss the more recent influence of the Slow Movement and its theme of locality. In Slow Food, this is expressed as eating local foods. In slow reading, this is expressed as reading local content and content by local writers. It has been suggested that small scale traditional publishing — letterpress and book arts — represents a cost effective way to publish local writing. It also creates diversity of content. Global media will come looking for this content when its audience wearies of the banal content of mass programming.

  2. What’s ironic is that Zines were the first to go online…Library Juice itself was identified as a “Zine” before it was transformed into a blog, indeed it was one of the last hold-outs due to Rory’s own well-considered misgivings about the Blog format in Libraryland.

    Above, commentator Mr. Miedema wrote:
    “Global media will come looking for this content when its audience wearies of the banal content of mass programming.”

    Hasn’t happened yet, and there’s been decades upon decades of banal programming.

    Still, I respect the Slow Movement and the emphasis on localization. It’s all part of a survival strategy anticipating a greatly energy-reduced future after fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive for all but the very rich. No combination of “alternative” energies can come close to filling the needs currently met by fossil fuels.

    Global media won’t come looking for this content…Global Media as we know it will, along with Globalization, one day collapse due to the permanent energy crisis, and local media will be all that remains.

    Miedema also writes:
    “In slow reading, this is expressed as reading local content and content by local writers.”

    This is bound to be confusing, since ‘slow reading’ tends to be equated with the act of reading rather than the act of publishing…i.e. you could still ‘speed read’ local authors. It’s just problematic to affix the trend word ‘Slow’ in this context. ‘Slow Publishing’ is more what you’re getting at when you describe:

    “…It has been suggested that small scale traditional publishing — letterpress and book arts — represents a cost effective way to publish local writing. It also creates diversity of content.”

    I suggest before long…maybe not necessarily in our lives but certainly in the lives of the next few generations to come…it will be the only viable mode of publishing left open to us as society increasingly has trouble with just keeping the lights on continuously. Our library recently tossed out a couple of in-house generated manuals from the early 1980s on how to do card cataloging. I rescued them from the recycling bin.

    Just belatedly finished James Howard Kunstler’s THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE (1993) and am now tackling his follow-up book HOME FROM NOWHERE. More recently Kunstler wrote THE LONG EMERGENCY, which goes into detail about the looming energy crisis, and why the suburban living arrangement has no viable future. The earlier books diagnose the problems of suburban malaise and speculate on how to build better, more genuine communities. The Slow Movement is admirable, and needs to work hand-in-hand with movements like New Urbanism, etc, in reclaiming Civic architecture/Public places and re-scaling our building arrangements to human rather than car-centered scale, with an emphasis on being able to comfortably walk a reasonable distance to satisfy one’s most basic needs without having to jump in a car and drive everywhere, which is typical of most American life today…walkable, tighter knit communities being yet another facet of Slow, if you will.

    Anyway, I’m drifting WAY off topic here…though when I think of Zines as Rory describes above, I can’t help also think of the influential Pamphleteers of the 18th century that helped kick off revolutions with their writings…Thomas Paine’s Common Sense…or the authors of The Federalist. All that is old is new again, etc.

  3. Thanks JJR.

    “Slow” does have a primary meaning as doing something more slowly in time, but it can have other meanings too. “Slow is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace” (www.slowplanet.com) just the right pace. And as the Slow Food movement showed, slow isn’t just about time, but place too. The meaning of slow is expanding.

    Slow reading is about *reading* local writers and stories, not publishing them. I’ll bet you could find a writer or two in your hometown who has been picked up by the big presses.

    In the music industry, you see artists like Feist breaking through. That’s the global media picking up local talent.


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