Why Zines?

Why? With an innumerable amount of glossy, mainstream publications just brimming with pungent perfume cards and full-page bleeds of pseudo-people like Madonna, O.J., and Eddie Vedder, why bother producing a few smudged, photocopied pages, stapled together for a circulation of seventy-five outcasts? Why bother? IÕm glad you asked. Oh, IÕm very glad you asked. Now, to answer this query, you have two options. First of all, you can do something like sign up for a new class called "Zine Workshop," an on-line course offered by the New School for Social Research in NYC. Yes, for a limited time only, you can study "the modern phenomena of underground fanzines," and learn how to produce your very own zine. Taught by Amy Fusselman (M.A. in Creative Writing, Boston University) who publishes a zine called Bunnyrabbit, the cost of this information highway-style education is a mere 450 bucks (enough money for any savvy do-it-yourselfer to produce a zine for all eternity). Your second alternative is to listen to me. If thatÕs your choice, read on. In some ways, zines -Ñ an epigrammatic name that encompasses an ever-widening aggregation of personal publications dedicated to a fabulously broad range of subject matterÑhave replaced the dog-eared notebook into which many of us scribbled our deepest thoughts; shunning attention, fearing perhaps, that we were alone. Now, with a zine-inspired sense of community, many of us are baring our souls and finding that others share the same concerns -Ñ something we could never discover from mainstream or elite media outlets Our mainstream media is like watching Saturday morning cartoons -Ñ only with real blood; it is a wonderful distraction machine. Sports, politics, crime, entertainment, sex, culture, public relations, advertising, education, religion; everything becomes a show, a marketable commodity aiming for the lowest common denominator. And, yes, life itself is the grandest spectacle of all. Buried under an avalanche of the latest consumer trends and other highly irrational and self-destructive illusions, the result is inevitably a creeping alienation and isolation. We all want something out of life, but the opinion-makers and spin doctors have effectively cut off any constructive avenues. Hence, we find other ways to belong; ways that are far outside the public arena. The function of the mainstream media is to make sure we stay there. Running parallel to the fads, trends, and crazes, the corporate media is an equally potent impetus for the proliferation of zines. You know, the big boys who set the agenda. More specifically, it is the shrinking limits of debate within the corporate-dominated elite media that have spawned many a new zine. I know, I know; in a land where freedom of the press is considered sacred and the media is usually portrayed as a collection of closet Leninists yearning to sacrifice Christian Coalition virgins on the altar of Fidel Castro, this rationalization may at first seem odd. However, until one truly analyzes just how narrow the parameters of media debate have become, the publication of zines does appear rather superfluous. Sure, we have more than 11,000 magazines published in North America alone, but did you know that the large majority of these rags are owned by a total of six corporations? Count Õem: six. Now, IÕm not trying to say every fledgling zine editor takes time to dissect the machinations of the agenda-setting media before banging out an essay on the Gilligan/William S. Burroughs dichotomy but, in the interest of exploring the roots of a genuinely independent press, letÕs take a closer look, shall we? Whether you choose to label them liberal or conservative, most major media outlets are essentially large corporations owned by or aligned with even larger corporations, and like all good little capitalists they share a common goal: to make a profit by selling a product to a given market. WhatÕs the market? ThatÕs easy: advertisers. The product? Well, since any advertiser worth his graying ponytail lusts after an affluent audience, the product is obviously an elite clientele with an deliciously unencumbered cash flow. Therefore, we shouldnÕt find it too shocking that the image of the world being presented by a corporate-owned press very much reflects the biased interests of the elite players involved in this sordid little love triangle. Sure, IÕll admit, even an incestuously insidious system like this may occasionally offer a dissenting point of view; but is there really any room for, say, someone who toils in a cubicle by day but publishes a seditious zine by night? Probably not, especially if that radical rag revolves around something like "food insects." And itÕs not just the print media; radio and television are no better. Take someone who is actually seen as a bit of a muck-raker; someone like Ted Koppel. Well, a recent study of 865 Nightline programs found that of the 1530 U.S. guests, 92 percent were white, 89 percent were male, and 80 percent were professionals, government officials, or corporate representatives. Hey, why do you think they call it programming? Even worse, NBC is owned by General Electric, a multi-national corporation doing $61 billion in sales per year (or twenty-five times higher than the gross domestic product of Rwanda). To earn that kind of dinero, surely GE isnÕt really bringing good things to life, now is it? LetÕs face it, if a major defense contractor (with heavy involvement in the banking and insurance industries) that manufactures and sells electronic, electrical, and nuclear systems across the globe is picking up the NBC tab, just how far from the company line is loyal employee Tom Brokaw going to stray? Now, youÕd think that when an industrial conglomerate like GE buys a media conglomerate like NBC, all those anti-trust laws we learned about in high school would kick in, right? Au contraire. If the IRS, in its infinite wisdom, deems such conspicuous corporate consumption "a necessary cost of doing business," that corpulent conglomerate actually gets rewarded with a nice little tax break. Ironically, these corporate-run TV and radio stations are using publicly-owned airwaves yet they pay no rent, make enormous profits, and essentially control who says what twenty-four hours a day. The 1934 Communications Law states that radio and television stations must adhere to a standard called "public interest, necessity, and convenience," but I donÕt think anyone has shared that news with Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner recently. Instead, the deregulation of public airwaves has given monopoly power to media conglomerates by allowing them to collect other media outlets like they were baseball cards. Needless to say, all this industrial in-breeding leads to TV programs, radio shows, and print publications that no longer dare to challenge corporate power or offend advertisers. Think about it, the only reason an ideologue like Rush Limbaugh can appear as a courageous crusader by vehemently attacking the actions of the government is because the government doesnÕt advertise. When it comes to exposing corporate power and greed, Rush shows his true colors: yellow, yellower, and yellowest. HeÕd rather reserve his seemingly endless supply of hot air for the only bit of corporate-bashing thatÕs allowed: labeling the press as "leftist" which, after so much repetition, becomes one of those handy Rush Limbaugh carved-in-stone "facts" that we all know and love. You see, this trend is welcome because it actually makes perfect business sense for the ruling class to depict its own loyal media lapdogs as adversarial, antagonistic, and liberal. After all, if the New York Times op-ed page is accepted as the living, breathing manifestation of the most radical aspects of modern political thought, the parameters of debate have become conveniently narrow indeed. Suddenly, anything or anyone dwelling to the left of "all the news thatÕs fit to print" (i.e., Ralph Nader, Angela Davis, or yours truly, for example) is perceived as a marginalized fringe element and is not even in the ballpark. Now, this arrangement may be okay for someone like your boss, but who wants to read what their boss reads? Where can we hear the messages that will appease our restless souls? Well, this question brings me full circle; back to the inviting realm of riot grrrls, poetry chapbooks, Guy Debord, and the cult of Factsheet 5. Back to the only source of independent media that is not merely imitating its well-fed rivals in the high-rent district. Why do zine editors engage in the seemingly obscure, thankless task of publishing minuscule magazines for an isolated audience of supposedly antisocial misanthropes? Well, in a world where the mainstream media offer less variety than MaoÕs best-dressed list, itÕs all about discovering the subversive pleasure of thinking for yourself. Zines arenÕt designed to merely replace the illusions created by the mainstream media. To use Ken KnabbÕs phrase, zines "challenge the conditioning that makes people susceptible to media manipulation in the first place." Zine editors, along with their subscribers and contributors seek more out of life than following a societal formula. Let others browse at the mall, chow down at unhealthy fast food restaurants, and spend their so-called "free" time renting movies and playing video games. If America is nothing more than a coast-to-coast DennyÕs franchise, zine people asked for the check a long, long time ago, and you can be damn sure we didnÕt leave a tip. The television-oriented message of AmericaÕs commodity culture -Ñ work, consume, obey authority without question -Ñ offers only isolation and alienation to the inquisitive of mind and artistic of heart. Conversely, the do-it-yourself spirit of the zine movement brings like-minded people together. As part of a long tradition of twentieth century rebellion -Ñ Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, and Punk -Ñ the zine movement is home to those who have withdrawn in disgust. Young writers with no chance of breaking into mainstream publications have an outlet. Political thinkers too fed up with the system to get involved have a platform. Anti-work slackers have a place where they donÕt have to apologize for not renting themselves out eight hours a day. Hey, if you wanna publish a zine about amputation, dairy products, dead musicians, anarcho-syndicalism, or grade-B female prison flicks, no one will ask you to explain why. TheyÕll be too busy wondering if you accept trades. The zine culture welcomes everyone. WeÕre talking genuine outsiders here (even if you sometimes make a surgical strike or two into the mainstream world); unsigned garage bands, undiscovered basement artists, weekend filmmakers, lunch break poets, backroom philosophers, and after-hours novelists. After all, if Vincent van Gogh (the Kurt Cobain of the nineteenth century) only sold one painting in his lifetime, imagine how much unknown talent and creativity lurks behind the homogenized, one-size-fits-all surface of todayÕs consumer culture. It is the truest essence of zine potential to break past the strip-mall facade and discover one of this countryÕs great, untapped resources: the simmering individuality that is lurking below the conformity. IÕm talking about community in its most profound sense; sharing interests that go beyond tabloid headlines and manufactured opinions. The people who inhabit the growing zine world realized a long time ago that you donÕt need a $200 pair of sneakers to "just do it." The choice is our own and has always been our own: Conform to enforced trends in a profit-driven society or trade your boredom for chaos. (But you better act fast before zines are co-opted, re-packaged, and sold back to us as the latest "trend.") Why zines, you ask? Well, faced with an illusion-driven media thatÕs rooted in sexism, racism, and classism, and only represents the interests of an elite few, I must respond: "Why not?"

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