Recently, a lot of zinester folks have been writing about Dr. Teal Triggs’ book Fanzines, like the incomparable Amber (Hello) Forrester of Culture Slut, Your Secretary and hometown-ish hero Ramsey Beyer of List along with many other zinesters on We Make Zines.
Triggs, a historian of graphic design in the UK, has perhaps unwittingly ruffled some feathers after sending notifications to zinesters that covers and excerpts of their zines are being printed in her book–notifications, rather than requests for permission. The notifications were reportedly sent too late for zinesters to request that their zines not be included, and at least in one case, the zine was included under a name that the zinester was no longer using (check out Amber’s blog). Your Secretary, in addition to providing some great basic guidelines for academics writing about zines, identifies their discomfort as based in the fact that Fanzines is a for-profit (and for individual distinction) book. Zine World also has a good run down. Although Sassyfrass Circus was not one of the zines included without (or with) permission, I want to weigh in to this conversation, as a zinester and as an academic who writes about zines.
There is a certain level of responsibility for an academic when dealing with a piece of material culture that is not necessarily copyrighted, that is “ephemeral” and underground, but whose author is both alive, easily contacted, and most likely still struggling economically to engage in their craft. This may not be legally or institutionally required, but it is required by those of us who see in academia (particularly in the humanities) the potential for a radical project. There is a responsibility for academics and archivists to work with, not against or around, underground artists and cultural producers. Jack Halberstam writes in In a Queer Time & Place, “The more intellectual records we have of queer culture, the more we contribute to the project of claiming for the subculture the radical culture work that either gets absorbed into or claimed by mainstream media.” What Teal Triggs has accomplished is the creation of an incomplete archive–images of zines without the voices of their creators, a flattening of a vivid subculture into style–I mean, she is a historian of graphic design–in my pessimism, I can imagine Fanzines being read in advertising classes as a text on how to get that “cool underground look” for your edgy girl power product line. But then, I am admittedly operating from a base level of mistrust.
Triggs is not a zinester, she is for all intents and purposes an outsider to what is admittedly a very insular, though evangelical, subculture. I am operating under the assumption that outsiders, especially “experts” will (because they do) misrepresent, appropriate and commodify.
Back to Halberstam; “Minority subcultures…tend to be documented by former or current members of the subculture rather than ‘adult’ experts…[the] archivist or theorist and the cultural worker may also coexist in the same friendship networks, and they may function as coconspirators.” (See the Queer Zine Archive Project) Triggs stands separate from the subcultural that she studies, “examining it with an expert’s gaze.”
Perzines in particular have been described as something between a magazine and a diary–when you hold a zine, you are being given a gift, the chance to “hear” the innermost thoughts of the zine’s creator, as if they were whispering them in your ear. Zines are conduits for friendships, connections across space and time. To (re)quote one of my favorite ideas from academic Alison Piepmeier, “The paper, then, is a nexus, a technology that mediates the connections not just of ‘people’ but of bodies. Paper facilitates affection.”
Like a whispered secret, the truths that zines contain may be ephemeral. They shift and change from issue to issue, like the identities, situations and addresses of their creators. The danger in archiving individual issues of zines is that it cements a particular whisper. And the danger of being an archivist of zines is that you are projecting that whisper, far beyond its original and perhaps intended audience.
So, if we understand the relationship between zine creator and reader to be a friendship, and a zine to be like a diary entry or a secret whispered in the ear of a friend–to archive and publish a zine is like publishing your friend’s secrets, sharing someone else’s diary. Dangerous territory.
I understand that when a cultural producer puts their work into the world, it takes on a voice of its own, an existence independent of its creator. But zines are often not widely available–when an academic publishes a critical paper on zines or a collection of excerpts from zines, readers of that academic work may not have access to the zines referenced. They would certainly not have access in the same way one would to a piece of canonical literature that is critically written about. So talk to a zinester. Let zinesters speak for themselves–they are the experts of their own lives. We also run in vicious gangs, but also are actually really friendly.
p.s. Fanzine touts itself as “the ultimate book on the subject, full of reproductions of the best fanzines ever created”…okay. Also, this is a discussion, not an edict. Get on it. Also, Teal Triggs has a zine-interview blog in which zine creators shine through the standard-whatever questions. I am assuming this is a separate project, since none of the zinesters I know were contacted about interviews, just about using their covers (after the fact).