Hal Niedzviecki argues that the original rebelliousness of subversive zines and DIY publishing is no longer special
In our digital age, self expression has boiled down to emotionally unstable blog posts and over-abused Twitter hashtags. Trending topics and “who likes this” accost your online presence, and vintage Polaroids adorned with fortune-cookie prophecies outnumber actual text-based blog posts. It’s apparent that the influence of pop culture rages unbridled through our society and intersects most predominantly in the art world. Nothing resembles an “underground movement” anymore, as it comes presented to us in a neat and tidy fashion on a computer screen. But is this what do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing and writing has evolved into?
Yes and no. Writer and zine creator, Hal Niedzviecki, presented an open talk on February 9 at York to outline how DIY writing and publishing has progressed over the years. From modest beginnings, to fanzines and other underground publications, to its current model today, zines and other subversive publications were all about fitting into a niche and providing a missing voice.
For early examples, we look to England during and after WWI. Citizens felt lost, and questioned the state on the futility of conflict. When enough was enough, a writer named Wyndham Lewis formed Blast, which touted a theme of anti-meaning, and severed its ties with ideologies at large. In modern context, it seems to make little sense, but during WWI, life was clearly articulated and individuality was frowned upon. Niedzviecki can vouch, saying, “the possibilities of sensible thought died in the trenches.”
The Great Depression severely hampered underground publication, but it rose again with the creation of fanzines. Specifically in the budding Sci-Fi genre, readers would grasp onto stories and start writing feverishly, “enamoured by Mars Conquistadores,” Niedzviecki says laughing.
But this style of appreciation is a far cry from Lewis’ earlier message. Fanzine writers “felt the blood and enthusiasm of the genre,” Niedzviecki says. There was a “desire is to be connected and close to something you never really could be close to.” This lives on through Trekkie and Big Lebowski fan conventions today.
The WWII era saw a shift in writing styles. In America, a collective attitude of unity was felt, and even though most of the population resigned themselves as “cogs of war,” they still needed to express emotion. Once WWII ended, the Cold War followed, which resulted in a more prevalent sense of individuality reminiscent of 1915. In the 1960s and ‘70s, writing and art became all about lifestyle, and zines began to feature sex, intoxicating substances, and violence for the first time. The punk scene emerged, and an attitude of “society wants to keep us down, doesn’t want us to think, and wants us to be a herd” comes with it, according to Niedzviecki. This attitude that embodies punk stems from the ‘60s, and is a direct mirror of the zine industry. Anyone could form a punk band; anyone could write a zine.
When photocopiers became widely available in the 1970s, it helped launch thousands of zines. That machine you scream at in the library once helped fuel a counter-culture. Previously, it was expensive and tedious to publish something independently. Now, you can cut, paste, and distribute your writing more freely than ever. As this technology improved, the number of underground writers increased. Today, one can e-mail original writing to a friend, who will then pass it on to a thousand more friends. This begins to blur the lines of underground culture, because if everyone is doing it, is everyone still acting subversively?
Behold, the hipster paradox.
When someone writes or posts a blog, I’ll bet that it’s not something meant to destroy or question our established values. More often than not, it is meant to become entrenched within pop culture. The question is, does this qualify as underground culture, or, as Niedzviecki says, is “everything sucked into the great machine of commercialism? Individuality becomes the new conformity. Rather than having to fight to articulate our core humanness, we have to fight to just be normal.” It has become extremely difficult in the digital era to show an opposition to society, particularly one that reeks of originality.
Niedzviecki ends with a paradoxical phrase.
“Indie won,” he says. “No one is suppressed.” Individuality has hit such extremes, that there is no good and bad anymore. We are desensitized, and DIY publishing has proven that there can be a niche for anything. Now, we ask how we can move forward from here. Niedzviecki predicts our path.
“Pop culture is becoming peep culture. We [will] turn into meaningless forms of entertainment for others.” He may be right, but maybe a new generation can devise a plan to breathe life back into individuality. On second thought, forget it—Jersey Shore is on.