The embodied search and zine materiality

Every so few weeks Pitchfork runs a funky little feature called 5-10-15-20 that asks artists — folks like Neko Case, Nas, Erykah Badu — to talk about the music they listened to at different points in their lives. I always love these features not only because the artists talk about records I’ve never heard of and/or expected they to list (Badu apparently listened to Nirvana a ton in her 20s), but they show that such eclecticism is arguably necessary to one’s artistry. Anyway, on its most recent feature, Kathleen Hanna talks about taping reggae from the radio, explains how she jogged to Public Enemy, and reminisces about fellow riot grrrl band Bratmobile.

When it comes to her talking about her most recent age — 45 — she shares her adoration for Montreal electro-pop artist Grimes (AKA Claire Boucher), loving that’s although Boucher is 20 years younger than her, she embodies some of the feminist ideals the riot grrrl movement energized in the 90s. And yet, Hanna quickly notes her disgust with how women artists like Grimes are taken up on popular music blogs:

“I read some of the worst shit I’ve ever read in my life about Vivian Girls on BrooklynVegan. I clicked on a link because I wanted to see a show, and I made the mistake of reading the comments, and it made me want to cry. It was like the 90s all over again. But people in the 90s had to take out a piece of paper and write you a letter. It’s taken me a long time to not take that stuff seriously. I feel like people who are younger than me understand better. When Le Tigre started, people felt like they had to respond if someone said something negative about you online. As a political musician you felt obligated to have a dialogue. Now I realize.”

Grimes, ‘Oblivion’ from Somesuch & Co. on Vimeo.

Hanna’s observation about “that stuff” — the negative discourses of the web, specifically the comments section — resonated with me for two reasons. First, with hesitation, I reactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago. Second, I’ve focused nearly all of my reading time on three recent books on zines. For sure, my decision to come back to Facebook is the result of a variety of forces, but I think my primary reason is one articulated in these books; it’s the same response as Hanna’s in understanding of how certain online spaces work. It’s a kind of letting go — a way of limiting my time on those spaces, but also filtering discourses and refusing certain kinds of dialogue. This is something, it seems, certain makers of zines understand quite well.

In Girl Zines (2009), Alison Piepmeier borrows from Mimi Nguyen’s work in arguing that the Internet is generally still a pretty hostile place for women, a place that “replicates many of the structural inequalities of the nondigital world” (15). In a more recent piece, for example, “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,”  Safiya Umoja Noble shows subtler ways this hostility is perpetuated by critiquing the neoliberal logic undergirding a search engine like Google:

“Commercial search implodes when it comes to providing reliable, credible, and historically contextualized information about women and people of color, especially Black women and girls, which serves as a means of silencing Black women and girls as social and political agents.”

As a result, the materiality of zines — as paper that mediates one body to another — allows them to circulate differently in what Piepmeier calls embodied communities — collectives that activate bodily experiences through paper, string, and the otherwise tactile pleasures of zine making which serve to humanize discourse in ways that are difficult to sustain and control digitally (63).

This isn’t to say, of course, that vibrant feminist spaces don’t exist on the web. Feministing, to give one example, has been going strong for years. However, recent scholarship on zines make a compelling case for the affordances of embodied analogue media. Farmer (mentioned in my last post), for example, argues that the affective qualities of zines create important alternative spaces for dissent that are directly linked to their materiality through bricolage — ““the artful ‘making do’ of the ‘handyman’ who, using only those materials and tools readily available to him, constructs new objects out of worn ones, who imagines new uses for what has been cast aside, discarded” (31). Because zines appropriate literal scraps, often relying on the unpredictability of embodied search — collecting said scraps at thrift shops, garage sales, etc. — they differ from deliberative public discourses that often take place in commercial online spaces using the tools of the commercial search (i.e. Google). In short — “that stuff” Hanna found repulsive on BrooklynVegan.

What Hanna “realizes,” I think, is that when it comes to the political work of the artist, it’s the art itself that makes a difference. In Zines and Third Space, Adela Licona takes this up by examining how zines build coalitions and a coalitional consciousness in their makers — “a practiced articulation or deliberate bringing and coming together around social change that can be witnessed in zines” (3). The difference between coalitional and critical consciousness is that the former implies action. For Farmer and other scholars of zines, it’s the zine’s capacity for “poetic world-making,” its rhetorical goal to inspire making itself, that differentiates it from other forms of public discourse.

I’m interested in the zine’s ability to perform these gestures through their materiality, but I’m equality interested in the ways other pockets of zine activity make use of both embodied material and commercial digital channels to effect change, especially when it comes to their circulation. One example of this is how coalitions build (or fail to build) depending on the type of search one engages. An embodied search — garage sale/sailing for ephemera, for example — is going to yield very different results than Googling a phrase, both materially but also epistemologically. Posting a zine on Etsy is different from selling it at a zine fest. It’s different in terms of how its found, its encounter between the maker and consumer, and how the event itself is figured into future circulations.