RSA14: Zines & Borderlands Rhetorics in Flux: Reassessing the Rhetorical Currency of Print

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Below is an approximation of the talk I gave at RSA 2014 in San Antonio. You can view the slidedeck here

The scene is from Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler, the nerdiest of Ghostbuster, emerges from the floor where he has been tinkering with the secretary Janine Melnitz’s desktop computer. She compliments him on his handiwork and says, “I bet you like to read a lot too.” He mutters back three infamous words: “Print is dead.”

[SLIDE 2]  Although the film was released in 1984, the rhetoric surrounding print’s decline has been relentless into the 21st century — daily we read about newspapers folding, e-book sales exploding, and independent bookstores vanishing. [SLIDE 3] In 2001, and in less dramatic terms, Jay David Bolter dubbed this the late age of print, “a transformation of our social and cultural attitudes toward, and uses of, this familiar technology” (3). More recently Ted Striphas has adopted the term as a title to his book, and applies Bolter’s idea to consider the ways print — and more specifically the book — continues to “shape habits of thought, conduct, and expression – even in a supposedly ‘digital age’.”

For rhetoricians, the terms “death” and “transformation” might stand out as two important concepts from Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives[SLIDE 4]  Burke chooses death and killing as topoi at the start ofhis book in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death are a way to identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. “That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). Given these premises, this paper will begin to consider print’s afterlife by taking stock of just a few of the rhetorical methods – “the ideas and imagery” – of one site where print still has rhetorical currency: the contemporary do-it-yourself (DIY) print communities of zines.

[SLIDE 5]  Zines aren’t the only site where print has currency. Parents in the US, for instance, overwhelmingly value children’s books. But zines are not children’s books. [SLIDE 6] They are “noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves” (Duncombe 10-11).  In this slide you can see some examples of pre-internet Ghostbusters zines from the 90s. [SLIDE 7] And here is a snapshot from a wiki site called Fanlore that has documented as many Ghostbusters zines as they could find, complete with scans of their covers. While these are historical examples, with many of these zines being produced in the heyday of the 90s, zines have actually enjoyed a renaissance of sorts over the last few years. [SLIDE 8]

In a 2011 article entitled “Anatomy of a Zine: When Magazines Go Indie,” Time Magazine notes:

 While a small and dedicated do-it-yourself zine culture has been publishing for decades, zines haven’t enjoyed this much popularity in 20 years. Online craft mecca Etsy currently has nearly 50,000 distinct handmade publications listed for sale, approximately 3,000 of which are self-defined as zines; that number has been steadily increasing.

[SLIDE 9] In another article in the same year, the New York Times not only reported testimonies from public librarians, prominent bloggers, and social media coordinators that a resurgence was indeed happening, but they also cited a variety of reasons for the trend, including “a reaction to the ubiquity of the Internet,” “a much more tangible feeling,” “freedom to explore and experiment,” “tiring of the high rate of turnover in online content,” and their “air of exclusivity: they are like other artifacts that were never intended for mass consumption or distribution.”

[SLIDE 10] More recently the Times reported on the Brooklyn Zine Fest, where roughly 100 zine makers gather to make, sell, and trade their zines with strangers for one weekend in April. Importantly, there are other zinefests across the US — the largest being the Chicago Zine Fest, which, as the article points out, takes up three floors of a building at Columbia College. Others happen in LA, Albuquerque, Houston, Austin, Buffalo, and nearly every other large to midsize city in the US and UK. I’m currently in the process of curating one in Syracuse.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that contemporary zines leverage tensions between the borders of old and new media in order to critique and offer alternative spaces to more legitimate sites of knowledge production. For example, Malaka Gharib, the social media coordinator cited in the first New York Times article, “still makes much use of technology to create and distribute the zine, employing software to design each issue, Twitter to attract readers, and Etsy … to sell the publication.” Thus, as self-made, noncommercial, nonprofessional, material booklets that are also distributed and circulated through a variety of virtual and physical networks, zines complicate the traditional print/digital binary for makers of media, while concurrently asserting print’s affordances. [SLIDE 11] Zines are sold through online distros, [SLIDE 12] but they are also shopdropped in public spaces. [SLIDE 13] Zine makers tweet and maintain wikis, [SLIDE 14] but they also trade and sell zines at small press festivals. [SLIDE 15] Zines are crowdfunded through sites like IndieGoGo, [SLIDE 16] but they are also born from hacked photocopy machines. In short, zines exist in a complex borderland where print’s rhetorical currency is bolstered and politicized through physical encounters and the scarcity and intimacy of the page. As Alison Piepmeier describes in her book Girl Zines, paper acts as a mediating nexus that crosses various borders and “bears the marks of the body … to the reader” (63).

[SLIDE 17] Let me provide a brief example of such a borderland: Google “Ghostbuster zines.” [SLIDE 18] The first link you see is to a November 2011 Tweet from Hal Niedzviecki, publisher of Broken Pencil. Broken Pencil is a Canadian quarterly about zines that hosts Canzine, a zine festival that occurs each fall in Toronto. [SLIDE 19] Click the link from his Tweet and you’re taken to the synopsis of a public experiment conducted at Canzine 2011 between an illustrator, poet, and zinester. As Broken Pencil describes it:

 A week before Canzine, we gave [these three] a list of five Hollywood movies, one of which they would re-imagine, in front of an audience and in their chosen form. A week later, our brave guinea pigs … took the stage at Canzine, scribbling, typing and drawing away in a mad race to recreate Ghostbusters…We thought the results too good to keep confined to the Canzine audience…

Below the description are several clickable scanned images from the zine, which – true to zine poltics – turns into a quirky critique of right wing ideology. [SLIDES 20-23] Although it’s not clear if these three went on to reproduce and distribute Ghostbusters Zine, this hopefully serves as a provocative example of the ways zine communities collapse print/digital binaries produce spaces that challenge more legitimate sites of knowledge production – or what Adela Licona might call a third space in her recent book Zines in Third Space[SLIDE 24]

Because Licona is more interested in drawing from feminist, chicana, and post-colonial theory, she does not explicitly evoke identification in the Burkean sense in her recent book; however, she does use hermeneutics to explore the ways in which radical zines achieve consubstantiality through difference. She specifically looks at how they use borderlands rhetoric – discursive and visual convergences – to destabilize and dismantle traditionally inscribed borders of identity and in so doing, make a third space for authors who “self-identify as feminist, antiracist, queer, and/or of color” (142n6). Third spaces are interstitial, liminal and emerge through active material practices of zine-making, where authors challenge traditionally legitimized knowledge to produce historical reclaimings, treatises on self-care, or otherwise take on sexist, racist or heteronomative discourses. They also may splice together unsanctioned images – copyrighted or otherwise – to imagine alternative ways of being and to mobilize something Licona calls coalitional consciousness: “a practiced articulation or deliberate bringing and coming together around social change that can be witnessed in zines” (3). This usually happens through a call to action via an emphasis on self-care and community education. [SLIDE 25]

In Calico #5, for example, Licona shares how code switching between English and Spanish, when converged with a backdrop of 1950s all-white pop imagery, “disrupt the continued dominant assumptions of these representations” by requiring audiences to fill in the gaps, which, in turn, help build coalitional consciousness (51). That is, by creating third spaces through borderlands rhetorics, these zines are able to create solidarity that doesn’t coalesce through sameness, essential categories, or what Licona calls normalized or homogenized heterogeneity (100), but through radical democratics, “participatory and emancipatory politics” that are action-oriented action by constructing difference as always in flux. That is, through borderlands rhetorics these zines understand identity and identification through a politics of articulation; they view “the nonessential self as a multiply-situated subject informed by ambiguity and even contradiction” (62) in order to struggle against multiple oppressions. In third space, identification is still “compensatory to division,” to put it in Burkean terms, but it is made from difference. In short, third-space zines use the affordances of print to construct borderlands rhetorics that imagine visions for social change. But I want to move forward with two caveats. [SLIDE 26]

First, not all zines are third-space zines – in other words, not produced by authors who identify as feminist, antiracist, queer, and/or of color or even take social change as the foundation of their craft (the Ghostbusters zines, of course, are good examples of that).[SLIDE 27] Second, Licona focuses on zines found in Duke’s Special Collections that circulated before 1999 – not pre-Internet, but long before the proliferation of social media: what dana boyd describes as “the sites and services that emerged during the early 2000s, including social network sites, video sharing sites, blogging and microblogging platforms, and related tools that allow participants to create and share their own content” which has significantly “reshaped the information and communication ecosystem” (6). [SLIDE 28]

While zine makers in the 90s certainly could make web sites and exchange emails, the difference with social media is that the organizing principle online has shifted from interest to friendship. In this sense, although zine makers still use print, social media has distributed the tactics of coalitional consciousness for third-space zines to multiple sites – still within zines, of course, but also online. I want to argue that in order to better understand these tactics we should supplement our methodology and scale, building from third-space hermeneutics and moving into third-space ecologies.

Rhetorical ecologies have occupied our field’s attention for at least ten years. In 2005, Jenny Edbauer, for example, argued that ecology “recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes”(9). In an ecology, agents are viewed as acting within a network, a space where rhetoric is actually a distributed — and hence, circulating — act. Here, rhetoric is always already amalgamated and transforming, what Edbauer calls “the viral spread,”or “shared contagion,”that infects as it reproduces. According to her, this view of rhetoric is of particular value to those in need of counter-rhetorics, which through the viral spread can resist hegemonic exigencies by mocking, exaggerating or reappropriating them (that said, the reverse can happen to those in the third space as even Edbauer shows us with the phrase “Keep Austin Weird”). Because ecologies render rhetorics in flux, it shifts our focus from the aesthetics of zine-making or their political content to their distribution or circulation. I want to take moment to explore how this might work with contemporary third space zines. [SLIDE 29]

In last fall’s issue of Broken Pencil the cover story, “The True Colours of Zines,”explored the issues facing the lack of visibility of these contemporary third space zines, or what the magazine dubbed POC zines. It tells the story of Daniela Capistrano, the founder of the POC Zine Project, who upon browsing NYU’s recent Riot Grrrl Collection on their Fales Library’s website, could not find any significant presence of POC even though they were part of the riot grrrl movement. [SLIDE 30] She took to Twitter and shared her concerns, and ended up talking with Mimi Thi Nguyen, a longtime third-space zinester whose compilation zine, [SLIDE 31] Evolution of a Race Riot, was analyzed by Licona in her book. As a cross-generational zinester and professor of gender studies at Urbana-Champaign, Nguyen worked with Capistrano to donate POC zines from 1992-1998 to NYU. Not only is this a rich example of coalitional consciousness at work, but also a good example of how ecologies create coalitions that spread third-space discourse across media. For example, on the occasion of the donation, Nguyen wrote a lengthy statement about the process and her mixed feelings about it including the impossibility of ever developing a full history from any archive and, more importantly, entertaining the possibility that by filling in the gaps of the collection with POCs the donation might have participated in the veiling of “more troubling queries about how women of color are included, incorporated, or otherwise made visible”through feminist historiography. [SLIDE 32]

The statement was posted on the finding aid for the collection at Fales as one might expect, but it was also cross-posted on Nguyen’s blog Thread and Circuits, and the POC Zine Project’s Tumblr, which meant, of course that it was also re-blogged by followers of those sites. Tumblr, in fact, has been an important digital site for contemporary third-space zines. On the POC Zine Project’s site, they claim their mission is to “make ALL zines by POC … easy to find, share and distribute. We are an experiment in activism and community through materiality.” Licona’s understanding of third space zines is worth repeating here: she is concerned with zines “where coalitional consciousness is explicit, activism is engaged and promoted, and community building, knowledge generating, grassroots literacies, and information sharing are the articulated foci”(22). In short, third-space zines are still out there, but they make use of tools that complicate the border of the print and the digital in order to create what I would call, following Frank Farmer, counterpublics. Still, as the Broken Pencil article argues, in order for POC zines to engage wider publics – especially those found in the predominantly white DIY culture of zines –“creators need to be just as concerned with the distribution as with the content” (17). [SLIDE 33]

The question for me moving forward then becomes how these print/digital borderlands of zines, and more broadly DIY, both resist and reinforce more incorporated, neoliberal streams of mediation where being independent is becoming increasingly difficult – where to participate in online social networks, for instance, requires complicity with the very forces they seek to challenge – consumerist culture, digital divides, the rhetoric of the new, template-driven design, etc. That is, how can zines – as the epicenter of certain activist media ecologies – leverage the currency of print to critique some of the problems with digital rhetorical processes, while at the same time make use of those processes?