zine, [zeen] noun. 1. abbr. of fanzine; 2. any amateurly-published periodical. Oxford Reference


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Notes from Underground - 20th anniversary edition

Notes from Underground - Zines & the Politics of Alternative Culture

Stephen Duncombe

20th anniversary edition, Microcosm Publishing 2017

18cm x 14cm, 256 pages

Cost: offered as part of Microcosm Publishing sliding scale pricing $15.95-$23.95 USD

"Although the world of zines operates on the margins of society, its concerns are common to all: how to count as an individual, how to build a supportive community, how to have a meaningful life, how to create something that is yours" 

I first read Notes from Underground while I was completing my Masters Degree (shhhh, don't tell anyone...but this was 18 years ago). I'd set out to write a history of performance poetry in the UK from the 1950's to 2000. At the time spoken word and performance poetry was very much an art form with a diy culture - people running their own gigs, cut & paste designed flyers, and producing their own zines and publications. It was an area of art I was involved in, and loved for its open access, anything goes aesthetic. But most of the artefacts were temporary, produced in very limited numbers, and utterly ephemeral. It was a history that hadn't yet been written, and I wanted to capture its essence.

Notes from Underground had not long been published, and was the only book available that took zines and alternative publications seriously, subjecting them to cultural analysis, and positioning them as political tools. It is fair to say that the book opened my eyes to what zines were, what they mean, and what zines could be. I had dutifully returned the copy I'd read back to the university library many years ago, so it was an immense joy when Microcosm Publishing asked if I'd like to review the 20th anniversary edition of the book. 

The question is, does it still stand up?

The answer is simply - yes. Although there has been an increased academic interest in zines in the intervening years, nothing I've read comes close to the breadth and depth of Notes from Underground. Stephen has a deep understanding of the motivations and aspirations of zine makers, is widely read in zines of varying styles and subject matter, and he also has the ability to piece together the wider cultural significance of zine culture in a lucid way.

"In a society built on consumption - of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the culture we enjoy - the ideal that one should be "the entertainer of myself" is a defiant one."
It's a book that will end up with post-it notes sticking out of every edge, dog ears, and underlining. It's just so eminently quotable. The chapters are broken down into themes such as Identity, Community, and Consumption, but as zines are unboxable those themes are used more as lenses to view through. The book is also liberally sprinkled with images of pages from, and covers of, the zines referenced in the text. It's not a visual catalogue though, if you want that there are other books out there that specifically do that job

The 20th Anniversary edition includes a new afterword asking "Do zines still matter?". The fact you're reading this review, about a book on zines, via a website, means that the question is probably not addressed to you. Stephen's answer however might help clarify your thinking when answering similar questions by those who have little or no contact with zine culture. 

Fully indexed, with extensive references, it's an invaluable resource as well as a grounding in the political significance of all zine making. It is also a hugely inspiring read - and although many of the zines referenced are hard, or impossible, to find if you have no access to a zine library - it will also inevitably inspire creative thinking for your next project. 

Note from Underground is an essential book for anyone with an interest in zines,  if you don't have it, get it: microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/1447

There is also a short piece by Stephen Duncombe in the excellent practical zine primer Make a Zine (also published by Microcosm Publishing, I reviewed it here last year) in which he takes a look at appropriation of zines aesthetics by corporations hoping to co-opt legitimacy. microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/1202

Review by Nathan Penlington

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