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Friday, October 5, 2012

The Zine World is a Utopia (of the Le Guin variety)

Almost exactly four years ago, I launched a website for my zine distro, The Alchemist's Closet. I spent dozens of hours on the learning curve of HTML, cascading style sheets (CSS), Paypal shopping carts and promotion. That was the hard part.

Mailing stuff out was the fun part. The first packages I sent out were super elaborate: I wrapped each bundle of zines in brown kraft paper, sealed them with real sealing wax and alchemical-looking seals, and put them in a yet larger envelope. I loved preparing packages this way. Once I was receiving more orders, I simplified the packaging. I still would love to use sealing wax on packages, but sadly, postal equipment often sloughs the wax right off. My romanticism in this particular case does not mesh with the modern post office.

I've carried many zines in the last four years, and my favorite part of buying and consigning zines is getting to know the zinester behind the zine. I think that's everyone's favorite part, whether you're a reader or a writer or a zine-festival-goer. Zines attract me because they are so deeply personal. The limited-run, photocopied, hand-stapled zine, maybe with some personal artistic additions (painting or hand-coloring, ribbon bindings, hand-printed illustrations) is almost as personal as art and literature can get.


The only thing more personal, perhaps, is a handwritten letter to a lover, and I think you could make the case that some zines are also love letters. They are public, but they retain their mystique; they don't stand on display under the harsh lights of Facebook's interface or Google's search algorithms. They don't get barcoded and stripped of self and history under the lights of a big box store.They remain special, textural, and precious.

These special qualities of zines are perhaps why they can touch us so deeply. As human beings, we grow in mysterious ways: A surprise meeting, a serendipitous discovery, a chance encounter-- these play large parts in shaping our lives, despite our efforts to categorize, catalog, and clarify the world. Finding your favorite author's work for the first time; falling in love; seeing a wild animal browsing, seemingly unaware of you, so close; conceiving a child; a snatch of music from somewhere reminds you of something too beautiful, lost but almost on the edge of consciousness. We grow from that creative chaos; it shows us, in a roundabout way, our selves looking back at us, some piece of us that became lost when the world was made. We often find zines in just this way.


Much of our media landscape is becoming increasingly catalogued. The web has become extremely searchable, taggable, and personalized. Recently several articles were published about Google's new, more personalized search algorithm, which understands your interests and opinion and tailors search content to them. Two people can search for the same term, but they will receive content that they each are more likely to agree with. More and more, we find what we are looking for. More and more, we can have what we've decided we want. More and more, the element of chance, the chaotic fizz at the edge of reality, is dampened.

Maybe zinesters' appreciation for the one-of-a-kind, the personalized, the public love letter, is an outgrowth of a kind of valuation that grows less prominent in the modern world. It is not a fetishization of uniqueness, although there is always bleed-over. When big sites like Etsy market and sell the "handmade," they wrap, package and sell "uniqueness." Their work, as a corporation, is simply capitalist. 

Zines can be liberatory, but not necessarily in a bright, catalogued, open way; not necessarily will the zine community finding their pinnacle in the ultimate liberation of information, in accessibility, in the nakedness of data. Even as some zine writers move toward accessibility, toward the online-searchable-version and crowd-funding and Etsy storefront, others continuously tend toward obscurity. Sometimes one tends in both directions at once. Sometimes both tendencies merge, are merged, become balanced on some obscure and temporary equilibrium.

Writer Ursula K. Le Guin declared that all imagined utopias up until now have been "yang utopias," bright, unyielding, masculine utopias. The internet is one such utopia, but it did not begin that way. In the earlier web, one wandered rather than zoomed from point A to B. One tended to get lost, and sometimes found hidden gems. There was no Facebook to instantly share those experiences in. The sharing frenzy was largely absent, replaced by a contractile, labyrinthine, and largely personal experience. This is what I've come to call a "deep texture" experience. The textural web is largely lost to expediency and function. The web is useful, but it is no longer personal. Instead, it is "personalized."

The zine world is not the sort of utopia that Le Guin called the "yang utopia." But Le Guin wrote of an imagined, more feminine yin utopia: "It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant...." It would be undescribed, evolving, not a concrete-walled channel but a wandering river, finding eddies and pockets for quiet evolution and change. Even to write about what we do is too much. Instead, we simply do it.

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