Duncombe, Stephen. Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. New York: Verso, 1997.


Like me, Stephen Duncombe is an ex-zinester who now writes books. Besides the fact that we also share English as a primary language, all similarities end there. It must be noted that Duncombe makes a few less-than-worshipful comments regarding Yours Truly within his new book on zines. This, naturally, has NOTHING to do with the hurtful venom I express in the following review. I swear. We differ on matters of opinion. Nothing that can be proven.

An example of our differences: While Duncombe believes that "Riot Grrrl breathes new life into feminism," I say it merely gives feminism smaller tits and a backpack. When he claims that "...the outside world [is] the very repository of inauthenticity," I say it's the only world that's for real.

We also differ on the purpose and value of zines. If you don't know what a zine is, consider yourself lucky. The word "zine" is half of the word "'magazine"; a zine, at best, is only half a magazine. Zines are but a tiny fart at the end of a meal which Gutenberg started. Like some things are better left unsaid, most zines are better left unpublished.

Who are the zinesters? Who are these half-people who create half-magazines? They are a bespectacled bundle of contradictions. They are racially hypersensitive, yet there are almost no black zinesters. They are antimaterialistic, yet they are invariably the children of affluence. They are filled with angst because there's no tension or struggle in their lives. They whimper about their limited entertainment choices and act as if walking through the local mall is the ultimate horror ... as if living in the 'burbs is worse than life in the projects. They don't realize that feeling empty is a luxury, not evidence of oppression. The "zine community" is a mail-order support group for emotional cripples. If you need zines to get you through the night, perhaps you don't deserve to see the sun rise.

As one scrawny twig on the Hipster Tree, zinedom is an effete ghetto of exclusion and snobbery. Zines exist for hipsters, and hipsters exist for—I've forgotten why hipsters exist. Oh, right—hipsters exist for the express purpose of wishing that their viewpoints never gain mass acceptance. Hipsters don't want to overthrow the mainstream, they merely want to perpetually coexist with it in a state of adversarial bitchiness. There is no such thing as "alternative culture," only half-assed reasons for wanting to be different. All "alternative movements" devolve into factionalism and backbiting. This is why the mainstream has never lost a battle.

But along comes Stephen Duncombe, much more hopeful than I am...

"In zines I saw the seeds of a different possibility: a novel form of communication and creation that burst with an angry idealism. A medium thot spoke for a marginal, yet vibrant culture, that along with others might invest the tired script of progressive politics with meaning and excitement for a new generation .... As a punk rocker, Left politico, and scholar of culture, I was intrigued by their success."

... Yes, along comes Stephen Duncombe, who [unlike me] is able to grasp the potential laying beneath all the shitty graphics, lousy writing, and clunky sloganeering:

"It may very well be that this sort of individual creation and production, linked through a vast network of individual producers, is a model for a new sort of micro-coalition community and for a politics that allows individual autonomy at the same time as it encourages communal exchange."

There's a gentle picture of Stephen Duncombe on the back flap of his book. He looks like a rebellious son of Jerry Lewis, half-smirking at the photographer for trying to commodify him. His face is half-bathed in light, half in darkness. Half of him, we are to assume, sits in the pure-'n'-dangerous underground, half in the enlightened world of postmodern Marx Brother academia. We are told that Stephen "is active in radical politics" and receives grant money from the Jacob Javits Foundation to help him plumb the sociological trenches. Steve uses the phrase "New Left" and proudly claims to have "been part of the underground cultural scene."

Quite simply, Stephen Duncombe feels the need to rebel. He just won't be happy unless he can channel his dissent through a non-coopted outlet. Against all evidence, he believes in the possibility of positive social change. And he casts it all under the soft spotlight of anti-consumptionist rigamarole. It only takes two pages before capitalism is blamed for everything. I'm only jealous that I didn't think of it first.

Like most college commies, Duncombe insists that his entertainment be more than mere entertainment. In fact, it doesn't even have to entertain as long as it ... um ... radicalizes. To him, zines only seem valuable if they corral the reader into the Left Bank bullpen. The great failure of zines, if I may speak for the author, is that they encourage a sense of personal control which verges on the antisocial. Duncombe seems tweaked that zines haven't yet forged a mass movement of Left politicos who take to the streets in order to throw raw meat and Xeroxed flyers at people.

Begging to differ yet again, I remain untweaked. The great strength of zines, as I see it, is their ability to encourage selfish behavior. Politics and entertainment usually mix as well as pickles and ice cream. The Id is much more entertaining than the Superego; the personal is much more fun than the political. The personal is NOT political. When I dab my armpits with roll-on deodorant, it has nothing to do with the suffering in Rwanda. Zines succeed or fail not on the strength of the zine format itself, nor the veracity of the politicking, but on the power of the zinemaker's personality. Most zines fail because most people fail. The problem with Do It Yourself is the stampeding unoriginality of most of the Yourselves who are Doing It. Zines never provide insight into new political thought, only the occasional window into an amusingly pathological personality. Duncombe, not a fan of personality when it gets in the way of social activism, doesn't mention some of zinedom's more intriguing goofballs, should-be superstars such as Randall Phillip, David Van Hyle, and The JMan.

And it's on the personality tip where Duncombe himself fails, both as a writer and as a person. He seems nice, but dull as cement. The world of alternative culture that he proposes is even blander than the mainstream, for at least the mainstream throws a good party every once in a while. Stupid politics can be forgiven; being boring can't.

So why buy this book? You asked the wrong guy. Writing a book on zines is like making a movie about a sitcom. All books are ultimately useless, yet here's one that doesn't wait so long. Phrases such as "full of shit" or "rank art-faggotry" spring to mind, yet why take the low road? It's hard to get pissed at something so thoroughly blasé. I found myself sighing a lot as I read this book. I also found myself unable to achieve an erection within ten feet of it. Outside of that radius, and I'm OK. The moment I'm out of the underground, the veins start bulging all along my shaft.