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ZINE MUNCH #1: Hermeneutics, Astronauts, and T.W. Adorno (w/ Josh Glenn)
On intellectualism beyond the academy, Marshall McLuhan, and Fucker.com
Josh Glenn is a consulting semiotician, publisher of the website HiLoBrow, editor of MIT Press’s Radium Age series of reissued proto-sf novels, and coauthor/coeditor of books including The Adventurer’s Glossary, Significant Objects, and the family activities guide UNBORED. During the 1990s he published the indie intellectual zine Hermenaut; and he has contributed to the Baffler, n+1, Cabinet, and other journals.
I found out about Hermenaut last year, seeing that n+1 (which I’d just begun seriously reading) cited them as influence. I was in the middle of a year off from school and, in some free time, cold-reached out to Josh about archiving or preserving Hermenaut, inspired by Aaron Swartz’s work re-hosting Lingua Franca. We’ve been working on the preservation project on and off ever since, and he's been a guide to me in my quest to learn more about the history of zines and little magazines; I ask him to be my first guest, and we talk via Zoom last Saturday.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.
Lucas Gelfond: How did you get started with Hermenaut?
Josh Glenn: When I was in graduate school and thinking about dropping out (I didn’t end up finishing), I realized “I'm immediately going to stop reading philosophy and theory if I don't stay in academia, but I don’t want to.” I liked grad school seminars, just being in a room full of interesting, smart people who cared about ideas, were wrestling with them, and wanted to apply them in the real world, I just didn't like all the other shit that went with it. I didn't like the pretentious jargon, I didn't like the politics of jockeying for positions and trying to find a job—and being required to move to a city where I didn’t want to live, in order to find work.
My thought was, “How can I make myself keep reading and thinking about this stuff?” Personally, I can't learn anything unless I write about it, so I wanted to require myself to write long-form essays. At the same time, I was wondering, “How do you get a free-range intellectual seminar going outside of academe?” In the past artistic and intellectual circles have coalesced around little magazines, so I’d started reading old issues of Partisan Review, Dissent, Dwight Macdonald’s Politics, Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Mencken’s The American Mercury—for inspiration. Most importantly, though, I was frustrated that the kind of intellectual journal that I wanted to read—one that was highbrow and lowbrow, but not middlebrow — did not seem to exist. So I started this photocopied zine, Hermenaut, in 1992.
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LG: I loved the section of the magazine where you’d respond to letters to the editors. What was your thought process there?
JG: I really liked National Lampoon as an adolescent. When I look back at the Lampoon now, of course, I cringe. But their letter section was fucking brilliant — because they just made up all the letters. They would just be terrible jokes. I was also inspired by the letter sections of those mid-century intellectual magazines I’ve mentioned — because debates would rage within and between little magazines via the letters — which contributed powerfully to the sense that this publication is participating in a living, breathing intellectual culture. We don’t even know how to have debates now. What’s so enjoyable about reading the letters in these midcentury journals is the sense of agonistic collegiality — we’re pushing each other really hard, but with respect too.
It wasn’t just the letters section that didn’t have to be boring. Why can't every section of a periodical be something that you would want to read? Like, the masthead, that should be interesting. And the advertising. One of Marshall McLuhan’s most interesting insights is that when people read magazines, what they're really reading is the advertising — because it’s the ads that tell readers who the magazine thinks they are. I may be misremembering the quote.
I started reading histories of independent American magazines that had succeeded — Playboy is one of the famous examples. It’s a reprehensible magazine in many ways, but I admire how strategic Hugh Hefner was when it came to the advertising. The ads in Playboy said to the reader, “By reading this publication, you can participate in the swinging, anti-uptight culture that is just beginning to emerge.” Rolling Stone did something very similar.
If you read literary and intellectual magazines today, it's mostly just ads from publishing houses and galleries, which is fine but it can feel too precious and rarefied. I wanted to have some of that stuff too, but we really wanted to have indie record labels and, like, weird stores from our neighborhood that we loved. Some of these establishments didn’t even have a marketing department, so we would create the ad for them. Richard Grijalva, who came on eventually to sell ad space in Hermenaut, would reach out to his favorite indie labels and say “You can pay any price. We just want an ad from you in our magazine.” Which is how we ended up running ads for Verso and Fantagraphics and Emperor Norton Records all on the same page. Also, I liked having a lot of ads in our pages — I don’t like the supposedly classy, ad-free look of most scholarly journals.
LG: I actually did notice this a lot, like, holy shit, Guided By Voices records are in here, but when they were actually releasing stuff in the nineties, it was really fun to peek through some of those ads. Were you ever on the other side of that, advertising Hermenaut anywhere?
JG: No, and that's the thing I've always been bad at. I can tell you a little anecdote. Once I was sitting at a coffee shop in Minneapolis, when I used to live there for a few years during the Nineties, and this guy I knew named Chank Diesel, who was the editor of a music magazine in town called Cake, he pulls up in his car and he's all excited. He opens the trunk and pulls out a big box of t-shirts that say “Fucker.com” on them with a little robot logo.
This is in the early days of websites when all these domains are available. He’s like, “I can't believe I was able to register Fucker.com.” He starts handing out t-shirts to me and other people in the cafe and I’m like, “This is so cool, Chank, what are you going to publish on your new website?” and he's like, “I don't even know yet!” And I thought, “Ah! That’s the perfect way to do it, first publicize the thing and then figure out what it is.” But I'm always the other way around.
LG: Hermenaut was mostly a print publication, but then you started Hermenaut.com too, before most other little magazines had websites. What was the thought behind having an online presence?
JG: From 1994 through 1996 I worked at Utne Reader, an independent magazine in Minneapolis. The world wide web was still brand-new. We had a forward looking webmaster at the magazine who asked me, “Hey, did you know that you can have conferences online?” I thought, “That could be fucking amazing — to be able to share ideas with people who aren’t in the same space.” Of course, we all know now that online community is extremely tricky and fragile, and trolls have ruined everything — but in those days, if you moderated the conversation thoughtfully, online community still seemed very doable.
Because I’d taken an interest in online community, and because of my background in self-publishing, I was then hired as co-producer of Tripod.com, part of the first wave of user-generated content companies. I spent two years there learning more about the upsides and downsides of providing online spaces for discussion and debate. To answer your question about why we started Hermenaut.com, it’s because we wanted to host online conversations about ideas, and we wanted to publish more frequently and more easily and cheaply than we could do through the print medium, and we we also wanted to publicize our new issues, and parties we threw, and other things we were doing. To this day, I believe that the best use of the web is to support a real-life, physical-world endeavor or project.
LG: What were you reading at the time?
JG: I was really into Philip K. Dick, T.W. Adorno, Simone Weil, all these ‘outsider intellectuals' who I’d end up writing about in a regular Hermenaut feature called ‘Hermenaut of the Month.’ That was an intentionally silly title, inspired by Baskin-Robbins's Flavor of the Month. In fact, we didn’t publish the zine every month.
I wanted the zine to be pop culture-y and lowbrow at first glance. It was subtitled the “digest of heady philosophy for teens,” and its first covers were supposed to look like a teen fan magazine. So we had Luke Perry and other Beverly Hills 90210 stars on the cover. On the inside, there was a lot of midcentury sci-fi imagery — because pulp sci-fi magazines were another great inspiration to me. The message of the medium was this: There must be a way to bring the highbrow, edgy, spiky, difficult ideas and theory and philosophy into the world of the lowbrow, which is also edgy and spiky and strange, without having to rub the edges of either one of them off. To this day, I don’t think anyone has done this sort of thing better than Hermenaut.
PS — I’ll loop back with Josh in a few months to reflect on the project and for more about Hermenaut and 90s zine culture. Until the next!