What is ZINE MUNCH?
or, I'm starting a Substack!
“When intellectuals have nothing else to do, they start a magazine,” journalist Irving Kristol says in Arguing the World, a 1994 documentary about the New York Intellectuals, a mid-20th century circle of writers and critics. The tight-knit group gained notoriety for their fiery debates, an atmosphere which graduated the likes of Hannah Arendt, Richard Hofstadter, Susan Sontag, and Saul Bellow. They were pioneers of the “little magazine,” founding small publications like Dissent, Partisan Review, and Commentary; they saw public writing as a form of politics, to employ intellectual rigor and animate discourse outside of the university. These were never mass publications, and never aimed to be; they were notable for their outsize influence in artistic circles and amongst policymakers. “For a long while in postwar middle century America, they used to say that maybe only 5,000 people read [Partisan Review], but that it was the right 5,000 people,” longtime New Yorker editor David Remnick told the New York Times.
In parallel, the 20th century saw the explosion of the ‘zine,’ amateur (and often staple-bound), enthusiast publications that celebrated and canonized subcultures otherwise lacking platforms to reach a public. In an article for Punk & Post-Punk, digital information academic Kirsty Fife writes: “as evidence of networks, cultures, lingusitics and experiences of marginalized individuals and communities, zines often exist as the only representation of ephemeral and otherwise undocumented spaces;” they were the way scenes faced a public and welcomed in newcomers. For those excluded from traditional outlets, zines serve as critical forums for collaboration and experimentation, publishing works unfathomable anywhere else.
By the 1990s, a wave of “little magazines” followed that cited both as sources of influence. They paired the aesthetics (and, often, staff) of 80s punk fanzines with high minded goals of public intellectualism, pushing on the dense prose of their predecessors to bring big ideas into the mainstream. “Neither postpunk ‘zine nor scholarly journal, Hermenaut is, in fact, a bit of both. It reads like a cultural studies seminar being crashed by well-read bohemians who are resolutely unimpressed by mere academic protocol,” a profile in Lingua Franca reads. Hermenaut, alongside publications like n+1, the Baffler, and the Believer, continued this spirit. A 2005 A.O. Scott feature captures the extent of their ambition: “ringing, programmatic insistence on progress,” “defiant optimism,” and a “generational struggle against laziness and cynicism, to raise once again the banners of creative enthusiasm and intellectual engagement.”
Publications with similar ambitions launch (and die) nearly every year, some entirely beyond printed pages or longform writing. “Webzines” and a youth culture primarily disseminated through social media has flourished in the 2000s and 2010s. Some young internet users, acting through meme accounts and post comments, invoke the spirit of the New York Intellectuals. “At a time when the rest of social media had gathered into ideologically quarantined filter bubbles, Politigrammers were intentionally following their political opponents. They loved to argue,” online political subculture researcher Josh Citarella writes in Politigram & the Post-left. They meme about niche political ideologies (”anarcho-primitivism,” “cybernihilism”), critical theory, and current events. Who is to say this is not publishing or ‘media as politics’?
It is this history—of how people and publications (broadly construed) shape public discourse and culture—that is my central curiosity. Such a question necessarily raises many more: What does it mean to be embedded in subculture, and how do social dynamics shape (or produce) creative works? How are aesthetic movements and scenes canonized, how do they reach beyond their niche, and who decides who to celebrate or exclude? What is the past, present and future of the ‘zine,’ in all formulations? I’ve long wanted to learn more; with ZINE MUNCH, I’m (irregularly) publishing interviews with the editors, writers, artists, scholars, and zealots central to the development and study of the ‘zine,’ broadly construed, as a form and medium, to do so. ZINE MUNCH is a zine about zines, a publication about publications. I couldn’t be more excited.
PS—it’s pronounced “zeen!”
Acknowledgements: This text was animated by conversations about publishing and public writing with my friends, (namely Kenney Nguyen, Jasmine Sun, Rachel Carlson, Eleanor Avril, Amelia Wyckoff, and Anabelle Johnston) and mentors (namely Josh Glenn, Heather Cole, and Lawrence Stanley, including pieces I read in his course course “The Public Intellectual,” particularly by Mark Greif, Noah Berlatsky, and Gideon Strauss).