Duck Duck Book


30 – diy
02.16.2006, 12:01 pm
Filed under: social sciences

DIY : the rise of lo-fi culture / by Amy Spencer. 
London ; New York : Marion Boyars, 2005.
[MCL call number: 306.4 S745d 2005; three copies, no holds]

Despite the somewhat general title, DIY : The Rise of Lo-fi Culture discusses only two cultural media: independently produced and distributed, noncommercialized music and literature.  Zines (which can loosely be defined as independently produced periodicals) are the focus of the literature discussion.  Spencer attempts to answer questions about the history of and antecedents to these cultural movements, the objects they have produced, and what these things mean in a larger context. 

To help my review make sense, I’ll tell you a bit about myself. 

I was raised in something of a counterculture environment.  My parents were artists and I went to an alternative school where the improvisational drama class counted toward the state requirement that high school students should have four years of English (“communication,” in the language of the state standards).  People all around me were involved in producing culture.  My classmates were filmmakers and played in rock bands, my mother hosted a weekly life drawing group at our house, family friends were poets and essayists and potters and glass workers.  But still I was inculcated with the notion that if someone wrote a book and published it themselves, it was only because it wasn’t good enough to be put out by a “real” publishing house.  I was an adult before I had shaken this misguided idea out of my head.

When I picked up DIY, I was very excited because I thought someone who poured an enormous amount of energy into writing 200 pages on independent publishing will surely have something really new to tell me about the history of zines.  I can think of some places to look for zine history — the samizdat of Russia and the eastern bloc, publications of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s, popular broadsides sold for pennies in the 1700s, pamphlets of the Spanish Civil War, magazines run by artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, writing of the African independence movements of the mid-20th century — but I’m not educated enough about these possibilities to know if they relate to contemporary zine publishing in the least. 

I wanted Spencer to know.  I wanted her look at the history of zines to shine a light on other under-appreciated pieces of the world’s cultural history.  Instead, the best she can do is provide a competent but mostly unoriginal account showing that contemporary zines look back to Dada, to the Beats, to the sci-fi fanzines of the 30s and the punk zines of the 70s, and to the underground newspaper movement of the 1960s.

Spencer’s survey of the history of independent music is also competent, but not spectacular.  I am less qualified to critique this section than her study of independent publishing — my knowledge of music is simply that of a listener — I am not passionate about the medium, and I am not intimate with any of the trends, movements, or “scenes” described in Spencer’s history.  Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the section on music more than the sections on zines and publishing — even though many of Spencer’s stories about the history of independent music were familiar to me, I had never troubled to consider how these stories fit together, how they help form a fabric that can be used to understand a wider swathe of culture than any one piece could hope to influence.

Nonetheless, I have a lot of quarrels with this book. 

Overall, DIY was hard for me to read, partly because Spencer’s prose is often confusing (e.g.: “So began the tradition of lo-fi music, the concept of not trying to seek out new technology to produce your music,” in reference to British skiffle music of the 1950s, page 219), but also because I couldn’t ignore her unacknowledged tight focus on the United States and Britain, and because I found her analysis lacking. 

Many times in the book, Spencer comes back to a central theme: lo-fi culture is what people create just because they want to create and they want to share.  Anyone can do this, anyone who wants to should, and it’s worth supporting.  Spencer quotes zinesters, musicians and others explaining how actively participating in culture affects them as individuals, but she provides only scant reflection on what this means for individuals or for culture at large.  She never gives attention to how this independent cultural empowerment affects the rest of society, or about its possibility to create cultural change outside of the “scene” or the “underground.”

So, my recommendation is, give this book to people who are just beginning to consider the idea that anyone can be a creator and an active participant in culture.  Read it yourself, if you would like a beginner’s background on a few of the different influences that have led people in the United States and the UK to commit themselves seriously to the project of creating and honoring this kind of cultural product.  But do not expect DIY to provide a comprehensive analysis of the history of homemade music and literature, remember that the book focuses almost entirely on only two countries, and prepare yourself for some less-than-elegant prose.

If you are interested in reading more about sci-fi fanzines of the 1930s and later, you are in luck.  Their history is covered at length by a book by Frederic Wertham, a man more famous for inspiring the censorious Comics Code than for his interest in independently produced periodicals.  You Portlanders are really lucky, because this out-of-print gem can be found at your library:

The world of fanzines; a special form of communication. / [Frederic Wertham].
Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press [1973].
[MCL call number: 808.3 W488w; one copy, no holds]

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