Un/authorized Narratives: Thinking About Risk Through Zines

As someone who has used do-it-yourself publications to teach writing in both classrooms and community spaces, I’m interested in using my brief time today to think about how risk gets “authorized” in public writing. As in: what kinds of risks do my students feel they are allowed to take when they go public? Which ones can I or my curriculum encourage them to take? What risks are teachable? Which are ethical? And finally, and more specifically, what narratives are im/possible when using certain forms of public writing, or what Michael Warner called “poetic world making”?

My focus is on zines and so I’ll start by grounding the conversation with some scholarly definitions of what zines are and what they do, share a salient example of the kinds of risky, radical critiques zines can offer when unauthorized, and end with a very recent example of how my own students circulated “authorized” zines at local public book festival, considering the nature of the risks taken in these situations. Ultimately I simply want to think through the questions I raised at the beginning.

In her book Girl Zines, the late Alison Piepmeier describes them as:

“quirky, individualized booklets filled with diatribes, reworkings of pop culture iconography, and all variety of personal and political narratives. They are self-produced and anti-corporate. Their production, philosophy, and aesthetic are anti-professional … most zines are messy, photocopied documents that may contain handwriting, collage art, and even stickers and glitter” (2).

—Alison Piepmeier in Girl Zines

Adela Licona widens the focus to consider such anti-properties; in Zines in Third Space she argues that while zines are eclectic in their form and content, they all “respond in one way or another to dominant ideologies as experienced and understood by the zine authors, or ‘zinesters’” (2). Indeed, zines bring form and content together through what Frank Farmer calls “oppositional discursive space — a space not likely to appeal to any and all strangers but one that will appeal to some strangers who are responsive to its call and who can imagine themselves inhabiting that space, even if only for a while” (64). Farmer uses zines extensively in his book, After the Public Turn, to explore counterpublics that create such spaces by making do with whatever means of production and circulation are available. Piepmeier, Licona and Farmer all dutifully cite Michelle Comstock’s 2001 JAC essay — one that was really ahead of its time as it was one of the first essays to situate embodied feminist grrrl zines in a larger extracurricular scene of writing.

I want to return to Comstock in a moment since her focus on the extracurricular is, I think, essential to the nature of risk in zines. Before I do that, I want to turn to an example of a zine that originally inspired my contribution to this panel because it made me think that unauthorized manifestations of DIY publications — as counterpublics resisting dominant ideologies by composing oppositional discursive spaces — offer forms of risk unacceptable to mainstream spaces, and college classrooms in particular. I bring this up because often when it comes to community writing and service learning, risk is seen as something to be avoided or mitigated: “risk” is the antithesis of “reward.” The service-learning handbooks in our institutions dedicate chapters to risk management; some programs require the participation of those offices to insure that risk is minimized; “at-risk writers” are an institutional liability. Of course risk is a necessary element in any form of public writing — risks of being ignored, hypervisible, tracked and traced, or simply misunderstood. But for some writers – outside the authorization of institutions or gatekeepers — risk is an affordance. It is something to be pursued.

Infiltration was a Toronto-based zine “about going places you’re not supposed to go.” As the subtitle suggested, authors detailed adventures in urban exploration, or “urbex,” a term coined by Infiltration’s publisher and main author, Ninjalicious. Throughout its 25 issues from 1996 to 2004, Ninjalicious and his posse of fellow interior tourists wrote about navigating steam and subway tunnels, churches, hospitals, hotels, abandoned buildings, and other illegal — and therefore heavily surveilled — areas of the city. Essays documented explorations, but they also gave advice about cloaking, listed helpful items to bring and those to leave behind (like spray paint!), and made arguments condemning public surveillance pre- and post-9/11.

Before he died of cancer in 2004, Ninjalicious published an urbex bible of sorts called Access All Areas wherein he argued that the risks of urbex were no different from the more culturally-authorized activities of extreme sports: “What the people who say urbex is wrong and bad because it’s dangerous really mean is that it’s wrong and bad because it’s dangerous and they didn’t get permission. This is a weird way to think” (6-7; emphasis added). Yet, it is precisely because urbex was both dangerous and illegal that Ninjalicous was interviewed by the mainstream media including Ira Glass, The Washington Post, Toronto Star, Salon.com, and Seattle Weekly. I’m only sharing a little of their work here, but I want to suggest that kinds the risks shared in the pages of Infiltration were inherent to how its rhetoric circulated as counterpublicity – that is, as a critique of dominant ideologies of capitalism, and specifically the privatization and surveillance of public space.

I want to contrast the kinds of risks narrated and pursued by Infiltration with some of the kinds taken by zines in my own classroom. Two weeks ago, I was working with students in my Self-Publishing class as they planned to table at a local book festival, the largest such event in the Delaware Valley. This festival fell at a moment in the semester (Week 5) when our first unit on zines would be wrapping up and so I invited them to use the event as an opportunity to circulate their own zines. I didn’t provide much instruction on content, but my students read the work of Riot Grrrl and the Black Panthers, hoping they would understand that in many cases self-publishing was necessarily political. The zines they sold were quirky and personal, sharing stories or poems about stubborn cats, unborn children, absent fathers, tree-hugging failures, and terrible parties. Some made the personal explicitly political, advocating for causes like invisible disabilities and self-care. All of them — in some way — disclosed intimate aspects of their identities to strangers, thus providing an opportunity to interface with an embodied public about their writing for the first time. The writing still felt risky, but often not responsive to dominant ideologies as they experienced them.

While Infiltration is obviously an extreme example of the counterpublic potential of zines, I refer to it because it shows what risks can be pursued when it is unauthorized. At the end of her 2001 article, Michelle Comstock argues that the kinds of grrrl zines she examined at turn of the century, showcased the “important material and symbolic effects of writing as an internetworked, cultural practice” and in so doing serving simultaneously as “critical examples of the limits of academic and mainstream literacy” (404).  I ask if we should extend this to all institutionally-sponsored literacies where risk is concerned. Put another way — and I admit this is not a new idea — when instructors of writing authorize certain approaches to and forms of public writing, we inherently (and necessarily) limit the kinds of risks published within them. What I hope we can discuss are strategies that center risk in public writing pedagogy — strategies that legitimately challenge dominant ideologies, foster genuine oppositional discursive spaces, and lead students to publish and circulate under-authorized (if not unauthorized) narratives.