The maze-like pop/counter/subculture narratives of the second half of the 20th century, arguably my chosen hobby-horse for this here existence, is as open-ended as life itself—as chaotic, and as messy. Science fiction fandom is a path in the maze.
My gallery, Boo-Hooray, is staging an exhibition and putting out a book on some of the strangest amateur publications ever made. Throughout the 20th century, some of the nerdiest denizens in human history self-published and self-distributed zines about science fiction, horror and themselves. They were printed on mimeographs in tiny editions ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred. They were rarely for sale, and only available for trade in exchange for letters. The graphics are unbelievable, and the texts are often deeply bizarre. Most people have never seen any of them, so when legendary rockwriter/guitar-slinger Lenny Kaye made his collection of fanzines available, an exhibit and a book was the obvious next step. The archive of over 3000 zines spanning 1941-1970 now belongs to the University of Miami.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately, and what it means these days.
The maze-like pop/counter/subculture narratives of the second half of the 20th century are as open-ended as life itself—just as chaotic, and as messy. Science fiction fandom is a path in the maze. Clues are contained within, hinting how the 21st century became what it is, even if we certainly don’t know what that it is, or what turns took us where. And we also have the concern that some wrong turns brought us to existential dead-ends now facing us in our everyday lives.
Long story short: subcultural weirdos flocked together through the magic of sending materials through the mail, through cheap means of duplication, and through the maniacal quest for the most picturesque parts of the inner landscape as midwifed by what sometimes is called fantastic literature—horror, science fiction, fantasy, and its ilk.
Nowadays, with the internet as the mirror which flatters, and reality acting as the mirror which flatters not, identity has to be based on individuality. The function of the macro-tribe is null and void in the big city, and the accentuating of hyper-individualism is what brings success in life. Whether you are talking sex-having, raise-getting, or self-perception-ego-boosting, it doesn’t really matter—the presenting of yourself as a member of a micro-tribe, with its secret handshakes and insider knowledge, is the only way to get ahead. If you are the corporate super-nerd for a tech start-up, or an up-and-coming banker dudebro, you need to represent secret, hidden lore that makes you special, and your perspective special. Otherwise, you are of limited use.
Ego-boost (or egoboo as trufans called it) is the fuel of the fannish motor in the science fiction subculture of knowledge hidden from the mainstream. When you live life as an outsider, ego-gratifying reinforcements from your own micro-tribe become the very oxygen, the very water of your existence. If other people think you are a total doofus for devoting your life to an imaginary landscape, then it feels even more important that your fellow travelers within that landscape regularly give you props. Echoed nowadays everywhere on the internet, natch: Thumbs up, thumbs down. Lkes and dislikes. Do’s and don’ts. Blog comments, blog-toading, andtrolling. Dumbing it up. Dumbing it down. Sometimes it all looks like one big arena of fandom. The racist looks at racist websites, the dog-lover reads dog blogs, the dudebro instagrams dudebro visuals, and the most advanced science-fiction people have their own internet. All catering to the hyper-fragmented cultural landscape of our eternal now.
Fanzines quite rapidly become about fandom itself, and egoboo probably fueled that. Fandom became a parallel world, where Big Name Fans and new arrivals duked it out in social collisions that sometimes mimicked exactly the kind of high school nastiness from which fandom promised escape. But fandom was also a lifeline for the outcasts and the marginal, where communication was hectic, passionate, thoughtful and infused with pretty much every technique that people like Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem would write about years later as ways of blocking how the spectacle pushes us into an alienated life. And naturally this is where the parallels start to become very clear between the mechanics of 20th century subcultures, and the consumption of ideas, ideology, and identity on the goddamn internet.
Truly fannish fandom stood in counterpoint to Sercon, which stood for Serious and Constructive back in the days of yore. These were heady times when a brighter future was in the cards for all of us, and where the science fiction writers were the bards channeling how technology was to set us free, and where dystopian sci-fi was a mere shady twinkle among the darkest few of the wide-eyed and blue-eyed trufans. The earliest science fiction zines were usually Sercon, spreading belief that a collective future of scientific advancements would bring about peace, prosperity, and human fellowship. The nerds no longer would get sand kicked in their eyes by the bullies. Maybe there were even parallel universes where the nerds were their bosses!
Notwithstanding these narratives of topsy-turvy-dom between then and now, almost one hundred years later, it doesn’t feel far-fetched to think of these idealistic dreams of the promises of technology as being intimately tied to the brutal horror of the nastiest of all mechanical wars. That so much of the subcultures and popular cultural movements of the 1920s and early 1930s were driven by the purest form of white middle class escapism from what World War I had been and had meant—this was simply intolerable to ponder.
In the wake of World War II, science fiction and science-fiction fandom continued to offer escapism and solace. But the world inhabited at this point was one where hell could be identified as made by man, orchestrated by a totalitarian political regime, and where hellfire had been dropped not once but twice—and by us, the good guys—on them, the bad guys. As the shadow of the Cold War loomed large, the means of cultural escape accrued terminology and patterns that were as contradictive as life and history itself. Science fiction fragmented into myriad sub-genres, as the form conquered the mass media of film, television, print, and radio.
This was mirrored by science fiction fandom. As it fragmented, it also became more insular and discrete from the outside world it took issue with. In a way, science fiction fandom preempted the ipod zombies that irritate us as we walk down the street or stand in a line. As said zombies are isolated in a world of Instagram-viewing or Kings of Leon-listening or video-game-playing, walking from their glass box to their bank cubicle in 2014, they are existing outside of everyday life and its hostilities. The Mirror Which Flatters is now portable.
This is similar to the manner in which the science fiction fan of yore existed in a bubble of imaginative realities where the scope of the human experience was so much more rarified than life itself. Participating in the creative cult of science-fiction fandom was a choice that could lead to an entire life spent outside of the mundane mainstream world of common existence. Cult-like behavior indeed, as this is a core essential of living one’s life in a hyper-stratified narrative of being right when everyone else is wrong: a reigning pattern of this digital world we live in now.
Asger Jorn, whom I quote with the same mathematical recurrence that Grandpa Simpson quotes Thoreau, has explained in detail how the avant garde thought of any generation becomes norm for the ones that come after and how new communicative ideas come to be taken for granted by successive generations. So fandom was—and is—about communication, and communication is a wonderful thing. It sits in a cemented juxtaposition against information, which as many have pointed out is one-directional and hence of a piece with the spectacle. And when everyday people communicate their passions, that leads to what I think we all want: a more passionate life.
Science fiction fans were passionate. And they are passionate! It takes a fuckload of effort to dress up exactly as Guardians of the Galaxy characters at San Diego Comicon, and it requires tremendous energy to figure out how to operate a stencil duplicator, write your zine, print it, and distribute it. It takes a lot of focus to construct a passionate life, and the beauty of these zines is the beauty of trufaans making something they felt passionate about, and which led to their full lives. Self-starter culture will always be meaningful, and being a self-starter has never been easier than it is right now. Ironically, though, it has never been more difficult to communicate above the medial din of spectacular technology. That means the lessons we can learn from how subcultures conducted direct communication back in the day is not only immensely useful, but also a way for the sons and daughters of the middle class to infuse our existence with meaning as an actuality and not just a consumption pattern.
Isn’t it weird that nerds became cool, that outsiders became insiders, and that even the ultimate dudebro or bro-ho consumes and affixes cultural signifiers nowadays that half a generation ago were the hallmarks of their enemies, the nerds? The people who are leaders in the digital landscape use lingo, communication techniques, organizational structure, and pop culture frames of reference that are taken directly from fandom subcultures. And what next? Luis Bunuel, in his exemplary autobiography, talks about how the only plausible religious belief system he feels himself capable of grasping at is the notion that once every 20 years or so, on a Sunday, he’ll get to crawl out of the grave and read all the newspapers, thereby finding out what happens next. I feel that yearning sometimes as well.
The subcultural self-selection processes of identity, thought and opinion are legion nowadays. Tech is losing its potency as an internet product alone, without opinion, curated content, or for that matter, guidance. I feel pretty hopeful that the myriad of fandoms that swarm around all of us everyday in 2014 can, through this frenzied activity and communication, unite all these fragmented micro-tribes into the sole macro-tribe we all belong to.
The technology of isolation does not and shall not necessitate the spectacle of participation.
Johan Kugelberg runs the project space/archiving company Boo-Hooray. They are staging an exhibition of Lenny Kaye’s Science-Fiction Fanzines from September 25 through September 28 at PS1 for the Art Book Fair. Follow Johan on Twitter.