Let the Self-Destruction Continue
Sometimes I hate my writing and want to throw it away, erase every physical and digital trace of its existence, have it encrypt itself. And I want the books I love to not make a permanent claim on me and me a claim on them. I want them to move on instead of me keeping them close in my collection collecting dust. Because of this, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of books and magazines that undo themselves upon the reader reading them or which rapidly obsolesce or evaporate, making a claim to read them in their moment.
With this in mind, I went to the archives at SUNY Buffalo, which hosts one of the largest collections of American small press publications, looking specifically for “self-destructing” magazines and, more broadly, publications critical of their own mediumicity and alert to unconventional possibilities in engaging with language or shifting meaning out of the realm of the purely linguistic. In many ways, this is an extension of my interest in Adrian Parson’s piece of conceptual writing that involved erasing his ideas for conceptual pieces, which I wrote about here.
A note on method: I’ve tried to categorize these publications by one key factor in the design of the publication. There is overlap and certainly more outstanding examples in each category that I’ve missed, the archive couldn’t represent, or I didn’t have space to include. This also means I, regrettably, won’t be spending much time talking about the production and distribution of these magazines. Finally, the photos are shitty. I’m a writer.
In printing, fuck-ups are inevitable and some scholars of the book might claim that it is impossible to reproduce a text. Some authors and presses have embraced this by employing chance or randomness not in the process of composition (a la Cage, Mac Low) but in the process of printing individual texts. In aleatory printing, there is no such thing as a master or perfect copy, let alone perfect representations of this copy.
Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetix (above) is a recent example of this (Grannary Books 2010). Her description of the process: “Each sheet went through the press numerous times and the placement, while not random, was not controlled by any register marks or jigs. So the dynamic effect on the pages differs depending on how the sheets fell.” Chaos isn’t cheap. Each edition is $2100. In these kinds of prices we can see overlaps in aleatory production, the artisanal, and the “limited edition.” For regular civilians, James Yeary and Nate Orton exist. In the 2010 chapbook my day aimlessly walking vancouver, wash (abandoned bike inc.) includes cut outs in the pages and taped in etchings, presumably from the Northwester dérive on which the chapbook is based.
Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (Featherproof Books 2009) was printed to appear like it had survived a fire. In producing his 1980 book Obscene (Burning Press) Luigi Bob Drake played on the idea of repressive regimes burning books by carrying out a counter-burning of apartheid era propaganda, pornography, military recruitment literature, and diagrams for fusion weapons.
There are multiple instances of artists shooting their own books, including Wally Depew’s 1988 Shot (Bright Moments) and a 2000s issue of Forklift Ohio. That is, some magazines come pre-destroyed. A cynic might think “distressed jeans.” A more generous interpretation would be that they point out their own ephemeral materiality and speed the tempo of their decay.
Allen Fisher’s London based Edible Magazine (1970-1972) was printed on rice paper with vegetable inks. Accordingly, some editions featur red and green type. Edible Magazine authors include Larry Eigner and Opal L. Nations. Non-edible editions are labeled as “toxic.” In foregrounding its reader’s relationship to “consumption” and the sources and half-life of itself and other literary publications, there is an ecopoetic bent to Edible—it was green, literally, before that word stopped meaning anything.
PLANT (& EAT)
Other magazines and small publications work to directly engage readers with processes of vegetal growth and entropy. Radioactive Moat Press printed and shipped Carrie Lorig and Russ Wood’s 2013 chapbook rootpoems with a packet of “mystery seeds.” In 1968 Graham Mackintosh published Richard Brautigan’s Please Plant This Book.
Brautigan’s poems were printed on a set of seed packets which might be sown into a salad garden. It’s an optimistic book published in a tumultuous year: “In this spring of 1968 with the last / third of the Twentieth Century / traveling like a dream towards its / end, it is the time to plant books, / to pass them into the ground, so that / flowers and vegetables may grow / from these pages” (from “California Native Flowers”). It asks you to read it before it obsolesces. Printed on the packets: “Packed for the / 1968-1969 Season.”
60s Fluxkits often invited readers to take part in “concerts of the everyday” by including instructions and simple materials in a box. Fluxus instructions could be starry-eyed: “Count all the stars of that night / by heart. The piece ends when all the orchestra / members finish counting the stars, or /when it dawns” (from Yoko Ono’s “A Piece for Orchestra”). CA Conrad’s contemporary somatic experiments have more of a dharma-punk edge: masturbate in a museum bathroom, sit in a chair full of whipped cream. In either case, we’re used to encountering these instructions not in a kit with the components we need to follow them but online or in bound book form.
A notable throw-back to the DIY kit that provides not just textual instructions but the materials themselves to act through is the 2013 Mixed Race issue of The Asian American Literary Review. Anna Kazumi Stahl & Karin Lanzoni’s “The Genogram Game & Croppings” asks readers to select, cut out, and sometimes cut through the profiles of potential “parents.” Tyrone Nagai & Lily Anne Yumi Welty provide instructions and material for constructing a “Mixed` Race Origami Crane” which doubles as an unfolding of the devastating practices of the World War II era Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA)/Tokushu Ian Shisetsu Kyokai. What unites both of these pieces is that they ask for you to destroy them, making “imperfect” the booklet they’re bound to.
UNBOUND MULTI- & INTER- MEDIA PUBLICATIONS
Michael Berman’s Semina (1957-1963) often gathered mixed media pieces, commonly a photograph and a poem printed via handset type, into a pocket folder. The journal wasn’t sold but distributed among a West Coast Beat network of writers and artists. A handwritten note on the cover of one edition might read: “Dave: Has anything been done since ‘Spicers’ book—if so send down. love, Wallace B.”
On the East coast, Daisy Aldan and Richard Miller edited Folder, a 50s New York magazine. Each issue consisted of several long pieces each individually bound and placed in a folder. Aside from prose, the publication included visual art and musical scores. It is notable for including the first English language translation of “Un Coup de Des” by Aldan. In being loosely bound, Folder invited a reader to lend, reorganize, or perhaps event to lose individual pieces.
In its content, Phyllis Johnson’s late 60s multimedia magazine Aspen: The Magazine in a Box might seem an extension of publications like Folder, Semina, and the Fluxkits.
Each issue featured a guest editor-designer. These included art heavyweights such as Andy Warhol and David Dalton (founding editor of Rolling Stone) as well as fringe figures like Angus and Hettie MacLise, who existed at the intersection of avant-garde music, fluxus, and rock and roll. Despite an irregular publication schedule, Aspen achieved a subscribership of 20,000.
A partial list of Issue 5 + 6’s (1968) contents and the media in which they appear: A book including essays by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes; records including work by Samuel Beckett, William S. Boroughs, and the avant-garde composers Morton Feldman and John Cage; a model maze for the reader to construct; several poems and descriptions of conceptual pieces in booklets; four films on Super 8, including one by Robert Rauschenberg.
Aspen is often considered a groundbreaking multimedia magazine; it might also be considered a groundbreaking intermedia magazine. Dick Higgins defined intermedia simply: that which “falls between media”. Given that each media format is not bound to the other and that many of these formats such as the phonograph record or prose are divided into individual records or booklets that contain one or two pieces, the number of possible reading orders in each issue exists as a mathematic factorial of the number of pieces in the box. This capacity for synchronicity goes beyond the non-hierarchized content framing of content that many contemporary digital magazines present, because by including multiple types of media the reader may be able to construct a new intermedial artwork by synchronizing an experience out of multiple art works. One could listen to a record while viewing one of the soundless Super 8 films; build the maze while listening to Williams S. Burroughs read from “Nova Express”; read Sontag’s aesthetics of silence listening to John Cage. Further, by including material such as posters the box itself can be unpacked into an interior intermedial environment in which reading, listening, and/or viewing could happen ambiently.
Beyond sequencing and synchronicity, because these multimedia magazines were sometimes unbound and sometimes did not contain complete indices, they were and continue to be unstable entities. A reader may unwittingly lose part of the magazine, give parts away, or incorporate individual works into other spaces or media collections. These unbound magazines are themselves ready to enter into assembly or be broken up and redistributed into a different subject beyond the library.
BAGS OF SHIT
After this early 70s apogee, multimedia dossiers with intermedial aspirations began to disappear from my findings at SUNY, at least as they intersected with the literary world. What replaced them was something altogether different: magazines whose issues resembled junk drawer clutter or, in the case of the Cleveland-produced Bagazine, bags of trash.
These magazines retain an intermedial spirit but the packaging (polyethylene zipper bags i.e. sandwich baggies) signals its disposability over its collectability. Ferrum Wheel (2001-2007), edited and designed by Chris Fritton, also used the ziploc bag for one of its most toxic issues. In addition to the plastic bag, Ferrum Wheel issues were packaged in chicken wire, an apron, a “pipe-bomb picnic basket” (pvc tubing with checkered cloth), and a treated book. The packages of these journals propose different roles between and among artists and readers such as customer and waiter, terrorist and victim, or simply trash producer and trash collector.
While these magazines contain art in different media, they avoid formats which have cultural cache. Bagazine, for instance, printed many pieces on index card sized pieces of construction paper. The text itself often appears cropped or surrounded by visual static. These index cards are bagged with mass produced consumer objects such as tea bags, stickers, and pennies, things normally beneath consideration or legibility.
While magazines like Aspen were often packaged in such a way that package and content fit tightly within each other. Bagazine and Ferrum Wheel were often packed, folded, or stuffed in ways where no intentional order is legible. In the case of the Pipebomb Picnic Basket issue of Ferrum Wheel, the objects were packed into a cylindrical space in such a way that in shipping they would swim around. Without the reminder that the binding fits the book, these magazines, more so than any other format, invites the reader to pull the magazine apart and differentiate between what in their contents is worth saving and what pieces belong in the trash. Unlike conceptual writing, which proposes a Thinkership, we might suggest these formats construct a Destroyership, Disposership, or Selectorship.
A SANDWICH – Ferrum Wheel Issue #3
Ferrum Wheel’s pieces are not always equivocal in regard to their relationship to each other, the reader, and the activity they propose or coerce. An example: Ferrum Wheel 3: survival kit and its inclusion of Mike Basinski’s “homage to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems.” “homage” is a piece of bread, a sponge, and a slip of paper on which is printed: “in the American grain American poetry can absorb aborant forms eve ef yore bread mol ds angels stole love once upon a timeor OZ that pubis iv eleves bliss U. vithvissor ar got er got incant.” The text puns on the word grain in its reference both the accompanying bread and William Carlos Williams’ book of essays mythologizing the American spirit.
However, this pun is not at the surface of this piece. In the very online promotional materials for the “new” issue, the sponge-sandwich is already rotten and discoloring the accompanying poem. What a reader would receive first is not semantic content but visual and perhaps olfactory signs of decay. This rottenness stages the reader’s first response to a text as cellular or autoimmune, not just from consciously detecting the decaying content but from a reaction to the very toxic materiality of the text (or which has become the text)—bacteria—at a cellar or autoimmune scale outside of or proceeding conscious intellection.
While the multimedia magazine may propose an invitation to simultaneously experience pieces, the intermedial effect of “homage” is to threaten to infect the other pieces with decay, an acceleration of their being in time. This adds different valences to the synchronic possibilities of intermedial magazines. Further, the rotten text puts to the test the capacities libraries personal and institutional to conserve art itself not just because it is rapidly disintegrating but because incorporating it into any library means taking special precautions against the piece infecting the very time of the archive itself—speeding it through contagion. These precautions themselves might mean quarantining the piece from the magazine proper or remediating it. Either way, they make impossible or stretch to its furthest limits the possibility of a perfect or master copy of the magazine which one could own. Ferrum Wheel challenges one’s impulse to collect. Bataille in regard to notions of toxic collectivities and expenditure: “In their intensified form, the states of excitation, which are comparable to toxic states, can be defined as the illogical and irresistible impulse to reject material or moral goods that it would have been possible to utilize rationally (in conformity with the balancing of accounts)” (128). Ferrum Wheel tries to trigger this toxic activity which treats the useful as wastable via its own toxicity. This threatens to put the real or possible mark of toxicity on what it is in the company of. If at its heart language inspires an “appropriative madness,” could pieces in this “literary” magazine reverse the flow and inspire a madness of expenditure or of divestment, a process of disposing of the rotten sandwich which reveals the disposability of its company?
THE DIGITAL, INTERMEDIA, & WASTE
Nicholas Zurbrugg, by way of Foucault, lays a heavy charge at the feet of cultural critics—that they are nostalgic and seek only to comment on art which has already been identified for us, placed in genre or old conceptual paradigms which we deepen or complicate, instead of working out contemporary paradigms for contemporary works. In a digital milieu, this article may seem to be implicated in this nostalgia in looking at publications such as Bagazine or Ferrum Wheel, which are heavily textured, material, and even artisanal objects. Yet Ferrum Wheel itself, in its most destructive impulses, does not exhibit such nostalgia. One might venture that a decaying magazine published in the mid 2000s which had its own digital storefront and paratextual materials, most significantly an incomplete index matching author to object, points to the destabilizing of value digital forms of publication and dissemination perform upon physical texts, the possibility that the leveling of cost and availability of online texts in both white and black markets lays waste to certain physical textual mediums or texts and that there is now at play a complex dialogue between the digital, physical and value which popular commentators might present to us through examples of digital game economies interfacing with real economies or, more specifically, through an anecdote about a piece of digital shit which through a programming error becomes ownable and is resold for hundreds of dollars.
VIRUSES (NOT OR AND VIRAL), SELF-ENCRYPTION
Ferrum Wheel also, by occupying an extreme position in regard to its own materiality and its self-consciousness about its own value, opens the door to larger questions in regard to digital waste. What do we consider digital waste? How would a piece signify or point to this waste? How would one compose with this waste? Or perform impurifications of discourse? How would one construct a digital intermedial piece which is highly ephemeral? That is, how could it be or become waste? What is the relationship between this waste and physical waste? How can a digital intermedial piece, like “homage,” infest its host magazine or produce not just pre- or inter-linguistic interaction from the reader but also cellular or autoimmune responses?
Turning to Aspen and multimedia dossiers, we might seek to discover the relationship between physical and digital intermedial magazines. We might ask, “In what ways can a digital or digital-physical magazine create synchronous experience between pieces?” Further, Aspen ended publication because it lost a legal battle with the U.S. Post Office. Because of its irregular publication schedule and format it could not qualify as second-class mail; the cost of producing and distributing it for four dollars became untenable. Such external distributional constraints continue to exist for material magazines; however, they are far different for digital formats. These magazines challenge people thinking about and working in small press culture to articulate and be alert to the way digital publications reveal what, internally or externally, conditions or should condition their own distributability.
The cost of publishing an online magazine/zine/etc is almost zero for the materials plus time and expertise. Embedding audio and visual media is easy. The now of online publishing should be proliferating crazily in form; however, the ubiquity of WordPress-y templates and the ease of using them or lightly moding them has led design itself, the framework in which we encounter literature, to risk becoming different only minutely. Which means not serving its content.
Plague, viral, virus, inoculation, innocuous—there’s plenty of oozing, static-y prose and poetry out there; it might be time to consider its relationship to its own medium.
Thanks to Jed Birmingham and Sophia Seita for their presentations at SUNY Buffalo Each informed this article in important ways.
All photographs and quotations of primary sources in this article are from The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Thanks to Jim and Edric for your suggestions.