Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why Erebus Still Refuses to Become a Print Magazine

Or, The Artistic Notion of Legitimacy in Printed Matter

After all, it seems logical doesn't it? The transition to print seems to be the order of the day, the option de rigeur for webzines that have found their options limited by the web (limited - how? How can hypertext be limited when compared to printed matter?) and who wish to now gain notoriety, popularity, or (that most specious of journalistic bugbears) respect in the realm of tangible, tactile surfaces - the realm of objects directly corresponding to the five senses. There is a paradigm - a leitmotif inescapable - at work here, the legitimacy corresponding to printed matter, the seeming permanence of writing that has made the transition from packets of bits and bytes streaming through protocols onto the printed page. But is a printed magazine any more permanent? Because the writing has become an object, able to be handled, bent, folded, torn, neglected, written upon, etc. how can it be more legitimate? Are we referring to the truth of the writing contained within the magazine here? It can't be so. Does printing something onto a white virgin page - forcing your creation upon the insensible realm of surfaces - somehow magically wash it through a solution of permanence? What frightens people about the supposed impermanence of hypertext writing? Is it still a media form that aches for widespread acceptance? Is it because 'publishing' a webzine seems so easy and inexpensive when compared to the more tradtional forms of publishing? And if so, does a financial outlay guarantee legitimacy? Is it because you think that without the dedication and responsibility inherent in the financial transactions behind traditonal publishing, the webzine editors have too much freedom in creating? After all, shouldn't there be some kind of limit placed on the freedom to write what one thinks - limits based on financial considerations if nothing else? Do the politics of finance always intersect with journalistic responsibility?

The idea is, I believe, that the costs of printing magazines will cause an editor or writer to think long and hard (and thus responsibly) about the legitimacy of what he is printing. Why spend money to print what is flippant, superfluous, or simply erroneous? Why go through all the headaches that are involved with the translating of an object of imagination or creativity into an object of the senses if it isn't of vital concern? The profession of printing involves specific theoretical beliefs - ones that are completely traditional now, and unquestioned because they are traditional. The layman would have you believe (in unconscious collusion with publishers) that the difficulty of printing involves specific layers of value judgements - there is that cabal of legitimacy to pass through if you are an author - courts of opinion, individual prejudice, etc. that decide (almost subjectively it can seem at times) whether or not your work, your imagination, is worth the financial investment it takes to bring it to fruition. This is an ancient tradition, based on the costs (which have always been high) of printing - in almost any case when a pecuniary investment is involved, value judgements will be winging their way through the aether, attached to almost every transaction between businessman and artist. The nexus, or space, where art and commerce intersect, is explosive in its intensity of judgement, decision, and excitement. Every businessman or printer or publisher believes himself capable of deciding who merits his patronage - this is an ancient tradition in our culture, one that is almost inescapable, and this paradigm bleeds into myriad disciplines, shaping attitudes, beliefs, and methods of action. Because the printed matter transforms art into an object of commerce, and we are all past masters at setting value judgements on what we pay for (is there any more basic skill in the human repertoire?) there is a judgement inherent in every transaction where curiosity is satisfied with the obtainment of printed information. It is these judgements that form the notion, attitude, or characteristic of legitimacy in the publishing world.

I balk at these accepted aesthetic ideas because they have always seemed so maddeningly common to me, as things readily accepted without even the peremptory gauntlet of questioning that ideas usually have to run through in order to gain general acceptance. Why do we slip into these ancient skins of opinion without even checking them for fit and size - or utility, even? Why do we accept traditions that are handed down blindly to us, and which we are supposed to take up again blindly and then hand down to our descendents? And why do unquestioned ideas seem to have so much power, up until the very moment when they are questioned, when they disappear like the most insubstantial of gossamer? Are all accepted ideas only illusion? And when they have lost their supposed utility, why are they carried on in our consciousness as items or icons of power?

Magazines, of course, will always be seen as less important, vital, or permanent because of their tradition (once again, tradition) of an alliance with opinion and entertainment. We naturally lend less respect or importance to works of art that seem impermanent or transitory. What could be more transitory than a repository of subjectivity such as a magazine? The very idea of a magazine, a printed leaflet that seeks to propogandize, advertise (the notion of advertisement is almost inseparably conjoined with magazines), or spread information in the quickest and easiest manner possible (only now, with the internet and television, are there faster and more efficient means of communication, but old habits die hard) is contrary to our ideals of the staying power or noble truth of a work of art. And again, because magazines have always been viewed as objects of entertainment, we naturally respect them less than other forms of art. Notice the irony here: we respect items of commerce in that they have a function that is important to us (i.e. they serve as means, not ends-in-themselves), but the closer they inch towards becoming objects of pure pleasure, the less credence we lend their claim to existence. At the same time we are constantly asking for our lives to be filled with pleasure instead of pain, convenience instead of 'work' - we create industry upon industry devoted to the pleasuring of our bodies or minds, while losing respect for the reality that is becoming increasingly clogged with such machinery. Chased by the spectres of guilt, we flee a pleasurable life into dreams (or dream-lives constantly looking sideways at reality) that are filled with pain because we see torment or privation as being the only source of legitimacy. We, as puritans, can not escape seeing pain as the fundamental underpinning of reality itself. Is this attitude even possible to trace back to its root anymore? I could reference Calvin, but would that mean anything to you? Why is it that we feel we must denigrate our objects of pleasure - why this instinctive reaction against a 'harmless' hedonism? Or is it even hedonism? In making objects of pleasure seem less legitimate than objects of pain, do we lay claim to a better understanding of our own essential natures? Are we somehow closer to truth?

No, I believe these ideas actually spring from the financial considerations involved - a novel, book, or series of books is naturally much more time-consuming, costly, and risky to print, and thus it gains our respect almost against our will. The power that a printed novel has to ruin its publisher - and in the 19th century, for example (where most of our current ideas reached full fruition) a publisher could be effotlessly ruined by the disastrous sales of a book that was printed without a guarantee as to its popularity (consult the entire history of Grub Street, or a Life of Balzac, if you have reservations) - the publishing business has always been a very risky trade - meaning that the book, with all of its inherent costs and the pain involved in creating it, has become the standard of legitimacy in the realm of printed matter. From the start, magazines were cheaper to print, easier to read, easier to transport (thus increasing their audience as they were passed from reader to reader), easier to hide (when the authorities came calling to inquire into your 'official' opinions) and thus much easier, on the whole, to deal with. Ease, or convenience, means a loss of respect in our incredibly strange morality. Think about it - would you consider a magazine more legitimate or somehow 'more important' if it has a larger size than normal, or was printed on heavier stock, or had a more 'weighty' or intricate cover? It is very interesting how a magazine (or any object) gains weight in our consideration of legitimacy based on its own physical weight, isn't it? It reminds one of the ability of 'artists' to convert everyday objects (umbrellas, telephones, pictures, etc.) into 'art' just by increasing their size or unwieldiness. A telephone that you can pick up and talk into is just a tool, but a telephone that doesn't work and is fifty feet tall becomes a 'work of art', doesn't it? As Oscar Wilde once said - in his ironic epigrams appended to "The Portrait of Dorian Gray' - all art is quite useless. This cuts both ways: created objects of art are indeed useless when considered pragmatically, but isn't it also true that when an object passes into uselessness it somehow moves closer, in our understanding, to the realm of art? Think of antique furniture, for example. Indeed, our notions of art are sometimes based completely on an object's utility - a fifty-foot telephone that did work normally would be considered, somehow, as closer to 'regular' phone. An animal that is fifty-feet tall would be godlike, a beast that would be almost impossible to handle, an eminently respectable animal. Insects, animals that are microscopic, are seen as mastered objects, things that can be blasted into nothingness without a twinge of guilt - they are already half-filled with nothingness. Our guilt, and our understanding of our own values or judgements, are often (incredibly enough) based solely on our ideas of size, weight, and power. It is a mistake to think that our abstractions or systems of abstractions (such as ethics or aesthetics) do not proceed, at one time or another, directly from experience. What is an abstraction if not a generality based on reducing experience to simple tenets or principles? It is illuminating in that it would seem to lend credence to the thought that all of our value judgements or tenets of morality are indeed only completely practical or pragmatic decisions in the course of our life - the idea that was is 'good' or 'legitimate' only really means what is difficult to understand, ponderous, beyond our ken, somehow mystical, mysterious, harmful, potentially dangerous, etc. But doesn't this go against all the traditional biases of morality?

But what does all of this have to do with publishing a magazine? I am trying to question here the biases that work under our conscious judgements on art objects - because we, as living, breathing consumers, believe we are completely conscious and aware of our own decisions when faced with the financial-artistic transactions of everyday life. One look at modern advertising should convince you of the opposite - is there anything more irrational and unconscious, really, than the satisfaction of desire through consumerism? Anything more open to bias, prejudice, fear, or emotion? So I ask you: why is it that you consider magazines 'less' legitimate as works of art when compared to other forms of media? And why are webzines, in particular, even less legitimate than normal magazines? Is it because you can not hold them in your hand (you can print them out, you know), you cannot feel the texture of the pages, have the ink run off on your fingers, absorb the satisfying smell of newly-minted text? Is it because webzines do not satisfy as many senses as regular magazines that they are considered somehow 'less real' - closer to the realm of intangibility, negation, or nonexistence? Is it because they are not subject to as many financial considerations, because they are so easy to find, so convenient to read, so effortlessly dashed (with a click of your mouse) into the void of disassembled bits and bytes? I wonder.

But it is because I believe in the essential impermanence of tradition that I continue to publish on the web. After all, new traditions are created almost every minute, every hour, every day. In fact, the only real characteristic of permanence that the idea of tradition can lay claim to is created through simple repetition. A pattern of behavior that slips into the unconscious through our faculties of repetition and that massively inexhaustible forte for forgetting the ties of cause-and-effect, or the source of our behavior, lays the foundation for new paths of action. How long will it be until objects of printed matter are considered crude, trite, classless, even debased or somehow decadent? As the realm of the ideal in cyberspace - that area where ideas are efficiently converted to visual information, on the internet, in front of us on our computer monitors - becomes more powerful, more intuitive, widespread, and essential (through motives of inescapability or utility) will we see objects that have to be manually created, in actual existence (as permanent, objects-of-the-body instead of the mind) as somehow less fine, archaic, transcended, outmoded, obsolete, as somehow less real than what only our eyes can see? The web magazines anticipate that paradigm in a limited manner, and that is why I support them. Like many of my fellow human beings, any artform that moves me closer to the ideal, the absolute of creation, away from the dross of degraded existence, becomes dear to me.

U. Amtey
July 10, 2000