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Peoples of the Blog

By now, we’ve all heard the hype: Web 2.0 is changing the very notion of media, blogging is replacing journalism, and thanks to MySpace and YouTube (not to mention XTube), we are all, just as Andy Warhol predicted, movie stars of the ephemeral, exhibitionists of the mundane.  Here at Zeek@Jewcy, it’s all the rage: comments, community, user-created content.  It’s a brave new world. Well, sort of.  While it’s true that information technology has enabled this revolution, if that’s what it is, Free Press, a 2006-published coffee-table anthology bearing the subtitle "Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975," shows that the ethos of the blog originated long before the Internet even existed–in the small, alternative magazines of that amorphous era known as the Sixties.  And it teaches us a great deal about our present moment. Assembled by two veterans of the underground press, Jean-Francois Bizot, founder of the Left Bank magazine Actuel, and Barry Miles, a columnist for the East Village Other (EVO) and a founder of the European alt-paper International Times–all publications copiously represented in the book–Free Press is an assemblage of pages from dozens of alternative magazines, newspapers, and newsletters that flourished in the youth culture of the Sixties.  From Berkeley to Paris, Detroit to Greenwich Village, these long-forgotten publications, some professionally produced, others little more than mimeographs, were the company newsletters of the counterculture, disseminating information, producing often-stunning art, and challenging every norm of mainstream media, along with mainstream culture in general. Reflecting that era’s rejection of staid conventions like narrative form and rational organization, Free Press is itself a kind of collage of Sixties politics and aesthetics.  It’s a beautiful book, full of appealing young people who took the notion of revolution seriously, and of artistic forms–solarized photographs, intricate line drawings not unlike the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver, the shocking images of Sixties-era agit-prop–which later found their way into the mainstream. What’s most striking reading Free Press in 2008, though, is its juxtaposition of the dated and the prescient.  On the one hand, the admirable but also tragic naivete, the occasionally loony liberationist politics, and the celebratory but also puerile treatment of sex and drugs all mark the magazines as being of their era.  On the other hand, they were clearly onto something.  For perhaps the first time in history, they gave a publishing platform to unedited, unfiltered human expression: a handwritten notice page from the New York Rat (1970), a conversational essay on "Lesbian Feminism isn’t a White Male Trip" (1975), and oodles of bad poetry.  These magazines were largely about self-exposure (not least in their many nude photographs), and providing an outlet for the expression of the individual rather than its repression in the service of, say, standards of the written word. They’re blogs, in other words–group blogs, sometimes with better art and sharper content, but essentially about the unfettered expression of their contributors.  What’s interesting, thirty years later, is how this democratic aesthetic value has become unmoored from its larger political context.  In the Sixties, artistic and linguistic liberation was part and parcel of a larger liberationist agenda which also included the liberation of women and minorities, the expansion of consciousness (through drugs, spirituality, or just "waking up" to political oppression), and, most centrally, a revolution–intended to be political as well as cultural–that would overthrow the many repressions of The Man: war, economic injustice, discrimination, and, if we want to be cynical about it, anything that got in the way of having a good time. Did it work?  Obviously, not entirely; Tricky Dick was elected, twice, and the political revolution never quite happened.  The sexual revolution did, though, and reading Free Press, it’s clear that a kind of cultural-literary revolution did as well.  Today’s countless blogs–and even, to some extent, magazines such as this one, which, by way of independent European magazines, is an indirect descendent of the underground press–owe a great deal to the press of the counterculture: the "Do Your Own Thing" ethos, the value of informality and spontaneity, the mistrust of rules and conventions, the Kerouac ethos of "first thought, best thought," and, perhaps most importantly, the very democratic idea that everyone has something worthwhile to speak, post, or rant about.   Independent magazines long predate the Sixties, of course–they feature prominently in Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, a trilogy about nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals.  But the pop aesthetics, the exhibitionism, the intimacy, and the informality were new, and arguably important.  What’s shifted is that these values were  once parts of a larger revolution, not just of style but of self as well.  Today, the media is its only message.  "Do your own thing" is practically a corporate slogan; it’s a value linked not to liberation but to indulgence.  Informality is apolitical–and of course, there are as many right-wing blogs as left-wing ones. Arguably, though, today’s blogs are better suited to carry the liberationist torch than the magazines of decades ago.  Thanks to technology, they allow for much more collaboration, feedback, and, yes, democracy, at least of the artistic kind.  Politically, the jury is still out: we’ll see if they help elect our next president–or if the next president will be the last (probably) to not use a computer at all. Whatever the political-democratic benefits, though, there have been aesthetic-democratic effects, for better or for worse.  Beyond the buzzword, "Web 2.0" stands for the proposition that the "users" (a risible term) are the content providers, and that reader-writer-participants are better at sifting wheat from chaff than are (occasionally) paid writers and editors like me.  We’ll see how that plays out: it may be revolution, or it may be banal.  Or it may become the capitalist 1984, in which we voluntary install telescreens/webcams/twitter updates so that others can watch us all the time and we can watch them do it. I want to suggest that the free presses of the Sixties were the first postmodern-popular publications, their supposedly romantic politics notwithstanding.  Identity was deconstructed, and then reassembled from whatever was lying around.  Cultures were mixed, and values questioned. If so, and if today’s blogs resemble yesterday’s underground publications, then it really is an exciting time to participate in the de/reconstruction of a particularist identity like Jewishness.  Jewish identity has always had its shadow side: groupthink, ghettoization, tribalism, ethnocentrism, the denigration of the goyim.  But Jewishness has so many upsides: culture, spirituality, kitsch, history, the prophetic call to justice.  For a long time, folks have argued that you can’t have one with out the other.  But now, everyone is having one without the other.  Old school identities, fixed and coherent like LPs, are irrelevant to the ipod generation.  So it’s not just a Jewish thing; rather, we’re being carried along for the ride. "People of the Blog" is one of those ridiculous quips that only a second-tier headline writer would use.  But let’s take it seriously.  If the book is replaced by the blog, hierarchy is replaced by democracy.  Buy-and-consume is replaced by rip-and-mix.  Exclusivity is replaced by the mixtape.  Maybe it’s a good time to be alive after all–or at least, a good time to revisit, rethink, and remix cultures like this one.

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