This week’s post on Harvard College Library’s zines collection focuses on a topic most zines have something to say about: work. Whether it is to bemoan (or celebrate) the lack of employment, announce a new job, or, as is most often the case, complain about an existing job, work is an almost ubiquitous topic in zines across the board.
In his chapter on work in Notes from the underground: Zines and the politics of alternative culture, Stephen Duncombe notes that, unlike industrial exposes in the past – for example, Upton Sinclair’s disclosure of working conditions in Chicago’s stockyards and packing houses at the turn of the century – zines speak less about the actual conditions of the workplace and more about the hypocritical social and economic relationships that surround them.
He links this to the economic restructuring of the U.S. economy begun in the ’70s, the decimation of job opportunities for the traditional working class and the “proletarianization” of jobs open to the new middle classes, referring to the information and service sector jobs that demand the “cultural capital” of a middle-class upbringing.
It is the schism between what a middle class job is supposed to be (i.e. a meaningful vocation that requires moral commitment) and what a large number of middle class jobs actually are that zines pick up on and, in many cases, resist. This week’s post showcases four zines from the collection, and looks at how they talk about work.
Zine 1: Temp slave #8 (1995)
Temp slave, edited by Keffo, is a zine that best fits under the rubric of “topical zine.” These are zines that pick a particular topic – folding bicycles, raw food, collecting banana labels, trailer van memorabilia etc. – and focus exclusively on it. In this case, the topic is the odiousness of temporary employment. Within this seemingly narrow topic, the zine is surprisingly diverse; it includes a number of testimonials from people working in diverse temp-jobs, poems, cartoons and articles. The excerpt below is a satirical piece showing what Judgment Day would look like in the year 2000 for the staff of Happy Temps Inc.
Zine 2: Birth #8 (1994)
Birth, a zine written by a single author “in affiliation with no one,” includes interviews by the author, correspondence, articles by contributors, as well as film, video and show reviews. In the case of Birth #8, it is the editorial and the author’s description of his $5.50 an hour summer job before going to college that is of interest.
The job is in a huge gardening store where the choice is between heavy labor outside in the heat, or stocking “shit” like chemicals inside, which actually makes an older guy (in his late twenties) lose his hair. The author copes with the job by joining his same age-group colleagues in pilfering the place “for all kinds of cool shit” through cash-register scams. Not trusted to work as a cashier himself because of the number of sick days he takes and possibly because of his appearance (“the nose ring was key”), the author is made to work outside where he employs a “playing dumb” strategy.
“Playing dumb” involves completing tasks inefficiently while making it look as though one is toiling very hard. Once the bosses get used to him being “well, slow,” he’s able to take certain advantages, like extended breaks, without repercussion. He concludes thus: “The power that you wield, as a bottom rung wage slave, makes or breaks your bosses. Discourage sales! Fuck off at work! Let’s hear it for incompetence!”
Zine 3: For a right attitude at work (1992)
For a right attitude at work is a zine that would most readily fit into the “comics” category. Although this characterization does not entirely fit because For a right attitude at work doesn’t tell a story as such, the zine does use drawings exclusively to illustrate its point, which in this case happens to be related to work.
Zine 4: Factsheet 5 #55 (1995)
Although Factsheet 5 is a review zine, the article of interest here could easily fall into the “scam zine” category, in other words, the counter-cultural zines all about scamming “the system.” In his article “Work Schmerk! Tips, Techniques, and Scams to on-the-job Zineing,” author Rod M. Scott takes the reader through the process of producing a zine “on someone else’s time” without being caught.
The article advises the following: when making zine-related phone calls, use a colleague’s phone while they’re away at lunch; when photocopying zines do not leave the Xerox machine (unless willing “to disown the printed matter and fish it out of the trash later” if caught); when writing zines on the work computer have several windows open on the desktop for easy switching if the boss decide to make an “unexpected visit;” and finally, for printing large quantities of zines, gain security clearance to the office at night or weekends.
The author ends with an assurance that “as time goes on, you’ll discover more and more ways to improve upon this subtle form of occupational espionage.”
As seen above, zine authors find different and creative ways of talking about work, and the schism between the attitude one is often expected to have towards work and the job itself. Interestingly, producing zines is in itself work – and hard work at that considering the time and effort that goes into producing some of them. However, how zinesters feel about zine work, which is more akin to a labor of love than anything else, is an entirely different story.
Thanks to Alina Lazar for contributing this post. Alina is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard. She is one of the initial cohort of Harvard Library Pforzheimer Fellows, working with curator Leslie Morris at Houghton Library to compile a title listing of Harvard College Library’s Printernet Collection of approximately 20,000 zines. The Printernet Collection was assembled by an anonymous collector, and was purchased by Widener Library in 2012. The current project to create a title list is the first step in the process to decide where the collection, or portions of it, might best be housed at Harvard, and how it will be made available for research.