Author Sophie Seita discusses her new book Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital, Stanford University Press, 2019
For a long time now I’ve been fascinated by ‘little magazines’; that is, magazines that generally have a small budget, a small print-run, a short-ish life span, and a small audience due to their publication of lesser-known contributors or underground and non-mainstream work. Magazines create or represent communities. They either fashion a community through the act of publishing, or they publish an already-existing group, thus giving it a public, semi-public, or counter-public presence in print or online. Of course, such a magazine community isn’t always cohesive, but rather constitutes a provisional and heterogeneous gathering or endeavour. The little magazine acts like a stereoscope — a device that shows two photographs of the very same object but taken at different angles so that when you put the two together the image has gained more depth, tangibility, and dimension – allowing a more in-depth and three-dimensional view of an avant-garde group. And while the depicted scene is something of an illusion, the received image gives a useful semblance of a reconstructed historical object. That object or scene doesn’t just consist of the ‘best’ poems, the trendy authors, the famous artists – it’s also the snarky editorial remarks, the admiring or scathing letters by readers, the advertisements for new books, the non-literary ads for various now time-stamped commodities, the illustrations, the typography, the design, even the choice of paper, and mode of reproduction. Technologies of reproduction such as the letterpress, the mimeograph, the photocopier, and digital publishing have each changed how magazine communities were able to and continue to function. There are significant material considerations, from tangible letterpress impressions on the page, to mimeograph smudges, to the bureaucratic and activist associations of Xerox, to the assumed democracy of digital formats. But magazines are always also media of social reproduction. What we can say about a group or an individual author or artist is deeply affected by the social contexts into and out of which groups grow, such as the events, salons, and readings poets and artists organise and attend, and who is included and excluded—mediated by the magazine.
“We have long theorised the avant-garde as ‘new’, as leading literature and art and society in a radically different direction. I use magazines to re-think that critical dictum.”
I recently published a book about magazines and their communities, Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital (Stanford University Press, 2019), which emerged from my longstanding interest in experimental and non-canonical art, writing, and performance; and from my commitment to queer-feminist politics and to small creative communities. Be it as a teacher, in my academic writing, or in my creative work as an artist, writer, translator, and curator of events, I consider how canons and institutions are made, who or what they privilege, who or what is left out; and how we can make our spaces more hospitable and open to change, and to that which is ‘difficult’ or ‘different’.
In my book I try to trace the manifold contributions magazines have made not only to the development of an individual writer’s or artist’s oeuvre, but to numerous national and international avant-garde groupings, and to cultural, political, and aesthetic tendencies more broadly. The book moves from literary and artistic communities active in the early twentieth century to those at the beginning of the twenty-first century, from letterpress print technologies to digital publishing and near-print forms like the PDF. Studying magazines allows us to move away from a focus on the individual author or the single work and instead to emphasise the collective work of editors, practitioners, readers, and other, often invisible, participants. In them, we might meet authors and artists who eventually become famous but who first published their work in lesser-known publishing venues, and we discover those who never make it into the canon but were crucial in the emergence and development of a particular group, style, or idea.
We have long theorised the avant-garde as ‘new’, as leading literature and art and society in a radically different direction. I use magazines to re-think that critical dictum. It’s true that contributors and editors often use the magazine to announce their work’s novelty. However, what is hailed as new is often the result of small and cumulative changes over time and of collective dialogues that happened in or around the medium of the magazine. In fact, we could say that the avant-garde also practises many ‘Re-‘ principles. The avant-garde might sometimes return to older works or might rework an older literary or artistic form; it might try to renovate it or re-instate it. It often utilises the magazine to work out those lines of connection and represent itself as part of a lineage. Sometimes magazines do this by reprinting an older work from a different decade or even century or a work in a different language. Whether it’s for avant-garde credit (a mode of justification via an already renowned older work) or for the purposes of the recovery of marginalised voices, reprints establish new relations between contributions, between old and new, between new productions and reproductions. Magazines turn out to be an excellent venue both for re-assessing and revisiting the past and for keeping a finger on the pulse of the present.
“We all learn through copying: either by echoing someone or something, or by repeating with minor or major variations, or by rejecting the familiar and well-copied path”
We all learn through copying: either by echoing someone or something, or by repeating with minor or major variations, or by rejecting the familiar and well-copied path. Magazines, as pedagogical tools for us as readers, writers, and scholars today, bring this out. What can we revise, how can we read differently – how re-read in a way that is most attentive and does most justice to the material and the person behind the material? There isn’t a simple ‘how to’ guide for writing and reading literary experiments, but each magazine, each contribution, invites us to attend to its own historical, aesthetic, political and social nuances and complexities, not to take anything for granted; not to presume too much – including not hoisting a particular avant-garde notion onto them. The communities, ideas, and works reproduced in magazines are thus a great way to inspire readers to produce again – to re-produce, in both senses – their own magazines and communities.
Sophie Seita is an artist and academic writing and performing in Cambridge, New York, and Germany: https://sophieseita.com