Readers of this blog can probably tell that I’m enamored with Kate Eichhorn’s Adjusted Margin (MIT 2016). The book traces the history and use of xerography and argues that it offered a medium for folks at the margins to find a voice. I’ve blogged a bit on her argument that copy shops and photocopying in general serving as a third space, for today, I’d like to think a bit about how xerography served as an archaeological predecessor for digital practices.
Eichhorn looks at the role the xerography played in the ACT UP movement to raise the awareness of the ravages of the AIDS epidemic especially, but not exclusively among gays in the 1980s. She examines how photocopies allowed this group to produce and distribute posters, to create graphically interesting media designed to generate awareness (like the printed money that they rained down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when they occupied that building in 1989), and to distribute information to people suffering from AIDS, their supporters, and the medical community. Eichhorn described the weekly newsletters prepared by ACT UP organizers that summarized the media stories, promoted events, and generated a sense of community. She also discussed the stacks of photocopied articles, fliers, and other media arranged on tables at ACT UP meetings and quickly circulated among the attending activists. Many activists credited the rapid and expansive distribution of ACT UP media to their access to photocopiers either in the ACT UP office or in their places of work (often in the publishing world). In other words, production of photocopied media was at least partly decentralized.
Zines provided an opportunity to explore how xerography promoted the rise of decentralized distribution networks. While most Zines had a place of origin – usually on the East or West Coast – they circulated widely and often co-promoted other Zines by including the mailing address of other Zines in their pages. This allowed for the formation of dendritic networks where Zines led to Zines. Anyone who was interested in music in era before the internet understood the importance of these kinds of informal associations for discovering new bands and understanding the culture associated with, say, punk rock music.
I got thinking of these decentralized networks of distribution because, on the one hand, they anticipated the the hyperlinked networks of associations that came to dominate the distribution of digital media through the internet. In fact, xerography allowed for the development in paper form of such common internet structures as links, blogs, and memes. As someone with a growing interest in publishing, I’ve thought about how Zine culture – with all its imperfections and irregular distribution – provided a model for publishing on the web and in digital media. As Eichhorn states throughout her book, with xerography, there is no need for an original and, as such, no need for a definitive point of origin. This likewise seems to anticipate open-access, digital publishing which depends upon a community and an ecosystem for media to circulate, but does not depend as heavily on the originating point of the publisher. Without a center there are no margins or, more properly, the influence of the center diminishes rapidly as it becomes less vital to the circulation of a work.