Yesterday I gave a paper at an event hosted by the Network of American Periodical Studies on radical and dissident magazines in the US. The conference, held at The Keep at the University of Sussex, marked the opening of the digital archives of The New Masses, a highly influential magazine of the American Left published between 1926 and 1948. The big attraction for me was the keynote speaker, Abe Peck, whose book Uncovering the Sixties: the Life and Times of the Underground Press was enormously helpful to me in my PhD research many years ago. His keynote lecture reminded me of the ways that the ‘sixties generation’ have been defined by the legacy of their youth: Peck was 22 when he began editing a counterculture paper called the Chicago Seed, and 26 when he left to write for other more commercial magazines, including Rolling Stone. Chicago in the late 1960s was a tough city, and was not a hippie centre, but it had become a focal point for New Left political activism. The National office of the Students for a Democratic Society had moved to Chicago in 1965 (to an African American neighbourhood, Peck reminded me), there had been several semi-successful community projects in poor white Chicago neighbourhoods organized by a variety of student groups, and the city became explosive in August 1968 when anti-war activists staged ongoing protests at Grant Park, as near to the site of the Democratic National Convention as they could get within the repressive police presence of Mayor Richard Daley’s administration. Peck’s reminiscences of the delicate balance between reporting on the student movement, while being a part of that movement, illustrated the ways in which the ‘movement’ of the 1960s was multilayered and complex. The underground press (of which the Seed was one paper) served as participant/observers of a movement that was becoming increasingly chaotic by the end of the decade.
My presentation looked at two other underground newspapers, the Berkeley Barb and the San Fransisco Oracle. I am particularly interested in the ways that these counterculture magazines/newspapers (I am going to call them magazines) reinforced mainstream cultural norms around the social position of women. Women’s contributions to these magazines were rare, and although there were female editors and female journalists and contributors, the overarching tone of these magazines remained very male-centric, very macho. The primary representation of women in these magazines was through image. In opposition to obscenity laws, editors filled their pages with images of naked women. These images were often quite stylized, but they invariably cast women in passive poses.
The consequence – perhaps unintended – was that the female form became a tool in challenging authority, but it was a tool wielded by men and the aesthetics of the female form became controlled by the editors. The sexualization of women in cultural terms was not aimed at empowering women; it was designed to use and maintain the ‘otherness’ of the female body in order to provoke confrontation. In doing so, editors became complicit in the obscenification of the female form. It is not surprising, then, that as counterculture and New Left women became more frustrated with an increasingly male-focused movement, they struck out at the Underground Press, most famously taking over the offices of the New York Rat in 1970.
When I started working on these underground newspapers, I had to travel to the US in order to sit in microfilm rooms in university libraries, and squint at tiny blurred typeface and spend a small fortune on copying costs. Now, digital conservation and extraordinary projects of digitization have made many of these microfilm collections redundant, and have changed the ways that researchers can access material. The Oracle is available to purchase on CD Rom; it published only a short run of 12-13 issues (depending on where your starting point is) and was one of the first to be made available electronically. The Berkeley Barb is now available online (along with a small selection of other underground and countercultural titles), thanks to the efforts of a project called Independent Voices. At yesterday’s conference, we mused a little about whether the internet is the new ‘underground press’ of this generation. Perhaps it is: ease of access, democratization of production. The digitization of these papers, including the New Masses now housed at the University of Sussex, will hopefully bring them a new audience.