Underground Press 2014

The Life Cycle and Legacy of the Underground Press in Houston:

Space City!’s Self-Awareness of Opposition

By Lydia Smith

Anthropology and Visual Arts Major

Rice University

The underground does not only define the physical space beneath our feet, but also collective cultural movements. I am interested in the underground as a non-physical space developed by the action of a community. The Underground Railroad, the Czech underground, and the Weather Underground are all examples of social movements that resisted mainstream society through the collective effort of a community. The underground symbolizes the other, the opposition, and the concealed[1]. While a movement is usually thought of abstract, impermanent, and morphing, these communities choose to label themselves after this physical type of space. However, unlike matter, which cannot be created or destroyed, each of these movements had a beginning and an end. After recognizing tendency, I have chosen to examine the “lifecycle” of the underground, or the cyclical nature of the self-imagined space.

In my research, I have focused on the publication “Space City!” which ran in Houston from 1969-1972. Space City was a part of the Underground Press, a counterculture movement in the 60’s and 70’s that generated alternative media to communicate the voice of the growing group of liberal radicals. “Space City,” became a community organizer for these people, creating cartography of the counter-culture movement and developing space where people could exchange ideas. It defied almost every aspect of mainstream media: the content, the structure, and the visual format. It was run by a collective, with no editor or specific organizing structure, therefore creating a very open and fluid platform for people to become involved. However, at the same time, it was limited in terms of its ability to become a successful business platform. With these oppositions in mind, “Space City!” can be interpreted as vertical cartography of the underground culture, mapping the actions of the dissident community, while the mainstream media is considered horizontal.[2] At the point where these two planes meet, encapsulates the best representation of Texas culture at the time.

The Space City Staff.

 The cover of the first Space City! paper (formerly known as Space City News).

My investigation examines the short lifespan of the “Space City!,” how it was formed and why it eventually dissipated. As with most resistance movements, the paper was founded on and driven by the radical energy of youths, who had little experience in the industry[3]. Because of this structure, I have discovered that the underground press’s self-awareness as an opposing force to the mainstream media only reinforced this separation from its self-proclaimed antithesis, popular culture. However, by consciously identifying themselves as an “other,” while simultaneously constantly encouraging self-analysis, the paper initially grew stronger but soon lost ability to adapt over time. For example, as the youthful energy that the founders experienced began to wear off, and they attempted to re-examine the identity of the paper, some members thought that this was a deviation from their collective agenda.[4] Therefore, I use “Space City!” as a case study for explaining the affects of this self-reflexivity on the lifecycle, identity, and legacy of the underground.

An advertisement for a library found in a 1970 issue of Space City!

Ultimately I have found that the underground can be a space created through practice, a cultural phenomenon, and a force of opposition. The underground can be very animate, mimicking a living thing that goes through the process of birth and death. The self-awareness and reflexivity of the underground is a double edges sword as it strengthens the movement in the short term while limiting it in the long term.

As a supplement to my paper, I have created a zine that is inspired by the “Space City!” layout and design. Zines are considered today’s version of an underground publication because they are not widely circulated, made by individuals or small groups, and cover a wide range of obscure topics. Stephen Duncombe discusses the sub-culture that surrounds these publications in more detail within his ethnography, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture.[5] I thought it was appropriate to summarize my research in this format due to its DIY and easily accessible nature. The cover of my zine is displayed below.

 


Lydia Smith, 2014.

Check Lydia’s original Zine on this project here: http://issuu.com/lydroses/docs/underground_zine-_space_city-_onlin

 

 


[1] Banerjek, Koushik. “Sounds of Whose Underground?: The Fine Tuning of Diaspora in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Theory, Culture, & Society 17.3 (2000): 64-79.

[2] Elden, Stuart. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34 (2013): 35-51. Print.

[3] Leamer, Laurence. The paper revolutionaries: the rise of the underground press. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

[4] Streitmatter, Rodger. Voices of revolution: The dissident press in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

[5] Duncombe, Stephen. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

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