DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture: A Book Review

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture
Amy Spencer
Marion Bowers Book, $15.95 US

The idea of tracking the history of the DIY ethic that has become such an important part of the cultural landscape over the last twenty years is a brilliant one. Zine writer and record label founder Amy Spencer is correct in seeing that DIY is an idea that encompasses more than just music, and in this book she tracks the idea across a variety of fields and cultural styles, focusing on two: writing and music. The book is written in a very approachable style, obviously designed to appeal to teenagers who are getting into making zines, forming bands or other aspects of the DIY ethos.
The “reader-friendliness” of the book is something of a problem for older jaded sophisticates such as myself, since the level of analysis is often condescendingly basic and resembles a strange children’s TV show or high school textbook, designed to educate teenagers about things like the Situationists or Riot Grrrl, without offending the sensibilities of parents who fear what their children are getting up to when they’re out of sight.
The histories that are set out here are well known, but putting them alongside each other is both useful and original. Thus, the history of zines is tracked back through punk, the alternative press of the 1960s, the Situationists, fluxus and the Beats, back to the little magazines of the early 20th century avant garde. Alternative music is likewise surveyed from grunge and indie, through punk and post-punk to the 1960s and skiffle, with sections on pirate radio and independent record production. There are some notable absences, such as the lack of any mention of Japanese or non Anglo American fandoms or alternative scenes, but at the level of content it’s pretty good.
The book is clearly addressed to an audience for whom the internet is second nature and the 1960s might as well be the 1690s. But what does DIY or lo-fi (terms which are by no means equivalent) mean to such an audience? The book’s refusal to take the politics of culture serieously (the Situationists are dispatched to eternity with the observation that they were “typically abstract and difficult to understand”) ends up replaying and repeating the fate of DIY itself: the transformation of a set of practices of cultural autonomy, generated in opposition to the prevailing economic and political system, into a set of styles that can be appropriated by the mainstream culture and sold back to individuals as a smorgasbord of “choices”. MySpace. MyIndieRock. Or, to quote the back cover of the book: “if you can’t find the cultural experience you are looking for, create your own alternative!” Even the folkloric aspect of DIY, which suggests that since the beginning of time, people have come together to make and do things using whatever comes to hand (what Lévi-Strauss called bricolage) is skipped. All of this is unfortunate because the relationship between the internet and subcultures, alternative scenes and the like is something that badly needs to be understood, as does the amazing proliferation of hacker type activities today. In her attempt to provide a “useful” “service”, Spenser seriously undervalues DIY – one only hopes that some people will be turned on enough by the book to investigate further.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

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