What is the object?
The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was an organization operating from 1966 to 1973 that collected content - including text, cartoons, and photographs - from individual underground newspaper titles and disseminated that content nationally to be freely reprinted by other newspapers with syndicate membership. Beginning with five founding periodicals - New York’s East Village Other, California’s Los Angeles Free Press and Berkeley Barb, Michigan’s The Paper, and Chicago’s Fifth Estate - UPS quickly grew to include over 150 members. Members would submit copies of their publication to the UPS offices. UPS would then copy significant content from each title, assemble the copies into packets, and mail a packet back to each member title. In this way, “to plug [one] radical community into radical communities around the country” (Wachsberger qtd. in McMillian 46). In an era before the instantaneous publication and dissemination of content through digital networks, the UPS functioned as a powerful tool for connecting subaltern voices.
|Photo depicting the UPS process of selecting and compiling content for redistribution to member publications. Image posted on the Underground Press Syndicate's Facebook page.|
What does it have to do with English Studies?
In English Studies, through a lens of New Historical criticism, it is possible to examine literature as a historical artifact. Literature in this way becomes a window into our collective human history, illuminating our thoughts, concerns, and expressions - and the underground press movement is one such literary artifact.
The assembly of newspaper articles, political cartoons, poems, editorials, and photographs therein collectively capture the complex and often abstract counterculture movement of a particularly turbulent time in American history. The rhetorical discourse of that social and political movement is vividly present in the pages of the underground press publications. Therefore, as a literary artifact worth studying, it becomes also relevant to study the dissemination of that artifact.
Studying how print technology facilitates the dissemination of literature in a particular age is a well-trod niche of English Studies. For example, scholars have often researched and commented on the significance of technological advancements of the printing press in 17th and 18th century England, which fostered the ability to quickly - and far less expensively - create pamphlets or serialized literature, credited with increasing literacy or for rallying public sentiments for political gains.
In that same vein, studying the disseminatory technology of the UPS offers English scholars an opportunity to better understand the Civil Rights Era print practices and technologies responsible for facilitating knowledge-building in that age.
Why think of it as a network?
Thinking of the UPS as a network in useful in that it highlights the social function that networks can fulfill. In the modern sense, a network is often thought of too simplistically as a series of connections, but the UPS reminds us that networks can do work in a society. The UPS facilitated communication between alternative communities, allowing for the exchange of ideas and the development of a revolution that forever changed - for better or worse - the social and political landscape in America.
John McMillian, author of Smoking Typewriters, explains the crucial role that the UPS fulfilled in fostering social change. He writes, “Most of these papers were interconnected - whether through a loose confederation called the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) or a radical news agency called Liberation News Service (LNS) - they also became the Movement’s primary means of internal communication. Absent such newspapers and organizations, the New Left could not have circulated its news, ideas, trends, opinions, and strategies” (6, emphasis added).
Abe Peck, a founding member of the underground press movement, also lends credence to the idea that the UPS is primarily responsible for nurturing a sense of community among disconnected entities. He writes, “[The UPS] policy of free reuse of material gave readers a sense of a national movement and smaller papers enough material to fill their pages” (71).
We are reminded by this particular artifact of the power inherent in networks, which makes it an artifact worth studying. Connections exist in a network to allow information to flow freely between the nodes that participate within it. However, in certain circumstances, that information can then be used for the greater good. A network can effect social change by the sense of belonging it can create among participants, the support that can be channeled between the nodes, and the power of knowledge that it allows participants to access.
McMillian, John. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Peck, Abe. Uncoveringthe Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. New York: Citadel Press, 1991. Print.