- Little Magazine: World Form by Eric Bulson, and: Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital by Sophie Seita
Vito Acconci’s 350-line poem “Act 3, Scene 4” appeared in the fifth number of the little magazine O to 9 (January 1969)—but not in one piece. Rather, a single line of the poem was distributed across 350 copies of the magazine, “thus making each copy unique and a complete reading pretty much impossible.”1 Acconci’s number play underscores the near impossibility of a complete reading of not just the poem, but the little magazine itself. How do you account for meaning when you can’t access the whole, or even the sum of its parts? Even if you could get your hands on a copy of #5 of O to 9, you’d be hard pressed to recover all 350, read them consecutively, and comprehend how each issue changes depending on which line of the poem it contains. Hence the challenges of reading little magazines: so much puzzling and irregular material, so difficult to access and account for.
Nevertheless, scholars continue to study little magazines, enticed by the windows they open to literary experimentation “as it happened.” Part of the lure is to get back to artistic origins, prior to the academic canons, criticism, and theorizing of modernism and the avant-garde that inflated the value of some exponents, while others depreciated. Little magazines beckon with the promise of recovering more inclusive canons and histories. Yet, as David Earle and others have warned, studying them also runs the risk of reinforcing white, masculine, Anglo-European biases and shoring up the value of coteries, the preciousness of “littles,” and the elitism of experimentalism.2 For it should be acknowledged from the start that when we say “modernism” and the “avant-garde,” we ipso facto refer to predominantly [End Page 150] white, male-dominated phenomena. Despite efforts to expand the boundaries of these categories, the whiteness of modernism and the avant-garde persists, and the originary canonical definitions, standards, aesthetics, and practices tend to remain the starting point and function as comparative measures for noncanonical individuals and groups.
In the face of this stubborn conundrum, the desire to study little magazines is met by a drive for more inclusive methodologies. Eric Bulson’s Little Magazine, World Form and Sophie Seita’s Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazines Communities from Dada to Digital represent two recent efforts to widen the horizons of little magazine scholarship. Whereas Bulson broadens the scope geographically, offering a comparative global study of magazines from the 1910s to the 1960s, Seita expands the arc temporally, providing a diachronic study of American little magazines from the early twentieth century to the present day. Bulson examines geopolitical contexts and technological developments, focusing on paratextual discourses— letters and statements from the editors, manifestos, and promotional rhetoric. Seita investigates avant-garde communities and “actual practices of writing,” diving deep into the contents of the magazines (2). Both emphasize form as a means of accessing the social, political, and historical dimensions of little magazines. For Bulson, form refers to “the internal structure of a magazine and its external shape, design, and construction” (22), and “analysis of formal materiality” provides a means of recovering “some of the history and politics of little magazines” (24). Seita likewise emphasizes the materiality of the form, insisting on the importance of “encountering texts in their original publication contexts rather than as canonized, decontextualized objects of study” in order to recover the history and politics of canon formation (4).
Bulson offers the term world form to emphasize the diverse manifestations and functions of the little magazine—“the English term associated with an Anglo-European print culture and used to define this noncommercial, experimental medium produced in limited quantities (usually under one thousand) for a select group of readers.”3 Viewed in a global context, he argues, the little magazine “looks quite different from what we’re used to, less a stable container for literary...