Steve Hughes, Washed in Dirt

For a decade and a half, Steve Hughes has published Stupor, a zine that chronicles life in the age of diminished expectations. The newest issue was done in collaboration with international art star (and Björk main squeeze) Matthew Barney.

Quite often when I read mainstream American social science, especially of the "quantoid" variety, I'm reminded of much I appreciate literature. While acknowledging the importance of objective data collection and analysis in distinguishing social facts from all-too-fallible everyday perceptions, I also can't help thinking that deeper, perhaps more significant meaning goes missing in the process.

This occurred to me again recently as I perused the latest issue of the zine, Stupor, which for more than 15 years has surveyed the inner terrains of the shell-shocked victims of the class war known as neoliberalism.

Stupor was started in New Orleans in the spring of 1995 by writer and construction-business sole proprietor Steve Hughes and his friend Bill Rohde. It was originally supposed to be a vehicle for authors to publish experimental, confessional material. Not longer after, Hughes relocated to Hamtramck, Michigan, a mostly Eastern European enclave almost completely surrounded by the city of Detroit and once home to the now-demolished Dodge Main Plant, a massive automotive manufacturing facility that competed with Henry Ford's River Rouge Complex as a paragon of vertically integrated mass production.

With the move came the conversion of Stupor into Hughes's solo project. Instead of publishing stories written by others, he began writing all of the stories himself, using anecdotes he collected from people he met or conversations he overheard in working-class bars, construction worksites, and elsewhere he came upon people talking.

As is typical of the genre, the early issues of Stupor are crude cut-and-paste affairs, produced in small quantities using one-color quick-printers and extremely low budgets. (According to the "History" section of the zine's website, the first four issues of 1,000 each were all published for the cost of two cases of beer.) With experience and the capabilities afforded by newer improvements in desktop publishing technology, the production values have been raised somewhat, but not to the level where one would call them slick. 

More recent issues have been done in collaboration with visual artists who interact with the author to create thematic mashups of image and text, form and content. The narrow, vertical format (the common letter-size sheet folded in half lengthwise) is intended to make the publication suitable for display on top of the toilet tank.

By the same token, the subject matter revels in all manners of abjection, chronicling the usually humiliating misadventures of those some might label a clueless pack of losers, but who I interpret as merely hapless unfortunates trying to cobble together some semblance of a life in an age of severely diminished expectations. (And there's arguably no more iconic place for these hardscrabble social bricoleurs to do it in than among the ruins of the modernist utopia that is latter-day Detroit.

One of my favorite Stupor lines that perfectly encapsulates the situation: "How can I jump, when I'm already falling?") Rendered in the first person, each story is identified only by the gender and hometown of the putative narrator.

The newest issue carries the theme "Washed in Dirt", and it was done in collaboration with international art star Matthew Barney, whom Hughes met when the artist was in Detroit two years ago to work on a performance piece titled KHU, the second of a seven-part performance cycle inspired by Norman Mailer's novel Ancient Evenings. (For my review of the event published in the Brooklyn Railclick here.)

With its consistently typeset font, neat, unbroken text columns, and color images throughout, the package seems a little un-Stuporish to me, a little too tidy and professional, especially given the theme. But the stories don't disappoint, especially "Male, Clinton Township", an episode about a young man "spiraling into a pit of impurity" with his Bible-study partner. The centerpiece drawing by Barney, part of the KHU performance documentation, depicts  the effluence of the City of Detroit sewage system at the intersection of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, spreading out at the foot of the ecologically challenged Zug Island, to form a shitty brown triangle of eddying water current that also reads as a thatch of pubic hair, is another nice element.

Many statistics can be and have been compiled to represent the ebb and tide of various flows in Detroit -- of capital, of population, jobs, home occupancy rates, etc. -- patterns of what these days free-marketers call "creative destruction". Stupor limns what it feels like to be left floundering in the wake of that process.


Click here to listen to an interview with Steve Hughes on the "Washed in Dirt" issue of Stupor done in collaboration with Matthew Barney, which originally aired on public radio.

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