Archive for criticism

Crone Wars: on the mythology of Fury Road

Posted in Culture, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2015 by vprime

vuvalini

Warning: This Post is Full of Spoilers. I Kind of Assume You’ve Seen the Movie Here.

Our first glimpse of Immortan Joe, the Jehovah of Fury Road, is of his elderly, tumor-riddled flesh being encased in the clear armor that gives the illusion of health and strength. Immortan Joe’s cult deals in spectacle, in visual metaphors. It is founded on the male gaze. The masses below jockey to see him in his stone tower. The young, diseased boys that make up his army desire to be seen by Joe; and to be seen going to death in his name by one another. Nux is spurred into a frenzy of action by a glance from Immortan Joe. Similarly, as a War Boy goes to his death, he exhorts his fellows to “witness” the act. The War Boys blacken their eyes; painting a skull over their faces, surrounding the power of the eye with protective darkness. Later, Nux’s fate is sealed when Joe sees him fumble the assassination attempt on Furiosa. As he lies miserably in the back of the War Rig he laments that Joe saw him fail and also saw his own “bloodbag” (Max) driving the rig. Now, he will be denied entrance into Valhalla, an honor only Joe can bestow. It’s the power of the gaze to shape reality, to have effects as demonstrable and yet mysterious as the evil eye that forms a central tenet of the cult Joe builds around himself. After the escape, the vault in which the women are kept is tagged with defiant phrases: “Our babies will not be warlords” and “We are not things.” The words made visible; words that finally enter the eye and cannot be unseen.

Immortan Joe claims people as his property and brands them on the back of the neck with his mark. This is not a placement that reminds the branded as a mark on the hand or face might, it’s a mark to be seen from above, from a remove. A price tag unobtrusively sewn into the back of a garment. Even the “wives” have this mark, underscoring their position as objects not much different from the War Boys. His appearance echoes that of the Sky Gods: long white hair, the eyes piercing and red with wrath, the (plastic, armor) body hard and muscular. (Seriously, when was the last time you saw a skinny Zeus?) His face is obscured by a grinning mask-cum-respirator. He mythologizes himself as the great father. By his hand the people scrabbling in the dust below will be raised up, he preaches. His sons surround him and act out his will. On machines driven by slaves on immense treadmills he is seen to soar into the sky, to the heights of paradise far above the suffering below. He makes water fall from the sky as the Sky Gods do, and withholds it to punish as they also do. He, like the Old Testament patriarchs, keeps multiple “wives” whom he alternately defines as “treasures” and “property.” But Joe is sick and frail. His sons are mutants. His fatherhood creates twisted versions of life. He calls himself immortal when he is clearly doomed by time. His fierce grinning teeth are a facade, and beneath he is an old man, nearly sterile. In the vault where the women were held there is a sterile round pool of water connected to an umbilical stream; the illusion of life with no growth. He sequesters that which he has no right to claim as his: life. The water, the milk that he trades for gas and bullets are taken, hoarded and controlled. He has no power to create, only to take, and then by force.

Furiosa and the women are escaping to a place that has no name, that appears on no maps. It is known only as the Green Place or the Place of the Many Mothers. This place is a shadow place. It exists in Furiosa’s memories as a place of growth, freedom and equality. It is the place she lived in before Immortan Joe claimed her as one of his “things.” Max and Nux, both outcasts from the patriarchal society of the Citadel, find themselves swept along, but it is the women who push forward in search of this feminine space. What they are seeking is an antidote to Immortan Joe, to the warlords and the attitudes that “killed the world.” This place is made of stories and memory and exists in the imaginations of the women. This is the place where they can leave behind the question of who killed the world and find a way to make it live again.
Here an overview of the mythical overtones of the female characters would be helpful. Furiosa’s name contains the Furies within it. The Furies were chthonic deities that enacted vengeance. As chthonic figures, they are associated with the underworld or with residing beneath the earth itself. A theory that resonates with me about chthonic gods claims that these figures descend from a mythology in which the Goddess was the earth itself, and that the immanent, heavy, wet and fertile nature of the earth was a manifestation of the Goddess. The sky, storms, the unseen force of the wind by contrast became the Sky Gods, and eventually, the one and only God. The Goddess absorbed the shadow side of the Sky God. Her ways were not written, not plotted out with clear rules and boundaries. She was murky, formless, unknown, a mystery. She lived in stories and memories that filled in the margins of the Sky God’s mythos. Back to the Furies. Their function is to punish wrongdoers. In the Orestia, the Furies seek vengeance upon Orestes for killing his mother, even though the killing was ordered by Apollo. Initially, I assumed she’d earned her name as one of Joe’s warriors, but later we learn that her name was Furiosa before she was taken. This signals she would always bring a reckoning for Joe’s crimes. The Warlords killed the world. They killed their mother. Vengeance would have to be served.

The unofficial leader of the wives is the heavily pregnant Splendid Angharad. Angharad is a Welsh name that translates as “much loved one,” an ironic reminder that patriarchal values confuse domination with love. She is the mother-goddess, leader and protector of the others. She has convinced the others to go with Furiosa. During one scene, she positions herself so that Joe cannot shoot Furiosa without shooting her. The other women–Toast the Knowing, The Dag, Capable and Cheedo the Fragile–are maiden-figures, though far from naive. They are first shown in filmy garments of virginal white, rinsing themselves in the water from the tanker. The Dag cuts off her chastity belt, spits on it and kicks it with a booted foot. These maidens aren’t interested in playing the helpless innocent virgin. (A reminder that virgin goddesses were not un-sexual, only unattached to a male. Many a virgin goddess has children.) It’s Splendid’s insistence on only killing when utterly necessary that spares Max and Nux. She is the conscience of the group, and her death shakes Cheedo into nearly surrendering herself. It is Splendid who accuses Nux of equal culpability with the Warlords for the state of their world. “We are not things” are Splendid’s words, the women remind each other. Splendid is the one who brings Max water. The mother gives and preserves life. She dies protecting the others. Even the child they remove from her body–the one Immortan Joe falsely claims as his property–is perfect, sheltered from Joe’s corrupting influence as long as it remained part of the mother’s body.

The Vuvalini, Furiosa’s tribe, are the crones in the goddess triad. To reach the Vuvalini, the women have travelled overnight through a barren swamp that supports nothing but crows and inhuman-looking scavengers on stilts. This landscape is the land of the dead. The crows recall the crone’s function as keeper of death. The Celtic crone goddess Morrigan took on the shape of crows. Furiosa’s anguish at learning that the same swamp is what remains of the Green Place is heart-rending. The women have found themselves pushed to the ultimate margin of a dying land. Behind them, a poisoned swamp, before them plains of salt. These are the death-lands they have had to enter to find the crone. The crone goddess holds the keys to death and rebirth. Hecate in the underworld is a crone goddess; a being of dark powers and a forbidding figure of death, a goddess of witches. What she does and rules is hazy. She’s the goddess of the crossroads, where the straight lines of patriarchal society begin to blur. She rules over the spaces between life, death and rebirth. Nux’s incantatory “I live, I die, I live again” is a Sky God’s lie, devised to hide the reality of death. Only the crone knows that rebirth requires annihilation such that “I” is a useless construct. Life goes on, not ego. The Keeper of the Seeds explains to the Dag that she’s killed everyone she met out in the desert. “I thought you girls were above all that,” the Dag replies, searching, perhaps, for an alternative way to the force that gives the Warlords their power. The crone knows that death is a necessity. The Keeper of the Seeds (an epithet that calls to mind other powerful goddesses whose names were not to be invoked: the Kindly Ones or Furies) shows the Dag her bag of seeds, sharing with her the potential for rebirth. When the Dag mentions that she is pregnant, and speculates her child will be another ugly Warlord, it is the Keeper of the Seeds who reminds her that the child could be a girl, offering hope and hinting at the potential for the Vuvalini to persist. The scene in which the two groups of women meet and recognize their common kinship is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. The wonder with which the Vuvalini welcome these new daughters is a moment of unalloyed joy. There’s recognition as they pair off and study one another, each seeing their will to survive reflected in the other, exulting in a much-desired female companionship.

Because what the world of Fury Road ultimately needs is to clear away the Sky Gods to make room for Maiden, Mother and Crone. The Vuvalini have dwindled in number in their exile to the borderlands of the psyche, but they hold the keys to rebirth. Their Green Place was poisoned by the same patriarchal logic that killed the world. The Many Mothers have become a handful of woman warriors, prepared now by the infusion of energy from their younger counterparts to stop hiding and start pushing back. As the women observe, everything they need is in the Citadel, and they intend to take it back. Toast’s aside that the Citadel is a great place to live “as long as you aren’t afraid of heights” is the invitation to reclaim divine feminine power that the crones have been waiting for.

As Furiosa tears off Imortan Joe’s mask, revealing the vulnerable flesh under the machinery, her words “Remember me?” are for the crones and for every other facet of feminine power that has been poisoned, marginalized, co-opted or stamped out. Joe’s illusions can’t change the material nature of his body. Even naming himself an immortal can’t erase the effects of time and illness on the matter, the soft, wet meat of his body. Styling himself a Sky God provides no protection from the crone’s processes of decay, erosion and dissolution. Mother, matter, material; all subject to the Goddess in growth or death.  Even as The Keeper of the Seeds dies, the Dag—the witchiest of the maidens—saves her seeds and gives her the Vuvalini gesture of reverence for the dead. The Dag takes on the role of Keeper of the Seeds, and in the succession of knowledge from one woman to another, something of the original Keeper lives again. Returning to the Citadel, Furiosa is bloodied and weakened but triumphant as she eventually stands without Max’s help. She stands one-eyed and pierced in the side like Odin, returning a lost power to the world, though not claiming that power as her exclusive right. She has lost her mechanical arm and some of her vision, showing that the Sky God’s powers are not the only ways to be strong. The body of the Father Who Must Be Killed is revealed, for it is only through looking that the power structure Immortan Joe created can understand. The crowd sets upon his human remains and tears them to bits like Maenads. The Venus-of-Willendorf women who provide the milk open taps and the water flows. As the people chant “Lift them up” the women help the people onto the platform, opening the hierarchical sacred space of the tower to all. The crones bring more than seeds; they bring knowledge of other ways to live, a different attitude toward power, the possibility for different structures. They’ve killed the god of domination, objectification and slavery. They’ve balanced the scales for those who killed the world.

Peak Retro: Ready Player One

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by vprime

Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.

First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.

This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.

There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.

There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.

Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”

Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.

Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.

At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.

I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

The “Labyrinth” of Desire

Posted in Culture, Movies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2011 by vprime

Labyrinth is a strange film, combining adolescent fantasy with grotesque puppets; starring one of the only pop stars to attain legendary status in his own lifetime. The plot poses several unanswered questions, like what happened to Sarah’s mother and why goblins would be interested in stealing a baby and turning him into a goblin. I recall being mesmerized by this film as a child, finding the magical world of the labyrinth utterly convincing even down to the moss blooming with human eyeballs. There was something about Bowie as Jareth that was not repellently scary as Gene Wilder was in “Willy Wonka” but certainly wasn’t welcoming and cuddly. Many see this story as one of a child coming to age and learning to put aside the selfishness and fantasies of childhood, but I think that’s not what the film conveys at all. In fact, I think this film is showing us a young woman’s attempts to escape from the stifling constraints of domesticity.

The domestic environment in Labyrinth is every bit as stifling and terrifying as the most forbidding of the goblin landscapes. As in the fairy tales that Sarah consumes, her mother has been replaced by a stepmother. Sarah’s mother is never acknowledged in the film except as images in Sarah’s bedroom. She’s a silent icon, a form without substance. As she exists mainly in photos and newspaper clippings praising her acting roles, she belongs to the glamorous and immortal world of the image—as does David Bowie. The importance of images, appearances and surfaces in this film can’t be emphasized enough. The very word ‘glamour’ originally meant a spell or enchantment, especially one that produced an illusion or transformation in appearance, and was used to denote a specific form of deception practiced by fairies. Michael Jackson was rumored to have been considered for the role of Jareth. Thankfully, this did not come to pass. While Jackson was certainly familiar with illusion and altered appearances, he would not have been able to channel the threatening edge that Bowie displays here. Jackson, for all his performative acumen, was at heart too sentimental and childlike to make a convincing villain.

In Sarah’s initial tale, before the goblins take Toby away, she says that the Goblin King has fallen in love with her. So had he? Why does he come when she summons the goblins to take the baby? I believe that the movie conceals Sarah’s frustration and entrapment. From the opening scenes, we know that Sarah often has to care for her brother. In the absence of a social life, she constructs fantasy worlds in her free time, becoming the sort of heroine she could never be in reality. The reality of her life is a screaming baby, a father who barely has two words for her, a stepmother who subtly undermines her (“A girl should have dates at your age.”). In her fantasies, she’s admired and strong. Jareth, upon initially offering her the crystal ball, says that such an item is not “for a girl who watches a screaming baby.”  This suggests that Jareth find this domestic life to be beneath Sarah. As a reflection of her fantasies, Jareth is affirming Sarah’s belief that domesticity diminishes her.

Bowie’s presence infuses the film with queer desire that makes for an unsettling dynamic between Jareth and the barely teenaged Sarah. Much of this sexual subtext is surely due to Bowie’s own mystique as an androgynous, polysexual pop icon. The film makers must surely have known what they were doing when they costumed Jareth in leggings that left very little to the imagination, a frilly blouse, dominatrix gloves, heeled boots and a crop. Bowie’s Jareth is an alien creature. Even without the Spock eyebrows and Stevie Nicks hair, Jareth has a coldness wedded to seductiveness that conceals his motivations. Does he really want to keep Sarah’s brother, or is this a way to lure her into his world? As a goblin, Jareth is not quite a man. I use the term queer above because, while there is sexual tension in some of the scenes between Jareth and Sarah, it’s unclear whether that desire could be described in the terms of a heterosexual romance. In part, Sarah wants to be Jareth—with his power to bend others to her will. The presence of the baby throws a Freudian wrench into the works, as it clearly represents the potential consequences of Sarah’s sexual desires. Yet Jareth’s interest in the baby also suggests that like many an androgynous male pop icon before him, Jareth is a “safe” recipient for Sarah’s lust. He can’t make a baby of his own, so he won’t impregnate Sarah, giving her access to sexual desire without fear of consequence. Throughout the movie, Sarah has to shake herself from Jareth’s enchantments to recall her mission to save Toby. The masquerade ball scene is my favorite example. In this clip, Sarah is obviously captivated by the opulent world Jareth has created for her. In other reviews I’d read in researching this post, Jareth was painted as a bit of a Humbert Humbert for his interest in Sarah. I think this scene clearly shows that Jareth is exactly the sort of object of desire Sarah would conjure from her imagination.

As Jareth and Sarah reach their final confrontation, their exchanges take on a more overt dimension of desire. The M.C. Escher-influenced scene shows us Sarah lost in a physics-defying world that Jareth navigates with ease. The lyrics to the song here “Your eyes can be so cruel, just as I can be so cruel,” foreshadow the language of domination and submission that comprises Jareth and Sarah’s final exchange. Sarah has had to fight not just the illusion of the labyrinth, but her own urges to surrender to this world of surfaces to get to this point. She’s had to consciously reassert her filial duty to get to this confrontation. As Jareth sings, “I can’t live within you,” we see Sarah’s panic at being confronted by a side of herself that is cruel, sterile, asexual, domineering and looks great in a leather vest. In re-watching this, I was struck by how genuinely despairing Jareth looks at times as Sarah comes closer to her goal.

The final scene banishes the baby to the sidelines yet again. In an oft-repeated line, Jareth tells Sarah “Just fear me, love me, do as Isay, and I will be your slave.” This line, while certainly appealing, makes it unclear just what sort of power exchange Sarah would be consenting to. While it sounds unhealthily obsessive, it does accurately describe the sensation of being in lust.

Sarah completes her repudiation of her fantasy world in the line “you have no power over me.” Note, though, that Jareth does not disappear, he simply transforms and lurks outside Sarah’s window as the film ends. Jareth is still there, and, one can imagine, still the center of Sarah’s psychosexual world. Despite herself, Sarah has allowed herself to be reintegrated into the domestic sphere, however, her fantasy life is still very much present and still asserting itself, as the fantastical creatures of the Labyrinth rejoin her in her bedroom.  So while she will maintain the façade of the “girl who cares for a crying baby,” her inner life is safely concealed. It seems less like Sarah gives up her fantasy life than that she learns the necessity of concealing it.

Steampunk and its Discontents

Posted in Culture with tags , , , , on March 14, 2011 by vprime

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor declares steampunk “the new goth.” Throwing aside the gimmicky declaration of anything as “the new” anything else, I wanted to examine this comparison more closely, as it seems that while steampunk does indeed overlap goth in many areas, there are significant differences between these two aesthetics that are worth noting.

Steampunk shares a certain imaginative space with goth. Both are subcultures that take a romanticized view of the past, especially the Victorian period. For goths, I think the focus on the Victorian serves dual purposes. First, it’s a culture of hierarchy and funerary customs. The appeal of a time when aristocrats mourned elaborately forms the basis for much of the gothic appropriation of Victorian garments and imagery. It’s appealing for the goth to connect with a fantasy of specialness–this is not a new observation, and I don’t believe anyone is exempt from this kind of thinking–that aligns her to values that no longer exist. Our modern world is superficial, insistent on stupid cheeriness and anti-intellectual. The past provides a refuge for introverts, melancholics and others who find more truth in Keats or Poe than in reality TV and pop music. These–largely invented–images of the past create an existence more suited to the goth’s appreciation of decay, dreams and imagination than the present can. Second, the Victorians themselves looked back to a romanticized chivalrous ideal of a mystified medieval time, which connects with goth music and culture through the literary modernist movement. I don’t plan to go into great detail now, but I think The Sisters of Mercy has more in common with T.S. Eliot than fans of either might care to admit. In the context of modern gothic subculture, then, the Victorian serves as an image of the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement.

Steampunk seems to take the Victorian period as a place from which to divert the rails of progress from the industrial revolution. The steampunk vision of the industrial revolution is of a time when technology could be safely romanticized. Machines that run on visible gears turned by fire provide an alternative to our world in which machines increasingly take the form of sleek, hermetically sealed glowing white boxes. Pair this with our ambivalence on technology and we find much of the central appeal of steampunk. Namely, to have tech–but different tech. I think this also explains the fall of cyberpunk as one of our imaginative idioms. Neuromancer isn’t different enough anymore. It cannot provide enough escape from mundane reality.

But, back to steampunk. I’ve wrestled with the question “Why steampunk?” Why not baroquepunk, atompunk, hell, Vikingpunk? Historically, the Victorian represents the last optimistic moment for technology–just before the mechanized horrors of global wars of the 20th century. Steampunk asserts a primarily optimistic perspective. The addition of modernize technology to historical settings creates space for adventure, fantasy and inventiveness. Steampunk isn’t likely to be used as the setting for grim “the Road”-style fables of destruction. The inherent narrative is one of fancifully “good” tech. Steampunk does require a certain time frame. There must be enough recognizable devices so that the presence of tech isn’t too disruptive–hence, Vikingpunk or even Romanpunk is less likely to be a suitable imaginative blend. There must also not be too much of our mundane technology but in older, clunkier iterations. So, I find it unlikely that we’ll soon see subcultures devoted to using punchcard computers and sliderules. Though I’ll only allow ten years before the fetishization of rotary telephones and dot-matrix printers begins. Steampunk needs a time when the native devices are useless enough to be quaint. Daniel Harris’ insightful 2000 book “Cute Quaint Hungry and Romantic” describes why modern consumers adorn their hypermodern homes with quaint devices from the past. The iron stoves, rusty washing boards and copper kettles that served as the utilitarian tools of household labor past now emblamatize the upper-class consumer’s disposable time and income. I find steampunk very in line with this aesthetic of quaintness.

Steampunk exists primarily as a visual style. Unlike goth, which emerged from punk, steampunk primarily exists as artifacts rather than acts. What is a “steampunk” band? How would that sound? There is nothing inherent in steampunk that suggests a sound. The closet I could posit is Rasputina, and that primarily due to their having song lyrics that reflect an interest in quaint Victorianism. The rush to fill the aesthetic void of steampunk results in attempts to reclassify films such as “Brasil” to create subjects for this aesthetic. Like the household aesthetic of the quaint, steampunk is made of items one owns in order to display one’s alignment with assumed values of the past. The DIY ethos present in steampunk dictates that it’s better to create or modify the items yourself rather than purchase manufactured iterations, but I believe this will soon fall by the wayside as goods made for the steampunk market are created. There are already shoes, clothing and jewelry mass-manufactured to fit this aesthetic readily available. It happened to punk.

The central irony of steampunk as a modern phenomena is that it allows us to reincarnate our tech in the clunky, rusted skin of a theoretical history. One need not sacrifice the functions of an iPhone, just glue some brass gears on an you’re making a statement aligning yourself with DIY over the powers of corporatism. Only, not really.

There are parts of the steampunk aesthetic that I appreciate. I am more interested here in questioning the meaning of steampunk in our culture. I gladly welcome counter-arguments.