Salvagepunk

R-383x407Salvagepunk is an idea and framework I’ve been toying with for a couple of weeks, and which I borrow loosely from Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011). In this book, Calder Williams looks at the way apocalyptic fantasies function in late capitalist culture. Salvagepunk is a useful way to approach other modes of cultural production as well, however. It’s a framework that is indebted to both cyberpunk and steampunk, and which is especially useful to apply to remix culture, sharing, as it often does, a politics and aesthetic with the notion of salvage. More recently, this subject has been explored in a Leftist quarterly called Salvage.

Salvage – a term that, in English, was originally associated with the payment received ‘for saving a ship from wreck or capture’ – only came to describe the act of saving itself in the late 19th century with the dawn of the salvage corps. As cities grew, and the risk of large-scale property loss became more central, insurance underwriters found it profitable to establish fire salvage services to reduce losses. A later meaning, evolving during WWI, refers to the ‘recycling of waste material’: put explicitly, the combing of battlefields by the British Army’s Salvage Corps (a ghoulish double entendre), which re-purposed the parts and property of fallen machines and soldiers for continuing use in the war effort.

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In each case, salvage is a response to the opportunity for profit or, at the very least, for minimising financial loss. As Calder Williams writes, the primary definition of salvage today is also ‘waste sorting and value recuperation’ (p. 35, emphasis mine). Salvage is not only the logical extreme at the end of history, it is also the logical extension of capitalist values: for every object a market value. Nothing is ever really junk. Assuming we want to move outside of the capitalist logic that makes us consume our own past again and again in various iterations (which may or may not be our goal), something different is needed.

For Calder Williams, the end of history that postmodernism signalled was, like all apocalypses, never really the end. Rather than simple rebellion (a rebellion he calls a kind of ‘apologist participation’ on p. 30) against the historical metanarratives that have led us to this present reality, we must instead look for the alternate stories within those metanarratives. Most importantly, we must struggle against ‘current trendlines of nostalgia, the melancholia of buried history, and static mourning for radical antagonistic pasts seemingly absent from contemporary resistance to capitalism’. Cultural modes of historiography like steampunk fall too close to these trendlines for Calder Williams – but does the historical monster mashup? Steampunk brings the past back to life in order to fetishise it, and many fans of steampunk are no doubt also fans of historical monster mashup for the way it borrows these same retrofuturist aesthetics.

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Now, my work on the historical monster mashup doesn’t currently focus on apocalyptic fiction – though, in a sense, all contemporary fiction is post-apocalyptic, coming as it does on the heels of postmodernism and the ‘end of history’. The texts I’m looking at do, however, seem very interested in the possibilities opened up by the salvage of the past. Whether we call the product of that salvage adaptation, remix, or historical fiction largely becomes a question of aesthetics, which in turn determines whether it can indeed be seen as an act of salvage (salvation and eventual repurposing) or a simple case of grave robbing (and ultimate waste).

Acts of salvagepunk attempt to walk a middle ground between these two extremes. They ‘strive against and away from the ruins upon which they cannot help but be built and through which they rummage’ (p. 20). It is this oscillation that renders salvagepunk distinct from postmodern instances of pastiche, Calder Williams argues:

Fundamentally opposed to pastiche, salvage realizes the eccentricity of discarded, outmoded, and forgotten things still marked by the peculiar imprint of their time of production and the store of labor and energy frozen in their form. A form from which all value has supposedly been lost. Above all, it is that work of construction, not simply getting to see what can be sold back to the industrial suppliers, but a production of ‘valueless times’ to see what values might emerge outside of the loops of circulation and accumulation. (p. 42)

In other words, in order to preserve the value of objects, we first need to destroy them. Ultimately this destruction is a creative act (p. 41). We cannot stop repeating, but we should be concerned with ‘how to repeat differently, how to make from the broken same the livelier constructs of something other’ (p. 69).

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Bustle Envy (Steampunk Meets Sir Mix-a-Lot)

1875-La-Beau-Monde-Covent-GardenIt’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world. You deserve something light and playful to take your mind off it all.

Further to my recent post on poetry and cultural appropriation, I though I would gift you with one of the most bizarre and wonderful things I have seen this month – Katherine Stewart’s ‘Lady Got Bustle’, the steampunk parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’.

In this video, a group of (mostly) white people sing about how ‘when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky / Then you don’t need to ask why / You just swoon’. Is this a case of cultural appropriation? Why or why not? This certainly isn’t the first music video to appropriate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s well-known ‘Baby Got Back’, but it is the only one I know from steampunk, which may be one of the whitest subcultural trends ever (with some very noteworthy exceptions).

Here’s a definition of cultural appropriation from actress Amandla Stenberg (appropriately, on a website called Bustle):

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.

With that definition in mind, have a look at the video below (lyrics pasted beneath for your reading pleasure).

 

LYRICS:

Oh good heavens, Rebecca! Gaze upon her posterior. It is vulgar in the extreme. She resembles one of those airship-captain’s doxies! But honestly, who can comprehend those roguish adventurers? Certainly, they only associate with her because she bears the common stamp of a draggle-tailed guttersnipe. It strains credibility how very – noticeable, how prominent – I say! – it’s deplorable! She’s quite simply… Steampunk!

Men favor large bustles and I cannot fib
You gentlemen may find me glib
But when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky
Then you don’t need to ask why
You just swoon, take out your salts
Now claim her for the next waltz
She’s bold and her fashion’s daring
You know that you can’t stop staring
These ladies are worth the hype
So take their daguerreotype
Those old boys try to counsel you
But that bustle creates such voodoo

Ooh, handsome bounder
Don’t be tempted to try to hound her
Just woo her, woo her
Don’t you even think of trying to fool her
You see her dancing
She’d appreciate some romancing
For she’s sweet, neat
And that bustle is packing heat
She’s tired of being told
That her fashion sense is old
Take a roguish man and see him smirk
She has to wear a skirt

So gents! (Yes?) Gents! (Yes?)
Has your lady a bustle dress? (Oh yes!)
Tell her to twirl it! (Twirl it!) Twirl it! (Twirl it!)
Twirl that party dress!
Lady has bustle!

(Tea-party face with an airship ruffle)
Lady has bustle!

They like them flounced, and long
And made of fabric strong
And when she goes up stairs, you must be careful sir
That you don’t step on her
For she’ll box your ears
Oh my! and again, Oh! My!
I shan’t tell you again sir
For that behavior is for the birds

You like a challenge?
Then chivalry’s a must sir
Find a girl with bustle
And then you’re in for a tussle

You may watch a kinetiscope
And see scrawny women thin as a rope
A real man wants ruffles
They know they need a bustle
A word to the genteel fellow, you know we like you
We won’t ever spite you
But we must be quite frank when we say that we want
A debonair man
Steampunk is most sublime
A lot of punks won’t like this rhyme
For they’re too busy trying to define it
While the rest of us want to play
For we’re here from far and near
And we wish to have a lovely time, dear

So, Darlings! (Yes?) Darlings! (Yes?)
Have we made our point at last? (Oh yes!)
Then turn around! Show it off!
And no one will dare to scoff!
Lady has bustle!

Lady has bustle!

[Director: Katherine Stewart
DP and Editor: Christopher Sheffield
from an idea by Katherine Stewart and Sue Kaff]

You’re welcome, internet.

This parody is certainly funny, but I don’t think it’s a case of appropriation. It’s not taking something negatively associated with Black culture and using it to try and be cool (unless the definition of that word has changed since I was a kid). It also definitely understands the significance of the symbol it’s appropriating (booty) and how to humorously translate this to steampunk culture (bustle) without being mocking or condescending. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me in the comments.

While I was researching this question, though, I did turn up some very interesting facts about bustles and booty.

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Yomi Adegoke argues that the recent mainstream popularity of the booty is a condescending, ‘belated thumbs up from white society’ to a part of Black culture ‘now deemed good enough’ for mass respectability. In her book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2013), Janell Hobson hints that the late Victorian fondness for bustles might have been motivated by a similar politics. She writes about how the Hottentot Venus’s prominent posterior was rendered more ‘deviant’ because it provoked lust in white men:

[White women] themselves were regarded as “prostitutes” in the late nineteenth century if they exhibited this feature (Gilman, 1985, 94–101). Thus, white men and women both, when labeled “deviant,” were paralleled with “black” sexuality. Such associations, however, did not prevent middle-class white women of the period from donning bustles. This appropriation of a “big behind”—a sign of grotesquerie, later connoting a sign of luxurious beauty in the bustle—illustrates the complexities of white responses to racial and sexual difference, which elicit both repulsion and desire. (p. 101, emphasis mine)

So, it seems as though Katherine Stewart isn’t the first to make the connexion between the booty and the bustle. The Victorians (as always) were way ahead of everyone in cultural appropriations of Black bodies and fashions. If any of you Victorianists out there happen to know more about the parallels between these two beauty icons, please – let me know in the comments.

The world will thank you.

Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?

Now Reading: In Frankenstein’s Shadow by Chris Baldick

71tTOwC912LFor a bit of inspiration, this past week I’ve been (re)reading In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-century Writing, by Chris Baldick. I picked up my copy secondhand for a song at Troutmark Books, in Cardiff’s Castle Arcade, paged through it on the way home, then left it virtually untouched on my ‘to-read’ bookshelf for the next six months. Fortunately, since the Frankenstein myth plays a relatively large role in my current chapters, I now have the chance to delve back in.

Whether it’s due to the subject matter or the skill of the author, Frankenstein’s Shadow hasn’t aged much since it was first published back in 1987 (frighteningly enough, the same year I was born). Baldick’s monograph is not only useful because of how it deconstructs and re-historicises the Frankenstein myth. In many ways, it actually provides a template for all modern myth — particularly the mythologising of the literary canon. It’s a book about monsters, adaptation, and the self-construction of a cultural imaginary.

In the book’s introduction, Baldick describes the difference between a myth and a literary text:

A literary text will usually, since the advent of printing, be fixed in its form but may be complex and multivocal in its meaning. A myth, on the other hand, is open to all kinds of adaptation and elaboration, but it will preserve at the same time a basic stability of meaning. (p. 2)

In other words, in order for a literary text (or, by extension, any work of art) to become truly ‘immortal’ (or undead?), and to be thoroughly adaptable in the public sphere, it must first be mythologised to some degree. We need to be familiar enough with it on a collective level to play around with its basic plot points, structures, and themes in a meaningful way.

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Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (1974).

Baldick spends much of the book discussing the history of Frankenstein’s publication and reception, always commenting back on how this impacts our understanding of what, in the most simplistic sense, is a completed, unchanging narrative. He offers, for example, an overview of the changes between Mary Shelley’s original (and anonymous) 1818 edition, and the 1831 edition that came to usurp it. The 1831 edition is still the one most reprints of the novel reproduce.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Baldick mainly sticks to nineteenth-century examples of the myth’s evolution, though he does also consider twentieth-century afterimages in, for example, the work of Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. As he traces the course of the Frankenstein myth from 1818 through the rest of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear how the story takes on a life of its own. Baldick takes full advantage of this pun, even exploring the idea of the book as monster in Chapter 3 (‘The Monster Speaks’):

Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […] There is a sense in which all writing must do this, but with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the process goes much further. This novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)

Perhaps because my current research is on the subject of monsters in remix culture, I was especially struck by Baldick’s description of the novel as ‘assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole’. How do we classify texts as living or dead? To what extent is this process of reanimation vital to art as a whole, and not just to the novel? These are not questions that Baldick really answers, but the simple fact that he highlights them places his discussion in a much different light than much contemporary literary criticism.

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LEGO Frankenstein.

A similar richness of thought and metaphor is present throughout the entire book. Another such observation, simple yet refreshingly thoughtful, is Baldick’s statement about the authority of those texts and readings that follow Shelley’s novel. For him, they are central to the creation and maintenance of the Frankenstein myth:

The point here is not to lament the corruption and distortion of an authentic literary original, nor to correct erroneous departures from the truth of a ‘real’ Frankenstein story. […] That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth. (p. 4)

This is a claim Baldick certainly goes on to prove again and again throughout Frankenstein’s Shadow – that, far from being overshadowed by Shelley’s ‘original’ novel, these ‘adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings’ are a core part of the story of Frankenstein. Shelley’s novel was already firmly in the shadow if its own myth by the end of the nineteenth century.

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Frankenstein’s Creature as imagined in Penny Dreadful (2014-present).

If you’re at all interested in the history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the politics of monsters, or just classic horror more generally, I highly recommend this book. Much like Frankenstein itself, Frankenstein’s Shadow connects various circuits of thought in a way that sends off creative sparks long after you’ve stopped reading.