Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dieselpunk Politics – Part 1

If dieselpunk cinema is considered controversial then any proposal that there might be a dieselpunk politics is nearly toxic as a subject in the online dieselpunk community. That being said, I do believe that it might be possible to identify elements that we can label as ‘dieselpunk politics.’ Before I begin some disclaimers are in order.

First, I do not consider my proposals here as critical in identifying oneself as “dieselpunk.” One can certainly enjoy ‘dieselpunk’ music, art, industrial design, history, literature, media and fashion without agreeing with this post or holding to any of the political schools of thought identified here.

In addition, there is a school of thought within the dieselpunk community, which is held by several prominent members whose opinions I highly respect, that dieselpunk is purely an apolitical, postmodern art movement. While I strongly agree that dieselpunk is very postmodern in nature I hope to show that there are concepts that, when applied to political and economic matters, can define certain political/ economic thoughts as being part of a family than can be labeled as ‘dieselpunk.’

Finally as part of my disclaimer, I don’t want to imply that any dieselpunk politics should be viewed as an organized political movement. In fact, I wouldn’t even support any attempt at creating such. To repeat, what I propose here is that there are certain elements inherit in dieselpunk that may allow certain political or economic schools of thought to be labeled as ‘dieselpunk.’

That being said let me now make my case for the existence of dieselpunk politics.

As my readers (it probably the height of hubris on my part that I use ‘readers’ in plural) might have been noticed in the prior postings on music and cinema there are two essential elements that, in my opinion, appear repeatedly as being ‘dieselpunk’: it must be contemporary while at the same time it must be decodence in character (decodence being a tribute or nod to the era of the 1920s through 1940s, even if not placed in that time). It’s my opinion that in the case of identifying a possible dieselpunk politics, along with the two previously mentioned elements, we need to give extra emphasis to the ‘punk’ in dieselpunk.

There’s a certain Eastern feel to trying to define what is meant by ‘punk’ in that as soon as you think that you understand what ‘punk’ is then it’s usually no longer considered ‘punk.’ Tome Wilson, of the excellent forum and whom I consider an authority on dieselpunk, wrote of a story told by Billie Joe Armstrong of the band Green Day, "A guy walks up to me and asks 'What's Punk?' So I kick over a garbage can and say 'That's punk!' So he kicks over a garbage can and says 'That's Punk?', and I say 'No that's trendy!" Armstrong’s comment is important in that it provides us a starting place in trying to understand the meaning of ‘punk.’

While one must be very careful in using online sources for information gives an interesting history of the word ‘punk’:

Something like punk has been smoldering in American English for hundreds of years, undergoing drastic changes of meaning from century to century. It began as a bizarre kind of overcooked corn, explained in a 1618 account of certain Indians in Virginia: "Some of them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burne the coare of the eare to powder, which they call pungnough, mingling that in their meale, but yt never tasted well in bread or broath." Around that time, also, punk was a word for "ashes" in the Delaware Indian language.

A couple of centuries later, punk had become a word for the slow-burning sticks used in kindling fireworks. By 1889 it was a slang term for a cigarette, and by the end of the century punk had a sense "worthless" as in a story by George Ade: "And this crowd up there was purty-y-y punk."

Today's first meaning of punk, a small-time hoodlum, developed in the period between the World Wars. And in the late 1970s punk came to designate bizarre clothing and body decorations associated with loud and aggressive rock music. To the general public, it still has an unpleasant taste.

If we accept as a guide (though I can’t confirm the accuracy of its material) along with Armstrong’s story we might then define ‘punk’ as being a genre that has a strong element of independence, to the point of being considered rebellious, and which exists outside the mainstream to the degree that it’s often held as derogatory by the establishment. If so, then we may be able to say that a dieselpunk politics would have to include, along with the previously mentioned two elements, political trends that are highly critical of the status quo and are not found in the mainstream of that time or today.

At this point we may now have a working definition of dieselpunk politics: 1) contemporary in that it can be found today, 2) decodence in that we can identify it as existing in some form during the 20s through 40s, and 3) ‘punk’ in that it emphasizes independence and exists primarily outside the mainstream of politics of that time as well as today.

At this point it might be a good idea to step back and look at what was mainstream politics of the 20s through 40s. During that era mainstream politics took on three primary forms: Capitalism, Communism, and Fascism. Because of the amount of depth required by each I will dedicate my upcoming post to a very brief review of those three political systems as they manifested themselves during that era. Once we’ve addressed those then we will be in a position to explore what today might be considered dieselpunk politics.

No comments: