Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dieselpunk: Building a Better Future

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

There’s been a recent controversy about the use of the word contemporary in defining Dieselpunk. Johnny Dellarocca, my co-host on the Diesel Powered Podcast, expressed the opinion that the dictionary definition of the word contemporary should allow works of the Diesel Era to be labeled dieselpunk. The purpose of the post is to explain my position on the proposal.

The word contemporary in the context of defining dieselpunk isn’t necessarily the same as defined by Merriam-Webster. For the purpose of defining dieselpunk, the word contemporary is simply a convenient, shorthand method of saying ‘post-Diesel Era’. The end of the Diesel Era depends on who you talk to. Dates generally vary from 1945, 1950, or 1954 though occasionally one will see 1957. In my opinion, establishing the specific end date isn’t as important as the practice of restricting what we label as ‘dieselpunk’ to production AFTER the Diesel Era, regardless of when one sets the end date. I believe that this limit is essential to the identity of dieselpunk.

Someone once told me that she thought that dieselpunk was a mashup. For those unfamiliar with the term, according to Google a ‘mashup’ is “a mixture or fusion of disparate elements.” Dieselpunk combines the zeitgeist of two very different cultural eras. It combines the iconic elements and Modernity of the 1920s – 40s with the current sensibilities and Postmodernism of today. As a result, a dialectic tension continually exists within dieselpunk, which helps to make it such a dynamic and diverse genre.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F Scott Fitzgerald

Diesel Era productions cannot meet this requirement of combining the different eras. Even those individuals who were ahead of their time, the cultural milieu that they existed in limited what they could envision. A brief visit to the web site Paleofuture will show how poor predictions of the future have been. For those few who was able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy, the laws during the Diesel Era that regulated fashion, print, cinema, and music made it difficult for them to bring their visions to life. Usually the scope of their success was limited. They were, at best, flashes of light in the darkness of their world.

What should we call these rare visionary Diesel Era productions if they’re not dieselpunk? For the presentations that I give at conventions about the history of dieselpunk, I coined the term ‘proto-dieselpunk’ to distinguish them from actual dieselpunk productions.

There is precedence in other areas for keeping separate the productions of the Diesel Era from the Post-Diesel Era. For example, historians differentiate between the works of Antiquities and those of the Renaissance. I think this is significant because I see a great deal of similarities in the way the Renaissance drew inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome to how Dieselpunk draws up the Diesel Era. In addition, we also see something similar in the study of Classic Noir and Neo-Noir.

Antiquities are not the same as Renaissance. Classic Noir is not the same as Neo-Noir. Diesel Era is not the same as Dieselpunk.

Dieselpunk is about applying the rich heritage of the Diesel Era to the lessons that we’ve learned with the goal of creating something new and original. Laying claim to the past would be a mistake because Dieselpunk isn’t about living in the past. It’s about drawing upon the past so that we can build a better future.

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