Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Going Against the Grain

“To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.” - Joey Ramone

Recently, the peer-reviewed journal Fashion, Style & Popular Culture (Volume 1, Number 3, 1 August 2014) published an academic paper titled Victorian gear heads and locomotive zealots: Vicarious nostalgia, retro-futurism and anachronisms of Steampunk and Dieselpunk authored by Professor Jessica Strubel of the University of North Texas. According to the summary on the web site:

This article explored the histories of both Steampunk and Dieselpunk with a focus on their dress behaviour and musical preferences as related to the ideologies of these groups. Particular attention was paid to both group’s fixations on nostalgia for periods outside of the individual members’ living memories and how this nostalgia is a feature of their consumption experiences. The article also addresses the anachronistic use of the word ‘punk’ in the name of each of these groups. There is an obvious incongruity with the naming of Steampunk and Dieselpunk because they are shameless consumer cultures with no obvious political inclinations. Although Steampunks and Dieselpunks do share the DIY aesthetic of the traditional punk subculture, their styles have been prefabricated, neatly packaged and made available for sale on any of the many websites devoted to providing the quintessential Victorian or diesel-era garb.

This paper is important for it’s the first published peer reviewed academic paper about dieselpunk. That being said, I have concerns about several key conclusions drawn. I will start with what I consider the three most serious concerns and then address several issues that, while aren’t as serious as the others, still deserve attention.

The Punk Evolutionary Tree

According to Professor Strubel, in dieselpunk “the use of punk is misleading” because the participants in the genre “lack the outrage and nihilism” among other characteristics of the participants of the 70’s Punk subculture. She points out that the 70’s Punk grew from the anger and angst of the working class youth of that time. They saw nothing good in the past and no hope for the future. The 70’s Punks were political dissidents and strongly anti-consumption. Whereas, dieselpunks find a great deal of positive in the past, specifically the period time circa 1920s – 40s (‘Diesel Era’), and strive to combine it with the best of our contemporary society. In doing so, we hope to build a better future.

Of course, the readers of my blog know that the dieselpunk community didn’t choose the punk suffix. ‘Dieselpunk’ was a term created by Lewis Pollack in 2001 for promoting his RPG Children of the Sun.

Professor Strubel’s conclusion that the ‘punk’ suffix is misleading is based on a faulty assumption. Dieselpunk is NOT a descendent of 70’s Punk. The dieselpunk theorist Bernardo Sena (writing under the penname of Mr. Piecraft) laid the idea that it is to rest back in 2009 in issue 5 of the e-zine The Gatehouse Gazette:

"Perhaps it is best to accept that the “punk” suffix added to these literary genres developed not out of the same sense as the punk musical scene, but out of the actual definition of the term. Punk referred to a label given to antagonize anyone who was seen as rebellious or anti-establishment; mostly designated to the younger generation, basically one who would go against the grain of society."

Dieselpunk is a distinct branch of ‘punk’ that happens to share a common linguistic ancestor with 70’s Punk subculture. A good comparison would be in the way that Modern Humans share a common ancestor with the Common Chimpanzee but we’re not descendants of the Chimp.

Punk Evolutionary Tree
Recognizing that dieselpunk is not descended from 70’s Punk prevents the mistake Professor Strubel made in concluding that the use of the word ‘punk’ in dieselpunk is misleading.

Renaissance Rather Than Nostalgia
“Nostalgia is a very complicated subject for me. I'm attracted by nostalgia but I refuse it intellectually.” - Miuccia Prada

In her paper, Professor Strubel explains that nostalgia is a “preference for an idealized past when one was younger or even before birth”. A mistake she makes is stating that the dieselpunk genre exhibits a fixation for nostalgia and that we glorify the Interbellum period as well as gloss over the dark side of the era such as the Great Depression.

I’m certain there are some individual dieselpunks who feel a wistful yearning of nostalgia for the Diesel Era but that’s not the heart of the genre. Tome Wilson, owner of the web site, best explains the role of the Diesel Era in dieselpunk:

"A dieselpunk must learn the past, but should be wary not to chain himself to it in the process. We strive to create a future that not only meets the achievements of our grandfathers, but surpasses it with achievements of our own. It is not enough to live in the shadow of another generation; we must find our own path, achieve greatness and inspire others to do the same."

I would add that the organization I’m associated with, North Texas Dieselpunks, often have presentations about the dark events of the time. We’ve had presentations on the Holocaust, the Dust Bowl and racism just to name a few. While at Octopodicon 2013 in Norman, Oklahoma, John Wofford, a co-host with me on the Diesel Powered Podcast, and I gave a presentation on the ‘dark side of dieselpunk’.

Dieselpunk doesn't look at the past with nostalgic eyes but with eyes wide open.

Apolitical and Consumer Cultures
As it states in the abstract, Professor Strubel argues that dieselpunk along with steampunk are “shameless consumer cultures with no obvious political inclinations”, which differs from 70’s Punk.

Strubel is right that the dieselpunk genre lacks the extreme political radicalism of the 70’s Punk subculture. In addition, while I wouldn’t call dieselpunk a "shameless consumer culture", I would agree that dieselpunk doesn’t contain a philosophy of radical anti-consumerism. However, I believe these two criticisms are irrelevant for several reasons.

First, I would go back to the fact that dieselpunk is NOT a descendant of 70’s Punk. Political radicalism and anti-consumerism are not essential elements to the source word.

Second, I would point out that there have been several subcultures that either lacked a radical political position and/or weren't anti-consumerism.

According to historian Joshua Zeitz, the flapper subculture of the 1920s lacked any form of political inclination. Moreover, he documented in his book Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern that the flapper subculture was heavily consumer based and was constantly the target of Madison Ave.

In addition, I can’t help but note the mods subculture of the early 1960s. According to Paul Jobling and David Crowley, though the mods were “fashion-obsessed” they were “never just ‘a passive consumer’ nor someone who merely absorbed his stylistic sources unquestioningly. Rather, the pastiche of mods style was both self-conscious and self-effacing, and it transformed the original object of desire ‘at every level of the mod experience’”. (Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation Since 1800, Manchester University Press, 1996)

I find it interesting that Strubel references Ralph Lauren and Jean Paul Gaultier's Diesel Era-themed styling as a critique of dieselpunk on page 379. Of course, Ralph Lauren was incorporating Diesel Era fashion into his style back in the 1970s and I honestly doubt he or Gaultier have even heard the word ‘dieselpunk’ much less marketed to us. I would point out that the mods had their own fashion designers with Mary Quant and John Stephen so any involvement by fashion designers isn't relevant.

While dieselpunk differs in many important aspects from the flapper and mods youth subcultures, I think they serve as useful examples as to how the lack of political radicalism/ anti-consumerism in dieselpunk is a non-issue.

Dark Humor and Mobsters
"No one knows what it's like, to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes". - The Who

I was a little surprised when on page 385 I read what appears to be a criticism of "celebrating" the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In my opinion, one shouldn’t be shocked to find that a phenomenon such as dieselpunk that prides itself on being dark should find dark humor in the ironic fact that one of the worse mob hits of the 1920s shares the name with a fluffy holiday focused on romance.

In addition, Professor Strubel appears critical of the dieselpunk fashion trend of mobsters, though I don’t recall any cases in which such fashion was encouraged as Professor Strubel stated in her paper. In my opinion, it’s only logical to see the spirit of ‘punk’, in which the root word means 'young hoodlum', in the archetypal Prohibition-era mobster.

An Exaggerated Death
On page 390, in addressing the rise of other genre-punks (Clockpunk, Renpunk, etc…) Professor Strubel wrote, “As the Steampunk and Dieselpunk movements phase out…” I found this statement rather odd since dieselpunk is not only alive and well but also growing. If we use the date of the origin of the word by Pollock as a guide, then we’ve already lasted longer than the 70’s Punk subculture, which began around 1971 with the Creem article by Dave Marsh and ended in 1979 with the death of Sid Vicious. In addition, according to Google Trends, the numbers of searches with the key word ‘dieselpunk’ are five times what they were in 2008 and the numbers are still growing.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the death of dieselpunk is an exaggeration.

A New Phenomenon
I think that Strubel makes a valid point that dieselpunk doesn't fit the classic youth subculture. I would point out that dieselpunk crosses generational lines. In fact, dieselpunk has a strong appreciation of older generations such as the Greatest Generation of World War Two. This is certainly different from the Baby Boomer slogan of “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Therefore, dieselpunk is certainly not youth oriented.

I don’t know how sociologists should classify dieselpunk. Dieselpunk and the other genre-punks certainly appear to be different phenomenon than we’ve seen in the past.

There is a definite need for an academic study of dieselpunk. Though flawed, this paper by Professor Strubel was a good start. I hope that someday she reexamines our genre from a new perspective.

No comments: