Shannon Lee Dawdy (Anthropology, University of Chicago)
One can detect an archaeological turn in popular culture that suggests an emergent anti-modernity and twists in the temporal imagination. In this movement, timelines are neither linear nor circular, but involve a complex folding of time, or what Svetlana Boym (2001) calls “reflective nostalgia.” Mainstream media examples include Benjamin Button, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (film: The Golden Compass), the Harry Potter series or recent television programs such as Lost, Journeyman, Heroes or Life on Mars. It is also expressed in contemporary material culture through “retro” and eclectic interior design styles, which are guided not by a desire to accurately reproduce past place-times, as would a period room of a museum, but rather by an impulse to play with future possibilities by jumbling anachronistic artifacts (see Thorne 2003 for an astute take on the politics of apocalyptic/retro aesthetics). These are mundane examples of Latour’s “quasi-objects” that can create multiple times and diffuse conceits of a predictable ontological order (1993:73-75).
This temporal folding in popular culture holds enough fascination for some to inform an entire lifestyle and several urban youth and on-line communities visible in the U.S., U.K. Japan, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and now Brazil. The Steampunk or Clockpunk subculture combines Victorian or Edwardian fashions (Figure 1) with contemporary nanotechnology and musical forms.
Figure 1. Steampunk fashion. Flickr Creative Commons. Credit: Anna Fischer.
Elements of this aesthetic have seeped into the mainstream through the comicbook League of Extraordinary Gentleman (begun 1999). Clockpunks embrace a knotted temporality as expressed in their revival of the antique science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. They see it as the role of their generation to engineer, not the end of the world, but the end of modernity by purposefully entangling moments of its progressive timeline. This is not the same “back to the past” neo-Luddism that characterized many 1960s back-to-the-land experiments. Although Steampunk shares a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) commitment to alternative economies, it also focuses on re-appropriating and taking control over advanced technology (Figure 2; for a ‘how to’ guide to Steampunk DIY urban survival, see Killjoy 2008). The most political adherents self-consciously refuse the commodity form through DIY labor, recycling, salvaging, sewing, and thrifting while simultaneously seizing individual control over mystified technologies such as computers, the internet, digital recording, medicine, and even water purification and food production (Killjoy 2008). This is sustainability with an attitude, and an aesthetic.
Figure 2. Steampunk desktop computer. Wikimedia Commons (commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Steampunk).
Notably, Steampunk is also associated with a utopian optimism about human potential. Contemporary artist Kris Kuksi’s 11-foot sculpture entitled “Imminent Utopia” is made from recycled plastic army men, Victorian chachkas, and discarded junk jewelry. His work was featured in a recent exhibition of “Steampunk Art” in Oxford (closed February 21, 2010).
According to a foundational Steampunk manifesto:
We live in a world at the edge of the ecological catastrophe, in a world where the race for hoarding profits and resources is recreating all over the planet slums typical of 19th-century London, and the individual’s rights, obtained through fierce collective struggles in the last two-hundred years, are starting to wear away again one after another. That is why many people are beginning to consider the idea of de-growth, of slowing down production rhythms—or even of going back to early industrial conditions—as the only real solution to the death of the world as we know it… This trend becomes particularly radical when it refuses a mystical and unlikely return to the pre-industrial past and hybridizes with the hacker and punk do-it-yourself ethics: the result is not only critical of hypertechnological progress, but it proposes alternatives which are both self-produced and, what’s more important, open to self-management. (reginazabo 2008)
Thus, for some members of the Steampunk movement, the relationship between material culture and temporality is understood as key to understanding current political economies, and their utopian alternatives. Recycling of goods and the ecological sustainability of cities through practices such as urban gardening in vacant lots are seen as resonant with the imaginative ‘recycling’ of time (Killjoy 2008).
Another contemporary social phenomenon indicative of the archaeological turn in popular culture is the urban exploration (UrbEx) movement (Paiva 2008, Solis 2005). Practitioners spelunker into the abandoned spaces and modern ruins of contemporary cities, exploring sewer tunnels, factories, amusement parks, and schools. While these activities are usually illegal (minimally violating private trespassing laws), most urban explorers take only photos, posting blogs with images via several on-line communities. Others sometimes collect souvenirs and call themselves “industrial archaeologists,” apparently unaware of their academic doppelgangers. The most prominent urban explorers are artists who pride themselves on their ability to “see” what society has overlooked in these neglected spaces. They are underground flâneurs, kindred spirits to Walter Benjamin, who was himself a bemused fan of Charles Fourier’s science fiction utopia.
Boym, S. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Killjoy, M. 2008. A steampunk’s guide to the apocalypse. www.steampunkmagazine.com/pdfs/steampunksguide-web.pdf
Paiva, T. 2008. Night vision: The art of urban exploration.
Reginazabo. 2008. Introduction to the steampunk’s guide to the apocalypse (italian edition). www.steampunkmagazine.com/inside/translated-introduction-to-the-italian-version-of-the-apocalypse-guide/#more-168
Solis, J. 2005. New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City. New York: Routledge.
Thorne, C. 2003. The revolutionary energy of the outmoded. October 104:97-114.