punk galore

[As ↵the question crept up, I thought it to be timely to complete a post which I began to draft in December last year … in between it found its way into my book ↑Cyberanthropology (Knorr 2011; in German). So, the following more or less is the English version of a snippet of the book’s third chapter, which is on the cyberpunk discourse.]

In 1991 The Difference Engine (Gibson & Sterling 1991), a collaborative novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, was published. The story is set in 19th century Great Britain, but—and that’s the core idea—Victorian society hasn’t developed as we can read it in the history books. Instead development went analogous paths to those the north Atlantic industrialized nation states took after World War II. Yet the key technology of the story’s universe isn’t digital electronics, but steam power. In this world mechanical computers are driven by steam engines, and so on. The novel is true to cyberpunk’s concepts and ideas, but the near future setting got replaced by an alternate history. (Sussmann 1994) A concept Philip K. Dick introduced with his novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). This story is set in a world where not the Allies but the Axis emerged victorious from World War II. The U.S. West coast is under imperial Japanese rule, the East coast is controlled by the Third Reich, etc.
    The concept of the technologically driven alternative course of history became a widely disseminated object of fascination. A downright inflation of genre-, or sub-genre-labels set in. Meanwhile quite some terms, all constructed after the blueprint ‘steampunk,’ are around. In chronological order of the ‘technology epochs’ they are refering to: stonepunk, bronzepunk, sandalpunk, candlepunk, clock- or springpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, atom[ic]punk, transistorpunk, and bitpunk.
    All those ‘genres’ can be grouped under the superordinate concept ‘timepunk,’ as the core idea is always the same. E.g. dieselpunk renders a fictitious era from the 1920s to ’50s which is not only defined by the war, art deco, pulp-fiction heroes, and swing, but also by a diesel technology which has ‘taken off’ and dominates culture and society.
    Besides steampunk, dieselpunk is the only one of the ‘sub-genres’ around which a substantial scene emerged. Both (interlocking) scenes—more than interesting for the anthropologer interested in ‘subcultures’—not only are manifest as impressive online infrastructures of interaction, but also feature rich cultural productions. Those comprise digital and material artefacts, from clothing to Victorian style computer hardware. (Knorr 2009: 166-169, Dawdy 2010: 766-767)
    Yet, timepunk is more than a collection of retrofuturistic instances, which use a historical period as a starting point and pivot for narrative phantasies. For cyberpunk derivatives set in the future a similar array of terms is around. The neologisms biopunk—or ribofunk, as Paul Di Filippo has suggested (1996)—, greenpunk (referring to the green revolution, namely the extensive use of specially bred seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides), and nanopunk point towards the respective technologies which are deemed to be dominant, and which are represented accordingly.
    Bruce Sterling never embraced genre denominations:

Scarcely any writer is happy about labels—especially one with the peculiar ring of ‘cyberpunk.’ Literary tags carry an odd kind of double obnoxiousness: those with a label feel pigeonholed; those without feel neglected. And, somehow, group labels never quite fit the individual, giving rise to an aching itchiness. It follows, then, that the ‘typical cyberpunk writer’ does not exist; this person is only a Platonic fiction. For the rest of us, our label is an uneasy bed of Procrustes, where fiendish critics wait to lop and stretch us to fit. (Sterling 1986: vii)

So I guess he didn’t have the serious intention to complete the time bar when he proposed the term nowpunk—comprising the whole literature set in the here and now. [It’d be superfluous to add that technology has to play a role in that literature, as there hardly can be any literary text making relevant statements on the present from which technology is absent ;-] I suppose that Sterling in a tongue-in-cheek manner wanted to bring the uncontrolled growth to a grinding halt.
    But that mission failed, as all the above is not yet enough. For narrative material which follows the principles and notions of cyberpunk, but draws on other genres for setting and ambience, ‘genre-punk’ terms have been invented: elfpunk, mythpunk, splatterpunk, salvagepunk, etherpunk, and stitchpunk. The last one really crowns the development, as it solely refers to the visual æsthetics of the feature-length animation film 9 by Shane Acker (2009).
    Looked upon from an analytical vantage point it is quite obvious that this kind of fragmenting genre-differentiation doesn’t make any sense. But it hints towards something: The unbroken interest in all things cyberpunk.

ACKER, SHANE. 2009. 9 [motion picture]. Universal City: Focus, Universal.
DAWDY, SHANNON LEE. 2010. Clockpunk anthropology and the ruins of modernity. Current Anthropology 51(6): 761-793.
DICK, PHILIP KINDRED. 1962. The man in the high castle. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
DI FILIPPO, PAUL. 1996. Ribofunk. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
GIBSON, WILLIAM FORD AND BRUCE STERLING. 1991. The difference engine. New York: Bantam.
KNORR, ALEXANDER. 2009. Maxmod: An ethnography of cyberculture [‘Habilitationsschrift,’ unpublished].
KNORR, ALEXANDER. 2011. Cyberanthropology. Wuppertal: Peter Hammer.
STERLING, BRUCE. 1986. “Preface,” in Mirrorshades: The cyberpunk anthology edited by Bruce Sterling, pp. vii-xiv. New York: Arbor House.
SUSSMAN, HERBERT. 1994. Cyberpunk meets Charles Babbage: “The difference engine” as alternative victorian history. Victorian Studies 38(1): 1-23.
This post draws on entries in several blogs: 14 SciFi-Punks…, Cyberpunk. Und die anderen Punks., and Cyberpunk, steampunk and now stitchpunk? Your guide to 11 sci-fi punks, plus on the very enlightening posts The ‘Punk’ Subgenre and All Sorts of Punk by J. E. Remy.
  • Mark McGuire Friday, 11th November 2011 at 11:16

    Greetings from Dunedin, New Zealand (less than two hours drive South of Oamaru, Cyberpunk capital of Middle Earth).

    Is “Cyberanthropology” available in English?


    • zephyrin_xirdal Friday, 11th November 2011 at 14:55

      Mark, thanks a lot for calling in from the other side of the globe! :-) I’m afraid, but no, “Cyberanthropology” is only available in German :-/

  • klandestino Friday, 2nd December 2011 at 12:57
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