Dystopia and hope in -punk
It’s crappy out there now
More lockdowns, more cases, more deaths - 2021 is not the breath of fresh air many had hoped for. It really feels like we’re living in a dystopian future. Dystopias are all the rage now, from jokes about this being the best season of Black Mirror ever, to the concept of the doomer.
Dystopias are far from recent, of course, and even as far back as 2014 their popularity was seen as a warning sign for the future. I wanted to know just how far back the warnings went, and did a little survey of punk and some of its cultural offspring.
Punk’s origins are hotly constested, since punk was then (and still is) a heavily debated movement. The most recognizable punk may come from the UK in the early to mid 70s, but its origin may stem from acts such as The Sonics in the mid 60’s. The Sonics are derided for their lack of formal musical instruction, and some would even say talent, but their lack of knowledge of the rules was a plus - it’s much easier to break down convention if you’re totally oblivious of it. This disregard for the rules and decorum is one of the pillars of punk.
Later in the 60s, Iggy Pop’s The Stooges packaged the crassness and live performance raucousness we now associate with punk in one energetic, and often political, package. In the US, punk emerged as a definite thing around the 70s in New York and benefitted from local cross-pollination with differently stroked acts such as The Talking Heads and Blondie. In the end, punk would kind of fizzle out, and artists influenced by it would drift away (evolve?) toward new musical styles. Punk wouldn’t completely die out though, as the mid to late 90s saw a resurgence in punk acts that, by then, had already morphed into something a bit parallel but still recognizable as “punk to the core” like Green Day, Bad Religion, or the Offspring - no doubt fueled by punk’s engrained “counterculture” tradition in Western society and record labels’ insatiable lust for new, alternative, markets during the 90s.
The Sex Pistols - Anarchy In The U.K. [🔗]
In the UK, however, punk is more commonly associated with working class rebellion at the state of the country during the 70s. Conditions were so bad (trash was piling up in London’s streets at one point) that Labor would be out of power from 1979 to 1997, ushering in Thatcher’s rule with an iron fist that would earn her her nickname. Art being a reflection of life, it’s no wonder that punk music was even more crass and political in England at this time.
Punk is also the continuation of a generations long coming-of-age tradition that may go as far back as the first agrarian settlements: rebellion at one’s ancestors and the rules and traditions they attempt to impose on us. Just with mosh pits, mohawks, politically-fueled cussing and repetive chords on electric guitars set to high distortion.
After the West’s relative sympathy for the flower-power movement and soft(ish) defiance of the 60s for good causes like the environment or Vietnam, here came a group of people focused on tearing every symbol of authority down, and spitting in the face of onlookers as they did it with their steel-tipped boots.
And don’t think it was just the West. Punk would become a recognizable fixture in every corner of the world, from Japan to African nations:
The world was shook, and that shock would soon ripple through literature of the time.
Hyper - Spoiler [🔗]
I know it sounds weird in 2021, but literature was once king in mainstream culture.
And it was from literature of the early 80s that visions first sprung forth of an oppressive future where corporations ruled with impunity, fought off online attacks from netrunners and social mobility is a mere fantasy. In its earliest known instance, Cyberpunk is a mix of “cyber” from cybernetics, which in 1980 (the time of the short story’s inception) was closely aligned with avant-garde sci-fi due to its hazely defined mix of biology, technology and governance, and “punk” since the main character is a young hacker. “Cyberpunk” would be published in 1983, a year before what most people would probably associate as the first true cyberpunk novel, the seminal Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Neuromancer is very dear to me. I read it for the first time when I was around 15 and it completely sucked me in to its world of despair, intoxication and advanced technology. I thought it was one of the best books ever, on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dune. And even though I’m no longer 15, I still think it was remarkable for how close to the pulse of the times it was, and how relevant its themes would become in the future.
William Gibson once summarized cyberpunk as “high tech, low life”. Its vision of extreme inequality that practically forces everyday people into lives of crime to have more than the bare essentials, or to find out the truth about what really goes on in the world is sadly becoming more and more relevant in the 21st century. However, there’s a distinction between literary cyberpunk and the pastiche version of it we often consume in films and TV shows.
In visual media, we rarely get exposed to cyberpunk’s deeper critique of societal unrest in a hyper-connected world, or even what it means to be conscious if you go down the trans-humanist/mind upload rabbit hole. Instead we are bombarded with aesthetics, CGI and the traditional good (runner) vs bad (corporation) narrative. This is particularly problematic since some would argue the whole point of cyberpunk is to write stories about shady characters - data runners that “liberate” data for a couple of credits, street hustlers that move in on other gangs’ turfs, scammers that prey on people and vamp them. Real bad. Somewhat schizo personalities, either because of the environment around them, or the drugs they take to cope with it (or just experiment). In this, cyberpunk is a continuation of the narratives and framing of Beat generation writing. But it is to be expected that the mainstream view on anything is one of condensation and persistence of the status quo (but with cyberpunk clothes this time!), especially when cyberpunk can be perceived as a biting critique of the failings of capitalism, made particularly evident in its late stage form.
For more on the aesthetics of cyberpunk, and its political ramifications, I highly recommend this video:
Punk is not all dystopia, though. There’s also steampunk, which roughly amounts to cyberpunk, but set in the late 1800s. Curiously, steampunk is even more aesthetically driven than cyberpunk and the biggest influence it has had seems to have been on cosplayers.
Given its retro-futuristic vibe, steampunk comes off as hopeful - that mankind has achieved significant advancements sooner, that Victorian times weren’t so dire after all, and that we could have gone to space in 1889. I don’t know, it’s more fantasy than sci-fi, so not really my thing.
-punk is up for grabs these days after cyber- and steam-, a multitude of movements have gained prominance in recent years. One of the most peculiar, since at its core it rejects the contrarianism of punk rock and cyberpunk, is Solarpunk.
Solarpunk is defined by its positive utopian setting, and daring to dream of a future in which mankind has solved the multiple existential crisis of the 21st century and returns to a balance with nature using technology. We’re not talking about techno-utopianism necessarily, as that is usually associated with Silicon Valley bros thinking we can innovate our way out of climate change with apps, or solve e-voting with blockchain.
Solarpunk works are big on renewable energy, redesigned urban spaces in sync with nature, maker/repair culture and outdoor/off-the-grid living. A good example of Solarpunk’s values is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Solarpunk is also software - for example, Secure Scuttlebutt. Its decentralized, occasionally connected nature embodies the values of work-life balance, and rejection of centralized planning. It features a few very active channels on offgrid living and solar powered servers. The movement is still fresh, and I hope if flourishes with time.
$DEITY knows we need hope for the future, if we are to survive this troubled century.
/r/solarpunk wiki is a good place to start for more info.
I leave you with some satire gold, courtesy of Green Jellÿ.
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