“The whole point of punk is not doing what you’re told to do.” — Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory
Cyberpunk has become a neoliberal dream of technological ubiquity. Steampunk reinserts a romanticized sense of craftsmanship into the world. The term salvagepunk was coined by Evan Calder Williams to gather science fiction literature and film with a different agenda. Salvagepunk takes place in “a world of stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves, and rearranging the leftovers” (2010: 70). Its key feature is that instead of reimaging objects as something different from what they are, actually existing objects are punked into something new.Thus salvagepunk is about “choice and construction” (ibid.) rather than reimagination and rehistorization. This construction takes place by means of what I call “punking objects,” meaning—in the words of Virginie Despentes quoted in the epigraph—objects do what they are not intended to.
Punk sometimes gets a bad name, especially when considered a mere stylistic disruption, one more interested in safety pins and spiked hair than systematic, global change. But this is not the only kind of punk there is. Punks are also great recyclers, turning safety pins and dog collars into what they were never meant to be. As Richard Hell says, punk is the opposite of the authentic use of things: “Punk is pretty funny. It’s like reality itself, as exemplified by the statement, ‘This sentence is a lie.’ It’s hard to be authentic” (Hell 99). Salvagepunk inauthenticizes objects, turning them away from their intended purpose toward something else. It creates “hostile objects,” which are “weirdly incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed” (Williams 2016: 21). This is more than just a question of style. The use of the world, so far, has led to environmental catastrophe and massive inequality. Different ways of thinking are needed. As key salvagepunk works found below suggest, Punking objects into something new might lead to something better.
China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) is a key reference for salvagepunk (Willems 105-6). In part, the novel tells the story of Isaac, a scientist who accidentally grows a strange caterpillar into a deadly monster, called a slakemoth, which feeds on the minds of its victims. There are many other such creatures, and in order to them, Isaac enlists the help of the Construct Council—a giant formed out of junk from a garbage dump, a collection of repurposed salvage: “The rubbish was a body. A vast skeleton of industrial waste twenty-five feet from skull to toe” (Miéville 2000: 547). Yet the novel also inserts a new element into the concept of salvagepunk. The “repurposing, détourning, and scrapping” (Williams 2010: 20) of salvagepunk is not initiated by a human hand, rather it is caused by non-human agents. New objects are the product of forces outside of human control, “thrown together and powered without the intervention of human design” (Miéville 548). This calls to mind a passage from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter in which a number of discarded objects are punked into life. A glove, pollen, a dead rat, a bottle cap, and a stick of wood are not just junk lying in the street, they have an effect on the viewer, they are a group of objects “that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects” (4). Salvagepunk is not just about objects used by humans in new human ways, but it features objects with new functions that lie outside the human context. This is also what saves salvagepunk from simply being style: non-human organizations of knowledge and functions can lead to a kind of freedom away from the limitations and damage of human understanding and action (Brassier).
This is important because we are living in a devastated world brought about by our own hubris. The irreversible ecological collapse of the Anthropocene indicates how the destruction of humanity has become a “global geophysical force” (Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill 614), and neoliberalism has become so pervasive that it seems impossible to imagine any alternative (Jameson 2003: 76). The world is not heading for an apocalypse, the apocalypse has already happened. As Williams, puts it, “the world is now irrevocably structured as apocalyptic wasteland” (2010: 36). Salvagepunk is the proper genre for the current age because it not only says that “it’s already been burnt, already lost at sea” (ibid.), but it shows how “we can only begin again from here if we finish wrecking – in thought – what we know to be wreckage yet which refuses to call itself such” (36-7). Or, as Miéville says in an interview, “It’s too late to save, but we might repurpose” (Miéville 2018).
Miguel Llansó’s film Crumbs (2015) focuses on such repurposing. Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and his fiancée Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) exist in a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia (filmed in the northern region of Dallol) in which the remaining pop-cultural objects from our time take on new meaning. A short plastic Christmas tree is worth risking your life; a plastic sword, still cable-tied to its packaging, becomes a defensive weapon; and a vinyl copy of Michael Jackson’s 1991 album Dangerous pays for a wedding. Although these objects are all products of industrial technology, they are not the technological fetishes of cyberpunk. Nor are they the re-crafted Victoriana of steampunk. Instead, these objects show how Candy and Birdy are “stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves” (Williams 2010: 70) of their past, our own present. As Mark Bould, who has also connected Crumbs and salvagepunk, says of the film, “There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning” (Bould). Objects are not given new history or imagined as something else, but rather are used to construct new theories and values. As Miéville says, salvagepunk is about “tinkering in broken crap with aggressive uninterest in original usages” (Miéville 2010). This is the repurposing energy of punk at work, doing with objects what they were not meant to do. As Llansó has said,
For me punk is not a music style but it’s more linked to the subversion of genres and the freewheeling creative force. In this sense (politically and aesthetically) punk is an-archist, because it destroys the “arch” (arché in ancient Greek means “principles,” “dogmas,” “grounds,” so anarchism means lack of grounds or dogmas). So basically punk is the invention of new rules, getting rid of the old ones. (Personal communication)
In Crumbs, freedom does not only mean that objects can take on new economic value. There is also a spiritual dimension. Michael Jordan has become a god, as have Just Bieber IV and San Pablo Picasso. The film features objects which now signify new things because their meanings follow different rules. This is done by taking these objects out of their everyday human contexts. The removal from this context is represented by periodic shots of these objects slowly rotating in space above Earth, far away from any human contact.
Yet Crumbs takes the punking of objects one step further. It is not just external objects which become punked, but ourselves. The punking-of-ourselves arises from collusion with non-human agents, similar to the direction that Miéville indicates in Perdido Street Station. In Crumbs, Candy is on a quest to find Santa Claus, not to make a request for a present, but to ask whether Candy is really an alien who has forgotten he arrived on the now-rotting spaceship hanging over the horizon. Candy identifies his feeling of alienness in the comic-book icon Superman, “a visitor from another planet,” as he puts it. However, Santa Claus tells Candy that no, he is not an alien, rather his father sent him to his uncle in the countryside when the devastating war began. Thus, Candy only feels like an alien, rather than being one, and once he realizes this, the spaceship starts up again, takes off into space, and quickly explodes.
The potential for the alienness of Candy is given more space in Troy Grice’s 2017 novelization of the film. Rather than just identifying with the other-worldness of Superman, in the novel Candy claims that “I am the Andromeda Child” (Grice 181), naming the closest major galaxy to Earth. Although Santa Claus also denies Candy’s alienness in the novel, at the end, when the spaceship takes off, it goes “in the general direction of Andromeda” (190), thus giving some credence to Candy’s claim to being connected with the real aliens of the story, since the origin of the ship is otherwise unknown.
This difference between film and novelization is small, but important. There is a non-human punking agent found inside a human. Above, I argued that in the age of the Anthropocene, when human influence is measured on a global scale, non-human organizations of knowledge are necessary to invent new rules which are different from those that devastated the planet. Crumbs represents this not only by punking objects, but by punking the human through the figure of Candy. Thus, it falls into line with science fiction that engages in what I have called “the Zug Effect,” the name of which I take from Damon Knight’s 1964 novel Beyond the Barrier, in which a human who is sent out to kill an alien Zug finds out he was the monster all along (Knight 133; Willems 14-30). The Zug Effect, I’ve argued, is found whenever an object displays qualities or functions that cannot be subsumed into any past, present, or future orders of human knowledge. It is a name for the incommensurably alien. A contemporary iteration of the Zug Effect can be found in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, in which Binti slowly learns that the real strangeness in her life is located inside herself, as she has been unknowingly carrying alien DNA. Thus when she asks the punk-ish question “Why don’t I ever want to do what I’m supposed to do?” (Okorafor 132), what she really means to question is why she is never really the person she is supposed to be. She will never again fit back into her home.
Punking expectations is scary because it leads to new objects, to new people. As Fredric Jameson argues, there is “a thoroughgoing anxiety in the face of everything we stand to lose in the course of so momentous a transformation that – even in the imagination – it can be thought to leave little intact of current passions, habits, practices, and values” (Jameson 60). The non-human punking of objects can be frightening, because it indicates new rules to follow, new directions to go, new ways of being. This is also the strength of punk, of its “freewheeling creative force,” in the words of Llansó. The specificity of salvagepunk is that it can find this creative force in the detritus of the apocalypse of the present.
Bio: Brian Willems is assistant professor of literature and film theory at the University of Split, Croatia. He is the author of Speculative Realism and Science Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, 2017), Shooting the Moon (Zero Books, 2015), Facticity, Poverty and Clones (Atropos Press, 2010), Hopkins and Heidegger (Continuum, 2009) and the novella Henry, Henry (Zero Books, 2017).
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Bould, Mark. “Crumbs (Miguel Llansó, Ethiopia/Spain/Finland, 2015).” Markbould.com. November 18, 2015. Internet: https://markbould.com/2015/11/18/crumbs-miguel-llanso-ethiopiaspainfinland-2015/.
Brassier, Ray. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom.” Mattin.org. 2013. Internet: http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html.
Despentes, Virginie. King Kong Theory. Trans. Stéphanie Benson. New York: Feminist Press, 2010.
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Llansó, Miguel. Message to author. 16 April 2018. E-mail.
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Steffen, Will, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36:8 (2007): 614-621.
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