Anyone who read my last two blogs will know that I did the following things: dismiss the “X-punk” affix, (unintentionally) dismiss some sub-genres that use the affix to describe themselves, and then backtrack from my position. I’m nothing if not inconsistent. But in the discussions that followed, my good friend and fantasy/SF writer Marshall Maresca suggested (if I may paraphrase) that “—punk” serves as a useful shorthand. It calls to mind a subversive, rebellious attitude that transgresses accepted social norms to create a more liberated social space. He wrote, “If someone tells me, ‘I’m doing a teslapunk story’ or ‘I’m doing an atompunk story’, then I’ve got an instant sense of exactly the feel and look they want to achieve.” He then went on to agree that “nowpunk” makes no sense.
I was satisfied. I still disagree with the use of “—punk” on the grounds that overuse strips it of meaning. But I was willing to accept his argument. After all, that is one of the processes through which languages change. Linguistic communities (or, more accurately, interpretive communities) decide for themselves how a word is to be used, and set the term in ways that are useful for them. In Old English, the word “stench” (stenc) simply meant “smell.” It was possible to tell a woman that she had a lovely stench, and not get slapped. Words change as the community needs them to change. So I accepted Marshall’s argument, and accepted that he threw me a bone in agreeing about “nowpunk.”
And then, I woke up at 2:00 AM. Why not nowpunk? If we accept that “—punk” is a useful shorthand (which I haven’t completely accepted, I just don’t want to argue about right now), then what keeps “nowpunk” from being meaningful? If we are going to build a useful framework, nothing excludes this term from use.
My first thought was that “nowpunk” is really just “punk.” Not so under our new schema. If the “—punk” affix means that something about the setting or the characters therein transgress social norms and strive for liberation, then we have to accept that this carries its own meaning that is distinct from “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement from the ‘70s. The terms are related, but not conflated. “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement is a free morpheme: it stands alone as a unit of meaning. Meanwhile, “—punk” is a bound morpheme: it must be attached to another unit of meaning to be useful.
I was still unconvinced at that point. After all, if I were talking about the oatmeal that is sitting next to me, waiting to be eaten, I wouldn’t call it “now-oatmeal,” would I? My dogs that share my house are not my “now-dogs” (in contrast to the dogs I have had in the past). But actually, we do that all the time. People talk about “my current girlfriend” or “the class I am taking now.” It is a way of classifying the information. All of my objections to “nowpunk” had been put to bed.
I did have a final problem, though. What made “nowpunk” fundamentally different from, say, a techno-thriller by any number of Tom Clancy-esque writers? What made “nowpunk” different from Modern Warfare 3? At first, I recalled that in the discussion, CSI was suggested: they do impossible things with technology, but put into a modern setting. “Enhance the picture” was the example. But the characters in CSI don’t subvert the social order in any way. And it isn’t just subversion: Sterling, in his original suggestion about “nowpunk” said that “Gibson’s doing this too” (http://craphound.com/sterlingsxsw04.txt). The characters in Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History aren’t all about subversion.Some are, but others are just trying to navigate their way through a fragmented and splintered Modernity.
There is the key: I don’t think “nowpunk” is describing the characters or the technology, so much as the ways in which the characters move through technocratic Modernity. The modern world just has a different feel than the world of a few generations prior. Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikoli Leskov” (1936), wrote, “A generation that has gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body” (84). For Benjamin, the world had changed in ways and at speeds that culture was not capable of accepting or even understanding. And the pace of technological (and economic) change has certainly increased since the time Benjamin wrote his essay. Benjamin suggests that we live in a fractured, partial existence. But more than this, according to critic Ben Highmore, Benjamin suggests that the fractures of our existence are the detritus, the trash of previous eras. Highmore suggests that:
The ‘object’ of fascination that animates Benjamin’s later work is the Parisian arcade, not in its heyday but as a ‘ruin’ existing in a time when it has been superseded, outmoded. The rag-picker [Benjamin’s image for those in an uneasy relationship with Modernity] deals in the second-hand, in the dreams of the past for a future that was never realized. (Everyday Life & Cultural Theory, 65).
We are the ragpickers, the people who deal in trash culture. We are trying to take the failures of modern culture and repurpose them into new ways of dealing with the ruins all around us. That, I think, is what Nowpunk probably is.