Translated Introduction To The Italian Version of the Apocalypse Guide

Edit: I credited this wrong, have now fixed it.
Our Italian friend Reginazabo has furnished us with an English translation of their introduction to the translated steampunk’s guide to the apocalypse. I just read it over and it’s wonderful: it really nails most of what steampunk is about for us, and explores some new theoretical territory I hadn’t previously considered. Teaser paragraph below, the rest after the break:

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 and to the definitive establishment of a society ruled by control and fear, by a fundamental reduction of labourers to slavery and by a suicidal and ecocidal hyperproduction.


Introduction
by reginazabo

The Serpents were monstrous giants, but Nanabush defeated them with his cunning.
Then he had to recreate the heavens and earth. When your enemy is very strong, beating him is not enough. You need to dream a new world.
Wu Ming 2, Pontiac. Storia di una rivolta (“Pontiac. Story of a Rebellion”)

Like cyberpunk a quarter of century ago, today steampunk—especially in the U.S. and in the Web—is a blooming cultural movement, an aesthetic trend, and a lifestyle. It draws inspiration from modern science-fiction works by Gibson, Sterling (The Difference Engine), and Stephenson (The Diamond Age), just to mention a few, but is rooted further back in the history of literature, reaching to the worlds imagined by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Like cyberpunk, also steampunk owes to its suggestive atmospheres and to its unique aesthetics the extraordinary ability to seep into different media and to mix with different currents, thus establishing itself in popular imagination in the most diverse ways. It has influenced mangas by Miyazaki such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and movies like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children long before the label “steampunk” became widespread in everyday life.

And like cyberpunk, the steampunk movement is strictly connected through resistant and invisible ties to contemporary reality, a reality which is transfigured into a ghastly warning by steampunk—either set in an already computerized, highly advanced Victorian 19th Century, or in a future society determined by a hypertechnological order and by Victorian politeness.

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 and to the definitive establishment of a society ruled by control and fear, by a fundamental reduction of labourers to slavery and by a suicidal and ecocidal hyperproduction. 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. Such an approach can be seen among steampunks, who hack computers and other technical instruments to shroud them with a touch of retro charm while dreaming of a world where machines are made of gears and wheels—which can be managed and manipulated much better than the quasi-esoteric and by all means unfathomable silicon components and electronic chips.

Surprising and spectacular machineries and contrivances are thus born, and behind their delightful wrought iron coils, their mahogany inlays and their sophisticated brass trimmings hide laptop computers, vehicles and musical instruments that take us back to an age when machines could still be invented, constructed and developed by hand. The authors of these works are not prey to delusions: they know very well that their hacks are generally nothing more than a beautiful superficial layer (although some go as far as to build functioning steam engines); yet, this aesthetic patina is connected to the fundamental philosophy of the steampunk approach to technology—an approach which refers to a historical moment when machines could still be created in a garden shed and anybody could become a great inventor in her own little way, thus going beyond free software and reclaiming open hardware: the possibility of modifying technical instruments according to one’s needs and concept of beauty, without having to replace them due to the slightest fault, as is the case of the iPod, the foremost emblem of advanced consumerism.

Excellently promulgated by Strangers in a Strangled Wilderness—the collective which published both the Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse and the “SteamPunk Magazine” , from which we have drawn the articles included in the final appendices to this volume—, the steampunk culture does not only evoke the magnificent aesthetics and the proper manners of the Victorian world (ironically alluded by the formal language used in the Guide and by its profusion of capital letters, consistent with the strict hierarchical order of the time), but it also puts a stress on its rebellious yearnings, starting from the Luddites and from famous anarchist feats such as Gaetano Bresci’s regicide. But this does not mean that steampunk is a Luddite or misoneistic [editors note: I had to look this word up, and it wasn’t in the first dictionary I found. But Misoneism as a noun means: “hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.” It’s a cool word.] movement, nor that it considers overt rebellion as a binding commitment—rather, by recalling those routes of opposition, it evokes with a touch of regret an age that was still open to many possible choices, a historical moment when the idea of progress was still associated with the utopia of universal wellbeing and it was generally assumed that every people in the world could benefit from the marvellous fruits of human intellect.

However, the regret of that past should not be mistaken for a sort of nostalgia: steampunk’s references to the charm of Victorian aesthetics do not disguise at all the evil-smelling alleys of 19th-century cities, the catarrh of consumption, the massacres of colonialism and the coal dust covering the child miners’ faces, buried in the pits from dawn to dusk seven days a week; nor can they indeed obscure the similarities with today’s uncontrolled capitalism, as it gradually frees itself from the constraints which have been forced on it by the centuries, and recovers a freedom of action unseen from its beginnings, during the Industrial Revolution. If anything, it is by highlighting this similarity through an ironical and ominous mirror effect that steampunk expresses the most radical of its critics, and this must be one of the reasons why it is gaining ground in this particular historical period. There’s more to it: besides bringing out the parallel between two ages of capitalistic triumphs, steampunk casts light on their differences, reminding us that while the Victorian age was just the beginning of a journey, that journey is now coming to an end, and as it approaches its height, it bumps into its obvious limits, which are both physical and geographical. Besides, by introducing elements of what we recognize as (technical) progress into a context which in some ways we consider old and outdated, steampunk implicitly suggests that not even our present—a moment which is generally seen as the climax of human progress—has actually ever overcome the nightmares of old (epidemics, famine, torture and Crusades, just to name a few); thus, the critic to the excesses of technology and modernity turns into a harsh polemic that refutes for good, in case it was still necessary, the myth of welfare inherent in the idea of progress.

The readers of Vernes’ first editions could still believe in the “grand, progressive destinies” disclosed by technology to humanity, dreaming of travelling to the Moon, imagining to explore unknown places on a balloon or identifying themselves with the rebellious spirit of Captain Nemo; today, on the other hand, the whole planet has not only been charted, but is also continuously scanned by satellites and can be viewed almost entirely through Google Maps; our imagination is saturated with space travels, they are looking for water on Mars and in the end Philip José Farmer had already revealed as early as in 1973, in his The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, that Captain Nemo, along with every rebellious hero, actually hid a wicked and cruel side in himself.

While in the 19th Century the Panopticon, the totally controlled prison, had just been
theorized by Jeremy Bentham and was far from being implemented, today CCTVs placed at every street corner have changed the world into a huge all-seeing monitoring system superior to Bentham’s wildest fantasies, and the possibility of taking to the bush—once open to outlaws and runaways of all sorts ready to give up the benefits of “civilization” as long as they could escape its rigid rules—is now made pointless by the omnipresent, inquisitive eyes of advanced technology.

It is perhaps thanks to their open possibilities, because of their unexplored territories and of their rules still to be defined, that web communities and virtual worlds like Second Life are inhabited by large cybervictorian groups, and in Italy it is mostly thanks to them that steampunk culture is conquering popular imagination and spreading among hackers and DIY projects (it is however right and fair to remind that a steampunk creation ahead of its time was born in the Italian hacking milieu: the legnatile [a fusion between the words legno, “wood”, and portatile, “laptop”, which could perhaps be translated with “woodtop”, or “lapwood”], a laptop computer boasting a case created in the early 2000s with an old crate of Sicilian vintage wines).

Virtual worlds are open by default to explorations and Voyages Extraordinaires, often associated with travel logs as happened in the 18th- and 19th-century Grand Tours, and in Second Life a whole archipelago named Caledon is populated by a steampunk community, which wonderfully exploits the freedom of 3D scenery creation offered by this platform. The possibility of creating original environments allows participants to represent the mixture of different aesthetics which is typical of steampunk, to put together buildings and cities—sometimes floating in the sky, thanks to steam propulsion—, and to visit them in an immersive way, possibly deepening the involvement in this experience by participating in role play dynamics or by enacting a particular character.

Apart from showing excellent skills in creating its lavish and decadent atmospheres, dotted with Neo-Gothic palaces, mechanical gears and fancy steam engines, the steampunk community in Second Life—dressed up with top hats, monocles and crinoline, and never forgetting some graceful mechanic accessory—sets the rules for its social coexistence also with regard to software configuration: for instance in New Babbage—another steampunk city in this virtual world—they have strangely disabled a recent function, which has been distributed for months in the whole platform and allows for communication among users by means of a microphone; the other communication form used in the platform, which is based on chatrooms, is by no means more archaic or less cybernetic, and by favouring an old tool instead of the new one, this community actually ends up with appearing as a Victorian group mostly in virtue of its conservatism.

The irony implied in this attitude, as well as in the fine decorations applied to absolutely modern computers and electric guitars, casts light on the impossibility of the steampunks’ yearning for change; their discomfort towards today’s reality can only be relieved by wrapping up in an aesthetic aura made of brass, wood, bits and prims, without ever renouncing a subtle, and definitely post-modern, irony. The same irony can be found in another (not too) imaginary solution pointed out by their same critic to the status quo: the apocalyptic way. By now, in fact, only a general catastrophe could give us back the ability of directing the human and technical progress to different paths other than the one taken with the Industrial Revolution, and the self-managed urban community which gathers after the great global devastation in FreakAngels, a comic by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, can be described as steampunk despite the lack of top hats, if one considers the skyscrapers with kitchen gardens on top and the self-produced machines, driven mostly by steam and spread all over the area in order to offer a new life to the population of survivors.

But despite their gloomy post-apocalyptic setting, while reading both the comic and the ironically optimistic instructions included in A Steampunk’s Guide to Apocalypse, one could be tempted to feel a sense of hope—the hope that something could really happen and stop the deadly, dehumanizing race which is sweeping us away, the hope that new fruits can sprout from the collapse of the matrix—and that these fruits are self-produced with new, freer and less cryptic technologies. By passing through the Apocalypse and by laying emphasis on the do-it-yourself approach, then, steam-driven punks can imagine a world where, for once, shouting “no future” is not strictly necessary anymore.

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One Response to “Translated Introduction To The Italian Version of the Apocalypse Guide”

  1. […] see the Introduction to the Apocalypse Guide in Steampunk […]

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