Salvagepunk is an idea and framework I’ve been toying with for a couple of weeks, and which I borrow loosely from Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011). In this book, Calder Williams looks at the way apocalyptic fantasies function in late capitalist culture. Salvagepunk is a useful way to approach other modes of cultural production as well, however. It’s a framework that is indebted to both cyberpunk and steampunk, and which is especially useful to apply to remix culture, sharing, as it often does, a politics and aesthetic with the notion of salvage. More recently, this subject has been explored in a Leftist quarterly called Salvage.
Salvage – a term that, in English, was originally associated with the payment received ‘for saving a ship from wreck or capture’ – only came to describe the act of saving itself in the late 19th century with the dawn of the salvage corps. As cities grew, and the risk of large-scale property loss became more central, insurance underwriters found it profitable to establish fire salvage services to reduce losses. A later meaning, evolving during WWI, refers to the ‘recycling of waste material’: put explicitly, the combing of battlefields by the British Army’s Salvage Corps (a ghoulish double entendre), which re-purposed the parts and property of fallen machines and soldiers for continuing use in the war effort.
In each case, salvage is a response to the opportunity for profit or, at the very least, for minimising financial loss. As Calder Williams writes, the primary definition of salvage today is also ‘waste sorting and value recuperation’ (p. 35, emphasis mine). Salvage is not only the logical extreme at the end of history, it is also the logical extension of capitalist values: for every object a market value. Nothing is ever really junk. Assuming we want to move outside of the capitalist logic that makes us consume our own past again and again in various iterations (which may or may not be our goal), something different is needed.
For Calder Williams, the end of history that postmodernism signalled was, like all apocalypses, never really the end. Rather than simple rebellion (a rebellion he calls a kind of ‘apologist participation’ on p. 30) against the historical metanarratives that have led us to this present reality, we must instead look for the alternate stories within those metanarratives. Most importantly, we must struggle against ‘current trendlines of nostalgia, the melancholia of buried history, and static mourning for radical antagonistic pasts seemingly absent from contemporary resistance to capitalism’. Cultural modes of historiography like steampunk fall too close to these trendlines for Calder Williams – but does the historical monster mashup? Steampunk brings the past back to life in order to fetishise it, and many fans of steampunk are no doubt also fans of historical monster mashup for the way it borrows these same retrofuturist aesthetics.
Now, my work on the historical monster mashup doesn’t currently focus on apocalyptic fiction – though, in a sense, all contemporary fiction is post-apocalyptic, coming as it does on the heels of postmodernism and the ‘end of history’. The texts I’m looking at do, however, seem very interested in the possibilities opened up by the salvage of the past. Whether we call the product of that salvage adaptation, remix, or historical fiction largely becomes a question of aesthetics, which in turn determines whether it can indeed be seen as an act of salvage (salvation and eventual repurposing) or a simple case of grave robbing (and ultimate waste).
Acts of salvagepunk attempt to walk a middle ground between these two extremes. They ‘strive against and away from the ruins upon which they cannot help but be built and through which they rummage’ (p. 20). It is this oscillation that renders salvagepunk distinct from postmodern instances of pastiche, Calder Williams argues:
Fundamentally opposed to pastiche, salvage realizes the eccentricity of discarded, outmoded, and forgotten things still marked by the peculiar imprint of their time of production and the store of labor and energy frozen in their form. A form from which all value has supposedly been lost. Above all, it is that work of construction, not simply getting to see what can be sold back to the industrial suppliers, but a production of ‘valueless times’ to see what values might emerge outside of the loops of circulation and accumulation. (p. 42)
In other words, in order to preserve the value of objects, we first need to destroy them. Ultimately this destruction is a creative act (p. 41). We cannot stop repeating, but we should be concerned with ‘how to repeat differently, how to make from the broken same the livelier constructs of something other’ (p. 69).