Friday, March 25, 2011

Deferral unDreamed

Danna Haraway wrote in her book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium that the Second Millennium is the age of promises. This was in 1997, but this idea still does have some relevance today: we work hard to get money to reward ourselves; the cure for cancer is just around the corner, if we raise enough money, have enough funded scientists, make people more aware; and (as she points out) you could stop aging if you used the right kind of beauty products. Advertising is a great medium for promises like this: use this product and your life will improve in some way. Certainly, this works -- I do think Advil is an amazing life-improvement tool, for example.

But the concept of promise also implicates the concept of deferral: work harder, longer, to get more pay, to afford these grand promises. When I was a child, it was drummed into me that parents raised their children well, because well-brought-up children provide for aging parents: a just reward for the labour of child-rearing. How many of us have heard, "I can't wait to get out of high school"? How about, "I can't wait to move out / get a real job / retire"?

One could say that we are moving beyond this age of promises; whenever I hear people complaining about how kids are so entitled these days, I wonder if it's really a case of entitlement, or maybe, the new generation, of which I could be a part of, is simply not willing to defer dreams anymore. I think there's at least a subconscious awareness that promises don't actually work, that taking too long spells the dissipation of the dream, in North America, if nowhere else. What does it mean, beyond an inter-generational conflict of younger people getting frustrated at older people who are still in power, who still believe in deferral?

But for now, let's say that we live in a time of great promises.

What does this have to do with steampunk? Why the title of this post? Well, allow me to posit that a condition of this consumerist society is frustration at the deferral of dreams, of promises of things to come in the future. This futurity, which in the past would have meant a promise of happiness, a blank slate upon which to inscribe our fortunes, of never knowing what we're going to get and it could be pretty awesome, is looking pretty bleak for us: the job market is slender; the middle-class is shrinking; wars are still being fought by First World Countries despite the fact that First World countries are supposed to be fucking civilized. I remember a joke a while back, when I first graduated, among my batch, that if we didn't know what to do with ourselves, we could go teach English in a foreign country... it was a workable way of deferring the tough job of Figuring Out What To Do For The Rest Of Your Life.

Let us consider an element of steampunk that involves retrofuturism: we are living in the future of the imagined 19th century. We are creating the futurity promises that the Victorians could only have dreamed of. We are the deferred dreams of the Industrial Revolution.

When we take something old and invest it with a new function, a flashier function that it could ever have had, we're taking a dream of the old science fiction authors and infusing it with the imagination of the present. We don't have to dream it, when we can live it. And through our imagination, we transport ourselves back to that 19th century, into a present that never was. If the "primary social weight" of technoscience is its promise, then the primary social weight of technofantasy is, like most fantasy, its immediacy.

I'm writing this on the plane ride to Los Angeles, on the way to Nova Albion. Ay-Leen and I will be presenting Steam Around the World, and one of the questions we begin with is, "WHEN is steampunk?" and the answer is "NOW." But whose now are we in, surrounded by these gadgets, this particular aesthetic, that is not the aesthetic of the future as imagined by a previous generation? Ours?

This concept of living in a present that never was, I think, is a concept most applicable for those who dedicate themselves to roleplaying and Making, who are informed by contemporary -- futuristic and advanced by the standards of the Victorians mimicked -- sensibilities. Making and roleplaying is the un-dreaming - the bringing beyond dreams - of the dreams deferred for the Victorians.

It offers us, then, many possibilities for social transformations beyond the expectations of the Victorians. What if we were to undream the deferral of equality that John Stuart Mill wrote of? What if we were to undream the deferral for justice and fairness for the exploited labourers that poets and writers like Rosetti and Barrett-Browning and Dickens brought to light? As we roleplay and imagine the age of accelerated technology, what would it look like if we roleplayed and imagined the age of accelerated social justice?

1 comment:

  1. A defining characteristic of the American middle class is the deferral of gratification. Or it was, until the triumph of advertising and the development of consumer credit.

    Deferral made more sense in a period when living standards increased markedly over one's lifetime. That period started in roughly 1800, and ended in the United States in 1973.

    The period during which the lot of the average person improved most rapidly was between 1850 and 1900 in the United States, England, and France. In Japan that period happened in the first half of the twentieth century. In China, it is happening now.