Monday, July 9, 2012

Link of Interest: "On Supertrees, Neocolonialism and Globalization"

Via Annabeth Leow Hui Min (whose short story is the opener for the Singaporean steampunk anthology The Steampowered Globe), I read this interesting essay exploring the nuances of Singapore's new trend on "supertrees," its ties to the globalization rhetoric of how cosmopolitanism looks like, and how it reflects a neocolonial undercurrent by attempting to be representative but still viewing Singapore through a specific, colonizer lens, offering up the little island for consumption by a Western Gaze, and using these Eurocentric standards to measure success.

Consider how there are 225,000 species of plants in the new Gardens, the vast majority of which were chosen because they were “not commonly found in Singapore.” In essence, the Gardens represent an attempt to mimic globalization in the specific geographical location of Singapore as it strives, above all else, to be a hub of transnational capital and investments. What exactly were the costs in terms of the carbon footprint to carefully ship all these plants to Singapore? Further, like colonial botanic gardens of old, the Gardens are a vision of governmental mastery over nature, dictated by planners, scientists, botanists and capital. They are experimental spaces for technology and environment modification, and attempts to combat the equatorial climate of Singapore.
These omissions seem less grave when we consider how the larger human and environmental costs of the project might be obscured as well. We might do well to reflect on who exactly was doing the heavy lifting in the transformation of site that did not have roads, drains, sewers or electricity. In a 30 June 2012 Straits Times article, the chief executive of the Gardens, Dr. Tan Wee Kiat reveals that of the $1 billion spent on the gardens, 80 percent went to the infrastructure works while the 700,000 plants were less than 20 percent of the budget. While we might assume that some of the money that went infrastructure went into labour, I would argue that this is optimistic at best. Consider another article: “Injured worker goes home, loses 13 kg in 7 months” [Footnote 3] this time by the organization Transient Workers Count Too, dated April 2012. This article chronicles the misfortunes of Asad who was injured while commuting to the work site at Gardens by the Bay. His painful injuries aside, Asad’s revelations of his working conditions makes us question the sustainability and humanity of relying and exploiting foreign labour. According to the article, Asad worked 24 hours every other day in May and April 2011 for $1,600 a month. What exactly were the working conditions for the 1,000 workers then, who were reportedly working “around the clock” to ensure that the Gardens could have their official opening without a hitch? What kinds of human costs are justified here?
One of the UK-based designers responsible for Gardens on the Bay had a memorable quip in the promotional video, saying “On a plate, this is what Singapore is about.” While I am not against Singapore becoming a more cosmopolitan and diverse place, we need to ask some hard questions as well: Do we need to be served up on “a plate”? Who defines and decides “what Singapore is about”? Is it a breathlessly instant garden, planned to exploit the tourist market, built on occasionally shaky reclaimed land without much regard to the foreign labourers’ welfare or the decadence of spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on importing plants from all over the world? When we are simplified and contained “on a plate”, what other stories and issues are obscured from this self-presentation? Could we have a more honest and fair spatial relationship with this land that we call our home?
Read the rest of the essay at Yawning Bread, or click the link below to read my thoughts on how it relates to steampunk.

I think these are really important questions to ask and articulate for ourselves, no matter where we are, especially those of us in countries that are industrializing and being hailed as economic successes. What, really, do we benefit from an economy that runs on continual consumption and how do we expect to sustain it?

These are also worthwhile questions for steampunks interested in "green steam" and sustainability as well; what is our relationship to nature in our current subject positions, and how do we produce things in steampunk?

I'm very curious about these questions now, because they seem to me a very natural progression from talking about race and culture within steampunk. I have a very strong hunch that one of the reasons why (mostly white) steampunks find it fine and dandy to culturally appropriate and cherry-pick what they like from non-white cultures is due primarily to this concept of consumption, of commodification, that has links to how colonial empires imported "culture" (and thus some cosmopolitanism) from their colonies.

This kind of capitalist commodity consumption has bigger ramifications than just the perpetuation of white supremacy; it also affects the environment in various ways that not only hastens the garbaging of our world, but affects how non-white peoples, people of colour, and indigenous groups are treated, or ignored. It has ties to the continued indentured servitude of black people, the continued apartheid against indigenous people, the model minority myth, the prison industrial complex.

I've been seeing a lot of criticism lobbed at steampunk for seeing history with rose-tinted glasses and I've been hearing a lot of overly-romanticized ideas about the 19th century and what it represented, and how steampunks are trying to bring that back. Natch, they're both right, and both wrong, because they only scratch the surface of what steampunk is truly capable of. Moreover, they only scratch the surface of what humanity is capable of. 

I'm really excited for the upcoming Steampunk POC interview, and muchly so because of how it ties into the previous Steampunk POC interview, as well as other conversations that I've been having with many steampunks, not just POC, but also white steampunks. 

Let me go on record and say that I hope steampunk as a fashionable (not fashion) trend dies in a fire soon, because as much as the mainstream attention is nice in getting our hobby out there and recognized not just as legit, but legitly awesome and cool and fun, there is also a spike in stupid conversations I don't care to have that are just very shallow and useless, and really conversations I could have about anything, not just steampunk in particular. Like "it's just fantasy" (no) or "but cultural exchange!" (no) or "Victorian science fiction" (shut the fuck up already you stupid fucking turd you know nothing about what constitutes Victorian science fiction or how words have power or how exclusionary this sounds or exactly how language works or how absolutely limiting this sort of description is). My problem with steampunk's continually-growing popularity has less to do with some sort of ownership over steampunk than the fact that I have to have the same conversations over and over again explaining what I do, why I do it, and why your stupid racist ideas are wrong. 

Yet at the same time as I despise having to repeat my goddamned self, I (and a few others) are continually having very interesting conversations about the potential for steampunk to be so much more than just a fashion trend, or even the existence of steampunk as more than a trend. This has always been a promise for POC in steampunk, and I'm tired of it having to always been a deferred future because apparently the mainstream ain't ready for it yet (will it ever be?) and tired of having to educate white folk that yes, POC narratives, quite a different perspective! and tired of dealing with white well-meaning liberals who toss in POC narratives to garnish their steampunk without interacting meaningfully with POC.

I don't want supertrees in my steampunk, run by white folk who know nothing about the needs of POC and how we have always worked with the environment, only to have that knowledge stripped and shamed from us, just so we have something shiny to point to and say "look! look how diverse and cosmopolitan we are, how we all inhabit one world together!"

The greatest things in life are felt, in that moment between people and peoples, and cannot be bought and sold in a consumerist society of spectacle.

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