GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘What Ever Happened to Steampunk?’ by John Brownlee

‘“The elements of steampunk are all about exposing the inner workings of technology,” explains Jake von Slatt, proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop and perhaps the best known of the steampunk designers. “It’s about using design to make the working of technology scrutable through an object’s aesthetic. So many of the objects in today’s world are black boxes, and what happens inside them is totally invisible. So steampunk was all about revealing those inner workings, and empowering people to understand technology again, even if it was only fictitiously.”

In other words, steampunk is a bit of a power fantasy: not of the technologist, but of the maker, the tinkerer, the engineer. The guys who can rebuild an engine from scratch, but who are as powerless to fix the iPhone that they just dropped in the toilet as the rest of us.

The crunchy emo Victorian aesthetic of steampunk also worked against it, argues Beschizza. “The specificity of its look — it was often kitsch and self-referential — limited steampunk’s appeal to people with less esoteric interests,” he says. “And the younger generations of geeky, imaginative, expressive folk coming online in the 2010s interrogate culture more aggressively than earlier generations ever did. Steampunk had to contend with the historical truth of its own ironies, its fetishistic relationship to an age of imperialism, colonialism, and sexual and racial inequality. Like Lovecraft, it didn’t really come out the other side of that interrogation — we absorbed what was good and moved on to new old things.”

And what was good? Divorced of their gear-cog trappings, the best parts of steampunk live on as a wide-scale design and political movement known as Right to Repair. This movement, which is picking up steam among state legislatures (and vehemently opposed by major tech companies like Apple), is ostensibly about combating forced obsolescence and breaking the modern consumer electronic upgrade cycle, through legislation that forces companies to make their products repairable by the end user. In other words, it’s about empowerment and transparency: the right to understand the technology you depend upon.’

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I agree with Philip Pullman on something…

“I’m sorry that we, as a literary culture, seem to be losing faith in the omniscient narrator. People say, “Oh, I need to know who’s telling the story, otherwise I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know whether to believe it at all.” And another thing we see more and more of is the bloody present tense. I hate books written in the present tense! I refuse to read them. Actually, no, I don’t refuse to read them, because there have been some very fine books written in the present tense, and by design I might have used the present tense. But I think it’s kind of an abdication of narrative responsibility, because we know it’s not happening now, and she’s not coming downstairs now and looking out the window now. It’s already happened! It’s been written about and printed!

This pretense that it’s happening now is a silly thing which I can’t abide, and I use every opportunity to bore people to death by telling them about it.

Oh, I’m perfectly happy to be at the vulgar end. I’m with G. K. Chesterton on this. He said that literature was a luxury but fiction was a necessity. We can’t live without fiction, and I’m very happy to supply the thing that we can’t live without. If that puts me in the company of Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson and Lee Child, I don’t mind a bit.”

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction by Zadie Smith

“But reading seems to be easier to defend than writing. Writing is a far larger act of presumption. Sensing this, we seek to shore up the act of writing with false defenses, like the dubious idea that one could ever be absolutely “correct” when it comes to representing fictional human behavior. I understand the desire—I have it myself—but what I don’t get is how anyone can possibly hope to achieve it. What does it mean, after all, to say “A Bengali woman would never say that!” or “A gay man would never feel that!” or “A black woman would never do that!”? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds? (It is to be noted that the argument “A white man would never say that!” is rarely heard and is almost structurally unimaginable. Why? Because to be such a self is to be afforded all possible human potentialities, not only a circumscribed few.)

But perhaps I am asking the question the wrong way round. The counterargument would be that when it comes to presumption, we are in far less danger of error when writer and subject are as alike as possible. The risk of containment is the risk of false knowledge being presented as truth—it is the risk of caricature. Those who are unlike us have a long and dismal history of trying to contain us in false images. And so—the argument runs—if we are to be contained by language, let that language at least be our own.

But the question is: In what does this “like me” consist? He doesn’t look like me. We don’t share the same gods. We don’t share the same race or gender. But he is a part of my soul. And fiction is one of the few places left on this earth where a crazy sentence like that makes any sense at all. Alex-Li is not “correct.” He cannot and doesn’t aim to represent the community of half-Jewish, half-Chinese people. In the spirit of Kafka, he barely represents himself. And so it may be that by his existence he is in fact oppressive, simply because he is “taking up space” where a “real” half-Jewish, half-Chinese fictional character might be. He cannot defend himself from that accusation—and it would be out of character for him to try. All he can say is that he doesn’t mind if he is unread, unbought, unloved. But if even one person happens to come across him and find that his feelings and their own have a similar weight, then he will have completed his absurd fictional role in this world.

Has fiction, over the centuries, been the creator of compassion or a vehicle for containment? I think we can make both cases. Fiction was often interested in the other but more often than not spoke for the other instead of actually publishing them. Fiction gave us Madame Bovary but also Uncle Tom. (It’s also given us a marvelous, separate literature that has no interest in human selves of any kind—which is concerned instead with animals, trees, extraterrestrials, inanimate objects, ideas, language itself.) But whether fiction’s curiosity about the other was compassionate or containing, one thing you could always say for it was that it was interested.

By contrast, a prominent component of the new philosophy is a performative display of non-interest, a great pride in not being interested in the other, which is sometimes characterized as revenge and sometimes as an act of self-preservation. (When you feel hatred coming from the other, it’s reasonable to turn from the other completely.) The expression of this pride usually comes in some version of I’ve had enough ofI just can’t with—fill in the blank. And the strange thing is that the people we now cast into this place of non-interest were once the very people fiction was most curious about. The conflicted, the liars, the self-deceiving, the willfully blind, the abject, the unresolved, the imperfect, the evil, the unwell, the lost and divided. Those were once fiction’s people.

We behave as if don’t want to be known by one another, but we sometimes seem oblivious to the idea that we spend our days feeding ourselves into a great engine of knowing, one that believes it knows every single thing about us: our tastes, our opinions, our beliefs, what we’ll buy, who we’ll love, where we’ll go. The unseen actors who harvest this knowledge not only hope to know us perfectly but also to modify us, to their own ends. And this essay, too, will no doubt enter that same digital maw, and be transformed from ideas to data points, and responded to, perhaps, with a series of pat phrases, first spotted by the machine, then turned viral, and now returned to us as if it were our own language. “I just can’t with Zadie Smith right now,” or else “This Zadie Smith is everything,” or—well, you know the drill. We’ve gotten into the habit of not experiencing the private, risky act of reading so much as performing our response to what we read, which is then translated into data points.

Is this novel before me an attempt at compassion or an act of containment? Each reader will decide. This is the work of an individual consciousness and cannot be delegated to generalized arguments, not even the prepackaged mental container of “cultural appropriation.”

To put it another way, a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free.”

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ”Joker’ Is Wild … ly Dull’ by Glen Weldon

But the film so desperately strives to reject comic book trappings — so aches to be seen as edgy, provocative, serious, adult — that it simply apes the tone, style and content of other, better, edgier and more provocative films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy and Fight Club.

But the film doesn’t care — it’s too busy exuding a sense of self-satisfaction, a preening, self-consciously provocative challenge to an audience — a humanity — it holds in pitched contempt.

Joker thinks of itself as urgent, relevant, of the moment and — mostly, unrelentingly — not just another silly superhero movie. Ultimately, however, it devotes so much of its energy into not being about a comic book villain that it neglects being about … much of anything, really.

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