Clockwork Oranges

This page written circa 31 March, 2013.

On Steampunk and "Steampunk"

A fascination with Victorian tech is at its heart a salutary acceptance of the machine-ness of machines - and correspondingly an acceptance of the humanity of human beings. There's something nauseatingly predigested about the look of late 20th and early 21st century industrial design, all those Steve Jobs-approved rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat out into your hand. Whereas Victorian machines, with their precision-cut gears and spurred mantis armatures, are unabashedly themselves rather than trying to smoothly cozen their way into your life. Thus we similarly perceive flesh & blood Victorians - even the fictional ones - as being more genuine than ourselves. They had lives; we have marketing. Even unto our souls; drama and ruin were possible to those who guarded their secrets and shame, as pre-digital clocks held their tightly coiled mainsprings inside themselves. That's what makes this last fully human epoch so interesting for writers and readers alike. And why I was gratified rather than surprised that the thing to which I so offhandedly gave a name now clanks forward at its own pace. The faint tick and whir we hear across the sadly therapeutic centuries is that of our own foolishly abandoned hearts, which we'd love to wind up and set running again. Steampunk enthusiasts are engaged, however unknowingly, in nobler fun than mere mental cosplay. May God bless and increase their tribe; human beings might yearn for lost things, but never for unreal things.

Extract from the INTRODUCTION
K W Jeter

The sidebar at right comes from the introduction to the book "Infernal Devices". The author is credited with coining the term "steampunk". He is saying in this introduction that steampunk is propelled by an honesty and an appeal of things that display rather than concealing their innards. They are authentic.

I use the word in the context of honest, trustworthy, genuine, open, reliable. There is a significant emphasis on authenticity in leadership these days, as scandals, crashes and generally deceptive dealing are much in the minds of the public of late. This appeal to which Jeter alludes is imbued in the Jellyfish Swatch that Carolyne bought for me decades ago and in the acrylic enclosure my student Benson has put around our iDCC train control this year. Exposing the circuit board and the components for all to see imbues an object with a powerful, if geeky, style. Form and function hold hands.

I think Jeter has missed a lot of the story. I do not accept that it is the authenticity alone that accounts for the appeal of Steampunk. Most grand events owe their grandness to a coincidence of factors; they may be precipitated by one, but they are carried along by the combination.

Part of the appeal of steampunk lies in the distinctly-recognisable and historically-localisable retro design. Steampunk apes the style associated with the rise of powerful machines, steam engines and the other products of lathes and milling machines that propelled countries to greatness in the Industrial Revolution. Jeter aptly describes the brass and copper, ticking and hissing, mesh & grind of Victorian life. The same era brought other society-changing ideas and inventions such as novels, electric power, force projected by navy, and trains. Electronics and radio blur their way into 19th-century stories of modern authors. It was an exciting era. Hence the top hats and waistcoats that accompany the brass and cogs.

I see another force behind the appeal of steampunk: It is what is now called "greenness". More exactly, it is the Malthusian conviction, submerged by the very disposability of product that is concealed so neatly by Steve Job's lozenges, that things should be built to last. Steampunk appeals to the value judgement that gives rise to that pang of despair you feel when you can think of nothing better than the scrap smelter for that perfectly-working but ludicrously-inadequate 10-year-old computer or 100-year-old steam locomotive.

Anthony Burgess would have loved the current ascendancy of the word authentic. His book is as much about authenticity as it is about freedom. Burgess took the title of his book, made famous by Kubrick, from the Cockney expression `queer as a clockwork orange', meaning supremely weird, according to Stephanie Bunbury. His point was that one can only be said to be good if one has the choice. You cannot tell if someone is inherently good if they don't have the chance to be evil, and that is rather weird. We see the workings of a man or a society, know it is authentic, only when he or it is allowed to make its choices freely. No freedom of choice, no authentication of values.

Burgess hated "our present-day pragmatic socialism" and condemned those who advocated aversion therapy in real life, lamenting that ''society, as ever, is put first''. No social good was worth the sacrifice of an immortal soul. Burgess was a monarchist and yet an anarchist at once. Like your humble author, he supported a national health system, but detested social security as implemented in the 20th century. The web-common mantra reproduced in the yellow side bar summarises, in a manner somehow simultaneously humerous and ruthless, what a more responsible format for social security might look like. There is something broadly distasteful in the nanny state that impells Burgess and I to revile the politicians responsible for it. This feeling is hard to express, but somehow embodied in the much-quoted rhetorical reply from Brando's character in The Wild One:
"What are you rebelling against?"
"Whaddya got?"
Everything you do stinks when you have the wrong priorities.

To be monarchist and anarchist seems paradoxical. The resolution of the paradox lies in the fourth dimension---things change. In the socialism mantra, the key phrase is "it wasn't that long ago that taking someone else's money for doing absolutely nothing was demeaning and lowered self esteem". To quote President Clinton, social security was meant to offer "a second chance, not a way of life". There is little authenticity in many a politician, especially Australian ones. They do what they think will get them votes, or money to sway voters. Thus a well-meaning experiment grew to the nanny state where control is sold as care.

The anonymous author of the adjacent mantra, Burgess, and I, all share the belief that the good of men should come ahead of the good of society. Note, it is not simply the order of priority, but the inclusion. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard felt that the employees came first, that customers came after, but that the community needed to be considered also, and that the wellbeing of the company would follow from these being duly balanced.

Put Me in Charge...

Put me in charge of benefit payments. I'd reduce cash payments and provide vouchers for 50kg bags of rice and beans, blocks of cheese, basic sanitary items and all the powdered milk you can use. If you want steak, burgers, takeaway, and junk food, then get a job.

Put me in charge of the national health system. We'll test recipients for drugs, alcohol, and nicotine. If you want to reproduce, use drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke, then get a job.

Put me in charge of local authority housing. Ever live in military barracks? You will maintain our property in a clean and good state of repair. Your home will be subject to inspections anytime and possessions will be inventoried. If you want a plasma TV or Xbox 360, then get a job and your own place.

Put me in charge of compulsory job search. You will either search for employment each week no matter what the job or you will report for community work. This may be clearing the roadways and open spaces of rubbish, painting and repairing public housing, whatever we find for you.

While you are on benefit income you no longer have the right to vote. For you to vote would be a conflict of interest. If you want to vote, then get a job.

Before you write that I've violated someone's rights, realise that all of the above is voluntary. If you want our hard earned cash and housing assistance, accept our rules. Before you say that this would be "demeaning" and ruin someone's "self esteem," consider that it wasn't that long ago that taking someone else's money for doing absolutely nothing was demeaning and lowered self esteem.

Why is authenticity good? It is tied up with priorities. Running a company or a country is not so challenging when the interests of the parties coincide. If it is good for the country, good for the leader, and good for the individuals, the choice is a no-brainer. If a manager has a choice that is good for the company, good for his manager, good for his staff and good for himself, all is well. It is when they come into conflict you have a difficult decision. The decision casts light on the priorities of the decider. Authenticity is then seeing the priority order, and seeing that it is regarded in decisions large and small. Authenticity dispels hypocrisy.

My beloved Jellyfish Swatch has at last worn out, the case no longer holds onto the battery. Ironic that the transparent case, not the cogs or the bearings or the electronics, should let it down.

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