When I was a kid, punk rock was a novelty presented by the local media as something strange, weird, wicked, perverse and decadent. Obviously, I loved it from day one, and even though I was too little to be seriously into it, the words “punk rock” entered forever into my dictionary of all that is good and true in this world.
Later, when I first heard of something celled “cyberpunk”, I was hypnotized. What could possibly be wrong with something that sounded so cool? Punk, cyber, computers, hackers, police states, corporations, the struggle of common people against post-industrial society… It soon became a small obsession of mine, and has been one of my favourite aesthetical styles since then.
However, time passes, we grow older, maybe wiser, and over the years I witnessed the name “cyberpunk” slowly turn into a fashionable and senseless cultural label that lost most of its original meaning, if it ever had one. Back in the 1990s, everything had to be cyber-something to look cool and marketable. There were lots of trashy pop cultural products like Cybercops, Cyber Lions, Cybersex and stuff like that, and whatever had virtual reality in it was hot enough to sell.
Lately, Steampunk became another hot trend, as confirmed by the hordes of cosplayers invading the latest conventions. However, the more I see pictures of people dressed up in victorian outfits and carrying golden-coated handguns, the more I wonder if any of those people have ever seen an actual steam-powered engine working.
But what puzzles me is the choice of the word “punk”. Why is it steampunk, and not cybersteam? We must dissipate the marketing fog that obscures the meaning of things and check our good friend, the dictionary, to figure out what this actually means.
The prefix “cyber-” comes from greek:
- κυβερνητικός (kybernētikos) – Good at steering, good pilot.
- κυβερνητική τέχνη (kybernētikē technē) – The pilot’s art.
- κυβερνισμός (kybernismos), κυβέρνησις (kybernēsis) – Steering, pilotage, guiding.
- κυβερνάω (kybernaō) – To steer, to drive, to guide, to act as a pilot.
The pilot’s art! Isn’t it beautiful?
So, cyber refers not only to machines, but mainly to the control of machines. That would explain why steampunkers are so fond of their costumes and don’t bother much about driving around in steam-powered cars.
Well, then what about the “punk” part? Our dictionary has a lot of meanings for it:
- A prostitute. (1604, William Shakespeare, ‘Measure for Measure’)
- The bottom in a male-male sexual relationship.
- Prison slang: A male used for sex by larger or stronger inmates.
- A social and musical movement rooted in rebelling against the established order.
- The music of the punk movement, known for short songs with electric guitars, strong drums, and a direct, unproduced approach.
- A person subscribing to the movement, a punk rocker.
- A worthless person.
- A juvenile delinquent, young petty criminal or trouble-maker.
- A utensil for lighting wicks or fuses (such as those of fireworks) resembling stick incense. (1907, Jack London, The Road)
- Various kinds of material used as tinder for lighting fires, such as agaric, dry decayed wood or touchwood.
Well, what a diverse array of meanings. I prefer to believe that cyberpunk is rooted on definition number 8, its outcast characters struggling to survive on a corporate-controlled world. Sadly, over time, many people who embraced meaning number 5 of punk ended up becoming meaning number 1 in order to make a lot of money, leaving their fellow punks from definition 6 feeling like definition 3.
That being said, cyberpunk is the science-fiction based on the struggle of juvenile delinquents against the people who control the machines. Steampunk, on the other hand, is more like pseudo-trouble-makers who like to dress up like people did in the day and age of steam engines.
So… what about greenpunk?
Being a newly proposed “movement”, it’s had to say whatever it will become, but as a newly joined member of its ranks, I tend to believe we should work somewhere around meanings 9 and 10. Not that I want to set fire to whatever we have left of green in this sad blue planet of ours, no… But from all the definitions on that list, “setting fire to something” is the one that really sounds like revolution to me.
You see, the problem with punk rock is that it never evolved as a whole. Each subspecies of the punk rock family developed into something else, thus gaining new names, shapes and colours. The urgent lyrics of the nuclear era can still mean a lot to (some of) us, but the general idea of punk rock became just another fashionistic trend. Thanks to the endless power that media has to turn all that is true and pure into washed-out, clean, safe, family values forms of entertainment, punk rock too became a caricature of itself, losing most of its society-changing power.
As far as I can tell, in our societies, everybody knows we need to change in order to survive and create a healthy sustainable world for our kids to live in. But who is going to actually start this change? We are all apes, and we learn from examples. Rationality is something we take for granted. Every human being is capable of rational thinking, but it takes a long time and a lot of effort. Most people don’t bother much about being rational, as some economists are beginning to prove. And these people won’t act unless someone else shows them what to do, by setting examples to be followed. That is how memes work, and that is how most people chose their clothes, their jobs, and the movie they are going to see on the weekend. They need the example to follow, and they need an authorization to change.
I am not saying here that we are the best examples one should follow. But we can be the fire-starters of something new.
To close this sorry excuse for an article, I’d like to quote one of the greatest philosophers of the XX century – british crust-punk band Discharge:
The savage mutilation of the human race is set on course.
Protest and survive.
Protest and survive.
It’s up to us to change that course.
Protest and survive.
Protest and survive.