Retro-futurism

Over the past few days, I have been studying various forms of utopianism in what could be termed-post modern culture. I have often wondered what post-modernism is because the future of Christianity depends on being able to connect with the ambient culture and influence it with Christian ideas and values.

As I examined the Invisible Empire of Romantia, one of my readers mentioned that he was a steam-punk fan. This seemed odd for a serious kind of fellow concerned for conservative and anti-liberal ideas. I always thought that punk was something I saw in London in the 1980’s with horrible “music” and outlandish hairstyles and body mutilation. Now, with my discoveries, I discover the word “punk” used as a suffix to various words describing an aspect of artistic culture or technology. For example, we have steam-punk projecting Victorian styles onto modern devices, for example a Victorian style computer screen and keyboard. There is also diesel-punk, characterised by an image of a flying diesel locomotive from the 1930’s. See this article for explanations. This whole tendency of anachronisms in technology and culture came under the heading of retro-futurism.

There are two aspects, seeing the past from the future or anticipating the future from the past (the future’s past or our present). Back to the future or forward to the past… The most obvious use of retro-futurism is in cinema. Examples include Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in an imaginary 1939, and The Rocketeer set in 1938, both of which are examples of the genre known as dieselpunk. Both retro-futuristic trends in themselves refer to no specific time. We find fantastic visions of the future or an imagined “other” past – Star Wars exemplifies both characteristics.

Retro-futurism is nothing new as we find in the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as they projected nineteenth-century technology into the future or an alternative present contemporary with the author. Now it is rationalised and typified, it helps to understand instincts we don’t always understand, because escapism is a psychological reality. Perhaps we find traces of some kind of neo-paganism designed to channel the desire for the Transcendent outside of Christianity considered as no longer being able to convince and transform. Guénonian traditionalists tend to look more towards paganism than Sufi Islam these days.

This form of escapism or neo-mythology is not limited to cinema and art, but is also expressed in the design of devices in the home from computers, television, wireless to washing machines and furniture. Doing out your home in Victorian style would get you characterised as steam-punk. Doing the same thing in 1930’s Art Deco would be diesel-punk. It extends to clothing, but may only stop at externals and popular culture. The more interesting aspect is when it goes inwards, betraying a genuine disillusionment with modernism in culture, technology and philosophy in the minds of those whose goal in life is something other than money and mere pleasure.

How widespread is this manifestation of post-modernism? Is it something that can be used by churches? Am I a retro-futurist because I use the old Sarum liturgy? Perhaps this thing comes in degrees from a neutral and indifferent attitudes to fashion and the way of the crowd to complete enthusiasm. I have always had the impression of using this rite in the same way that a Milanese priest would use the Ambrosian rite as part of his normal ecclesial life. I have avoided being “self-conscious” about it. To misquote Fortescue – You have to celebrate Mass somehow. It doesn’t hurt to follow a rite. One rite is as good as another, but they reflect local cultures. I haven’t been particularly “authentic” with my chapel – I did what I could afford with very limited means – though I had a distinctly Arts & Crafts idea in my mind. Nothing could be less steam-punk than Arts & Crafts, since William Morris and his disciples rejected Victorian industrialism and the desire to build everything on a gigantic scale. Personally, I am little concerned for flitting between past and future as this self-consciousness itself is an aspect of modernity and an idea of the “end of history”.

It seems safe to say that most of us are probably ill at ease with the kind of ultra-modernism that makes us think of dystopian literature and cinema like Orwell’s 1984. Like the generations before us, we begin to fear the future as something we cannot control. We begin to wish the future would be like an idealised vision of the past. It has happened before with the Renaissance and medievalism in the nineteenth century. I can’t remember the quote, but it said something like – first time, great, but second time it is a farce. A Victorian revival in the twenty-first century, when the Victorian era was a romantic revival of the middle-ages combined with modernity? A revival of a revival? In art and music, we are afraid of pastiche, and young composers are only beginning to return to traditional harmony and counterpoint and still come up with something original.

It seems a game not to play in religion, though many of the tendencies will remain with us even if we do not exteriorise them. What should we revive next? Should we continue with ultra-modernism if you want to call it that? Already half a century ago, you had composers making random noises and calling them “music” and so-called artists throwing paint onto a canvas and calling it a masterpiece. The deception can only go on for so long. What we are looking for are not the particular expressions of particular eras but eternal values. I don’t give a damn about a computer keyboard make to look like a Victorian object or a CD player in what looks like a 1930’s wireless set.

What I do care about is grammar and proper use of words in a language, harmony and counterpoint in music, form and colour in painting and sculpture, doctrine and liturgical form in religion. There are eternal laws better observed in some historical periods rather than others. Bringing back these eternal laws and constants would be the greatest contribution to post-modernism.

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7 Responses to Retro-futurism

  1. Neo-Victorian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Victorian) might be a more accurate description of my position rather than steampunk.

    • It sounds like it to me. I somehow don’t imagine you hanging round the pubs down Chelsea Road! 🙂 The one thing I admire about the Victorian era is their inventiveness and energy, their desire to surpass themselves and leave something that endures. I love the Victoria and Albert Museum and its building, the High Court in London in English Pointed style. I also admire their advances towards more humane treatment of the poor and those on the wrong side of the law (punishment other than capital punishment being intended to reform rather than exact revenge). Indeed, it was a masculine and vigorous era!

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, isn’t the essence of post-modernism expressed in the saying “anything goes, if it works”? Thus “eternal laws and constants” become oxymoronic if they are expected as such to improve post-modernism, which, whilst it may delight in the substance of traditional laws, will not recognise their eternal or “constant” character. This is what distinguishes it from modernism which purports to replace earlier modes and which is always vulnerable to becoming just another, and newer, tradition.

    I think that many of us labor under delusion – either that we are traditionalists, i.e. accepting anything and only that which has been handed down, whatever its merits, when in truth we merely adopt particular traditions, i.e. what originally began as innovations; or that we are modernists, i.e. accepting anything and only that which conforms to, and makes sense by reference to, contemporary experiment, when in truth we merely adopt a new set of universals, for however long it lasts. The true post-modernist dispenses with the delusion and feels liberated from any canonical coherence, free to pick and choose to re-arrange in compositions of convenience and idiosyncrasy.

    Has Christianity already become irrevocably post-modern? The squabbling between Heinz varieties of traditionalists and modernists is not perhaps identical to the disputes of the early centuries when all sides believed passionately in a different and enduring metaphysics and epistemology. Today, we have not only had our minds opened to general relativity and quantum physics, but none of us really accept any common criterion of truth or tradition. More and more people are tired and couldn’t be bothered about religious observances (as opposed to moral attitudes). Perhaps we should be brave enough to consider, in true post-modern spirit, whether after all it may not matter. A new Deism or a much more personalised Jesus-ism, may be the new and natural form into which our human society is evolving. Christianity has not even lasted for half of the entire period in which the Egyptian civilisation and religious culture endured. An assertion of personal faith aside, what expectation ought we have that Christianity could ever even remotely be the final word of our religious development? Insisting on the finality of Christian faith may be the ultimate act of arrogant or naive assumption that the human race will not get utterly sick and tired of another 10,000 years of the same.

    Fascinating subject.

    • Felix Alexander says:

      By your definition, Stephen (and certainly in my mind), surely post-modernism and traditionalism are the same thing, just at different stages.

      Modernism is a bunch of people who think they’re really smart trying to plan everything. Modernism is arrogant, and by its own standards it’s usually wrong. In the fields of science which make a difference to living, there’s a different paradigm with virtually every generation, but the wrong ideas of the last generation have been built into today’s world because of their certainty that This Time We’re Right.

      Post-moderns and traditionalists are just doing what works, but post-moderns don’t really know what works long term, because all that’s been handed to them is a bunch of broken rules and failures. Over enough generations, post-modernism will simply become a new traditionalism, with what works surviving and what doesn’t work falling off.

      So the question for today’s Christians is, what can we do to help the world see that it is in the Gospel that “what works” can be found? We cannot hand to them a complete tradition, I think, because all the traditions that had existed have been modernised and will need work before they can become living traditions again—the same works as the post-modernist will undertake left to theri own devices.

      My own criticism of modernism (and modernism is more alive and well than I wish it were) has many echoes of the modern conservative paradigm, so some people think I’m right wing. But I don’t think I am; I certainly feel uncomfortable in conservative evangelical/charismatic churches.

      • We could put a name to all this or serve it up in a teaspoon. Most of us don’t have any access to traditional Christianity in any shape or form. We live in the modern world – which is not Christian. There is a divide between religion, lived as a kind of role-playing “game” and life. The gap can be reduced to some extent by living outside cities, but there is no longer any real parish life in the country. The most convincing form of traditional Christianity is monasticism – but there is monasticism and monasticism. It can only be fully lived by celibate people in single-sex communities, so it depends on conversions by people coming from the non-Christian world.

        There seems to be a possibility, supported by the plain reading of the Gospels, that – unlike Judaism – Christianity was never meant to be a traditional religion or even a religion. That is the interpretation of people like the Quakers. The more one thinks, the more one gets into an impossible situation. Perhaps Christianity is “heretical Judaism”, the difference being that you have to be born into a Jewish family and you can convert to Christianity (it is possible to convert to Judaism, but it is difficult). If Christianity is “realised Judaism”, then without sacrifice or sacraments, the most faithful continuation of it in present times is Protestantism – or Islam.

        Perhaps Christianity has survived in one form or another because it adapts to the ambient culture. Secularism and materialism kill Christianity and indeed all faith, but perhaps that is not the only culture in our times. I think Christianity should be addressed to those known to be spiritual seekers and inclined to paganism rather than monotheism, and presented as an esoteric mystery religion in the image of the old Egyptian, Roman and Greek religions. Perhaps a sense of tradition can be reconstructed in time.

        This is where I see the use of “retro-futurism” – perhaps “invisible empires” can be made into empires…

      • Felix Alexander says:

        Father, surely in this public, connected, Facebooking, tweeting world, an esoteric mystery religion is even less credible than what Christianity has become!

        All this planning is in any case too modern for me, too dead. Just do what you can do and let the practices that survive become the traditions that thrive.

  3. Jim of Olym says:

    Might want to check out these books by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson:

    A Mirror of Shalott (I have not read this one)
    Lord of the World ([4] Complete text at Project Gutenberg.) (antichrist rules)
    Dawn of All ([5] Complete text at Project Gutenberg.) (the Pope rules)
    Dystopian, and utopian at the same time!
    in reference to the Invisible Empire of Romantia…

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