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.