What is Salvagepunk?

Zak Bronson on Salvage: #1 Amid This Stony Rubbish
Howl’s Moving Castle (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
In his novel Railsea (2013), China Miéville portrays a postapocalyptic world littered with endless layers of leftover consumer waste. Salvors pick through mountains of junk, hoping to uncover secrets from the pre-apocalyptic world. Cut off from the past and lacking any framework for understanding these objects, characters are left sifting the rubble, picking through the remnants of history, and taking what is useful while discarding the rest. As one character explains, “you don’t uncover the past if you’re a salvor: you pick up rubbish.” Railsea provides an example of what Miéville and Evan Calder Williams have termed salvagepunk, a genre of postapocalyptic fiction that ranges from the post-oil catastrophe narratives of the Mad Max series to the collage aesthetic of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). In these works, characters attempt to survive by picking through the waste of the Earth, combining and repurposing objects and ideas from the past based on their value within hostile environments.

Anyone familiar with Miéville’s work knows that salvagepunk is more than just a genre; it is also a theoretical practice. The transition from salvage as anoun (something akin to garbage) to salvage as a verb (meaning to repurpose) evident in Railsea provides a model for thinking about the ruins that lay before us; it demonstrates a way of picking through the rubbish in order to recreate the world anew. Salvage, a new “quarterly of revolutionary arts and letters” co-edited by Miéville, continues this intellectual trajectory, shattering our slack-jawed complacency in the face of ecological disaster, economic disparity, and collective struggle and inviting us to participate in a new radical political activism. “Why Salvage?” ask the editors: “Because we are wrecked. Because we need a strategy for ruination.” Not content to stand by as the modern world crumbles into a postapocalyptic nightmare, the writers and artists in this debut issue of Salvage provide a fantastic collection of essays, poems, and artworks that engage with the hopeful and pessimistic realities of this ruined and dead world, seeking to expose the already catastrophic — and apocalyptic — nature of neoliberal capitalism in the hope of inspiring radical change.

The collection’s centerpiece is “The Limits of Utopia,” written by Miéville himself. Avoiding any straightforward revival of hopeful optimism, Miéville’s essay provides a challenging discussion of deep problems facing the planet; in particular, it focuses on the fundamental incompatibility between environmental justice and the demands of capitalist accumulation. Countering the once-hopeful claim that climate change would unite rich and poor alike, Miéville notes that dreams of better worlds have become the fantasies of corporate newspeak. “Utopias are necessary,” he writes, “but not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree.” Exploring a range of problems — from a trash incinerator installed in the poorest district of Los Angeles to UN-backed plans to evict citizens from their land — Miéville portrays an increasingly polarized world where dreams of bright futures are often purchased at the expense of the world’s most disenfranchised. Miéville forces readers to question where they put their faith: what we need, in his view, is more rage at the false hope offered to us through the fractured lens of corporate solutionism. In what might be considered a slogan for the journal’s mix of optimism and indignation, Miéville writes that “[w]e need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford […] we cannot think utopia without hate.”

For Miéville and his fellow contributors, this combination of optimism and anger provides an oppositional politics that challenges the complacency of the Western world in the face of crisis and catastrophe. The essays can be seen to respond to what Mark Fisher has termed capitalist realism, or “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Jamie Allinson’s “Don’t Mourn, Accelerate” builds on these ideas by looking at the impoverishment of the Left’s response to the unending realities of crisis: instead of engaging with anticapitalist politics, the Left has sought refuge by nostalgically promoting a revival of organized class struggle or by turning toward the interconnected workers of the knowledge economy to coordinate a fitful battle against an amorphous, evasive, and decentered capitalism. Allinson examines the internet buzzwordaccelerationism: an emerging theoretical frame, adopted by revolutionaries and bros alike, that suggests that the only way out of capitalism is to expedite its violent, inhuman, and destructive forces so that it tears itself apart. Such a process does not necessarily lead to the end of capitalism, nor will it prevent ecological damage and worldwide disasters. Allinson, in contrast, highlights the need for a theoretical position that works “within and against” capitalism, which aims at hijacking the tools of industry in order to organize a postcapitalist world. [Read More]


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