Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Change of Focus - An Important Post

“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.” – William Wordsworth, poet

A few months ago my fiancée, now my wife, was spending some time with her daughter. During their conversation the subject of my involvement in Dieselpunk arose. My future wife described Dieselpunk to her daughter as “modern ideas combined with the styles of the 1920s through 1940s”. I’ve been intrigued by this description ever since she told me about it. To explain why, I need to start with a review of the various definitions of Dieselpunk.

Here on my blog I define Dieselpunk as a ‘a subculture and style that combines the zeitgeist of the 1920s through the 1940s with postmodern sensibilities’. My good friend John Pyka, Big Daddy Cool, defines it as ‘retrofuturism of the 1920s through 40s’. Tome Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of Dieselpunk, defines it as, ‘an art style that blends the spirit of the 1920s - 1950s with contemporary technology and attitude’.

All of these standard definitions have one thing in common. They all place the Diesel Era as the center and today as being the modifier.

My wife though turned the focus of Dieselpunk on its head. Rather than placing the center of the genre on the past, what if we make today the center. The more I think about this idea the more excited I get about its implications.

One implication is that it acknowledges how good the times are right now in so much of the world. I have friends who say that they think my love of Dieselpunk means I would prefer to live during the Diesel Era. They’re so wrong.

I have no interest in giving up the technology of today. When it’s 100f outside why would I want to give up air conditioning? My wife and I recently had dental work done. Would I prefer to have Diesel Era dentistry over modern? Nope, nope, nope.
Hell no
This goes far beyond modern material conditions. I like the direction our society is going in the way of values. I have no interest in going back to the racism and sexism of the Diesel Era. I like the fact that the US has an African-American for President. I like the fact that women now lead both the UK and Germany and that a major US political party has nominated a woman to run for President. I like that equal marriage is now the law of the land in the US, UK and many other countries.

Those are just a few of the things good about today. There is so much more that I barely scratched the surface. However, with all of the goodness of today there’s so much goodness that has been lost.

In my opinion, and I suspect for most of my readers, much of the fashion of the Diesel Era was far better than that of today. That quickly becomes evident when a Dieselpunk goes out in public. It’s not uncommon for me to be complimented by a stranger on how “dapper” I look. Men stop me and ask where I bought my fedora or my black-white wingtips. I find it interesting when I receive these questions from men standing there wearing the ‘National Uniform’ (i.e. t-shirt, baseball cap, cargo pants, and either tennis shoes or flips-flops).

We’ve also lost an aesthetic to industrial design that existed during the Diesel Era that added value and character to the product. We’ve lost the magic of radio where the mind painted the picture rather than spoon feed it by a television screen.

Most importantly we’ve lost a progressive faith in humanity that believed that through human effort we could make the world a better place. New technologies such as the airplane, cars, diesel locomotives and more, that improved the world were appearing. Though severely flawed, Prohibition was conceived on the notion that through the law social ills resulting from alcoholism such as domestic abuse and poverty could be solved. The New Deal was based on the idea that the economic disaster of the Great Depression was human made and therefore human effort, rather than waiting on market forces and business cycles, could raise the nation up. The Greatest Generation stormed the beaches of Normandy and the Pacific Islands in the faith that their sacrifices could save the world from evil.
The Spirit of the Diesel Era

The most important implication of my wife’s definition is an acknowledgment that the past is dead and cannot be changed. However, we can do our part to change today and, most importantly, be a positive influence for the future.

We can read ‘What If?’ stories in which Hitler was executed rather than imprisoned after the Beer Hall Putsch, thereby preventing the Holocaust. But we can’t go back in time and make it real. Yet we can help prevent future fascists by reminding the world that Hitler was democratically elected by desperate and angry people such as today. We can remind the world that the Conservatives thought that they could control Hitler. We can remind the world how the Holocaust began by first labeling people, which started Germany down the path of slaughtering people on a historic scale.

We can imagine a Diesel Era with Art Deco rockets, flying Packards, and chrome grilled robots. But the truth is that these never existed and we can’t change that fact. However, we can put influence on manufacturers to build our cars, computers, televisions and other technology with the same good taste of aesthetics as the Interbellum period that added class and value. That bland, dull screen that you’re reading this blog post on doesn’t to be like that. We should expect and demand better.

We can illustrate women with gorgeous gowns and men in fedoras and sharp three-piece suits as though those styles never went out of fashion. But they did go out of fashion. However, we can put market pressure on retailers by shopping, either online or in brick and mortar shops, those few sources that sale the styles of the Diesel Era. Then we can encourage others by setting an example through the wearing of the best of vintage clothes with the best of today’s fashion.

Applying classic taste to modern fashion

We should still reimagine the past because that’s an important element of Dieselpunk and that’s one of its strengths. However, let’s make the goal of reimagining the past to be to reimagine a better today and a better tomorrow.

I encourage my readers to join me in the Forum on Dieselpunks.org to discuss this exciting new vision of Dieselpunk.

1 comment:

Sarah Zama said...

Great post, Larry and very inspiring.

To me, the deeper meaning of Dieselpunk is that is delves into history and it turns it into stories and so it let us know and remember the past in a way that never happens in classrooms. And it twisted the past (the real past) as fantasy always does, so to make some elements more prominent and drive our attention to them.

I also always think that there are so many similarities between the 1920s (my 'own' decade) and today, but we have a huge advantage on our ancestors: we can see the consequences. And we can still avoid them, even when it looks like we're down the same path, because if we recognise the path, we can deviate from the main road taken by people who came before us.

But then, that's the power of history. And the power of storytelling is making that history relevant to us today.