Putting the punk back in salvage (where it was not to begin with)

[More salvage-work, a chunk for the chapter I'm currently writing. Here a response, perhaps to myself, perhaps to comrades who've been keeping me sharp. Certainly to the very valid question of the gap between a grubby aesthetics of salvage and a scrappy politics and thought-process of salvagepunk, with the distinct worry that an attempt to formulate the latter results in either the bellicose vision of a wastescape in which the adept and hardy pull it off or in the self-congratulatory tone that often unfortunately accompanies the pseudo-D.I.Y. of vintage clothing and twee tea cozies. And perhaps even more to the raising of antecedents, from barricades to Merz, L'Atalante to Bed-Sitting Room, which consequently raises the question of what salvagepunk would mean in relation to the recurrent processes of salvage, and, more damningly, why it is more radical than a capitalist entrepreneur who finds a way to burn used diapers in such a manner as to produce a highly effective anti-impotence drug.]

Run aground.

If salvagepunk is a genre to come, a radical principle of recuperation and construction, a certain relation to how we think the dregs of history we inherit against our will, a return of the repressed idiosyncrasy of outmoded things, if it is all this, it is also, rather obviously, defined against the longer lineage of salvage to which it is bound. Taking the initial linguistic form of the word + punk suffix (cyberpunk, steampunk, etc) that started this investigation, salvagepunk is not - or should not be - salvage plus a rakish air, a self-declared fuck the world perspective, and a carefully located sexy grease smudge on the cheek. That needs no work to be brought forth. It already exists, woven into in the machine-frayed hem of every fake vintage shirt sold at the mall.

Rather, to put the punk into salvage is to occupy it too well, not to overextend the logic of the game, but to track it to its horizons. The frayed hems of a mode of thought, and the much larger rips we missed before our eyes. For example, the punk specificity of cyberpunk had nothing to do with noirish mohawked heroes and digital samurai, not drugs or dub. (To be sure, the massification of it, from Hackers to The Matrix, had very much to do with that.) It had to do with the intersection of its deep fidelity to its historical moment and the fact that it no longer believed in a future - the present is already the hollowed out promise of that future.* In other words, it is not speculative fiction: it is just a dead stare portrait of what the neoliberal order wanted itself to be if it had the total hegemony to do it. Not neoliberals themselves, who always cared too much about shoring up nations and "wars of civilization." No, it was the asubjective shape of the thought, the toneless growl of capital turning back against on the remaining petrified forms of its makers's world. The dystopia of cyberpunk was this thought's acid bath, stripping down to the bones. No fussing around with supposed humanitarian concerns and spreading democracy, just financialization, total penetration of markets, the pornographic frenzy of the invisible, as circulation zipped through shady back alley deals and the high architecture of finance with equal greased ease.

Cyberpunk hence was not the sneer at a barren speculative future. It was the hidden sneer of that present itself.

The end of that present is the site on which salvagepunk - not salvage - is emerging. Like all things apocalyptic in the truest sense, it reveals itself as that which was hidden, in the wrecked afterlife of the world dreamed by cyberpunk and lived, unevenly, by all of us for the last 20 years. It stands in the fallout and debris, those burst bubbles and factories that won't de-rust and start a-hummin' again.

Recession and oral horror

And yet, salvage itself is a mechanism, both in practice and in thought, procedure and ideology, deeply ingrained in the circuits of late capitalism. And much further back than that.

From the total inanity of green "upcycled" goods ("ie. recycled/reclaimed into something special", because "Ethical is Beautiful" and they insist on "only using laptops") to wrenching fillings from your teeth to sell to Cash For Gold U.S.A. (for the oral hoarding days must come to an end in these lean times). From the total staggering obscenity of price mark-ups at trendy vintage clothing shops to desperate children rummaging through the stinking mountains of trash. These are apocalyptic times generally, but in particular, the figure and action of salvage looms perhaps largest.

The whole totality is shot through with that scrap and hustle, whittle and swindle instinct. Hip hop's "made something from nothing" ethos, and Pepsi bottling "purified" municipal tap water and labelling it "Bottled at the source." Advertising trawling the shitpool of consumer anxieties and petty fears, dragging up and polishing out new needs and ownership dreams.

And more than all this is the fact that capitalism's great work of salvage is the salvage of time: making something out of every last bit. The worker keeping time to inhuman rhythms of the integrated factory, and Fordism streamlining movements and conversation to the single repetitive task. The colonization of our free time, never being able to punch out, "free time" only a self-subtracting countdown back to the time of value. (Not to mention the work of "creative" capital, when being aware of "what's going on" culturally and socially is our supposed protection against the precarity of labor.) No longer blocks of time or long cycles, but those pseudo-cycles that never start or stop. The factory never sleeps anymore. (Although we may be getting our economic crisis revenge here, with both iconic industrial areas and new zones of production totally halted, seemingly frozen in a dusty moment.)

Shipbreaking in Malaysia

Even in periods of profligate boom years, such as the consolidation of class power over the past 30 years, with the total explosion of consumer credit and the "planned obsolescence" of commodities, the system, as a whole, cannot fully let waste remain as such. The discarded objects are spatially displaced to, for example, South Asia, where we find fields of dead motherboards ("e-waste", as if it was just another set of ones and zeroes waiting to be deleted from a server) left to be stripped for usuable bits, and the silent hulls of oil tankers scrapped, scrubbed, and broken down.

This "gutting of the boat" is a fitting contemporary world extension and transformation of the very etymology of "salvage." For the broader sense of "recycling waste material" is a recent shift, to which we will return. The original use of it, from 1645, designated the payment one received for saving a ship that was going down or about to be captured. Even the action of the saving itself did not come into usage until the late 19th century (with the "salvage corps," those private companies who would either do the job municipal firefighters couldn't in an era of rampant fire, or come in after the burn to save whatever could be saved). And so salvage is shot through with the sense of getting paid (or the transfer of exchange value, more broadly) not for one's work of sifting through the junkheap but of preventing the ship from joining that realm of dead objects (and its sailors the realm of the dead). Not even plundering cargo from the sinking ship or grabbing whatever you can as it goes down. Saving the day and keeping things as they were.

Our moment, when salvage as waste sorting and recuperation, has also seen perhaps the largest and most desperate resurrection of this older mode. For what was that $700 billion bailout (not to mention the untold sums added before and after, now estimated to be somewhere in the long run range of $23.7 trillion) than the fantasy of saving the ship of the entire capitalist financial enterprise, and more than that, of getting some "salvage" in return, a remuneration in the form of money flowing back through all the destroyed channels? The incessant pops of speculative bubbles may as well be the sound of this very fantasy imploding: against the now clearly defunct logic of Keynsianism, you can't save a sinking monetary empire with more money and expect to gain something in the process. And when an economic order refuses to allow for the creative destruction of industries that result in "fire sales" of production materials, leveraged debt, and access to markets, we don't even get the kind of ground clearing that allows for building and accumulation to start anew.

Rifles and corpses

Fittingly and horrifically, the more common sense of salvage, that of trying to find some value in waste, emerged in 1918, in the naming of the "British Army Salvage Corps," who combed the battlefields for materials (tank parts, clothing of dead soldiers) to be redirected into the continuing war effort. The anecdote below gives a sense of the tenor of this (from the British newsmagazine 'The War Budget', January 3rd, 1918):

Unrolling my [gas] mask to read the directions for its use and to try it on, I noticed that the gray fabric had a strangely familiar look and that one corner of the "skirt" of the queer contrivance was pieced out from a rounded seam.

"What's this stuff they use in the gas masks?" I asked of Captain R., who reclined at my elbow. "I'm sure I've seen something like it before."

"Grayback," was the laconic reply. "I should hate to say anything to spoil your appetite, but if you must know, the flap of that mask you just had on was made from the tail of a Tommy's shirt picked up on the battlefield. Possibly he thought he could chase Boches faster if he threw it away; possibly it was cut off him when a comrade applied first aid; possibly--------''

"That will do," I cut in, hastily rolling up the mask and returning it to its case. "Here's hoping no asphyxiating shells sail over to-day to force us to the dread alternative!"

It is here, in both the unfathomable brute fact of the slaughter fields of WWI themselves and in the mordant and furious culture that emerged out of it, that our lineage of salvagepunk starts, although just barely. (With the possible earlier antecedent of revolutionary barricades in all their body-stacking, city-remapping montage.) That is to say, where the punk in salvagepunk begins. Not accidentally, in a European wide apocalyptic moment, where the savagery directed outwards by the Continent was turned back on itself. The World War as the severed end of the previous world.

Salvagepunk is the drawing out of the logic of salvage itself (in its WWI sense), past the point of its own consistency. It takes the basic ground of salvage (there is value here somewhere, if we sift through the ashes, or keep the ship from going under, or strip these bodies) on its own terms, in its own moment and, in doing so, wrecks it. It wrecks it with the simple recognition that we're already past that point and that the world is now irrevocably structured as apocalyptic. The very notion of recuperation means that it is already gone, that the former world is no more.

Hence salvagepunk says: it's already been burnt, already lost at sea. We came to the rescue too late. There is no reward, and definitely no one there to pay it. And we can only begin again from here if we finish wrecking - in thought - what we know to be wreckage yet which refuses to call itself such.

Downhill from here: the 60's burn in Godard's Weekend (1967)

Yet this alone would not constitute salvagepunk, at least insofar as it can escape simply being an aesthetic of rusty hulls and bleached bones, especially in a time when that aesthetic itself is increasingly dominant. The key turn, the raising of salvagepunk to a capture of this historical conjucture (the drawn-out crash of late capitalism) and a rejection of where that will go, if untrammeled, is the work of construction. Construction in the age of wreckage.

In this way, the "look" of salvagepunk should be less about how it appears, from cobbled together caravans to junkworld robots, and more about a kind of look onto that world. The look is two-fold, and German artist Kurt Schwitters, working in the aftermath of the first World War, gives the way in.

Schwitters, Merz Pictures, 1921

As gestured to in the beginning of this chapter, Schwitters is a pivotal figure in this history for several reasons: his association with Dada and Surrealism, his collages of selected refuse and trash, and his naming of his art practice as Merz by decoupling it from Commerz. In English, think stealing away "merce" from "commerce", of cutting away the "with" that describes the social relations of economic life to leave behind the isolated objects themselves, in an inversion of how reification happens.

In describing Merz, Schwitters wrote:

Merz is the graveside smile and the solemn gaze at comic events.

In a broken world of broken things, this graveside smile is the necessary response and one-half of the look of salvagepunk, how it looks out and what we would see on its face. Not the sneer of cyberpunk, which is that of the wanna-be automated world itself, but of those born into this world, who refuse to either look away or to submit to the pornography of melancholy. The work of construction only starts with breaking the baleful spell of decay and mourning, and nothing can do this without the obscene laughter at what we are supposed to be very serious and dour about. (And in reverse, Schwitters's other directive, that solemn gaze, at what we are told is supposed to be frivolous and light and gentle, tearing that open to find the utter nastiness of expected laughter.)

The look, then, is the graveside smile and the perspective of looking toward what can be reassembled "wrongly" and how. It is for this reason that the tradition of montage (from Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker) and collage (Hannah Höch and Schwitters, John Heartfield and Terry Gilliam), détournement (Duchamp, Debord and the Situationist Interational, hip-hop and Italian arte povera) and farce (Monty Python and Richard Lester) is so crucial here: all are forms of idiosyncratic uses of "given" materials. (Recall here our earlier discussion of dialectics and subtraction, via Badiou and the Joker.)

It is worth staying with Schwitter's particular thoughts about construction and objects for a moment because, to reiterate, salvagepunk - not in its Mad Max appearance but in what it could be as an operation of thought and cultural production - is fundamentally about such questions, about how we relate the task of construction to the inherited remains of historical encounters. Reading him on this requires a fair amount of unpacking, for he is at once the man who wanted to use "household refuse to scream with" and to "remove the innate venom of things."

Oddly, though, Schwitters's art is never much of a screaming project, and that mordant grave grin comes closer than any sort of expressionistic yawp. Particularly, he is interested in ways of devaluing and revaluing things, of how to pull them from their situated position within the world of capitalism and its waste products and of how to locate them anew in the position of the artwork. Hence his statement that "the work of art is produced by the artistic devaluation of its elements." The reason for this is what he sees as the problem of the "innate venom" of things, the eccentric, idiosyncratic aspect of objects that must be defanged in order to join the new combinatory logic of the collage. It is here that salvagepunk is radically opposed to Schwitters's work, its sharpest ancestor in other regards. For it is precisely that innate venom with which salvage is concerned: our task is to remove the veil of abstraction - the designation of an object in terms of its exchange value - in order to find that venom, the particularity of its use value which cannot be entirely subsumed beneath a ratio of market demand, labor time frozen in the object, and devaluation across time.

So when Schwitters declares that "what is essential is the process of forming" in relation to working with junk and trash, we can detect an early vision of the wreckage/montage work of salvagepunk. However, the gap widens on the question of where value comes from. He writes, "I set Merz against a refined form of Dada and arrived at the conclusion that while Dadaism only points to opposites, Merz resolves them by giving them values within a work of art. Pure Merz is art, pure Dada is non-art - each consciously so." (Merz 4 Banalitätem) Leaving aside the question of whether or not Dada is truly "non-art," the central difference between what we have been trying to draw out and what Schwitters envisioned is that the work of salvagepunk, even as an "artistic practice", would be providing the occasion for the already-present singular values of things (now visible in the very moment of their ruin, of their monetary and often functional devaluation) to come to the fore. More precisely, perhaps salvagepunk can stand between these points: the production of values (the task of construction and assemblage as producing a second life to the already broken) while still retaining that innate venom that could never be entirely sublimated.

The brilliant mess of cats and records, from Jean Vigo's L'atalante (1934)

It is this belief in "innate venom" or the "idiosnycracy" of objects that gives salvagepunk a stanger, unsettled, and prescriptive relationship to its historical moment, for it represents a kickback against the still dominant logic of postmodernism. We might debate the degree to which the terms of postmodernism theorized by Frederic Jameson and others in the 80's still apply to our moment, when developments in media technologies and massive shifts in the global order produce a perhaps uncrossable rift. However, what we can say is that the notion of salvagepunk we have been constructing here, including both its existent cultural examples and the possible manifestations of its conceptual moves, is one that represents a lost promise of modernism swept under the rug.

For if one strand of modernism (including those practioners of montage, collage, détournement, and face) was born as a tarrying with the emergent world of capitalist imperialism and its consequences, as well as the full flowering of a set of relations between workers and the realm of made things, it has always been about salvage, mapping another current alongside the capitalist work of salvage itself. This brand of modernism has been the task of finding value in the scrap heap, although it was particular in its sense that there is still a whole that needs to be smashed up and made into a scrap heap first. But above all, against Schwitters's own words (which go against the feel of his collages themselves), a sense of the eccentric value of things and all images not being equivalent. In the work of junk-montage and the recreation/recombination of the most banal subregions of the cultural realm, we get glimpses of a different kind of sneer back towards us: the tough, unwanted, and venomous insistence of the objects of mechanical production, from plastics that will not degrade to odd, unsettling singularities of things that were mass produced.

The postmodern turn, despite its emphasis on pastiche and mash-up and hybrid forms, closes off the punk aspect of what salvage could be, precisely because of that emphasis. The issue is the inherent flatness and equivalency of postmodern cultural production, in which, according to now familiar accounts, the disappearing sense of a lived history of the world opens the cache of cultural options to endless reuses, all unmoored from the original situation of the images, sounds, genre conventions, and so on. There is a real sense in which the number of exceptions to this trendline overwhelm its descriptive capacity. However, like all real abstractions whose description of a situation feedback into and dictate the terms of that situation, the postmodern turn has believed its own lines. And so whether or not this has been the experience of those living through the past few decades, the cultural sphere has been marked by its degrees of deviation from or adherence to the hollow frisson of postmodern ahistorical sampling.

Fighting back against a regime that wants its decay and waste greened, twee, and a little sad: still from Decasia, Bill Morrison (2002)

To do this, then, with salvagepunk, is to measure its self-aware extreme deviation from postmodernism. Fundamentally opposed to pastiche, salvage realizes the eccentricity of things in which persist, even after their discarding, outmoding, and forgetting, the peculiar imprint of their time of production and the cache of labor and energy frozen in their form, from which all value has supposedly been lost. Above all, it is that work of construction, not simply gutting to see what can be sold back to the industrial suppliers, but a giving the time to see what values might emerge outside of the loops of circulation and accumulation.

Particularly when combined with other aspects of waste. We don't want to hold up single objects as treasures, like so many vintage lamps or a kitschy artifact of a political world gone by. Instead, to start with a world after the fact of its collapse, an endless series of world collapses. Constructing anew from leftovers of what was once very new. And then occupying the old worlds, inhabiting a moment to the point of its stress and crack, by inhabiting those parts of it already belonging to another time, waste zones of history one and all.

* This reading of No Future-ism and cyberpunk is heavily indebted to Wlad Godzich.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this essay. I'm outlining a research proposal and have been thinking about cyberpunk and utopia/dystopia in the work of William Gibson. I agree with the no future-ism and am glad to now have some sort of a formulation for it. Somehow I just got it all a bit backwards since I was more impressed by Gibson's recent novels and the mirror they hold up against the world. Then again it seems that the later novels are more or less "realist" (or, perhaps, minimalist) takes on the same issues as the "real" cyberpunk ones.

Has Wlad Godzich, whom I have never heard of, written something about cyberpunk? Googling didn't yield any results.

jane said...

"Taking the initial linguistic form of the word + punk suffix (cyberpunk, steampunk, etc) that started this investigation..." —

I don't think this is quite right? In each of these cases, it would seem that "punk" is the root, and is busily taking different prefixes, not so? That is, the "punk" is the subject, varied per milieu or aesthetic. This has implications for the paragraph and perhaps the whole passage...

ECW said...


No, as far as I know, Wlad hasn't published on it. I taught a section for a course he gave on cyberpunk. He should, given that it was one of the few thorough and theoretically sophisticated treatments I've ever seen of the material, but I doubt that will happen.

And indeed, there is a distinct sense of the recent Gibson novels being more "realist" or attempting to map the present. I think this is the case, but we should also ask what interior, obscured logic of the period was brought forth via the cold speculations of the earlier work.

ECW said...


Fair point, although one with which I quite disagree. For me, "punk" is an operation directed toward a situation. It is not a subject position. In other words, something is punked, not something is (a) punk. Or, to specify, the works of interest in these genres function this way. Of course, there are obviously self-designated "punks", and there are cultural objects/traditions that are "punk" because they are filled with punks, or at least with an aesthetic we associate with that subject position. And cyberpunk/steampunk/salvagepunk certainly includes that dimension.

But it is the least interesting aspect of it and betrays the real work of negation it does, "punking" the situation it which it cannot be help be located. "Punks" (the subjects) and "punk" (the generalized appearance granted to the situation by those subjects) are only the window dressing of the real work at hand.

jane said...


I can totally see that as a reading of punkness, and an indication of your desire for a meaning. Much to be gained from it.

But language doesn't really work that way, I don't think? One can say "Sheena is a punk"; on the other hand, "Sheena is a cyber," or "Sheena is a steam," well, at the level of usage, that's going to cause problems. "Prefix" and "suffix" mean something or they don't; they are linguistic codes. I can't decide "delightfully" is a preposition, because of how I feel about the word.

ECW said...

I think that's missing the point, in part because, I'm fine with non-common sense uses of words as long as they are productive and don't slip into Derrida-esque froth. Perhaps I should not phrase it as I did, with "punk" as suffix. It doesn't really change my argument. If you prefer to think of "punk" as the linguistic subject/noun here, that's fine, as long as it is only considered as such linguistically. Sure, it can be a root noun, but a noun that does not describe a certain thing ("a punk") but a certain kind of action (in the way that salvage, as a noun, signifies a certain kind of action).

But the point I'm trying to stress is that there doesn't have to be a stable originary, correct subject in these compound concepts. (In the words themselves, fine.) In one sense, "cyber" designates the material/content on which the operations/moves of "punk" (the form, if you will) are performed. In another, "cyber" provides a set of recognizable operations that are then arranged in a generally punk manner. The issue at hand is that of inherited historical/generic material - which includes social and aesthetic forms as well as recognizable sets of content - which is "worked on/through" in a certain way.

J.L. said...

I wonder if you have read Donald Kuspit's essay on Schwitters...he makes arguments that are not unrelated to yours, but from a different perspective you might find valuable. His reading of the work is also very close. If you're interested, I'll send you a copy...

ECW said...


is this the piece you had in mind? I don't know anything beyond this, I'd love to receive anything you have to send, digital or material.

ECW said...

actually, looking back, I see I didn't put the link I was thinking of, and the piece I had in mind had little discussion of Schwitters. So yes, pleas send