Salvagepunk, post-apocalyptic thought and idiosyncratic objects (part 1)

What is salvagepunk? Salvagepunk is “a return to the repressed idiosyncrasy of outmoded things”, so says Evan Calder Williams, inventor and sharp Marxist prose stylist over at Socialism and/or Barbarism. But what does this mean and why do I think it is a very important move towards recognizing the apocalyptic world in which we live, a world of excess consumption and waste, in contradistinction to the impotent Marxist waiting game of capitalism’s hoped for demise? It is this world we must attend to, not the promises of a new world, but the concrete conditions of our historically contingent moment. To quote the last line from his recent talk at the Historical Materialism conference (full audio available HERE)

I don’t believe another world is possible, because I know that all things superseded stick around and stink as unwelcome reminders of that we have to deal with, so another world is necessary but only built from the gutted hull of this one

Firstly, salvagepunk should be seen as the negation of salvage as we know it. Etymologically, as Williams investigated, salvage is synonymous with pay-off, with “saving the day and keeping things as they are”. Back in the 17th century, if a ship was saved that would have gone down or being captured, a payment would have been given to the salvagers. In salvage, there is always a “transfer of exchange value”, which we saw recently with the salvage of the banks as they were blasted to pieces by bad loans and pirate capitalist canon balls. We are in an era of salvage as “waste sorting and recuperation”, and capitalism biggest act of salvage is not the bank bailout, but time itself. Our free-time is a calculated countdown back to labour time as capitalism never sleeps, with round the clock consumption and production by supermarkets, television and factories. Night-shift, day-shift, split-shift, part-time, on-call, ‘unsociable hours’, the day and night of the post-Fordist labourer, “inhuman rhythms” of machinic repetition, re-training and dynamic flexibility. The capitalist salvages time by firing your work colleagues and giving you extra work. For sure, salvagepunk will not salvage the capitalist time of abstract labour time.

Salvagepunk is not like Guiyu City in China. Guiyu is an e-waste recycling center. The global sorting mechanism of low cost labour means the rich make high technology e-waste and the poor salvage the quality components and sell it back to the rich. The high cost of disposing this waste means it is outsourced to countries with little or no environmental and health and safety regulation, such as Guiyu in China. The ratified international laws banning such activities go unnoticed and unenforced. This is salvage in the image of exploitative late capitalism: exploit those who aren’t educated enough to know the ‘precious’ metals they’re extracting and smelting from old computer motherboards and cathode ray tubes are polluting their waters and slowly killing them. It is this logic that salvagepunk will gladly let decay and rot.

The punk of salvagepunk is what makes it revolutionary. Punk is not the commodified and commercialize image of Mohawked teens with pins through noses. It is certainly not the PVC slick technological wet dream of cyberpunk with its Deleuzian ‘intense’ nomadic multitudes and immaterial labour. Nor is it the “false dream image” of steampunk,where “its falseness lies in it being the wrong dream image, the ideological blind that is the dream image proper to the liberal escape plan for the contemporary crisis and its envisioned fall-out”. Punk is thus the “deep fidelity to its historical moment and the fact it no longer believed in a future – the present is already the hollowed out present of that future”. Punk is born from harsh experience. As Johnny Rotten says of the Sex Pistols song God Save the Queen “You don’t write a song like ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up of seeing them mistreated.”


The face of salvagepunk is not the “sneer of cyberpunk” but a “graveside smile and the perspective of looking toward what can be reassembled ‘wrongly’ and how”. Salvagepunk turns objects upside down. Objects are no longer just what they are given to us, packaged and ready hot off the factory floor. Salvagepunk is a view to the “idiosyncratic uses of given materials”, a recognition of the “already-present singular values of things”. In their ruin, their monetary value is lost and their real value comes forward, not as something with a particular purpose, but objects that in their singularity aren’t sublated into the warped simulacra of consumerist fashion and prestige. Objects become objects, not money and exchange value. As Guattari states “capitalism reduces everything to a state of shit, to a state of undifferentiated and unencoded flux, out of which each person in his private and guilt ridden way must pull out his part. Capitalism is the regime of generalized interchangeability: anything in the ‘right’ proportions can be equal to anything else”. Capitalism decodes and flattens out difference into a smooth space of homogeneous real abstraction. Where the fantasy of capitalist realism at the ‘end of history’ dictates that economic, environmental, democratic salvation is just around the corner, that things will ‘change’ only if the sweaty hand of the free market is not continually stifled by ‘regulations’ and socialist welfare systems. Salvagepunk, in contrast, is a heterogeneous time of the proletariat, of “fireworks and flares” (Negri), a post-apocalyptic subject.

Williams is keen to emphasize the post-apocalyptic is a “mode of though, not a state of affairs”. The world is apocalyptic, not in the Hollywood sense of asteroids and plagues, but the gradual banal entropy of unsustainable system of repetition without difference, the real abstraction of late capitalism. Post-apocalyptic thinking is the affirmation of concrete negation against real abstraction: the non-identical thinking of objects not as “undifferentiated and unencoded flux” but as “particular, sensuous objects that strain to declare, particularly in the context of their commensurability of the value form, their singularity”. In other words “we need to get back to real life, real things” as “the concrete is the exposure of real abstractions”. Post-apocalyptic thought turns the impotent fantasy of the wait for that right historical moment of communist revolution into a always already active political and social collectivity.

This is a metaphysical drive towards the object as object which recognizes the object as “registrations of and stores of historical energy to be released”. This abandons the post-modern world space as image, a Society of the Spectacle, and reaches for the “idiosyncrasy” of objects. This unsettling of objects is anti-representational and free the function of objects to their own historical moment. By doing this, we occupy materialist time, the genealogical time of Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism. The reawakening of past possibilities forgotten by the all-too-ready to dump and forget postures of capitalist consumer culture. The buried historical “traditions and horizons of collectivity, solidarity, and true antagonism” are the objects to be salvaged. The rethinking and reclaiming of these broken communist social relations are what is to be salvaged from our capitalist waste ground. Salvagepunk, as a form of subjectivity and thought, is a metaphysical attuning to the conditions of the specificity of historical-being.

In this regards, salvagepunk is venomously anti-Kantian yet sees in Kant a “radical misanthropic gesture”. The nature of human subjectivity is not an ahistorical givenness through the necessary conditions of transcendental apperception, but a historical givenness. “As the law is not transhistorical but the abstract will of life historical totality of a moment, so too “nature” (as perversion) is historical.” The Kantian framework, Williams argues, is clearly overthrown by capitalism’s propensity to generate irrationality in competition and “the elevation of the general misanthropic condition to the system as a whole”. Kantian human nature, the movement of man from ‘nature’ (ahistorical ‘crocked wood’) to ‘Nature’ (rational historical Will), is challenged by Williams who states “human actions are the becoming-necessary of the will to freedom”, where recognition is given to the “particularity of the actions at hand” – the situation is and produces the situation. The appeal is contra to any notion of the ahistorical absolute.

Part 2 will look at where Williams sees these themes of apocalypse staring back at us, such as in zombie movies and black metal music. Together with his look at post-apocalyptic visions in movies such as Mad Max and the Bed Sitting Room. I will also briefly summaries his work on Michael Jackson’s CaptainEO. But now, I’ve got to go, as I’m, off to see The Mars Volta play at the London Forum. Good times!

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2 Responses to “Salvagepunk, post-apocalyptic thought and idiosyncratic objects (part 1)”

  1. Evan Says:

    Thanks for the extensive treatment – a number of your summarizations of, and movements out from, my claims give me a lot to think about. I’ll post a proper response on my blog in the near future.

  2. avoidingthevoid Says:

    No problem. Thanks for an inspired presentation at the Historical Materialism conference. That led me straight to your blog… hence the enthusiastic article. If I’ve botched any of your ideas, my apologies.

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