New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

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Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

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  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

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Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

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Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.