Does Steampunk Have Politics?

Does Steampunk Have Politics?

Anima by Dany & DanyThe publication of Anima, by Italian manga team Dany & Dany, couldn’t help but get my attention — steampunk boys’ love? Yes, please.

But Anima isn’t steampunk fiction in the most traditional sense, which, along with my own work on a Clockwork Heart sequel, has led me to think through what, exactly, determines whether something is “steampunk.” This isn’t really a review of Anima; my thoughts will range far beyond the content of this slender volume of manga. But don’t worry. I’ll return to it, eventually, if that’s why you decided to read this article.

Steampunk is a genre — or an aesthetic, or a cultural movement, or a lifestyle — that its aficionados have been struggling to explain for some time. As Justice Stewart said about obscenity, we’re hard-pressed to define it, but we know it when we see it.

So, what should we be looking for?

The most easily identifiable attributes of steampunk is the Victorian aesthetic implied by the prefix “steam-.”  Steampunk references Victorian technology and quotes Victorian decor; it delights in recycling antiques and rethinking modernity.

Why? Let’s take, for a moment, Jules Verne’s description of the library on Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus: “High pieces of furniture, of black violet ebony inlaid with brass, supported upon their wide shelves a great number of books uniformly bound. They followed the shape of the room, terminating at the lower part in huge divans, covered with brown leather, which were curved, to afford the greatest comfort.” Just a few paragraphs later we glimpse “a little brazier, which was supported upon an elegant bronze stem,” and then walk into a museum with “a luminous ceiling, decorated with light arabesques” that is filled with great works of art.

Now, compare Verne’s description of the Nautilus to the interior of a contemporary submarine.

Which would you prefer?

Stephen Segal’s essay, “Five Thoughts On the Popularity of Steampunk,” captured the steampunk aficionado’s preferences in the lolspeak declaration:


Steampunk is a quintessentially postmodern movement that seeks to mesh contemporary style and technology with handcrafted Victorian beauty and quality, as characterized by the movement’s preference for brass, wood, glass, and leather. Complexity is preferred to simplicity, ornament to minimalism. In movies, fiction, roleplay, and fashion, steampunk shares certain generic icons and themes that speak to an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the brilliant future that humanity imagined for itself in the 1800s.

We see this nostalgia in Anima. Dany & Dany’s art is highly detailed, with lavish attention spent on the details of neoVictorian garments, furniture, and backgrounds. The setting is a world that combines androids and virtual reality with Victorian fashion and decor, and the story includes a variety of retro, though not exactly Victorian, technological moments, like presenting a handwritten check, riding in a vintage motorcar, and watching a recording displayed within a rococo frame.  Anima depicts an ornate, steampunk future: the future as it was imagined in the past and is informed by the present.

Steam-, then, is the aesthetic half of the steampunk movement. But what of the other half?

The aspect of steampunk that is most often overlooked is the sociopolitical ideology characterized by suffix “-punk.”

Punk ideology embraces anarchy and individualism, rebellion and free thought. The first fiction genre to adopt the -punk suffix, cyberpunk, featured political and social dystopias in which antiheroic hackers struggled against powerful megacorporations.  The genre did evolve its own aesthetic over time — mirrorshades and black dusters, body modification and street fashion — but it never abandoned its central theme of individual struggle against an oppressive society.

Such sociopolitical commentary hasn’t been as prevalent in steampunk. Although the do-it-yourself ethic of punk has been retained by steampunk, which cherishes a literary history of mad scientists and crackpot inventors and attracts its share of engineers, designers, and costumers, there is less of a sense that the steampunk movement is innately oppositional. True, in the broadest sense, DIY opposes mass marketing and consumerism, but thus far anticonsumerism hasn’t emerged as a unifying theme for the movement.

Does steampunk really need to take a political position? Well, punk does imply some kind of political engagement or opposition, even if it’s to extol anarchy. The term splatterpunk, for example, has been replaced by extreme horror, in part because the genre’s high-octane gore factor never translated into a coherent statement about society or politics. Splatterpunk wasn’t oppositional; it was just excessive. And a similar fate threatens to replace steampunk with gaslamp fantasy. So if steampunk is to warrant its -punk, it had better take a stand.

Fortunately, steampunk does have potential models for oppositional politics within the literature it most often cites as inspirational.

Take, for example, Captain Nemo. Nemo means “no one,” in itself a thought-provoking name for a potentially archetypical figure, suggesting as it does both nobody and everybody. Captain Nemo was an anti-nationalist humanist who helped oppressed peoples throw off the chains of their colonial rulers; he was so adamant about his beliefs that he refused to set foot on any dry land claimed by a sovereign nation. In addition, he was highly educated, musical, multilingual, compassionate, and self-disciplined.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him becoming an iconic figure for the steampunk movement.

Captain Nemo’s steampunk, for example, would be an eclectic movement that scorns the drawing of boundaries and the valorization of national, cultural, and/or religious separatism. Captain Nemo did his utmost to avoid taking lives, and he never hesitated to risk his own life for one of his companions. The enclosed world of his submarine was a metaphor for the larger world above him, and he comprehended the interdependence of everyone on the Nautilus in a way he felt the warring, oppressive nations above did not. The Nautilus‘ motto was Mobilis in mobili, or “moving in movement,” and it moved constantly through the ocean, heedless of political boundaries.

Similarly, Captain Nemo’s steampunk would value the common humanity of every soul in every culture and feel free to take what’s best from all historical periods, nations, cultures, and/or religions, combining disparate elements in new and inventive ways guided above all by a desire to (re)create the kind of golden future about which humanity once dreamed — the steampunk ideal. What steampunk is doing aesthetically, bringing to life the charming and fantastic, can also be done politically.

Nemo’s steampunk would also be a movement that shunned imperialism, perhaps especially cultural imperialism. Steampunk doesn’t seek to appropriate and colonize other movements; instead, it allows itself to be informed by those movements — it shares interests with cyberpunks, punks, goths, Lolitas, anime fans, manga fans, geeks, nerds, engineers, programmers, dandies, metalheads, and others. It prefers fusion to domination, recycling to consumerism, and individualism to authority.

And, finally, Captain Nemo’s steampunk would be one that cherished form as well as function, one that combined beauty with technology and sought to create living and working environments that were both welcoming and efficient. Just as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a miracle of engineering and design, so should be the world in which the steampunk seeks to live.

From an ideological point of view, Captain Nemo would be an especially provocative sociopolitical figurehead for the steampunk movement because, despite his European manners and tastes, he was an Indian deeply opposed to the British Raj. Steampunk’s Victorian aesthetic links it, rather unfortunately, to the colonialist British Empire, with all the racism and oppression it embodied. Adopting Nemo as an ideological icon would complicate and moderate that linkage — Nemo was a member of royalty but supported the impoverished; he was born in India but educated in Europe. He symbolizes the complexity of life in a multicultural society; the tensions of hybridity and the advantages and abuses of class. Part idealist, part despot, Nemo is a nuanced, contradictory figure open to numerous interpretations and usages, just like steampunk itself.

But perhaps Captain Nemo is too extreme a character to become steampunk’s iconic hero; perhaps freethinking Liedenbrock, certain the world is hollow despite the ridicule of his peers, is the movement’s hero of choice; or perhaps never-say-die Phileas Fogg embodies the values steampunk seeks to emulate. I would suggest the movement not adopt H.G. Wells’ insane scientists Griffin or Dr. Moreau, however, or his rather ineffectual Time Traveler. No doubt many fans of steampunk might vote for Wild, Wild West‘s James West, but gadgets aside, he was a government agent, and there’s not much -punk involved in working for President Ulysses S. Grant. Finally, we might also turn to any of the characters in contemporary steampunk works, of which there are too many to list here, for an ideological archetype that might symbolize the movement.

Anima (I told you I’d get back to it eventually!), like steampunk itself, fails to provide a strongly oppositional political message. Now, to be sure, Anima is primarily boys’ love, and boys’ love isn’t exactly known for its sociopolitical gravitas. And, as boys’ love, Anima succeeds quite well. But this article isn’t about boys’ love; it’s about steampunk. And to the extent that Anima has been characterized as steampunk boys’ love, its political content lends itself to analysis.

Anima does, in fact, present us with a world that has a touch of dystopian -punk. It’s a world in which dancer Danya Arseniev’s manager, Nikolaj Zaharov, has defied the law to put Danya onstage but, while he resists authority in one context, he cannot help but assert it in another — over Danya. It’s a world in which freelance investigative journalist Patrick Owens, like one of cyberpunk’s keyboard cowboys, seeks to free information into the mediasphere — in this case the truth behind government coverups and black market dealing. And it’s a world in which the peripheral character inventor/programmer Miranda is confronting questions about happiness versus freewill that will affect Danya’s and Patrick’s lives.

But Anima‘s story never moves beyond the individual — it is, at its core, an erotic romance, and it never expands its scope to address the broader implications of each character’s actions. While Danya’s career directly defies existing legislation, his story arc ends up being a one-on-one conflict with his manager, who wants to keep him from seeing Patrick, rather than a political confrontation with the larger system that overshadows his desire to dance. Danya’s ultimate victory is to win the freedom to love, rather than to overturn the legislation that would keep him offstage.

If Danya’s secret were equated with his homosexuality (which, for the record, is not a sociopolitical problem in Anima‘s storyworld), then, at the end of the story, Danya would still be in the closet.

Which is quite the Victorian aesthetic, indeed.

And perhaps that’s why steampunk as a movement has, thus far, avoided addressing the question of its own politics. After all, reserve and deference were key elements in Victorian etiquette, and punk is quite the opposite: would it really be good manners to, for example, publish a steampunk manifesto? But if steampunk is ever going to deserve its provocative suffix, it needs to offer more than simply nostalgia for a retro dream that never was. It needs to suggest ways in which we, as a group, can revive and rethink that lost ideal.


NOTE: For examples of the steampunk aesthetic, see The Steampunk Workshop, which specializes in technological reinvention; Flickr’s Steampunk Fashion group, which demonstrates the retro luxe of steampunk outfitting; and The Steampunk Home, which features interior decorating with a Victorian-tech edge. The steampunk aesthetic in music can be heard in works by Abney Park. Haven’t ever met Captain Nemo offscreen? Meet the original mystery man in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island.
NOTE 2: See also Mike Perschon for more about Jules Verne and definitions of steampunk.

Image Source: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (George Roux, 1871)

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.

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