“The future ain’t what it used to be.” — Yogi Berra
Earlier this week I asked “Does steampunk have politics?” and argued that while the movement doesn’t seem to have expressed a clear political stance yet, the -punk in its name suggests that it must, in some way, be understood by its followers as opposing or defying some dominant cultural value(s).
In addition, I argued that Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo offers a possible starting point for the development of a political standpoint within the steampunk movement. I suggested that a Nemo(tic?) steampunk would oppose both the imposition of exclusive boundaries — “nationalism,” which steampunk might interpret quite broadly — and the propagation of cultural imperialism — which is a challenging position for a movement so enamoured of Victorianism, but a position that could be ameliorated by consciously adopting Nemo as a postcolonial icon and by setting forth a clear argument that neoVictorianism does not necessitate adopting all of the Bad Old Ideas of Victorianism. Instead, it’s that peculiar upper-class Victorian sense of enthusiasm, optimism, confidence, manners, and good sportsmanship that steampunk wishes to reclaim — not its sexism, racism, classism, poverty, and other ills.
Nevertheless, even as aware of the shortcomings of Victorianism and as open to multiculturalism and progressive politics as I believe many steampunk aficionados are, as a cultural movement, steampunk still seems to have a distinct demographic. By and large, it seems to be a middle-class, Anglo-European and Japanese, “First World” movement, and, I’d argue, it’s currently dominated by male interests and spokespersons. I note this in order to point out that the vision of the future that steampunk presents is informed by certain biases and assumptions that may require further explication and consideration by its members and its critics. These biases and assumptions are ideological in nature, even if they haven’t been brought together into a coherent “steampunk” framework yet.
I conceive of steampunk as a quintessentially postmodern cultural movement. If modernism was a reaction to the Victorian period’s industrialization, a rational movement that valued simplicity and function and cast itself as a revolutionary movement that threw off the traditional and embraced the avant-garde, then steampunk is squarely situated within the postmodern reaction to modernism. Postmodernism is a reaction to the problems that have arisen from constantly embracing the new; it explores the fault lines of structuralist approaches and master narratives and considers the ambiguities and challenges of new sciences that address complexity, ambiguity, and diversity. Aesthetically, postmodernism reclaims traditions shunned by modernism and has been characterized by its use of irony, intertextuality, pastiche, and bricolage — all of which are manifested within the steampunk movement.
If irony is the contrast between what is expected and what occurs, then steampunk is at its heart an ironic cultural movement that compares what was expected, in the past, from the late 1900s and early 2000s, and what has actually occurred in those decades. Thus, when Datamancer dresses up an HP laptop with the antiquated, heavy materials of glass, wood, leather, copper, and brass to create his steampunk laptop, he has intentionally and ironically created an object that eludes the laptop’s original intent — to serve as a quintessentially modern, light and portable computing device — by weighing it down with ornament that references a period when computing was largely a theory of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Similarly, when steampunk aficionados create costumes for themselves that include elaborate tailcoats and ornaments or corsets and long skirts, they are consciously discarding the decades that led to light, easy-to-maintain, largely androgynous modern clothing to ironically and nostalgically embrace a more cumbersome and ornate mode of dress. Some might consider this recovery of a Victorian(esque) aesthetic as indicative of a new conservativism, but they’d be missing the ironic playfulness of the gesture.
Steampunk has exhibited intertextuality since its name was first coined by K. W. Jeter as a conscious modification of the already existing genre term cyberpunk (itself referencing, of course, punk). Steampunk itself draws on numerous movements and time periods for its aesthetic, as described in depth in Voyages Extraordinaires’ five-part A History of Steampunk. To create or consume any work of steampunk is simultaneously to acknowledge its many predecessors and influences and to invite comparison, positive or negative, with this multitude of other texts.
Pastiche, which I use here in the literary sense of the respectful, if sometimes tongue-in-cheek, imitation of another author’s work, can be seen in steampunk’s costuming and invention. Steampunk bloggers often, at least in the introductions to their blogs, adopt an (ironic) imitation of Victorian writing style, and steampunk costumers and roleplayers often emulate the archetypical literary characters found in Victorian and pulp adventure stories. At times, works of steampunk fiction and art have also offered pastiches of well-known writers or artists of the Victorian period.
Finally, steampunk often engages in bricolage, or the recycling of on-hand materials and/or junk, when creating its works. For example, Tom Sepe’s steampunk motorbike is a hybrid vehicle cobbled together from a variety of parts, including the frame of a 1967 Tote-Gote, an electric motorcycle motor, a fire extinguisher tank, inlaid wood paneling, and other materials. Many steampunk costumers combine vintage garments with contemporary fabrics and prints, and steampunk jewelers love to create jewelry out of old clockwork and Victorian lockets. Steampunk, as a cultural movement, itself recycles ideas and themes from a variety of cultural sources as it attempts to define itself and its goals.
As I’ve tried to point out in this quick rundown of steampunk’s postmodern attributes, one of the hallmarks of the steampunk aesthetic movement is its delight in combining contemporary and obsolescent materials. One of the central tenets of steampunk, then, might be characterized as a movement against modernism’s compulsory obsolescence. Instead of scrapping the old and embracing the new, steampunk lovingly recycles antiquated or obsolete materials, combining them with the new to create works that are both functional and playfully unique.
I’d like to suggest, then, that steampunk’s larger ideological project is to recycle antiquated or obsolete visions of the future, combining them with contemporary concerns and atittudes to create visions of that are newly functional — that is, to create a present that looks like the benign future imagined by an optimistic past.
Steampunk has, at times, been criticized for being backward-looking; for being nothing more than a form of nostalgia that has no political or social power. But it doesn’t truly look backward, because — and those in the steampunk movement are aware of this fact — the Victorian period that steampunk cherishes never really existed. It is the Victorianism of popular romantic fiction: largely populated by white, middle- to upper-class geniuses and adventurers who have impeccable manners and indefatigable spirits. Moreover, steampunk indiscriminately mixes with its “Victorian” nostalgia an enthusiasm for the zeppelins of the early 20th century, a passion for the pulpy sci-fi and fantasy of the 1950s, the fashion-consciousness of goths, the cosplay of anime fandom, the technophilia of the hacker subculture, the cynicism of cyberpunk, and the self-awareness of the contemporary global/digital citizen. The future that steampunk wants to (re)create is the future that writers and artists once dreamed humanity would be living now — a future of dazzling airships and interplanetary travel, of time travel and trade with alien species. It’s a future created through the benign miracles of science and technology, absent poverty, pollution, inequality, and ignorance.
Of course, this ideal future cannot be viewed today without a sense of irony and an awareness of the many ways in which that dream went awry, from the misuse of science and technology to the apparent ineradicability of prejudice and hatred. Moreover, it’s a very Western ideal of the future, with its emphasis on the redeeming possibilities of technology and science and its expression of democratic ideals, and that, too, must be acknowledged. Yet none of that means that it’s not an ideal worth holding, and that’s where steampunk comes in. Whereas cyberpunk is a genre of nihilism and rebellion, steampunk is, for the most part, a genre of hope and optimism, conscious of the many ways in which a dream can be misused but suggesting that if everyone were to work together with an old-fashioned sense of self-reliance and fair play, the world could indeed be transformed into a better place.
To conclude, my argument here has been that steampunk does have an ideology, and it’s an ideology grounded in a high-income, “Western” Anglo-European and Japanese culture that puts great value on science and technology and mythologizes the self-reliant, DIY tinkerer or artist. Moreover, while steampunk is indeed a nostalgic movement, it doesn’t seek to return or recreate the past; instead, it seeks to recycle the most desirable aspects of the past and combine them with the most desirable aspects of the present. Although steampunk hasn’t been viewed as a politically active or relevant genre or movement in the same way cyberpunk was, I’d argue that by recycling and rethinking history’s lost dreams and obsolete technologies within the context of contemporary historical awareness, steampunk is poised to offer the world, with an ironic wink and a shiny brass-and-wood carrying case, a vision of the future that offers cautious hope instead of dystopian despair.