“What is socially peripheral
may be symbolically central.”
— Stallybrass & White,
Politics and Poetics of Transgression
A call to steampunk:
“Some ladies appeared as balance sheets, displaying voluptuous debits curving from slender credits. Others came as inflated collateral: faux enhancements amplified the bust or upholstered the posterior. As for the gentlemen, thin ones were costumed as deposits, fat ones as withdrawals. Sooner or later everybody repaired to the debtor’s prison — the restaurant of the Blumensaal.
Here mortgage certificates made pretty doilies for Sachertortes. Ornamented with the bailiff’s seal, eviction and foreclosure notices were colorful centerpieces, each topped by a bowl of whipped cream. If you wrote your waiter an I.O.U., he would pour you a flute of Champagne. Dancing and merriment continued until 5 a.m., when, suddenly, the orchestra leader stopped his men in the middle of the “Emperor Waltz.” He announced that since the musicians hadn’t been paid, there would be no more music, good morning, good luck, goodbye.”
— New York Times, Frederic Morton, “The Armageddon Waltz“
Vienna’s Banktruptcy Ball was the economic equivalent of the bals des victimes held in the former cemetery of Saint Sulpice, 1795, Paris:
“The women at these galas wore their hair up, exposing their necks, around which was tied a thin red ribbon to simulate the blade mark. Men wore their hair cut close at the nape of the neck, making room for a similar telltale crimson thread. The dancers saluted their partners with an abrupt drop of the head — as though it had been freshly cut off.”
—Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore, Daniel Gerould, p. 51
Here we are, the entire world gripped by economic recession, and our generation seems frozen by a paucity of imagination and savoir faire — where is the 21st century’s Recession Revel, its Bear Market Bacchanal? Why aren’t we dancing in the face of disaster?
This would be the right historical moment for steampunk culture to make a grand gesture — to hold a celebration of the global Zeitgeist that would combine steampunk’s nostalgia for an idealized past with its ironic acknowledgment that we don’t live in the future we’d dreamed of; that embraces postapocalyptic chic and sociocultural awareness. This would be the right time for steampunk to take that quintessentially Victorian cultural icon of Almack’s — those exclusive, Wednesday night dances whose tickets were so jealously guarded by their well-to-do patronesses — and turn it on its head. And perhaps, as in the bals des victimes, only those who are unemployed/in foreclosure/underwater could obtain tickets — or, if you like, invitations could also be issued to those with family members who are in the same boat. Given the international reach of the recession, that ought to guarantee almost anybody entrée into the ball.
The Bankruptcy Ball and the bals des victimes were short-lived cultural affairs; brief, symbolic moments that nevertheless served to capture both their participants’ sense of helplessness in the face of great social upheavals and their bravura sense of defiance — their determination to laugh in the face of overwhelming odds. That is precisely the sort of never-say-die spirit that steampunk, with its literary tradition of inventive adventurers and mad scientists and wild-eyed idealists, should epitomize in the face of this global recession.
We should be dancing.
Image Source: The Ball (Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885)