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What is Steampunk?

We seek inspiration in the smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless Empire. We find solidarity and inspiration in the mad bombers with ink stained cuffs, in whip-wielding women that yield to none, in coughing chimney sweeps who have escaped the rooftops and joined the circus, and in mutineers who have gone native and have handed the tools of the masters to those most ready to use them (“What Then, Is Steampunk?” 1).

Steampunk began as a radical satirical form of fiction, but today it encompasses much more. What precisely is steampunk? As the editors of Steampunk Magazine explain, steampunk is “a vibrant culture of DIY crafters, writers, artists, and other creative types, each with their own slightly different answer to that question” (“What Then, Is Steampunk?” 6). By its diverse nature, steampunk resists definition. Furthermore, in the ever evolving nature of steampunk, “as each new iteration of the idea be­comes more ambitious, the mutations are delightfully limitless and unpredictable” (6).

This definition seems in line with Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall’s statement that, “Steampunk is more about instability than any other single characteristic. It resists fixedness by unsettling the categories from which it cribs” (30). Yet, the authors do provide a definition for those looking for the quintessential steampunk. They write:

That being said, one common element arguably shared by all steampunk texts, objects, or performances is the one on which this journal is predicated: the invocation of Victorianism. In literary culture, this can mean a narrative set in Victorian London; one set in a futuristic world that retains or reverts to the aesthetic hallmarks of the Victorian period; a piece of speculative historical fiction that deploys Victorian subjects; or a text that incorporates anachronistic versions of nineteenth-century technologies. (1)

As steampunk becomes increasingly popular, “The behaviors ingrained by the mainstream spill over into our proverbial ste­ampunk creek” (“What Then, Is Steampunk”). Thus, a question worth asking about steampunk is whether – as it becomes subject to the influence of consumer capitalist culture – it is repeating the past in a problematic way, or subverting the past in a meaningful way. 

With these definitions and concerns in mind, my definition of steampunk is as follows:

Steampunk revisits Victorian culture and invokes a time when steam power is commonly used, either set in the present and creating alternative pasts or set in the past invoking future or fantasy technologies. While it doesn’t represent any one political position, steampunk – in its subversion of Victorianism - involves the politics of punk in its questioning dynamics of control and power and how society is organized. Steampunk embraces the monstrous machine in neo-luddite fashion, and in its radical nature subverts the conventional morality, opinions and culture of the Victorian Era. Yet, in its refusal to be classified, steampunk resists a fixed definition. Thus, steampunk is like a like a river with many ebbs and flows, constantly changing and being refreshed by new currents, but always moving towards the open ocean of imagination and freedom (and steam powered vessels).

Finding the Punk in Steampunk

Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something like that), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, it’s lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism – Jess Nevins inThe Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk,” an introduction article to 2008 book ‘Steampunk”

Punk is political, and, if we account for the “punk” in steampunk, the movement must have a political side. As I suggest in my definition of steampunk, the subversion of Victorianism in steampunk involves the politics of punk with its questioning dynamics of control and power. Today issues such as class, race, sex, poverty, war and imperialism, which plagued the Victorians, are still of great concern. Steampunk a good opportunity to revisit these issues through its invoking and replaying of history.

Yet, steampunk is often viewed as an “apolitical” phenomenon. As the editors of Steampunk Magazine have lamented, “Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk” (5). Thus, this website aims to “put the punk back in steampunk”  by exploring the punk aspects of steampunk and how it ties to political movements, such as anarchism. 

A steampunk band called, “The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing,” to me, exemplify Steampunk in their subversion of Victorian culture through costume and lyrics, and their explicitly anti-racist and anti-colonialist political stance. This subversion is achieved through humor, as seen in the explanation of how the group formed:

When Cpl. Heintz returned home in disgrace from British India in 1874 he met, aboard a ship crossing the English Channel, a young anarchist fleeing the Prussian authorities after a number of anti-monarchist bombings. Mr. O’Neill, suspected as a Fenian by British authorities, needed a way of generating an income while staying on the road.

Stowing away aboard ship was Marc Burrows, a conman and sometime assassin masquerading as cherub faced school boy, who was fleeing the wrath of several young women and their fathers and in need of an excuse to stay moving. Meanwhile Ben Dawson a hired mercenary with some experience in percussion, was toiling in the boiler room dreaming of an existence free of shovels.

A plan formed above that grey shipping lane, and The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing were born…

The group’s politics are evident in their interview with Steampunk Magazine; Andrew, the anarchist of the group, explains that despite the abundance of postcolonial literature on the Empire, British consciousness sees themselves as providers of trains and roads, but hasn’t quite comprehended that

then we left with all their stuff… people say: “Oh, look, but we left and they’re killing each other.” Yeah, they’re killing each other because we took all the valuable things out of their country. The Empire was essentially us raping the world, and anyone who is supportive of the Empire and racist needs to fuck right off. (77)

The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed bring attention to the legacy of colonialism, a theme which is very important for any movement associated with Victorian times. As it becomes subject to the influence of consumer capitalist culture, we may examine when steampunk subverts the past in a meaningful way, and when it problematically repeats the past.

For instance, building a dial up phone reminiscent of Victorian style in today’s world is very steampunk, while, on the other hand, I cannot see the wireless cellphones or laptops encased with brassy elements as more than superficial steampunk. Unless you are a computer genius, these modern machines cannot be truly tinkered with. Even worse, all wireless products, no matter what there design on the outside, contain the natural element tantalum which is extracted from coltan, a mineral often mined illegally in the Congo. The extraction of Coltan has been likened to Blood Diamonds with an abundance of human and animal rights issues, just so those in the West can have the luxuries.

Africa may not be called a colony today, but it has yet to recover from the colonial history which destroyed its natural resources and peoples. Thus, I see this technology which requires natural resources from Africa as part of the neocolonial legacy, and today the monopoly of multinational capitalism, as opposed to subverting it.

Aesthetics, Accessories and Steampunk

The aesthetics of steampunk may represent nostalgia for a simpler time, as with the dial up phone. Or they may serve to induce shock in an audience, and allow for DIY styles which subvert the norm. Bowser and Croxall write that steampunk “doesn’t need mohawks or safety pins since, after all, it is shocking enough to drop a computer into the nineteenth century or to come face-to face with someone wearing a topcoat and derby in 2010” (21). While coming across someone in this getup certainly would be shocking, a couple issues need to be considered here regarding the political side of steampunk. First, the Mohawk comes from Indigenous people who were colonized, while the topcoat stems from a colonizing society. Not to say that the top coat cannot be subverted, but it’s important to recognize the very different roots of these shock inducing aesthetics–and the value they both hold in steampunk. Furthermore, the writers seem to be making a division between those who wear Mohawks and those who are steampunk. Conversely, the Steampunk Magazine editors blurs these lines when they write: “Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious Mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in tailor shop” (5). The retaining of punk elements such as safety pins and Mohawks symbolizes keeping the true punk in steampunk.

Another symbol found frequently is goggles, something that Boswer and Croxall attributes to the danger of neo-Victorian machines (18).

As seen from the above image of the goggle and aviator cap wearing anarchist at the 2011 G20 Summit in Toronto, the goggles can also be very practical for the enemy of state, protecting from tear gas or pepper spray.

Here is a fun song about “girls with goggles” by the Men Who Cannot Be Blamed For Nothing.

Steampunk and Anarchism

In The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise, Craig O’Hara writes that when it comes to choosing a political ideology, punks are primarily anarchists in their sharing of belief against having official government rulers, and in their valuing of individual freedom and responsibility (71). Anarchist thought, which can be traced back to Lao Tzu in the ancient world, has always resisted the ruling of external government and states. While these institutions are intended to prevent injustice, anarchists see them as in fact perpetuating inequality and oppression. While anarchism is often associated with violence because of state propaganda,  it has no monopoly on violence.

The writers whom I discuss on this website depict stories and societies which feature anarchist characters and explore the challenges and visions of implementing anarchism. Despite the lack of attention it has been given in modern textbooks, anarchism was a significant political movement in Victorian times. Although steampunk is a lifestyle of people from all ends of the political spectrum, we must take note that punk defies, and will always oppose, the authority of the state. The anarchists were the punks of the Victorian era: whether the anarchist thinkers, or a tiny minority who engaged in throwing bombs at monarchs.

Steampunk Timeline

Below is a selected timeline of steampunk events, from Steampunk Magazine (Issue 5). Click to enlarge:

Works Cited

Bowser, Rachel A. and Brian Croxall. “Introduction: Industrial Evolution.” Steampunk, Science, and (Neo)Victorian Technologies. Spec. issue of Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. 3.1 (2010): 1-45. Web.

Killjoy, Margaret. “You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train (Even if it’s Steam-Powered).” Steampunk Magazine. 7: 4-7. Web.

“Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles: An Interview with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.” Steampunk Magazine. 7: 73-79. Web.

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2008. Print.

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2001. Print.

“What Then, Is Steampunk? Steampunk is Awesome.” Editorial. Steampunk Magazine. 7: 6-7. Web.

Complete Reference List

Bowser, Rachel A. and Brian Croxall. “Introduction: Industrial Evolution.” Steampunk, Science, and (Neo)Victorian Technologies. Spec. issue of Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. 3.1 (2010): 1-45. Web.

“The Courage to Kill a King.” Steampunk Magazine. 1: 48-51. Web.

Fawcett, Douglas E. Hartmann the Anarchist: Or, The Doom of the Great City. Bristol, UK: Tangent Books, 2010. Print.

Killjoy, Margaret. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers in Fiction. San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 2009. Print.

Killjoy, Margaret. “You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train (Even if it’s Steam-Powered).” Steampunk Magazine. 7: 4-7. Web.

“Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles: An Interview with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.” Steampunk Magazine. 7: 73-79. Web.

“Putting the Punk Back Into SteamPunk.” Editorial. Steampunk Magazine. 1: 1-2. Web. 

Rev. of Hartmann the Anarchist, by Edward Douglas Fawcett. Steampunk Magazine. 7:  81-82. Web.

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2008. Print.

Moorcock, Michael. Interview. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers in Fiction. Ed. Margaret Killjoy. San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 2009. 116-123. Print.

Moorcock, Michael. The Steel Tsar. New York, NY: DAW Books, 1982. Print. 

Moore, Alan. Interview. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers in Fiction. Ed. Margaret Killjoy. San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 2009. 41-58. Print. 

Moore, Alan. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1. La Jolla, CA: WildStorm Productions, 2000. Print.  

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2001. Print.

Professor Calamity. Interview. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers in  Fiction. Ed. Margaret Killjoy. San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 2009. 71-78. Print. 

“What Then, Is Steampunk? Steampunk is Awesome.” Editorial. Steampunk Magazine. 7: 6-7. Web.

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