Fri
Oct 2 2009 4:25pm

The Post-Modernity of Steampunk

I recall this declaration in #1 of Steampunk Magazine: “First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. It rejects the ultra-hip dystopia of the cyberpunks—black rain and nihilistic posturing—while simultaneously forfeiting the ‘noble savage’ fantasy of the pre-technological era. It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics. ... The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages and even dies.”

We live in an interesting age where questions of authenticity abound, where people wear names given to themselves. Where being anonymous is a reason enough to be an asshole. In cyberspace, the definition of “human being” disappears and cruelty feels it is given free rein to dole out damage. Because we can neither see nor hear the hurt we deal out. If we do, then we say, “well, how do you know I am who I am?” and cop out, refusing to take accountability.

I am not technologically-inclined—the engines I am interested in are not made of brass, steel, nor any kind of metal. I am interested in social engines, that moves and shake society from its cores to the last babe cast out to face the world. But the metaphor works as well—if the technology of steampunk can move, can live, age, and then die, it means it is something we can touch, something that is real. We can hear and see it, we can marvel and then mourn it. So should it be, too, for people.

Part of the post-modernity of the human condition means that our identities are shaky, flimsy things that are subject to the influences of other elements within society. We ask ourselves, continually, who or what we are, taking on labels as it suits us. We wrestle with people who want to label us and throw us into groups we don't want to join, continually moving goalposts as it suits them. We claim post-raciality even as we spout racist bullshit; we claim feminism is useless even as we perpetuate rape culture. We simultaneously claim that we are subject to our nature (as if biology explained everything) and that we are agents of our own destiny.

There is no single way to define oneself. So why should it be so for a steampunk?

Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon has been working on a definition of steampunk, to little avail. The one thing I can definitely agree with, of course, is that steampunk, as an aesthetic, movement, or what-have-you, is a pastische, a mishmash of different elements, and each steampunk takes in each to different degrees. As a whole? Steampunk is hard to define.

Part of the joys in being a steampunk is that any one individual takes whatever elements they please. The result is an organic process of self-fashioning, as each person decides to what degree they indulge in whichever element, pulling together different influences in order to create a composite whole. And yet this, too, although inauthentically contrived, can be utterly authentic.


Jha is a Malaysian living in Canada with three or four ants in her kitchen which appear to have no interest in helping her keep her kitchen counter clear of crumbs. So much for living with nature.

10 comments
Tudza White
1. tudzax1
"steampunk" a mishmash of different elements. Oh, like a junk yard, sure. Organic? You mean like compost right?

I see we are in complete agreement here.
Jer Brown
2. designguybrown
I am fascinated by Steampunk because it embodies to me, an age of technological optimism that embraces the 'hands-on' technical specialist - the mechanical engineer - yet still allows the tinkerer some place to play. Pressure vessels, belts, gears, metal alloys, and chemicals are the components of industrial utopia. It is at this stage that machines are most effective when planned, designed, and calculated - we can use the newly widespread calculus. The ability to do, make, and go bigger, faster, and more efficiently gives a brand new enthusiasm to a population still susceptible to scarcity and disease. We are now becoming specialists - putting our faith in the 'learned elite' to transform our society -- a shame we hadn't gotten over our greed, insecurities, and blood-lust -- now writ large with armies of these machines. We are now at a stage where we can massively alter all that is around us. Steampunk is our coming of age... and like all transformative times in our lives, we often forget the dirty, gritty episodes to be blinded by the short periods of glory and triumph - a perfect backdrop for scifi.
T-Boy
3. T-Boy
I've always found that there's this fascinating dichotomy in Steampunk -- a vision for equality in all mankind, and the elevation of the intellect of the individual over faceless mechanical conformity, versus the fact that... well, the sources of the aesthetic comes from an era that is characterized by its elitism, it's racism, it's class inequality.

...it often feels like Steampunk is the face of Victoriana, trying to make amends for being such an absolute jerk back in the day.

Which raises an interesting question: if you were born and raised in a society that, during the time in which Steampunk gained many of its aesthetic sensibilities, was under the yoke of Imperialism, do you have a place in steampunk, apart from the usual stereotypes?
John Massey
4. subwoofer
?- I am still lost even reading through the definition. Is it a Renaissance movement of modern technology with everyday life or is it a throwback to back when? Every time I hear the term I think of the Blade Runner world. Of course, I am known to be wrong, often and frequently.

Woof™.
Jaymee Goh
5. Jha
tudzax: You say that like compost is a bad thing.

designguybrown: One of the aspects of steampunk is it's considerably on the grassroots level. As a result, the dirty and gritty very much tied to the bursts of glory - you can't have one without the other in steampunk, I daresay.

T-Boy: It's very difficult to answer the question. For some, adopting the seeming of Victoriana is a way to mock the mores of the time (although, I doubt they succeed) while others wallow in nostalgia for a time that ever existed.

subwoofer: The answer is neither, one or the other, or both, depending on who you talk to. If you're still lost, I don't blame you. Blade Runner is counted to be more cyberpunk than steampunk. Try League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Brian Eisley
6. brianeisley
Earlier this year, I did a library internship in a steampunk community in Second Life, and I got to do some presentations on Victorian influences on steampunk--early SF, calculating machines, automata and so forth. As I was doing research for this, I came up with the idea that steampunk is a conscious revival (sometimes ironically, often not) of the optimistic attitude that the Victorians had toward technological progress.

They lived in an era with amazing new machines and technological achievements, and this fed into their image of themselves as the most advanced and enlightened culture on earth. They had no idea that progress wouldn't continue far into the future. So, writers like Jules Verne posited ever-more-advanced versions of the kind of machines they were seeing around them, such as steam engines. All the early SF of the period is colored by these attitudes to some degree; resource depletion, overpopulation, and successful rebellions by foreign subjects weren't on their radar (although Wells had a bit more foresight on these subjects than most).

Now, of course, we're at the other end of that curve, and we've seen the consequences of that kind of uncontrolled growth. And it ain't pretty. So I think that steampunk is, in many ways, an attempt to get back to that romantic, can-do attitude toward technology, but with modern social and cultural ideals mixed in to replace the more offensive Victorian stereotypes.

And it doesn't hurt that wood, brass and gears make for far more beautiful devices than any of Apple's sleek, impersonal slabs. Aesthetics are important too!

b.
John Massey
7. subwoofer
@Jha- ahhhh, I am enlightened. 'K that gives me something to work with. It is like the melding of the time machine and the train at the end of Back to the Future III. Jules Verne's world.

Woof™.
Bill Siegel
8. ubxs113
I don't know, I could be coming totally out of left field here but I always felt that Steampunk was more about Industrialism and vision of post-enlightenment than anything else. And of course Babbage machines, cause those are frickin sweet!
Jaymee Goh
9. Jha
ubx: It can totally be about that too, if you like. No one's stopping you!
T-Boy
10. daysease
Brian, I found your definition to be quite intriguing and appealing. Thank you for sharing what you have learned.

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