Oct 26 2010 12:42pm

Steampunk Abstractions: On Commodification

Commodification in steampunkHey, ya’ll, remember the last time I wrote about the post-modernity of steampunk? If you didn’t, don’t worry about it; it was pretty insubstantial (like exuberance!) because I was out of schoolbooks. But this time, I got ‘em and I have theorizin’ to do with you! You are free to join in with your own understanding of post-modern theory as it applies to steampunk, and to tell me where I’m wrong, of course. 

I’ve been thinking about commodification in steampunk recently, and how it feels that so much of the steampunk subculture is stemmed in stuff we make or buy, the outfits we pull together. The visual aesthetic is incredibly important, and it does feel that if you don’t have the right kind of costume, you might as well be invisible in steampunk.1

Fredric Jameson, on writing about post-modernism and its characteristics in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (a.k.a. Postmodernism, Duke University Press, 1991), spent a great deal of time talking about pop art—in particular, Warhol—and dissected the architecture of malls, much of which relates to how capitalism has essentially permeated much of our lives. He talked about a lot more than that, but that doesn’t concern me today.

What I’m talking about today is steampunk as pastische, as well as the commodification, and the materialism inherent within the stuff we do. The commodification of culture renders cultural artefacts and influences into objects that we can pick and choose at will, deciding what we want, and discarding what we don’t. Hence, we have a departure from a time period where there was high art and low art. Both have converged, sort of fallen into each other.

And this pattern is seen in our works within steampunk, if you think about it. Consider: although the link to Victorian England is clear enough, what we like to do within steampunk is problematize and complicate the Victorian aesthetic, throwing fancy anachronisms and wrenches into our linear historical narratives. You have folks opting to dress as aristocrats and grubby engineers, no matter what class strata they might really belong to. If you look at a steampunk group, you do automatically identify the Victorian influences, but you also find other things which are clearly not Victorian. These new elements, however, are also not exactly modern, although they clearly could have come from a more contemporary imagination.

This creates a pastiche of an aesthetic that is based on a kind of memory and nostalgia, for a “past that never was,” as we like to say. Jameson blames pastiche on the “disappearance of the individual subject” (16), which to me implies that there is a containable totality to a certain era, or a certain civilization, that lends itself to a personal style. For us on a collective level, this would say, “this is our time, this is how we do things in our Now.” I disagree, of course, because I don’t feel that any one time period can be properly totalized or characterized until it is well and truly dead and people have had enough distance from it. I know some say steampunk is dead or dying (Hi, Cory G. and Piechur!) but let’s face it, it’s still burgeoning. New things are happening within it that keep it interesting.

The maybe-self-defeating thing about this interestingness of steampunk is how it requires a “cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (18). (I just love this phrase.) This is, as my colleagues well know, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows us to reclaim our histories through our actions in the present—whether through cultural heritage, or hands-on talent, or aesthetic quirk. As authenticity and hard-and-fast rules are not required in most forms of steampunk, this gives us leeway for eclecticism in our chosen form of play. On the other hand, this sort of cultural cannibalism lends itself to cultural appropriation under the assumption that in our post-modern, post-colonial, post-racial world, anything can be abstracted, taken out of context, and re-fitted (or in our case, retro-fitted) to suit our own purposes. In our search for deeper meaning, this can manifest in our purposeful attachment of our own meanings onto something that we claim from something else.

This is where I get political and tell you: no, you don’t get to assume this. You don’t, for example, get to yoink stereotypical opium den imagery for your Oriental Steampunk play under the assumption that you think it signifies decadence and opulence, especially if you are of white, Western-European descent. (I’d get intellectual hives even if you are Asian.) It’s not funny, and it’s not cool. Stop it.

But this is exactly how the cultural logic of capitalism plays out: the image of the Oriental opium den can be commodified, and thus made empty, opening it to be used and infused with new meaning (that of decadence and opulence) that obscures the old one (that of the inferiority of the Chinese race). The horrible thing is that in this case, it can’t actually obscure the effects that the old meaning perpetuated, but it can still be capitalized upon for someone’s profit, and someone else’s entertainment.

This is not to say that all steampunk performs this infusion of new meaning. I’m sure we’ve all heard claims of the superficiality of steampunk; that it’s just about the clothes, and it’s just about people wanting to play dress up as aristocrats / grubby engineers / mad scientists, and it’s just about how it looks. Very little is said about how steampunk relates to our state of the world. To say it doesn’t relate at all is a fallacy, but that’s a topic for another day. But we should speak to the “commodity fetishism” (9) within steampunk: that so much of steampunk’s appeal is tied to what we can consume visually, like a costume, or even just a picture of a costume, is very much a symptom of the capitalism that undercuts steampunk aesthetics. If we somehow cannot desire to own it on some level, is it relevant? We could make this argument about almost anything, of course. (See? Steampunk is totally part of the larger world, not some tiny isolated pocket of a subculture untainted by the real world.)

Look, I am not about to tell you to stop doing the things you love doing, because it’s EVIL! and BAD! and if you keep it up you are a Terrible Person! This isn’t an anti-steampunk polemic. Sometimes we do this because we just want pretty things. And this is okay. Sometimes we do this because we are bored and want to make cool stuff. This is also okay. Sometimes we love cannibalizing what we know of history to create new, fun, interesting stories. This is okay, too. If anything, this is an anti-capitalist polemic.

The key thing is, it’s important for us to be aware of what exactly it is we’re playing into when we perform / wear / make / do steampunk. Commodification happens to be one of those things; there’s more, but I’ll save it for another day. What you do with this knowledge is up to you, but let’s do ourselves some credit and acknowledge it.

1. This is not to say that I dress badly. On the contrary; I have very good taste in clothing. I simply do not have a wide steampunk wardrobe.

Interesting quotes from:
Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press 1991.

Jaymee Goh writes Silver Goggles, a blog on steampunk and postcolonialism. She also lives on a steady diet of instant noodles. Alas, no takeout.

Rev. Dr. Christopher J. Garcia
1. JohnnyEponymous
On the matter of "The visual aesthetic is incredibly important, and it does feel that if you don’t have the right kind of costume, you might as well be invisible in steampunk."

As a guy who doesn't costume at all and who regularly attends Steampunk cons and events, I don't get that sense at all. Maybe it's the other roles I take at cons, paneling and the like, that leads me into a feeling of community. I've not experienced the snobbery from the costume crowd.

One thing that I learned from the Great Steampunk Debate was that there seems to be a disconnect between those who are in it for the costuming and those who are in it for the writing and those who are in it for the Make-ing. I guess it's just as easy to say that if you don't have the right gadget to demo, you may as well be invisible, too, but personally, I've never seen it.
Jaymee Goh
2. Jha
JohnnyEponymous: Yes, and that means you need to have the cold hard cash to be able to attend cons and make it out to such events. I had further thoughts on more such abstract capital but I don't have the words to express them, so I stopped at that.

Your guess is correct, and one of the big debates in steampunk that I've seen. It really is one of those "depends on where you are" things. It seems to me you keep good company! :D
Chris, Elfland's2ndCousin
3. Chris, Elfland's2ndCousin
Great post! Quite thought provoking.

Steampunk - like any artistic or aesthetic movement - has been commodified since inception. If we invest time to design a costume, make something, or write a scene we are implying an economic value to whatever we produce, so commodification in the Marxist sense is a foregone conclusion. What I suspect you might be taking exception to is the commoditization (note the different spelling - I'm talking economics here, not marxist theory) of steampunk products: that they are mass-produced and available for five or fifteen or fifty dollars at the local trendy-store-of-the-month. Am I interpreting this correctly?

If so, then this will ultimately lead to the subordination of the aesthetic into broader pop culture: the "punk" aspect of steampunk will cease to be meaningful, and the costumes will become a fashion statement only. This strikes me as the fate of any successful aesthetic movement (e.g. pop art, punk rock, even cyberpunk).

Would that be such a bad thing? When it happens, steampunk will evolve, and new symbols will be created and imbued with meaning. Or the movement will fizzle out. Isn't that just the natural lifecycle of cultural movements?
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
It's interesting to note that everthing you said regarding pastiches, cannibalization of the past etc. can be applied not just to modern steampunks, but also to the designers and artisans of the victorian period. What we now think of as a "victorian" style is actually their engineering - their un-designed artifacts. Their designed objects, however, were mostly done in styles lifted either from history or from other cultures: Neo-classical and neo-gothic architecture, and that horrible eclectic non-style of the late 19th century. Then there were the far-east, umm, excuse me, that should be southeast asian, influences in the decorative arts, especially japanese prints and china from, well, China.
But when it came to technology the victorians were at a complete loss. They could not find the right shapes for those new items - bridges, locomotives, telegraph poles. Sometimes they put mock facades on things to make them look acceptable. Mostly they just left them alone. Lucky for us because that gives us a new aesthetic to play with.
So by rifling through the past, stealing deswign elements and taking them out of context we are actually being honest to the spirit of the 19th century. Go us!
nat ward
5. smonkey
I think the dead giveaway that "steampunk" is an entirely style/fashion driven movement built to be commodified might be its music.

Take 5 bands that self label as "steampunk" and listen to their music and I would bet that they,
a) don't have a common musical style, and
b) all fit under other already existing musical styles, but dress steampunk

(c could be "and they all suck" but perhaps there are steampunk bands I have not yet heard yet....I hold out hope)
Jaymee Goh
6. Jha
Chris: I don't think we can stop the moving train to commodification and steampunk has most certainly joined the mainstream the way successful aesthetics have!

My concern is more the subsuming of meaning within the commodification, the burial of certain histories in the rush to create profit (since you are discussing economics; I'm coming from a more cultural / ethical perspective).

Michael: The hilarious thing about post-modernist theory is that it applies to just about any time period we can think of! The book I cite attempts to totalize what's going on, which I personally think is impossible.

I wouldn't be one to celebrate taking things out of context, but that's because I'm the kind who likes to understand where things come from and are taken out of context meaningfully in a way that causes less harm. I enjoy the exercise - I think it's meaningful and interesting to bring to light things from the past with a fresh perspective - but we need thoughtfulness in due process.

smonkey: As an aesthetic, it's a given this will happen. Personally, I like the Clockwork Quartet and Vernian Process, which are vastly different, yet distinctly steampunk, bands.
Chris, Elfland's2ndCousin
7. Piechur
After three years I can proudly confirm my and Cory's prediction: steampunk IS dead. There's no doubt about it, my dear :)

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