Earlier this year, I wrote a brief essay on imperialism, questioning the idea that “of course steampunks are going to dress up as colonists and imperialist explorers” because Victorian-inspired steampunk is set during an imperialist time. The logic goes: if steampunks are going to fashion personas after character tropes from that time period, they’re going to dress up in ways that harken back to imperialist ideals and reenact said ideals.
This doesn’t mean the individual steampunks are actually dressing up with the intent of portraying imperialists. As I’ve said before, we often try to tease out a costume's specific meanings and hope that the attendant symbolism gets sidelined, or we ignore the attendant symbolism, or sometimes, we just aren't educated about these meanings and symbols enough to be aware of them.
Take, for example, the typical explorer’s outfit with the hat derived from a pith helmet. Laden with colonial connotations, it brings to mind the adventurer who goes into dark lands to, I don’t know, seek treasure, make contact with natives, and rough it out in a romanticized wilderness landscape.
I don’t imagine most explorer steampunks are purposefully thinking about this when donning their costume. I’ve not talked to very many, though, so if you are one, you must tell us all about why you fashioned this persona.
In the last two years of observing the steampunk subculture (and getting intellectual hives on a regular basis) and the new steampunk literature being created, the larger the audience gets, the more I wonder: when steampunks decry imperialism, what visible evidence is there to show that the aesthetic/subculture/movement is, in fact, anti-imperialist?
This question gets specific kinds of kick-backs, like, “it’s not like (they) weren’t already fighting each other.” Sometimes, there’s a defense of “if it weren’t for the imperialists, [colonized countries] would still be backward, unprogressive places.” I’ve even heard, “if it weren’t for [Orientalists / European anthropologists of the era], a lot of knowledge of these cultures from the time would have been lost.” (Well, thanks, Europe, I guess, for forcing us all into an era of industrialization and capitalism that I’m not so sure we all benefit from as a whole.)
My question, then, is this: beyond critique in some literature today, how are steampunks performing anti-imperialism, if at all? Is imperialist imagery inevitable, or can they be visibly subversive?
The floor is yours.
Jaymee Goh is a steampunk postcolonialist from Malaysia, residing in Canada. Life in the British Commonwealth is actually not bad.