Tue
Nov 2 2010 12:23pm

Steampunk Abstractions: The Inevitability of Imperialism

Pith helmetEarlier 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.

63 comments
michael thorne
1. michael thorne
Sometimes a costume is just a costume - a way to have fun with no ill intent. Lots of kids play "cowboys and indians", "cops and robbers" and many adults wear "questionable" outfits at Halloween without thinking about their greater social implications. I think most steampunkers would be apologetic to an individual if they meet face to face with someone who took offence to their outfit because of historical wrong doings.
michael thorne
2. Dave Fried
There's a bit of a problem here in that the imperial cultures were the ones with the costumes and technology that make steampunk so appealing. Yes, too much attention is paid to Western Europe in steampunk, but even that's changing a bit.

I think you have to go to intent. For the vast majority of people interested in steampunk, the appeal is the surface coolness. It's not so much that they're trying to get into the Victorian mindset so much as they're overlaying Victorian-era technology and garb on a 21st Century sensibility. In that sense, they're only bringing whatever cultural biases they have now to the table, which are going to vary based on the individual.

And remember that the majority of steampunkers are members of a highly-educated set who are already at least generally anti-colonialist/imperialist.

In that sense, donning the garb of a previous century is neither an endorsement of imperialism or a repudiation thereof. And those engaging in steampunkery shouldn't be expected to make a political statement each time they dress up. Likewise, we should not assume an implicit endorsement of imperialism in steampunk literature - though we should still condemn such endorsement when it is explicit and reward authors who explore those themes critically in their work.
michael thorne
3. Sean Palmer
Sorry if you addressed this and I just missed it, but I don't understand why a pith helmet is imperialist? And separately, I don't understand why "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." is imperialist either.
michael thorne
4. Doug M.
@Sean, because the explorer wasn't exploring in a vacuum. He was exploring for a specific reason, and most of the time that reason was "to find new lands for country X to claim".

The most famous Victorian explorers -- Burton, Speke, Barth, Brazza, Thomson, and above all Stanley-- were all explicitly imperialist. Some, like Brazza, were nicer about it; some were bastards, but they were all in the business of claiming new peoples and new territories for their respective rulers.

There were exceptions -- Teleki, and to some extent Livingstone -- but they were just that: exceptions.

No offense, but just asking the question suggests ignorance of the history.

Doug M.
michael thorne
5. Doug M.
"the imperial cultures were the ones with the costumes and technology that make steampunk so appealing."

Why are jodhpurs and a pith helmet more appealing than, say, a sarong, a sari, or a haik?


Doug M.
michael thorne
6. daiyami
Michael@1: just because individuals are not consciously and intentionally endorsing greater social implications doesn't mean a costume is just a costume. If it did, people wouldn't defend empire itself when asked about their choice of costume.

There's LOTS of things that happened during the Victorian era, not just imperialism---Jack the Ripper. Factory industrialization. Coal mining. Cholera and sewage. The Great Exhibition. If we go outside Britain, Art Nouveau, popular revolutions all across continental Europe. So why do steampunkers go for exploration? Because empire seems to be the most glamourous, perhaps?

Dave@2: Basically, your comment boils down to 'cause empire's cool'. "Appealing." "Surface coolness". Adopting and honoring something out of thoughtless ignorance is still an endorsement.

However. I could possibly imagine anti-imperial steampunk if it looked to certain famous models of resistance. Eg, Tipu Sultan in Mysore, India used European technology to fight the Europeans. Dressing up as Tipu and blending European tech with Mysore culture, perhaps? That's the late 18th century, but there are similar stories in the 19th, eg, the Madhis fighting Gordon at Khartoum. I'm unsure whether the visuals of something like that would succeed in communicating subversion, though.
michael thorne
7. Doug M.
"I'm unsure whether the visuals of something like that would succeed in communicating subversion, though."

The simplest way to use steampunk visuals to communicate subversion is to hang the steampunk outfit on someone who's obviously not of European descent.


Doug M.
michael thorne
8. Doug M.
Come to think of it, there's a spectrum here.

Costumes where the racial appearance of the wearer doesn't matter -- Star Trek, Star Wars, World of Warcraft, modern or SFnal military outfits, vampires, zombies, furries

Costumes where the racial appearance of the wearer affects the interpretation of the costume, but does not necessarily subvert it -- medieval outfits ("I'm Sir Palomides the Moor!"), superhero outfits ("He's the Superman of Earth-H"), costumes specific to a particular place and time ("Well, /this/ ninja has a very unusual backstory").

Costumes where the racial appearance of the wearer can be subversive or at least ironic -- Confederate uniforms, Nazi uniforms, steampunk.

I'm not trying to be mean to steampunk; honest! I'm just noting that those are uncomfortable neighbors to be in a category with.


Doug M.
michael thorne
10. Sean Palmer
@Doug M.
"No offense, but just asking the question suggests ignorance of the history." Well yeah, that's definitely true. When I see a pith helmet, I think of this: http://www.amazon.com/Theres-Treasure-Everywhere-Calvin-Collection/dp/0836213122 :-)

"...they were all in the business of claiming new peoples and new
territories for their respective rulers." The connection to pith
helmets still seems a tad tenuous to me. If I see a (USA) Civil War buff in a grey uniform, I don't take that as an endorsement of weak central government, secessionism, or slavery.

Do you think there is a legitimate steampunk-jungle explorer "look" that's not imperialist? Or do you find the idea itself offensive?
michael thorne
11. Jay Sherman
Back then imperialism meant actually sending a bunch of soldiers off to the third world. Today it means using CIA front organizations to fund right wing candidates to keep the resources flowing out cheap. Guys in pith helmets are no more an approval of imperialism than guys in jeans made in third world sweat shops.
michael thorne
12. Jay Sherman
...or IMF/World Bank structural adjustments programs (right wing economics) to again keep people extremely poor and resources flowing out as cheaply as possible.

Or many other ways.
michael thorne
13. Fogwoman Gray
My take on Steampunk. This is a harkening back to a time when the world was rife with possibilities. This was an optimistic time when Science was going to solve all the ills of mankind, when we were intensely interested in the natural world and exploring the land, the sea, and even space. Nowadays, we understand the naivete of the time, so much of modern Steampunk is quite tongue-in-cheek for that reason, but the overall optimism and sense of adventure remains.
It is very easy to start trying to politicize everything, from the SCA to the Civil War re-enactors. Why not just relax and let people enjoy some Retro-Futurist play time?
Steampunk celebrates a future envisioned by Victorian fiction writers, it is not politics or history.
Just my tuppence.
Jaymee Goh
14. Jha
Doug M: The simplest way to use steampunk visuals to communicate subversion is to hang the steampunk outfit on someone who's obviously not of European descent.


That's not so simple. I've explored this question before, and if I wear a steampunk costume that harks to imperialism, as a WOC, does it really mean I'm subverting? Or am I merely assimilating the social mores of acceptable dress codes?



Sean Palmer: You may not notice the connection because you weren't taught to see it that way. Even I didn't see the connection at first; I simply bought what Western media taught me because I had no way of contextualizing it.

A costume which has an imperialist history will retain that history, even as people attempt to erase such a history or try to reclaim it for something else. And the question "is there a look that's not imperialist"? That's my question. The vast majority of archetypes we turn to hark back to imperialist characters.

And this is fine. Neither I nor many other activists can do much about that besides raise awareness of the history behind these costumes and aesthetics. You can still have fun while being aware. The question is - to truly subvert and question imperialism visually, what do we do?

Jay Sherman: Actually imperialism meant a lot more than just that. It set the stage for what's happening now. (The face of imperialism now is white middle-class male, but hey.)

Fogwoman: Did you seriously just answer my request to "think about ways we can have more fun with steampunk" with a "don't think about it so much"?
michael thorne
15. sallya
Steampunks are doing WAY more things than "practicing imperialsm."

This research was presented/published at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference (CFP2010) in San Jose, CA in the Spring of 2010.

Here is the published abstract on the "subversive" "anti" imperialist, "anti" captialist nature of steampunks:

http://anthropunk.com/xwiki/wiki/anthropunk/view/steampowered/Abstract

or

http://tinyurl.com/29jqp7d
michael thorne
16. Sean Palmer
Hm, maybe we've got it all backwards. Maybe imperialism is powerful enough that it's taking over our imagined stories as well as reality. Maybe steampunk isn't enacting imperialism, it's been conquered by it - even in spite of the stated anti-imperialist goals!
michael thorne
17. politeruin
Worth reading...
http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html
michael thorne
18. Moniquill
@ michael thorne
"Lots of kids play "cowboys and indians", "cops and robbers" and many adults wear "questionable" outfits at Halloween without thinking about their greater social implications."

And that's not ok either, and is something that activists are also actively combating. A costume isn't just a costume when that costume hurts others. As to most people being apologetic when confronted? Less than you'd think. Way, way less than you'd think. A far more common reaction to being confronted by a person who is offended is to argue the validity of their offense, tell them to 'lighten up' and that they 'shouldn't take things so seriously' and that 'it's just a costume'. There are bingo cards about the annoying, dismissive, derailing ways in which a huge number of people react when their inappropriate actions are pointed out to them.

If you'd like to see it happen, check
out the hate mail at http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com
or http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/

@Dave Fried
"There's a bit of a problem here in that the imperial cultures were the ones with the costumes and technology that make steampunk so appealing. Yes, too much attention is paid to Western Europe in steampunk, but even that's changing a bit."

Appealing to whom? Also, it's changing
only because we are changing it with activism. Not all by itself.

@Jay Sherman
"Guys in pith helmets are no more an approval of imperialism than guys in jeans made in third world sweat shops. "

… sweatshop clothes and support of them ARE products that support imperialism. They're only less visible because they're ubiquitous, and because it's hard to tell sweatshop clothes from fair practice ones at a glance.

@Fogwoman Gray
"Why not just relax and let people enjoy some Retro-Futurist play time?"

Because your squee harshes my squee. I'd like to work to create a space in which everyone have some fun retro-futurist play without being insulted and marginalized.
michael thorne
19. WritingWolfaert
Okay, I have to put in my two bits here. People the horrible things your getting offended over are over a hundred years in the past. I have ancestors who were murdered, tortured, and run out of their homes. But guess what? It was over a hundred years ago! The fact that people wear the same clothes occasionally doesn't mean that they did it, condone it, or will do it to me. Heck, they would probably be fun to sit around a campfire and chat with.

The costumes now have only the importance that WE decide to ascribe to them. If someone is wearing a pith helmet its because it was a useful, practical, elegant piece of equipment. The same goes for those who prefer a dastarr or any other form of head gear. Steampunk is about taking what is best of both time frames and putting them together into something new and beautiful. So please, get over yourselves and leave the dross in the past. Time did that long ago.
michael thorne
20. Doug M.
"A far more common reaction to being confronted by a person who isoffended is to argue the validity of their offense, tell them to 'lighten up' and that they 'shouldn't take things so seriously' and that 'it's just a costume'."

And in the /very next comment/, we have the guy saying "get over yourselves". Well played, Moniquill.

"If someone is wearing a pith helmet its because it was a useful, practical, elegant piece of equipment."

That's what I say about my Luger.


Doug M.
michael thorne
21. Kim Collier
Yeah...because head-gear used to explore exotic climes were totally just as deadly as a semi-automatic pistol used by the Germans in the great wars. What, is a mosquito in the Congo going to get a headache from running into the pith helmet? Oh, the horror.

Seriously, Steampunk can't even be considered as re-enactment. It's an alternate reality. Do we scream at the medievalists because the Crusades were horrible? Do we freak out at the Roman re-enactors because of the atrocities they did in the gladiator rings or with conquering and subjecting the known world? Do we howl at Halloween because of the women burned as witches? There's always going to be people who just enjoy getting their panties in a twist over the guilt that mankind should feel over what they do to mankind.

Well, we can either all feel guilty about everything we've ever done since Adam knocked up Eve and they blamed a reptile and some fruit, or we can respectfully realize the truths of the atrocities, and then focus on the joy we can have in life rather than the pain and anguish. If we're going to focus on the pain and anguish, by all means, start using your elegant Luger, because we might as well all be dead.

Crap happens. Crap happened to our ancestors, crap will happen to our descendants. Let's just enjoy the ride and try to learn from our mistakes.

The point is, Wolfaert's right. Let the past lie in the past, not forgotten, but not shoved up everyone's arse 24-7. Because, really, What Is The Point?? We need escapism. Enjoy your fantasies and your alternate realities. They're often much better than the real thing. ;)
michael thorne
22. Moniquill
@WritingWolfaert
"People the horrible things your getting offended over are over a hundred years in the past. I have ancestors who were murdered, tortured, and run out of their homes. But guess what? It was over a hundred years ago!"

...Are you reading from the big book of
http://coffeeandink.dreamwidth.org/435419.html ?

"The costumes now have only the importance that WE decide to ascribe to them."

And by 'we' you apparently mean 'you' because the meaning that those of us who take exception to certain executions of certain costumes is unacceptable to you, and needs to be shut down through mockery and hyperbole.

"If someone is wearing a pith helmet its because it was a useful, practical, elegant piece of equipment. The same goes for those who prefer a dastarr or any other form of head gear."

Is this deliberately obtuse? Because the example you've chosen is specifically Sikh-oriented and is a religious and cultural piece of headgear often worn for reasons other than its elegance and practicality (not that it doesn't posses these qualities, but they're generally not the -point-). Also, I have to ask: What practical and useful purpose does a pith helmet serve at a convention or gathering that takes place anywhere other than in the
jungle? I'll give you elegant. Being elegant doesn't dismiss the
potential implications of the article in question.

Also, who gave you the right to answer the question of 'Why are you wearing that pith helmet?' for anyone other than yourself?

"Steampunk is about taking what is best of both time frames and putting them together into something new and beautiful."

With this I HEARTILY concur! It's just that we apparantly have very different opinions about what things constitute 'beautiful' – I have a hard time thinking something is beautiful if I know that it is hurtful or insulting to someone. When someone tells me that I have done something hurtful, it is my immediate reaction to apologize and seek to stop doing that thing if at all possible. Not to tell them that they're wrong for being hurt and insist that it's my right to do said hurtful thing. Perhaps we differ here.

@Kim Collier
"What, is a mosquito in the Congo going to get a headache from running into the pith helmet? Oh, the horror."

It's not the mosquitos we're concerned about. It's the fact that if you're a person from the Congo in the late 18th century, that dude in the pith helmet is probably VERY BAD NEWS for you.

I think that this discussion is getting
very much hung-up on the explicit pieces of apparel themselves and sidling past the issue at hand: Explorers and their Sexy Exoticness.

Which is a problematic trope.

Because those Sexy Explorers Exploring
Exotic Climes? Were generally doing so by stepping on the necks of the people already living there. I don't think it's remiss for us to ask what's so Sexy about that and why so many people want to emulate it.

"Seriously, Steampunk can't even
be considered as re-enactment. It's an alternate reality."

If we're going to build an alternate reality, why do we have to build one in which POC continue to be royally shafted?

"Do we scream...Do we freak out...Do we howl..."

Do we attempt to shut down the valid concerns of others, typed on the internet, as histrionic and irrational displays because we don't feel like engaging in actual discourse? Are questions THAT threatening to you, that you can only read then as screamed or howled? Do you imagine my railing and frothing and shaking my fists as I type this? Would it shock you to know that I'm writing this while sipping tea and looking at Lolcats in the other tab?

"...we can respectfully realize the truths of the atrocities, and then focus on the joy we can have in life rather than the pain and anguish."

I concur, we can. I'm a bit puzzled, though, that you seem to think that enjoyment and joyfullness and vitality of expression are somehow at odds with mindfullness and critical thought. That we cannot both focus on the joy in life AND seek to remedy squee-killing and problematic executions that spoil the fun of others.

If you saw a child taking great joy in teasing another child, would you intervene?

"Crap happens. Crap happened to our ancestors, crap will happen to our descendants."

Indeed. But I Expect More.
http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/05/more.html
michael thorne
23. Doug M.
"What, is a mosquito in the Congo going to get a headache from running into the pith helmet?"

Guys in pith helmets killed 10 million people in the Congo.


Doug M.
michael thorne
24. reaeverywhereelse
There were plenty of anti-imperialists in the Victorian era--politicians like Gladstone or Grover Cleveland; writers and thinkers like Twain. Steam punk doesn't have to be imperialist. It is, after all, alternative history.
michael thorne
25. WritingWolfaert
@Moniquill
First off I had never seen that link. I do firmly believe that the world would be a better place if people would stop being offended over things that they did not experience and simply move forward. If you have a friend or immediate family member killed by an imperialistic, pith helmet wearing, British officer then by all means get upset. However, the costume that I put on is an extension of the character that I have created. It has nothing to do with sick people killing other people.

Also I do not believe that it is any persons right to tell another what they are saying by their choice of costume. If you go and ask someone at a Steampunk con why they are wearing it and they say something like "Well personally I think we need to rid the Congo of all current residents and repopulate them with civilized beings." Please hit them for me if I'm not around. But if they say that it's a piece of period-ish protective gear, or a dashing bit of haberdashery, or (heaven forbid) it looks cool, then there is no insult there to become offended over.

I might also ask you the same question you posed to me. Who gave you the right to answer the question of 'Why are you wearing that pith helmet?' for anyone other than yourself? If you wear it to be insulting then please stay away from me if ever we are at the same Con together. But I have yet to meet anyone who dresses in semi-victorian apparel who is doing so in order to upset anyone. If you are getting insulted without first talking to them and asking their reasoning then you have just decided why they are wearing that pith helmet for them.

I think we do differ in the thought that another person's opinion of our clothes should require we change them. I tend to believe that someone or something should be learned about before a judgement is passed on them. And that that judgement should be based solely on the individual instance, not on people long dead.

As for the Dastarr comment and religious vs practical in headgear... That's a whole other discussion that we can have elsewhere perhaps. ;-)
michael thorne
26. Sean O'Hara
"There's a bit of a problem here in that the imperial cultures were the ones with the costumes and technology that make steampunk so appealing. Yes, too much attention is paid to Western Europe in steampunk, but even that's changing a bit. "

Yeah, it's not like the Boxer Rebellion or Indian Mutiny or the Mahdi are interesting.
michael thorne
27. legionseagle
If there is steam in steam-punk then there is, of necessity, going to be imperialism. Why? Two words. Coaling stations. If you want to cross significant distances using steam power there need to be places where you can reliably replenish your coal bunkers and, strategically, you need to ensure that other nations with whom you are in conflict are denied or limited access to replenishing facilities. If you look at the pattern of British imperial expansion across the oceans, some of the bitterest battles were to control tiny islands which had strategic importance as coaling stations. When the main fuel for shipping switched from coal to oil the geo-political pressure points changed, but the underlying political strategies remained in place.
michael thorne
28. Sean O'Hara
"There were plenty of anti-imperialists in the Victorian era--politicians like Gladstone or Grover Cleveland; writers and thinkers like Twain. "

Before singing the praises of Gladstone, I suggest reading Three Empires o the Nile by Dominic Green.
michael thorne
29. Kim Collier
Dear Moniquill,

You seem to be under the mistaken impression that if you are insulted or upset about something, or think someone could be upset or insulted about something, then that something should cease to exist.

News flash. Somewhere, someone is upset about the internet. Quick! Stop using it! Someone, somewhere, is upset about anything and everything you could possibly imagine. Are we to live our lives avoiding anything that could possibly bring the minutest iota of emotional discomfort to another human being, whether they are right or wrong in their discomfort?

Hmmm. Let me think about that.

Am I conscious and mindful of the pain and suffering that goes on today, as well as in the past? Yes, actually. I am an avid student of history and culture. I consider myself an educated and intellectual and compassionate person.

I also consider myself a realist. (One, btw, that truly loves escapism.) And realism and logic dictate that I cannot avoid offending people, no matter how hard I try. Someone will always be unhappy at a choice I make, at a word I use, at a glance they misinterpret, or simply because they don't like the colour of my shirt that day. You know what? That's ok.

Frankly, while I would dearly love living in a world where people would live peacefully one with another, and would love to leave the violence and the hatred off in the deepest abyss, I would be loathe to live without conflict. Why? Because without conflict, we, as humans, stagnate. We do not grow, we do not reach our limits, we do not progress in any way, shape, or form. We do not get beyond ourselves.

With conflict, we are able to rise above our mediocrity. We are able to see horizons never before dreamed, and reach vistas we never thought to behold. As children, we were all taunted, teased, even bullied at times. (And for your information, I have always stepped in to stop teasing of others and bullying. Since you asked in your earlier note.) Some of us, sadly, succumbed. Most of us, however, decided to deal with it and move on. Were we hurt by it? Of course. Did we let it stop us? Of course not! We became stronger and more mindful and compassionate of others because of it.

I think that this discussion of steampunk has REALLY gotten off on a tangent. It's quite simple. People who do steampunk are in it for the wonder. They have no intention or thought about going off and starting the recolonization of the British Empire, or any other empire. They have every intention of dressing up in fun and frilly frocks and enjoying socializing with like-minded people. The question is, why are you even here? If you are offended, if you are upset, if you have decided to become the voice of those long dead in the dust, fabulous. But you are not the end-all-expert and authoritarian.

Out of curiosity, have you ever even MET anyone from the Congo? Were you present in the Victorian age? Can you say, with absolute understanding, what motivated an explorer or a servant, a child, or a priest, or anyone of that time period? Of course not. One day, someone will look on us and think how barbaric we are, what atrocities we committed, and here we are thinking that we're the enlightened ones of the ages, the intelligents who have it all figured out, if only people would listen to our mad rantings on the internet. And one day, beyond them, someone will think those newly enlightened souls absolutely savage and horrible.

It's so easy for people of the present age to be judge, jury, and firing squad for people who had different morals, ethics, understandings, religions, etc, hundreds of years ago. Or even decades ago. Some things are absolute. If you start in asking my opinion of the Nazis, I will explain that was an atrocity of epic proportions that I hope will never be repeated. Evil is evil. The problems lie when people ignorantly proscribe the word "evil" to something ambiguous. For example, a pith helmet.

Why shouldn't someone wear a pith helmet to a convention? Why shouldn't someone wear a superhero costume? After all, the superhero costumes are rarely practical and lycra-heavy. And fantasy costumes, for some odd reason, seem to be coverage-disinclined. Well, let's boycott the superhero wannabes, because they're using non-organic fabric. And let's boycott fantasy costumes, because it exploits sexuality. And let's make certain that we don't allow hippie costumes at Halloween anymore, because in the 60s, women were still objectified in the household. Oh, and also because of the unhealthiness of drug abuse and unsafe sex by hippies. So yeah, no more peace signs or round sunglasses. No more television, because that wastes energy (besides, not much intelligent on anyway, and no matter what political side you ascribe to, you're complaining about the idiocy and inaccuracy of the news reports). No more non-organic farms because it hurts the environment. Oh, but wait! Now we suddenly have put thousands and thousands of people out of their homes and jobs because we've taken away their livlihood. Oh well, they deserved it, right?

Do you see how this line of thinking can go on and on? I'm thrilled you consider yourself a thinking and acting human. Do us, and yourself, a favour, and get some real-life activism under your belt. Go help people in real life who want it and need it. Don't just rant and rave on the internet at people that you will never meet and never interact with. But seriously, if you want to help humankind, more power to you. I wish you all the best. Why don't you try picking on something a bit more sensible? Like helping the homeless, or becoming a child advocate, or volunteering at a womens shelter, or helping the illiterate? Why not attack the problems of today rather than taking the coward's way out and griping about problems that only exist in the minds of people who enjoy getting a power trip over their own pseudo-intellectual babbling?

And now, taking my own advice, I step out of this discussion. I believe my opinion is clear, and I've no need to reiterate. I have no delusions about my ability to change your mind, and with any luck, you've lost yours about changing anyone else's on here. With, perhaps, the exception of Doug M, who also clearly enjoys seeing his posts and hearing himself talk. But then, his mind was rather aligned with yours.

Now go play nicely somewhere else, kids. If you are offended by steampunk, rest assured, you will not be missed if you go away and ignore it for the rest of your lives. The rest of us are going to enjoy our retro-futuristic fun and enjoy the good bits while taking out the bad. And guess what? At the end of the day, we'll still be good people who want the world to be a better place. We're just doing it differently from you. We're creating social circles of wonder and enjoyment, where all are welcome. We're promoting inventions and sewing skills and artistic talents. I wonder, which, do you think, will be the more effective at making the world a better place? Positive reinforcement of the positive, or nagging at everyone with negative rhetoric and vague whinings about how we should all just get along?
michael thorne
30. daiyami
legionseagle@27: weren't factories driven on steam? Trains? You make an excellent point, but it still seems steampunk has chosen to look to empire over other options.

WritingWolfaert@25: "However, the costume that I put on is an extension of the character that I have created. It has nothing to do with sick people killing other people."

But clothing cannot exist in a vacuum. The costume wouldn't communicate a character if people didn't have some sort of knowledge and story to associate with the things you wear, regardless of what that story is. Imagine explaining every single element of your costume to someone who had never heard of steampunk. "The brass gears are because...the goggles...." Do you need to do that at conventions to everyone you meet? No? That's because a costume is never just an extension of the character you created, people always bring their own interpretations to what they see. (And if everyone you meet at a convention has a rosy-colored view of imperialism and only sees the good in it, then does that mean you've produced an anti-imperial costume regardless of whatever symbols of empire you've got on? It might.)

And imperialists were generally not sick people---many were quite brave, intelligent, etc. It's a cop-out to think of imperialism as the province of sick people instead of as a sick system that could only exist by demanding passive or active racism and brutality from those who participated in it.

Doug M @7 "The simplest way to use steampunk visuals to communicate subversion is to hang the steampunk outfit on someone who's obviously not of European descent."

I thought of that, but it's too simple, aside from Jaymee's point---either only people of color can subvert, or I wind up encouraging blackface. There should be better options.
michael thorne
31. Doug M.
"Out of curiosity, have you ever even MET anyone from the Congo?"

Speaking only for myself, I just got back from the Congo:

http://hdtd.typepad.com/hdtd/2010/10/back-from-bandundu.html

"With, perhaps, the exception of Doug M, who also clearly enjoys seeing his posts and hearing himself talk."

...this in the middle of a 1500 word post.


Doug M.
michael thorne
32. daiyami
A tangent on "a costume is just a costume". Doesn't Heart of Darkness have a scene discussing how ridiculous an African looked in a pith helmet or some other quintessential colonizer piece of clothing? The British wore quite a few inappropriate things out in the empire because they signaled "civilization". Similarly, in Saint Domingue/Haiti under slavery, rich free non-whites were forbidden to wear silk or carry a silver cane, because those forms of display were exclusive to whites (google "sumptuary laws", these were variations on internal European practices). So these items of clothing did not become associated with empire just because they were useful or practical or elegant---they were deliberately designed to carry an extra load of meaning, which I'm not sure they can shed so easily. Society today is much less prescriptive about it, but we have our own unwritten rules, I think.
michael thorne
33. Shweta (not logged in)
I think anyone saying "a costume is just a costume", or "kids like to play X", or "we all do Y" (the sort of comments that have been threaded through this whole discussion) might want to stop and consider one thing:

who is we?

Whose perspective is that? It's not actually the "objective everyone" you're assuming it is.

Try shifting perspective to the implicit Other in what you're saying, and it sounds very different indeed.

Is "Cowboys and Indians" a harmless game to Native Americans?
Do people from countries struggling from the aftereffects of colonialism find European and American uses of our cultural objects fun and harmless?
How about your appropriation of our religious imagery?

You know? Not so much.
michael thorne
34. Dan Holzman-Tweed
Shorter Kim Collier and WritingWolfaert: Costume is like language. When I use a word, it means precisely what I want it to, nothing more and nothing less. How dare anyone look at someone wearing a sheet and think it anything other than a ghost costume, right?
michael thorne
35. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@Jha:

I don’t know that it’s possible to perform anti-imperialism purely through visual means. Operative word purely. I think we can combine costume with things such as literature, the details of our various persona, and the like. But costume alone isn’t designed to carry that sort of information. It could – a military uniform carries an amazing amount of information because a specific language has been developed to convey it all at a glance or two. We don’t have that for steampunk costumes… though perhaps we could build it.

Let me use the amazing Professor Elemental as an example. At a glance, one sees yet another pith-helmeted explorer with all that carries. If one listens to his music, one finds a drunken bumbler. A screw-up who occasionally does something useful entirely by accident – and then not for long. The character isn’t merely anti-imperialist, it’s an outright satirical attack not only on British imperialism, but on the English upper class itself. How would we cram all that into costume alone?
michael thorne
36. Delux
@Shweta:

I, too, would love to know who the "we" is in these conversations.
Jaymee Goh
37. Jha
sallya @ 15: I am quite appreciative of the UK steampunk scene, to be honest. It seems so much more productive! (I've also heard that steampunk has been taken on as a way to explore UK history, which I think is amazing.) Thank you for sharing the link!

Sean Palmer @ 16: Not yet if we can help it.

Dan Holzman-Tweed @ 35: That is my very question! You bring up a fascinating example: Professor Elemental's satire of the explorer lies in his performance, not merely his costume. Can we say the majority of steampunks who enjoy dressing up do the same? Is it inherent in the performance of steampunk that the tropes be necessarily subverted the way Professor Elemental works it?
michael thorne
38. Spiralred
I am always having trouble finding the line when developing my personal aesthetic when It comes to steampunk. As a shamless lover of victorian culture and especially a very anglo/western perspective on it for a good deal of my life, having experienced it in that form and even indulged in it through my participation in the lolita subculture, Western Victorian is not what I'm looking for when I engage in Steampunk.

As I have explored culture through steampunk (and lolita subculture) I lean more and more towards post-colonial hybridisation. For me as WOC this is a necessity because what little parts of my cultural history I can claim as a Black Peruvian American have been ravaged by the forces of Imperialism. Therefore my steampunk persona is mostly formed as a reflection of my real life. I have a love of the past, my studies as I visual artist led me towards printmaking traditional and modern techniques. Therefore after gleaning inspiration from Steampunk Magazine my persona became an itinerant printmaker. I am not a nomad, but father was, he lived in Peru, Switzerland, and the U.S., so to imagine myself as rootless traveler is a way to walk in my father's footsteps.

When It comes to steampunk dress that reflects my heritage, I am often at a loss. It is easy to plan out functional uniforms that fit within the Victorian steampunk aesthetic, but not so easy to decide how that fits into your personal cultural history. There are very few visual representations of how my grandfather's people of the equatorial desert in Peru dressed, there are some remaining examples of their intricately patterned textiles but very few images of how they wore them. I am very wary of using them in a strictly Victorian application because it seems too close to Yinka Shonibare's work which is infinitely cleverer because it mocks imperialism in at least three different ways (if not more). I've been wondering if I should incorporate modes of dress from the Middle Eastern deserts with traditional Peruvian dress, but I'm not sure if the cultural appropriation there would be harmful.

Would it be more fitting to borrow from Native American Cultures on the Northern Hemisphere because I live there?

Is it wrong in steampunk to perform as a working class person of a marginalized culture (if that is what I might have been if lived then, or what I live as now)? Am I merely repeating a history that might have happened (still contains the gender subversion, but eh). It can't be more powerful to do a simple role reversal, to depict myself as the imperialist, because that has been done before.

And on the topic of coal, I lean more in Jake Von Slatt's direction. It's not so much steam I am enamored with, but accessible alternative energy. Something that is outside of reliance on modern manufacturing and extraction, I think that's where the punk part really lies. Whether we find it through solar steam, or hearken back toward wind and water mills, or just rely more on human energy, by modding our bicycles or creating human powered rail vehicles like in the handcar regatta.

Anyway if Steampunk is actually "punk" it can't be all about relax and play and accepting the status-quo.

captcha: foracced that
michael thorne
39. Doug M.
Jaymee Goh, could you drop me an e-mail? I'm at the address "vormuir", in the domain men call "yahoo.com".

And then daiyami:

"either only people of color can subvert, or I wind up encouraging blackface. There should be better options."

I think there are. I said simplest, not only or best.


Doug M.
michael thorne
40. MaryContrary
Lol, all of this over the suggestion that one cannot dress in the style of people in their past without accidentally endorsing the behaviour of those same people. Sillyness.

Frankly, it comes down to this: Yes, some small minority of people dressing Steampunk style support or have whitewashed the Empire in their minds. Others do not and have not.

When most people see someone in Steampunk garb they think "Oh, look at that oddly dressed person" or "That's that Steampunk style that's all about brass, cogs and cod-Victorian dress", vastly fewer people think "Aha, another supporter of the British Reich!"

If you think the latter, or believe that the small minority is in fact a large majority of course you're going to be bothered and demand "How are you making this an explicit repudiation of the British Empire?", but your pleas will not be heard by the vast majority who know they don't support the British Empire, nor will they respond in a way that makes you happy as they are content that a repudiation of Empire is understood to be the default position by the majority of people/the only people who matter (those they interact with in real life)

p.s. your captcha is a f*cking moron, it kept on telling me 'Someone else has your nickname' as I changed it, then when I found one that was acceptable it put me on "39 seconds" wait due to "excessive posting" even though none of them made it through, now it's telling me to wait 60 min. Which I will, but only because I'm not going anywhere. Screw posting anything here again though, I can't be bothered with this sh*t. (Censored in case the auto reject rejects me again and I explode from irritation :p )
michael thorne
41. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@Jha: Can we say the majority of steampunks who enjoy dressing up do the same?

I've seen one to many "in defense of empire" essays to be comfortable gussing at proportions. I will say that most steampunks of my admittedly non-scientific sampling acquaintance are either actively working to subvert or love the idea and want to start doing so when they hear about it.

Is it inherent in the performance of steampunk that the tropes be necessarily subverted the way Professor Elemental works it?

I don't think it's inherent. I don't think it necessarily has to be in the performance, either, but I don't think we've yet built the fashion lexicon to communicate that much information of that sort. Operative word yet. I know that many of us use our fashion and costume choices for such purposes to ourselves -- and that internal dialog is important. It might even be that groups of acquaintances build up enough of a lexicon to dialog through dress. But strangers? I don't think we're there yet.
I don't know how to get there, I don't even know that we need to get there -- the problematic silence of costume in the absence of performance does spur some people to some amazing performance work.

I don't know that it's even possible at that level -- imperialism has been, well, colonizing the language of dress for a very long time.

I don't know how well I'm expressing myself, but I think that last sentence has something very big in it.

Which is to say, 1.
michael thorne
42. Dave Fried
@Moniquill, @Doug, and @Sean - if you're talking about "steampunk", then you're talking about cultures which had... steam. You're talking about the early industrial age and all the trappings that go with it. That usually indicates empire, though not necessarily Western European empire; there were equally advanced (and equally imperial) cultures in the Near East, East Asia, etc. during that period. But it was also, lest we forget, the time of a British Hegemony that touched even the most remote corners of the globe.

When we tell fantastical stories in the genre, I think they tend to be more informed by modern (or rather, postmodern) ideas. Take China Mieville's novels, for example - they are "steampunk" at least in a loose sense, and they have heavy anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist themes. But note that he's telling it in amidst a culture that's still largely influenced by period London (albeit with significant geographical and temporal spillover).

In fact, I think steampunk is at its best when it's either exploring the period with a critical eye, or else going for a full-on action romp whose characters take the attitudes of the time more or less at face value. But note that even in the second case the stories tend to be written in a self-aware manner and we are encouraged to challenge the characters' beliefs about their world.

On the other hand, when it comes to dressing up and modding stuff, there's a lot less flexibility. And say for a moment that someone - perhaps someone from one privileged group or another - decided that the garb of a particular nation that was not on the winning side of Hegemony in the 19th Century was more interesting than that of Victorian England. What then? I think many would view a well-off white person in period garb from one of the colonized regions (a sarong, sari, or haik, as has been suggested, or perhaps some tribal African clothing) as an offensive misappropriation of an oppressed people's culture.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if the way for the average person to participate in this movement is not writing fiction or challenging the history, but rather going to conventions and fairs and doing individual art projects, then it's a lot harder for individuals to do anything legitimately anti-imperialist. Nor, I think, should they be expected to, and while it's good to challenge assumptions and educate people, it's bad to try to take away people's fun and put them on the defensive about stuff that they enjoy and which - to them - doesn't have the same baggage. Otherwise, you're effectively saying that steampunk is inherently a bad thing in the only way it can be experienced by a lot of people, and that's kind of sad.
michael thorne
43. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@Dave Fried: Why on earth wouldn't we expect people to work hard to do things that are legitimately anti-imperialist? How is the quest to find new ways to express anti-imperialist sentiments and look fabulous while doing so not fun?
michael thorne
44. Moniquill
@Dave Fried
"It's a lot harder for individuals to do anything legitimately
anti-imperialist. Nor, I think, should they be expected to"

Why not? Why can't I expect more? Why is the fact that it's difficult and requires forethought and creativity an excuse to not bother? Keep in mind that nothing in the above has in any way suggested censorship. No one has said 'YOU CANNOT DO THIS' - simply that when it's done we sigh in disappointment or give withering glances of distaste and really wish they'd tried harder.

"...while it's good to challenge assumptions and educate people, it's bad to try to take away people's fun and put them on the defensive about stuff that they enjoy and which - to them - doesn't have the same baggage."

I'll ask the same question I asked above: If you noticed a child having great fun and taking great joy in the teasing of another child, would you intevene and educate as to why that behavior's not acceptable, even if that resulting in spoiling the first child's fun?

The baggage doesn't go away simpky because it's invisible to them. It's like a knapsack that way.
michael thorne
45. Dave Fried
@Dan, @Moniquill
I don't expect people to include political statements I agree with in all of the activities they engage in for self-amusement. We're talking about people playing dress-up or doing arts and crafts here, not planning the invasion and exploitation of a developing country.

No one has said 'YOU CANNOT DO THIS' - simply that when it's done we sigh in disappointment or give withering glances of distaste and really wish they'd tried harder.

Sighing and giving derisive looks is about the most obnoxious, passive-aggressive way to condemn somebody else's behavior. You might as well just confront them directly for all the good you're doing with your smug superiority.
If you noticed a child having great fun and taking great joy in the teasing of another child, would you intevene and educate as to why that behavior's not acceptable, even if that resulting in spoiling the first child's fun?


Yes, because the child is hurting someone else. Also, if the child was involved in a game of "cowboys and indians", I would probably also have a long talk with them. If the child decided to dress up in period victorian and make things out of brass, however, I would not.
Unlike bullying or stereotyping or the misappropriation of oppressed peoples' cultures, Steampunk is not generally an attempt to harm anyone or bring back the imperialist, racist, and sexist attitudes of the 19th Century British Empire.

If you look at somebody in a pith helmet and the only thing you can think of is how that person is silently endorsing genocide, I suggest that perhaps it's you who suffer from a lack of imagination.
michael thorne
46. Dan Holzman-Tweed
The notion that it is possible to wear any sort of clothing at all and not make a political statement is literally only conceivable when one has the privilege of having one's polititcs be invisible because it occupies a default, dominant position in society.

The fact that you see "cowboys and Indians" as something worthy of "a long talk" even though like Steampunk it's not "generally an attempt to harm anyone or bring back the imperialist racist and sexist attitudes of the 19th Century British Empire" (or American empire after it) leads me to suspect that you understand this better than you think.

If I look at a swastika and the only thing I can think of is how the wearer is silently endorsing genocide, would you also think I lack imagination? Or has a century of European domination allowed King Leopold II's genocide to fade into the obscurity Holocaust deniers hope to bring about for Hitler's genocide? Do you think the relevant strengths of those associations might say something about the relative political power of the populations that were slaughtered in those places and times? About whose genocides we take seriously as a society today?
michael thorne
47. Dave Fried
All clothing has cultural implications. Not all clothing is (or should be) a political statement. It is good to understand the cultural and historical implications of the clothing one wears, but that does not make it wrong to wear the clothing, or to wear it for the sake of wearing it, or for enjoyment, regardless of those implications.

Usually.

Some symbols carry so much baggage that they are always political statements. These are typically ones which have been used as a direct representation of a philosophy of oppression; examples include the swastika, burning cross, and Confederate flag. It is reasonable to consider these to be inappropriate or insensitive to wear or display in a not-obviously-ironic way (or at all).

Likewise, many (but not all) people consider it tasteless to appropriate cultural symbols or dress from an oppressed group one does not belong to (hence one of the several problems with "cowboys and indians"). I'm not entirely sure I agree with this as a hard-and-fast rule, but if members of the group being borrowed from have a problem with it, it's probably a good idea to listen to them.

Beyond that, there is a huge grey area. Consider the conflict between second- and third-wave feminists. Second-wavers mostly see popular women's fashion as an imposition of the patriarchy and advocate rejecting it. Third-wavers understand its patriarchal origins but choose to make it their own as part of embracing their sexuality.

If you see someone wearing heels, then, are they a victim of the patriarchy? Making a reactionary political statement? Empowering themselves by taking ownership of something that was previously used to oppress them? Just wearing them because they like the way it makes thier legs look? All of the above? Do we allow ourselves to judge that person?

Art and fashion are inherently self-contradictions. They are both an imposition of the society at large and also unique, fundamental expressions of self. Expecting every such expression to be a political statement is just another imposition; an attempt to reserve the right to create art and to pursue unique forms of self-expression to a small, intellectual and well-educated set.

We are often too quick to sneer; to condemn; to pooh-pooh things which we consider unsophisticated. And so we push people away who might otherwise be interested in learning more. We should be welcoming those people in, leading by example, and educating by showing, not telling (unless we're asked, of course). It's not as sexy or exciting, but I think it works much better in the long run.

Also,

The fact that you see "cowboys and Indians" as something worthy of "a long talk" even though like Steampunk it's not "generally an attempt to harm anyone or bring back the imperialist racist and sexist attitudes of the 19th Century British Empire" (or American empire after it) leads me to suspect that you understand this better than you think.

Seriously? I understand it as well as you do - I just disagree. Doesn't mean I'm stupid/ignorant/your enemy. Got it?
michael thorne
48. Dan Holzman-Tweed
"Some symbols carry so much baggage that they are always political statements."

Indeed. And you are asserting that your opinions about which symbols carry that much baggage matter while Jha's, Moniquils's, Shweta's, Doug's, and mine do not. No matter how you slice it, that's political.

"Second-wavers mostly see popular women's fashion as an imposition of the patriarchy and advocate rejecting it. Third-wavers understand its patriarchal origins but choose to make it their own as part of embracing their sexuality."

And neither claim those choices are just a bit of fun dress-up with no political dimension or implications to them. This may not have been the best example for you to choose.

"They are both an imposition of the society at large and also unique,fundamental expressions of self."

Exactly! That conflict is inherently political. The notion that it is possible to divorce oneself from those politics is also political. Show me an artist who claims their art has no political content and I'll show you an incompetant artist.

"Expecting every such expression to be a political statement is just another imposition; an attempt to reserve the right to create art and to pursue unique forms of self-expression to a small, intellectual and well-educated set."

Nonsense. People don't need formal educations to know what they're saying with their clothes, and plenty of people without that formal education make clothing choices every single day fully aware that they're making statements with those choices, from blue jeans to shirt cuff style to a confederate flag (or New York yankee!) baseball cap.

"Doesn't mean I'm stupid/ignorant/your enemy."

That's the first time someone's told me I thought they were stupid or ignorant in response to being told that they understand something better than they think.

My point, though, is that despite your asserted disagreement, your reported behavior is not consistent with the analysis you provide.
michael thorne
49. Dave Fried
@Dan

And you are asserting that your opinions about which symbols carry that much baggage matter while Jha's, Moniquils's, Shweta's, Doug's, and mine do not.
My opinion doesn't matter any more than yours. A safari hat is not a swastika. I don't get to decide that. People decide that. People can change their minds, too - I've seen it happen. You can help if you think it's that important, but don't expect people to change for you.

And neither claim those choices are just a bit of fun dress-up with no political dimension or implications to them.
... except when they are. In the sense that one of the big takeaways of modern feminism is that we should not be judging people based on what they wear, period. It's one thing if people want to make a political statement and use fashion to do it, but everybody has to wear something, so let's not make a big goddamn deal about it.

That conflict is inherently political. The notion that it is possible to divorce oneself from those politics is also political. Show me an artist who claims their art has no political content and I'll show you an incompetant artist.
What you are arguing here is basically a logical fallacy (though I forget the name for it). Basically you're saying:
1. If one is going to make a political statement abount imperialism, it should be anti-imperialism.
2. All statements are political.
3. Therefore, all statements should be anti-imperialist.

The flaw is in #2 - you are redefining "political" so broadly that it becomes effectively meaningless. I know you don't agree, but the fact is, it denies the reality most people live in.

And I disagree with your analogy to art: there are artists who make beautiful or interesting or troubling things to please or interest or challenge people. Many of those people would not say their art is political. You might argue that in making something intended to be beautiful, they are making a political statement about beauty. I would counter that they are perhaps making a statement about beauty, not politics, and furthermore, they are not required to explicitly make that statement or even think about it in order to be a good artist.

That's the first time someone's told me I thought they were stupid or ignorant in response to being told that they understand something better than they think.
Your tone was condescending, like getting a pat on the head and a cookie for getting the answer almost right. Or being told by a religious person that deep down, she believes that you really do believe in God because she can see you're a good person. Or when somebody says something like this:

My point, though, is that despite your asserted disagreement, your reported behavior is not consistent with the analysis you provide.
You are committed to a certain philosophy which views all things as being political and draws certain conclusions about the way people should act. I understand your position, have read many things which come from that viewpoint, and in the area of actual politics, I probably fall very close to where you are - but I also have a fundamentally different philosophy about the world. I hope you can accept that.

And I hope you understand that I am on your side. Imperialism, sexism, racism = bad. I just think your approach is counterproductive, because you're going into a particular subculture which provides people with some harmless escapism and telling people they're doing it wrong.
michael thorne
50. Dan Holzman-Tweed
Some people's opinions clearly matter more to you than others, otherwise you wouldn't be telling people that they should swallow their reaction to a pith helmet and not point out that other people are using a symbol that has the same significance to them that a swastika has to you. Again, your actions are not consistent with the theory you espouse.

I think you've also failed to grasp third wave feminism -- you acknowledge yourself that third wave feminists perform a political analysis around their clothing choices and come up with a different "therefore" around things like high heels without denying that high heels have the problematic history that they have.

You also fail to accurately state my position. Here's a more accurate presentation:

1) All statements are political.
2) If one is going to make a pro-imperialist statement, one ought knowthat is what one is doing, and be prepared to back it up when called outon it.
3)Therefore people should stop pretending that their statements aren't political, in order to stop saying things they'd rather not be saying.

More, you're dreaming if you think for a minute that what is beautiful isn't political. Good artists know this. Artists that make disturbing images are especially up front about it.
michael thorne
51. Dave Fried
I grasp third-wave feminism, in that you're making a point about it that I already made in a previous post. But it also prevents us from making value judgments about a woman who wears heels, period. In order to judge, we would have to know intent. In order to know intent, we would have to ask. And in order to ask, we would have to violate her autonomy, implying that it was any of our business at all what she was wearing.

(Not to mention that "because I felt like it" is actually a valid intent. Most third-wave feminists don't believe that only third-wave feminists should be able to wear heels, or that every choice must be a feminist act.)

The difference between a swastika and a pith helmet, by the way, is that the former deliberately violates a social contract, while the latter pisses you off. Your view of pith helmets may be correct, and I don't think I've ever actually worn one (I'm not particularly into Victoriana or Steampunk), but I have a right to disagree that it necessarily carries a general implication of imperialism or genocide.

Which brings me to your #2, which I still object to. Your philosophy disregards intent. Therefore, it removes the agency of the actor. Therefore, it is ethically wrong. See - I can make absolute moral claims, too!

Anyway, this isn't going anywhere. I'll read your response(s) if you choose to leave them and then let this thread die.
michael thorne
52. Moniquill
@ Dave
"My opinion doesn't matter any more than yours. A safari hat is not a swastika. I don't get to decide that. People decide that."

Are you not 'people'? Are WE not 'people'?

"People can change their minds, too - I've seen it happen. You can help if you think it's that important..."

What exactly is it that you think we're trying to do with our discourse?

"The difference between a swastika and a pith helmet, by the way, is that the former deliberately violates a social contract, while the latter pisses you off."

Who gets to write social contracts? How do they come into being?
michael thorne
53. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@Moniquill: What you said.
michael thorne
54. Delux
Moniquill, I've *been* trying to figure out who the "we" in we is, in these conversations!
michael thorne
55. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@Delux: But you've at least been piecing together who it's not?
Nisi Shawl
56. Nisi-la
Sorry to come to this so late.

Those piss helmets. Yes, they offend me. They make my gorge rise. I have seen people wearing them at cons. Are they innocent? Another word for innocent is clueless. I did not say anything to the faces of those wearing piss helmets because there were two of them and I was all by myself and vulnerable to any self-defensive nastiness and/or idiocy they might be inspired to spew my way.

I go to cons a lot. I'm an SF pro, but even before I had to , I went. My first was in the 1980s; C.J. Cherryh was the GOH, and I so idolized her. I have often been one of the few African Americans at any con. For years I was the lone African American at just about any one I attended.

Steamcon is held every year in Seattle. I missed the first iteration and I plan on missing the second. I can't afford the meds I am pretty sure I would need to get through it without being offended.

Recently fandom has begun to ask why more POC don't attend cons, don't become active and visible members of the SF community. What can we do, they wonder, to increase our diversity and numbers?

Here's one thing fandom could do: Lay off the freakin piss helmets and other accessories and costumes that invoke racism and genocide. Why? Because we asked you to. Because you want to welcome us, not alienate us.

Thank you.
michael thorne
58. E3W
I debated with myself for a while about commenting on this thread. I'm still trying to work through how I feel about this discussion. I agree that atrocities were committed by EVERY major civilization since written record existed. I also understand that the symbols of those civilizations will be offensive to the peoples targeted by said civilizations (the Swastika and the Confederate Flag are the two that pop most readily to mind). At the same time the argument that the clothing (and I exclude uniforms from this because they are inseparable from their governments) is, itself, a symbol of atrocities committed bothers me. It seems to me that, if the clothing of the period cannot be separated from the atrocities that occured during said period, then any celebration of said clothing style will be offensive to descendants of people who suffered during that period and, therefore, should not be tolerated by forward thinking people.

So, the lesson I come away with from this discussion is that Steampunk cannot be separated from the actions of the British Empire during the Victorian Era and, therefore, Steampunk is offensive and should not be tolerated by forward thinking people.

Good enough for me.
michael thorne
59. beauvoir
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right? You can venerate something because it's old, because you like the way it looks. I've been to a plantation house made into a museum in Barbados, where they've kept everything as it was during its ownership by white absentee landlords - including pith helmets (which weren't just worn by explorers, but that doesn't matter). Surely, as a former colony that has thrown off the shackles of British oppression (and yet ironically maintained its commonwealth status and the Queen as head of state) shouldn't these things be reviled, cast down? Burnt and forgotten?

I don't think so, mostly because this is part of their history, much like it is part of mine. Culturally speaking, imperialism had a great part to play in who I am, why I am this way and the way I came to be this way (I should point out at this point that I am white and British, to avoid any possible confusion).

If you're going to ask if someone who dresses like a 19th century explorer supports the idea of imperialism you should consider whether he is choosing to do so for vain and shallow reasons: he likes the way it looks.

Am I completely off of what you meant, Jha? If so, please correct me :).
michael thorne
60. beauvoir
Also, functionally, a pith helmet keeps your head from getting too hot.
michael thorne
61. lolalolalola
Steampunk bothers me, but not as much as the more general and mainstream obsession America is having with Victorian England, when "everything was so much simpler". The aesthetic is getting pushed (i believe) only by people who are okay with whiteness being the aesthetic ideal (white women & men), and who are okay with people of color being excluded from their nostalgic movies, novels, comics, "steampunk play". Nostalgia for "simpler times" is white people's way for reclaiming beauty and power and prominence. As a WOC, I would feel uncomfortable engaging in any steampunk activities.
James Whitehead
62. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
A desire for 'simpler times' exists in all of us. We wish to get back to a time when things seemed to be less complex or hard. One of the reasons we're so nostalgic for the past is we believe, somewhat mistakenly, that we we're, or would be, happier then.

I went to a local museum as a boy with my grandparents. It was a town museum & had artifacts from the 18th, 19th, & 20th century. My grandfather, who was a doctor, pointed out the 19th century dental equipment & said "Just remember these tools if someone ever wants to tell you about the 'good old days.'" ;-)

Kato
michael thorne
63. palecorbie
Writing a different world-that-was, in my case. Steampunk is basically a fantasy/alternate history hybrid, and with all those changes to choose from, why not put the technological 'spark' in the hands of non-Western, non-white, maybe even non-male folk, and see what happens?

Anyone that conflates Steampunk with particularly shiny Victoriana (imperialist ideals implicitly included) and ceases to think about it is completely missing the point of bringing the wonder of machines and craft back to the people. All the people. Because other ways for the world to be were/are possible.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment