Oct 7 2011 4:30pm

Steampunk: The Ethical Spectacle

Take a look around you. Despite our society’s leaps in technological development and civilized advancement, we lack an essential spirit. We can’t exactly pinpoint it, but we know it’s missing. It’s the same feeling an artist gets when they look upon an empty canvas and just don’t know what to paint, but they know that they’d like to at least paint something. I can tell you what we’re missing: A true renaissance.

Our creative spirits are starved, no longer tied to the innate truths of being human, of truly living, and whenever we look at our world, we only feel as if our canvas has been damaged by some unseen force that we have quietly supported this whole time. If the future looks cold and endangered, what must we do if not look back? The images of the future-past we see in the works of H.G Wells & Jules Verne, the wild ideas of old wizards like Nikola Tesla and Charles Babbage, and many more are those of technological optimism, social advancement, communal harmony, individualistic development, and boundless creativity, virtues and dreams which the steampunk community fully embraces and even evangelizes. We are not just some community hiding in the shadows, living high off its own elitism, prancing around in anachronistic fashions with no true purpose or standing. In reality, steampunk becomes the rallying call of the sleeping adventurers, the once and future poets singing a eulogy to our dead society and, like a phoenix, awaiting the moment from which our wildest dreams can emerge from the decaying corpse of the modern order.

Steampunk is an ethical spectacle competing with the madness of everyday life. We are postmodern absurdists, the racuous grandchildren of Dada, here forever to proclaim that we will not be slaves to the banality of Fordian thought and hijacked history. Our weapons are those of detournement and community, where together we have captured the top hats of the robber barons and the monocles of the imperialists and have converted them into symbols of resistance, of an individualistic yet community-oriented counter-culture in revolt against all time. We want our present that isn’t but could be, our past that never was but should have been, and our future that awaits us to be one, full of endless wonderment and adventure, our rallying cries against the dullness of our mass fabricated world.

We do not advocate some sort of primitive nightmare, but rather, we ask our friends to approach the pool of reflection and see that instead of the majestic individual that they should be, they see instead a chained clone, covered in the trite vestments of the modern religion of branding and greed. In this steampunk spectacle, the impressive leatherwork of the crafter, the movements of the bellydancer, and even the smile of the mime can break those chains and obliterate the facade of the modern world as it has been scripted for us. We are equals and those who have pushed towards the horizon and have achieved great things are nothing more than the honored heroes, the first amongst equals that do not tower above the rest of us, but rather wants us to reach for the skies as they did and collect the stars.

We can’t deny that steampunk is definitely more than just gears and goggles. We can’t ignore that even though the name began as a joke, we are punks through and through. There is no place in the performances and proclamations of this ethical spectacle for racism, sexism, elitism and various other cruel prejudices out there. We have evolved from a time where it was commonly believed that we were all some sort of strange British Imperial reconstructionists to a time where we can be Voodoo Loa interdimensional time travelers, Vaudevillian mimes, emperors of endless dimensions, transgender airship chefs, and airship captains fighting against the very personifications of order. We are now free of the subtle caste system of modern capitalism and have instead placed ourselves collectively as the protagonists of our stories, whatever they may be and however they may be expressed. Let’s not be shy about this and instead obliterate the unspoken shroud, that curtain pulled by some to say that steampunk is nothing more than snotty privileged fools with nothing better to do than dress like Mark Twain and write merrily about Gary Stus playing imperial games. We are rebelling and our spectacle will conquer and that’s that.

Go out and be who you were, express yourself how you wish and if you do this without the exclusion of others no doubt you will find that the steampunk community will embrace you with open arms. Our revolutionary spectacle is one of joy and optimism and a better world for all of us, one where we can all dance and sip tea if we want to. Anything else, to this humble writer at least, is simply boring and in the words of Guy Debord, the father of Situationist thought:

Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.

Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez III is a revolutionary scholar during the day and a Voodoo Loa at night. Check out his adventures with his mime comrade as Mr. Saturday & Sixpence and stay in touch with his work in the San Antonio Neo-Victorian Association and AetherFest, Texas’ first steampunk convention.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jaymee Goh
1. Jha
But what is spectacle? Does spectacle have substance? Remember that spectacle is used to distract us in a world of commodification and consumerism. Spectacle drives the "I just want pretty clothes" sentiment, and the escapism. It is spectacle of the media that keeps us living in envious fear of each other, too locked up to reach out. Spectacle without substance is just simulacra. In spectacle, how do you ensure racism, sexism, classism don't permeate just as it permeates the rest of the world? How do you ensure ethical spectacle?

It is a position of privilege to call for mere self-expression. The fuck would anybody want to express themselves when they're doing their hardest to survive, which sometimes means not expressing yourself? How do you infuse your performance with more than just playacting, more than just entertainment to alleviate boredom, more than just sound and fury?
Christopher Johnstone
2. CPJ
At the risk of engendering anger: I don't think this oppinion piece is really outlining an ethical argument. It reads more like a grab-bag of emotional push-buttons without any solid foundation to it.

It's a very strange thing that people feel they have to apologise or defend themselves for pursuing something that makes them happy. Yes, I know steampunk has come under ethical attack from various SF authors, but still...

I think a far more rigorous ethical argument is that (assuming you accept that a person's happiness is some sort of measure of the goodness in their life), then doing a thing that makes you happy and does no harm to others is inherently good, arguably ethical. Of course, this becomes more problematic if consequences of your actions have negative effects, either on other individuals or on society or norms as a whole.

I'm arguing from the point of view of a ethical consequentialist, of course. If you hold to a rule-based or absolutist system of ethics, then the argument given above may or may not hold for you, I guess.

I would have been more impressed by this article if you informed me that steampunk is important because it makes people happy, and besides which, your leather came from sustainably family-run farms, that your brass was recycled and that your dyes and fabrics were fair-trade.

'Performances and proclaimations' sounds too much like bread and circuses.

Nick Ottens
3. Nick Ottens
A rebuttal, here
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
4. tnh
But what is spectacle?
It's a theatrical form.
Does spectacle have substance?
It can have as much or as little as any other kind of theatre.
Remember that spectacle is used to distract us in a world of commodification and consumerism.
So what isn't? That's a statement about commodification and consumerism, not about spectacle.
Nick Ottens
5. Jerr
Haters gonna hate.

Anyway, I like this a lot. Good show.
Nick Ottens
6. Alexandria Hatchet
This is piece gives me comfort to know that there are people unlike some of us. They might be cold and uncreative in their own way, but that makes! So would you kindly quit trying to find the negative in everyone and everything, stop finding things of why you don't like us and think we are dumb, naive and insane. WE are who WE are. Let us be us, to have the imagination that we've craved to share with others.

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