I recall this declaration in #1 of Steampunk Magazine: “First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. It rejects the ultra-hip dystopia of the cyberpunks—black rain and nihilistic posturing—while simultaneously forfeiting the ‘noble savage’ fantasy of the pre-technological era. It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics. … The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages and even dies.”
We live in an interesting age where questions of authenticity abound, where people wear names given to themselves. Where being anonymous is a reason enough to be an asshole. In cyberspace, the definition of “human being” disappears and cruelty feels it is given free rein to dole out damage. Because we can neither see nor hear the hurt we deal out. If we do, then we say, “well, how do you know I am who I am?” and cop out, refusing to take accountability.
I am not technologically-inclined—the engines I am interested in are not made of brass, steel, nor any kind of metal. I am interested in social engines, that moves and shake society from its cores to the last babe cast out to face the world. But the metaphor works as well—if the technology of steampunk can move, can live, age, and then die, it means it is something we can touch, something that is real. We can hear and see it, we can marvel and then mourn it. So should it be, too, for people.
Part of the post-modernity of the human condition means that our identities are shaky, flimsy things that are subject to the influences of other elements within society. We ask ourselves, continually, who or what we are, taking on labels as it suits us. We wrestle with people who want to label us and throw us into groups we don't want to join, continually moving goalposts as it suits them. We claim post-raciality even as we spout racist bullshit; we claim feminism is useless even as we perpetuate rape culture. We simultaneously claim that we are subject to our nature (as if biology explained everything) and that we are agents of our own destiny.
There is no single way to define oneself. So why should it be so for a steampunk?
Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon has been working on a definition of steampunk, to little avail. The one thing I can definitely agree with, of course, is that steampunk, as an aesthetic, movement, or what-have-you, is a pastische, a mishmash of different elements, and each steampunk takes in each to different degrees. As a whole? Steampunk is hard to define.
Part of the joys in being a steampunk is that any one individual takes whatever elements they please. The result is an organic process of self-fashioning, as each person decides to what degree they indulge in whichever element, pulling together different influences in order to create a composite whole. And yet this, too, although inauthentically contrived, can be utterly authentic.
Jha is a Malaysian living in Canada with three or four ants in her kitchen which appear to have no interest in helping her keep her kitchen counter clear of crumbs. So much for living with nature.