Steampunk Month

Steampunk as Subculture

One day while bored, I browsed through a lengthy discussion on Brass Goggles about the definition of steampunk as a subculture. As usual, there was no unifying definition. What I did find curious was a peculiar insistence of some to refer to steampunk as a “culture” in itself, as opposed to the term “subculture.”

The argument goes, “if we are a subculture, then what are we a part of?”

One would have thought that this would be obvious. The North American steampunk subculture is very much a subset of North American culture. Just as the British steampunk subculture would be a subset of British society. In spaces where steampunk is large enough to warrant the term “community,” it is still part of the larger space it is performed in.

#1 Nothing grows in a cultural vacuum. As mentioned before, steampunk draws from several elements, most of which are products of a definitely Eurocentric society. These elements may be found in other non-European countries as well, but when one considers that steampunk is, usually, Victorian-inspired, it’s pretty safe to say steampunk has been shaped by the biases and influenced by Victorianism. Combine this with negative attitudes of today and you have a potent mix where you can’t tell where the Victorianism ends and today takes root. Some of us steampunks like to roleplay being a racist, sexist twerp. I’m not sure what the point of this is, seeing as we’re supposed to work our way beyond that in steampunk, but I’m not going to tell another person what to do with their steampunking. 

#2 Its participants belong to larger cultures. This is more closely related to #1, but focused on the people. Participants of steampunks usually do, also, belong to a larger culture from whence they are first shaped. North American steampunks bring in their culture’s sensibilities and contexts, for example. So it is for other participants of any steampunk community elsewhere. And as with #1, participants bring in the baggage from the larger culture. Even if we tried to remove ourselves, geographically and psychologically, from the cultural contexts from whence we came, we still would carry over elements of the culture that shaped us.

#3 It is not wholly divorced from society in general. This is a result of both #1 and #2, and I don’t see any proof that steampunk in itself is so separate from the larger societies within which it is performed that it warrants the term “culture” unto itself. I’ve seen arguments comparing steampunk separating itself from mainstream like America from Britain. This makes sense… if it referred to steampunk separating from cyberpunk or goth. Unless we somehow got separated by physical geography, I highly doubt the simile works.

If one figures that it’s large enough to be a community (back home in Malaysia, some folks were shocked that for some people, steampunk is more than just a hobby), it’s still a community that belongs within a larger cultural context.

So, for those who’re asking, “what’s steampunk a subculture of?” there’s your answer. I somehow detect a certain reluctance towards the term “subculture” (because of the -punk business, no doubt), and if you don’t want to call it a subculture, that’s perfectly fine too. I’m just sayin’, if you ever find yourself asking that question, that’s one possible answer for you.

Jha did an undergraduate honours degree in English under the mistaken impression that learning how to read all sorts of literature would make her a better writer.


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