Steampunk Fortnight

Steampunk Abstractions: On Commodification

Hey, ya’ll, remember the last time I wrote about the post-modernity of steampunk? If you didn’t, don’t worry about it; it was pretty insubstantial (like exuberance!) because I was out of schoolbooks. But this time, I got ‘em and I have theorizin’ to do with you! You are free to join in with your own understanding of post-modern theory as it applies to steampunk, and to tell me where I’m wrong, of course. 

I’ve been thinking about commodification in steampunk recently, and how it feels that so much of the steampunk subculture is stemmed in stuff we make or buy, the outfits we pull together. The visual aesthetic is incredibly important, and it does feel that if you don’t have the right kind of costume, you might as well be invisible in steampunk.1

Fredric Jameson, on writing about post-modernism and its characteristics in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (a.k.a. Postmodernism, Duke University Press, 1991), spent a great deal of time talking about pop art—in particular, Warhol—and dissected the architecture of malls, much of which relates to how capitalism has essentially permeated much of our lives. He talked about a lot more than that, but that doesn’t concern me today.

What I’m talking about today is steampunk as pastische, as well as the commodification, and the materialism inherent within the stuff we do. The commodification of culture renders cultural artefacts and influences into objects that we can pick and choose at will, deciding what we want, and discarding what we don’t. Hence, we have a departure from a time period where there was high art and low art. Both have converged, sort of fallen into each other.

And this pattern is seen in our works within steampunk, if you think about it. Consider: although the link to Victorian England is clear enough, what we like to do within steampunk is problematize and complicate the Victorian aesthetic, throwing fancy anachronisms and wrenches into our linear historical narratives. You have folks opting to dress as aristocrats and grubby engineers, no matter what class strata they might really belong to. If you look at a steampunk group, you do automatically identify the Victorian influences, but you also find other things which are clearly not Victorian. These new elements, however, are also not exactly modern, although they clearly could have come from a more contemporary imagination.

This creates a pastiche of an aesthetic that is based on a kind of memory and nostalgia, for a “past that never was,” as we like to say. Jameson blames pastiche on the “disappearance of the individual subject” (16), which to me implies that there is a containable totality to a certain era, or a certain civilization, that lends itself to a personal style. For us on a collective level, this would say, “this is our time, this is how we do things in our Now.” I disagree, of course, because I don’t feel that any one time period can be properly totalized or characterized until it is well and truly dead and people have had enough distance from it. I know some say steampunk is dead or dying (Hi, Cory G. and Piechur!) but let’s face it, it’s still burgeoning. New things are happening within it that keep it interesting.

The maybe-self-defeating thing about this interestingness of steampunk is how it requires a “cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (18). (I just love this phrase.) This is, as my colleagues well know, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows us to reclaim our histories through our actions in the present—whether through cultural heritage, or hands-on talent, or aesthetic quirk. As authenticity and hard-and-fast rules are not required in most forms of steampunk, this gives us leeway for eclecticism in our chosen form of play. On the other hand, this sort of cultural cannibalism lends itself to cultural appropriation under the assumption that in our post-modern, post-colonial, post-racial world, anything can be abstracted, taken out of context, and re-fitted (or in our case, retro-fitted) to suit our own purposes. In our search for deeper meaning, this can manifest in our purposeful attachment of our own meanings onto something that we claim from something else.

This is where I get political and tell you: no, you don’t get to assume this. You don’t, for example, get to yoink stereotypical opium den imagery for your Oriental Steampunk play under the assumption that you think it signifies decadence and opulence, especially if you are of white, Western-European descent. (I’d get intellectual hives even if you are Asian.) It’s not funny, and it’s not cool. Stop it.

But this is exactly how the cultural logic of capitalism plays out: the image of the Oriental opium den can be commodified, and thus made empty, opening it to be used and infused with new meaning (that of decadence and opulence) that obscures the old one (that of the inferiority of the Chinese race). The horrible thing is that in this case, it can’t actually obscure the effects that the old meaning perpetuated, but it can still be capitalized upon for someone’s profit, and someone else’s entertainment.

This is not to say that all steampunk performs this infusion of new meaning. I’m sure we’ve all heard claims of the superficiality of steampunk; that it’s just about the clothes, and it’s just about people wanting to play dress up as aristocrats / grubby engineers / mad scientists, and it’s just about how it looks. Very little is said about how steampunk relates to our state of the world. To say it doesn’t relate at all is a fallacy, but that’s a topic for another day. But we should speak to the “commodity fetishism” (9) within steampunk: that so much of steampunk’s appeal is tied to what we can consume visually, like a costume, or even just a picture of a costume, is very much a symptom of the capitalism that undercuts steampunk aesthetics. If we somehow cannot desire to own it on some level, is it relevant? We could make this argument about almost anything, of course. (See? Steampunk is totally part of the larger world, not some tiny isolated pocket of a subculture untainted by the real world.)

Look, I am not about to tell you to stop doing the things you love doing, because it’s EVIL! and BAD! and if you keep it up you are a Terrible Person! This isn’t an anti-steampunk polemic. Sometimes we do this because we just want pretty things. And this is okay. Sometimes we do this because we are bored and want to make cool stuff. This is also okay. Sometimes we love cannibalizing what we know of history to create new, fun, interesting stories. This is okay, too. If anything, this is an anti-capitalist polemic.

The key thing is, it’s important for us to be aware of what exactly it is we’re playing into when we perform / wear / make / do steampunk. Commodification happens to be one of those things; there’s more, but I’ll save it for another day. What you do with this knowledge is up to you, but let’s do ourselves some credit and acknowledge it.

1. This is not to say that I dress badly. On the contrary; I have very good taste in clothing. I simply do not have a wide steampunk wardrobe.

Interesting quotes from:
Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press 1991.

Jaymee Goh writes Silver Goggles, a blog on steampunk and postcolonialism. She also lives on a steady diet of instant noodles. Alas, no takeout.


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