Steampunk and its Discontents

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor declares steampunk “the new goth.” Throwing aside the gimmicky declaration of anything as “the new” anything else, I wanted to examine this comparison more closely, as it seems that while steampunk does indeed overlap goth in many areas, there are significant differences between these two aesthetics that are worth noting.

Steampunk shares a certain imaginative space with goth. Both are subcultures that take a romanticized view of the past, especially the Victorian period. For goths, I think the focus on the Victorian serves dual purposes. First, it’s a culture of hierarchy and funerary customs. The appeal of a time when aristocrats mourned elaborately forms the basis for much of the gothic appropriation of Victorian garments and imagery. It’s appealing for the goth to connect with a fantasy of specialness–this is not a new observation, and I don’t believe anyone is exempt from this kind of thinking–that aligns her to values that no longer exist. Our modern world is superficial, insistent on stupid cheeriness and anti-intellectual. The past provides a refuge for introverts, melancholics and others who find more truth in Keats or Poe than in reality TV and pop music. These–largely invented–images of the past create an existence more suited to the goth’s appreciation of decay, dreams and imagination than the present can. Second, the Victorians themselves looked back to a romanticized chivalrous ideal of a mystified medieval time, which connects with goth music and culture through the literary modernist movement. I don’t plan to go into great detail now, but I think The Sisters of Mercy has more in common with T.S. Eliot than fans of either might care to admit. In the context of modern gothic subculture, then, the Victorian serves as an image of the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement.

Steampunk seems to take the Victorian period as a place from which to divert the rails of progress from the industrial revolution. The steampunk vision of the industrial revolution is of a time when technology could be safely romanticized. Machines that run on visible gears turned by fire provide an alternative to our world in which machines increasingly take the form of sleek, hermetically sealed glowing white boxes. Pair this with our ambivalence on technology and we find much of the central appeal of steampunk. Namely, to have tech–but different tech. I think this also explains the fall of cyberpunk as one of our imaginative idioms. Neuromancer isn’t different enough anymore. It cannot provide enough escape from mundane reality.

But, back to steampunk. I’ve wrestled with the question “Why steampunk?” Why not baroquepunk, atompunk, hell, Vikingpunk? Historically, the Victorian represents the last optimistic moment for technology–just before the mechanized horrors of global wars of the 20th century. Steampunk asserts a primarily optimistic perspective. The addition of modernize technology to historical settings creates space for adventure, fantasy and inventiveness. Steampunk isn’t likely to be used as the setting for grim “the Road”-style fables of destruction. The inherent narrative is one of fancifully “good” tech. Steampunk does require a certain time frame. There must be enough recognizable devices so that the presence of tech isn’t too disruptive–hence, Vikingpunk or even Romanpunk is less likely to be a suitable imaginative blend. There must also not be too much of our mundane technology but in older, clunkier iterations. So, I find it unlikely that we’ll soon see subcultures devoted to using punchcard computers and sliderules. Though I’ll only allow ten years before the fetishization of rotary telephones and dot-matrix printers begins. Steampunk needs a time when the native devices are useless enough to be quaint. Daniel Harris’ insightful 2000 book “Cute Quaint Hungry and Romantic” describes why modern consumers adorn their hypermodern homes with quaint devices from the past. The iron stoves, rusty washing boards and copper kettles that served as the utilitarian tools of household labor past now emblamatize the upper-class consumer’s disposable time and income. I find steampunk very in line with this aesthetic of quaintness.

Steampunk exists primarily as a visual style. Unlike goth, which emerged from punk, steampunk primarily exists as artifacts rather than acts. What is a “steampunk” band? How would that sound? There is nothing inherent in steampunk that suggests a sound. The closet I could posit is Rasputina, and that primarily due to their having song lyrics that reflect an interest in quaint Victorianism. The rush to fill the aesthetic void of steampunk results in attempts to reclassify films such as “Brasil” to create subjects for this aesthetic. Like the household aesthetic of the quaint, steampunk is made of items one owns in order to display one’s alignment with assumed values of the past. The DIY ethos present in steampunk dictates that it’s better to create or modify the items yourself rather than purchase manufactured iterations, but I believe this will soon fall by the wayside as goods made for the steampunk market are created. There are already shoes, clothing and jewelry mass-manufactured to fit this aesthetic readily available. It happened to punk.

The central irony of steampunk as a modern phenomena is that it allows us to reincarnate our tech in the clunky, rusted skin of a theoretical history. One need not sacrifice the functions of an iPhone, just glue some brass gears on an you’re making a statement aligning yourself with DIY over the powers of corporatism. Only, not really.

There are parts of the steampunk aesthetic that I appreciate. I am more interested here in questioning the meaning of steampunk in our culture. I gladly welcome counter-arguments.

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One Response to “Steampunk and its Discontents”

  1. I’d love to offer a counter-argument, but mostly I agree. I wrote my own dissection of Steampunk, but in the context of why I am not one, on my blog.

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