The Philosophy & Spirituality of Steampunk – Part One
Steampunk is suddenly everywhere you look, from movies such at “Oz the Great and Powerful” to television show such as SyFy’s popular series “Warehouse 13” to the local Steampunk events sprouting up in your hometown.
But what is Steampunk, exactly?
That’s not such an easy question to answer. It has variously been called a literary sub-genre of science fiction, a DIY aesthetic subculture or even a socio-political anti-consumerist movement bent on re-inventing post-modern culture. In truth, it is all three and more.
Steampunk is definitely its own aesthetic, with its own distinctive standards of beauty and value. It is the marriage of Victorian-era focus on manners, beauty and form with technology, given a fantastical twist of functionality and craftsmanship. It seeks to reconcile the current industrial sensibility with optimism, romance and imagination, something notably lacking from post-modern design.
It has sometimes been harshly criticized as banal, unrealistic and escapist for this, but I feel this is a superficial judgment. For underneath the surface, there lurks a depth of meaning and longing.
Steampunk represents the melancholy strain of the path not taken. Adherents seek to explore a realm of being in which many of our culture’s choices were made differently, resulting in a worldview askew to the one we are normally accustomed to. It reflects a longing for a more simple and noble time of ideals and ingenuity. But if we probe even deeper, it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with and a rejection of our own culture’s choices and trajectory.
Indeed, the growing interest in cosplay (or “costume play”), whether Steampunk, Medieval-Renaissance, Civil War, Star Trek, Star Wars or what-have-you, is a sign that many feel the need to reboot the focus and intentions of our society. In the post-modern era, we have a reductionist view, in which all is brought down to the bottom line. Almost everything is reduced to its monetary value.
But in the Steampunk worldview, money and power are not the sole motivating factors. Things that post-modernism has no room for, such as honour, beauty and concern for the environment, have found a comfortable and thriving home in the philosophy of Steampunk.
The Birth of Steampunk
The origins of Steampunk have their roots in the 19th century, with such authors as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, each of whom described fantastic technologies from a time before mass production made the contents of everyone’s home practically identical. This type of story came back into favour in spurts and drops from the 1960s on. It became established as a subgenre only in the late 1980s with the coining of the name “Steampunk” by author K.W. Jeter. “Steam” refers to the era prior to the widespread use of the internal combustion engine; and “Punk” implies a certain irreverence for the traditional, mainstream social conventions.
But Steampunk did not spark into a fully-fledged DIY aesthetic movement until it went to the Burning Man Festival, in Black Rock City, Nevada. There, a group of intrepid burners created a theme camp, complete with art, mutant vehicles, costumes and living accommodations, for the festival based on their favourite form of fiction. Steampunk then became infused with the ethos of the festival, including a disdain for consumerist culture, as well as a love of art, dressing up, a rugged self-reliance and radical inclusiveness. It was at Burning Man that goggles became ubiquitous, as the Black Rock Playa is untenable without serious eye protection during the frequent dust storms. Steampunk soon became a popular theme at festivals and is now spilling into mainstream consciousness.
(See “Ten Principles of Burning Man”)
Give Me Steam: How You Feel Can Make It Real
Devotees of Steampunk are attracted by the opportunity to express themselves freely and creatively, without the limitations of most disciplines. Because Steampunk mostly defies definition, it is open and inclusive to all. Unlike historically-based subcultures, such as renaissance and medieval fairs and organizations, Steampunk transcends time, as it intends to create a new past, rather than to re-create an old one. In this regard, the only limits are those imposed by your imagination.
The radical inclusiveness of the Steampunk movement provides a community for everyone from whole families, to the would-be mad scientist, to the creative artist and craftsman, as well as for all those nerdy weirdoes who never had a date for the prom in high school. As such, Steampunk has become a haven for GLBT, engineers, artists and craftsmen of every stripe, professional or not. Steampunk has also attracted large numbers of former goths. A popular saying goes: “Steampunk happens when Goth discovers the color brown.”
Steampunk feeds a very human longing for connection and beauty. So much of modern technology is pragmatic, with no frills, cost often being the determining design factor. Steampunk eschews this view in conscious backlash against corporatism and mass production. It embraces humanistic values over pure utilitarianism by emphasizing creativity and skill over cheap factory-produced goods. Out of this comes a concern for workers’ rights and the preservation of locally produced goods and services – another value-infusion from Burning Man.
Yet one more important Burning Man principle, Re-use/Re-purpose/Recycle, has become foundational for Steampunk, as part of the aesthetic is to re-purpose old stuff, rather than to purchase mass produced consumer goods. Junk is turned into Objects d’Art, instead of going to the landfill.
This concern for the environment has inspired the grand experiment of the Greyshade Estate, in which a family of four bought a house on the outskirts of San Diego and have been endeavoring to practice a Steampunk, DIY, Permaculture, self-sustaining lifestyle since 2010.
There are many attractive features to Steampunk, beside aesthetics, fun and escapism. In the next article in this series, we will look at the deeper philosophical roots of Steampunk, as well as delve into its dark side.
Steampunk Part 2: The Philosophy and Spirituality of Steampunk
Steampunk Part 3: The New Romantic Movement
Dara Fogel started meditating at age 6, as a treatment for hyperactivity; this started her spiritual quest at an early age. On her journey towards a PhD in Philosophy (University of Oklahoma 2006), she worked in the largest metphysical bookstore in the US South-central region. Her academic career specializes in teaching ethics and the philosophy of the Self, and Dara is currently teaching “Contemporary Moral Problems” and Humanities to freshmen in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Dara “is very keen” on the evolution of consciousness, philosophy of religion and ancient wisdom. Explore her non-academic writing.