Can Steampunk Save Western Culture?
Can something so silly and fanciful as Steampunk have a serious and decisive contribution to make to the unfolding drama of human awakening?
Having looked into many aspects of the Steampunk subcultural phenomenon, one gathers the impression that Steampunk is a symptom of a much larger social ferment. Proponents of Steampunk are among the first to agree that our culture is in trouble; the technological inventions that were supposed to liberate humanity from toil, drudgery and poverty have failed. Instead many of us are enslaved to a lifestyle of thoughtless consumerism, wage slavery and increasing environmental degradation and exploitation.
Steampunk is indicative of a larger shift in the social fabric of our culture. It is more than just a fad, as it seeks to address and remedy many of the ills of our age, rather than pursuing just entertainment and distraction.
Subcultures such as “Rennies,” Gamers, Cosplayers, Goths, Geeks and Burning Man are all part of what I describe as a New Romantic Movement. In all these groups, mainstream mass-produced cultural norms are often mistrusted and in many cases, rejected in favor of a more personalized and interconnected worldview, better suited to individual tastes, proclivities and principles.
This new Romantic Movement attempts to avoid the dead ends and pitfalls of our post-modern, post-fact culture, instead seeking the path not taken – the path of honest workmanship, beauty in technology, creativity, sustainability and inclusion. Steampunk is finding a much wider appeal than the above-mentioned groups, because of both its inclusiveness and its elusiveness. Steampunk defies classifications and labels, allowing unique expressions over stereotypes, while still remaining faithful to its core values. Steampunk has strong appeal to a world weary of everyday mediocrity, pragmatic ugliness and bad manners.
A Cultural Turning Point
Cultures in crises often look back to previous eras for inspiration. We saw this before during the Renaissance, when the chaos of the dissolving medieval paradigm was reformulated, inspired and informed by the ideals rediscovered in the classical cultures of Athens and Rome. In the same way that the Italian Renaissance sparked a whole new vision of humanity and our place within the cosmos by drawing on the wisdom, values and creative expressions of the past, these New Romantics are revolutionizing the way our culture relates to work, art, fashion, technology, the economy, ecology and community with an infusion from the nineteenth century.
Steampunk has collateral benefits as well, as the movement’s emphasis on DIY and excellence in design and craftsmanship harken a resurgence in traditional humanistic values. These values include a focus on self-directed, practical education and research skills (i.e. literacy).
Many of the techniques of the much-admired Victorian aesthetic and craftsmanship were almost lost during the twentieth century, as more and more household items became mass produced. Now, renewed interest in learning these old skills is breathing life back into many dying arts. Steampunk is a very civilized, literate and technically savvy way of regarding the modern world, without sacrificing the depth of meaning, warmth and charm of traditional craftsmanship.
The greatest challenge for Steampunk going forward is to avoid becoming co-opted by the very forces it most seeks to reject. The mass marketing of Steampunk continues apace, with Steampunk-inspired fashions and accessories already turning up in Walmart and Target, and predictions of more on the way. Even Justin Bieber has capitalized on the growing momentum of Steampunk.
Some of the more hard-core adherents of the movement feel it has become trivialized by the “just glue on some gears and wear goggles” approach to Steampunk. They see the mass production of Steampunk-inspired items to be antithetical to the Maker mentality, even if it does allow for greater inclusiveness and diversity.
If Steampunk can preserve its creative, recycle/repurpose and community values, without selling out to the materialist forces that oppose it, it seems possible that Steampunk could provide the ethical grounding, motivation and innovation required to save our culture from collapse under the weight of diminishing resources and growing income disparity. However, if Steampunk (and by extension, the New Romantic Movement) is subverted by market forces, the future trajectory of western culture does not look promising. Only through a new infusion of inspiration and vision will we find the answers to transcend the many problems and dilemmas we face in the early twenty-first century.
Cultural mavens have declared Steampunk dead multiple times, and yet it stubbornly refuses to go away. Steampunk is a state of mind. Radical Freedom, Living in Harmony with Others and the Environment, Individualism, Creativity and the Revisioning of Technology and its Appropriate Role in the Life of Human Societies are the ultimate Steampunk values that invite us into a new era of cooperation and innovation.
But only if we are wise and observant enough to heed its simultaneously futuristic and anachronistic call.
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.