“SteamPunk: Colonizing the Past so we can dream the future” – Professor Calamity
Last time, we looked at how Steampunk motifs are showing up all over film, television and fiction, and hazarded an attempt to define Steampunk. The Steampunk movement is an odd concoction of Victorian aesthetics and manners, mad technology a’ la Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, DIY/Makers ethic and a rugged refusal to be constrained by rules, time or space. Let’s turn our attention to the deeper philosophies of the growing movement. As hinted at before, not everything is all tea parties and well-oiled machines. Steampunk has serious philosophical underpinnings, as well as serious moral challenges.
The Dark Side of Steampunk
As noted in the previous article, Steampunk represents nostalgia for a time that never was. The idealization of the Victorian era, however, strikes some as morally problematic, as that was the time of child exploitation, slavery and imperial colonization (with all the ills of racism and injustice that came with it). This has led to charges of “empire worship” and sweeping the evils of history under the carpet.
In much of the fiction of the genre, there does appear to be some glorification of “the Empire Where the Sun Never Sets,” as Victorian-era Britain liked to style itself. Given the ethnocentrism of the British exploitation of peoples and resources in India, China and plenty of other nations, this aspect of history represents one of the dark elements of human evolution. It was a time of great greed and lack of empathy toward the weak and poor, which was so well documented by the then contemporary works of Charles Dickens.
The Steampunk community is not unaware of this side of its heritage, and makes all the more effort to be inclusive and welcoming to all. Steampunk fiction is beginning to emerge that challenge the institutionalized racism and exploitation, but this is still a shadow that Steampunk has yet to fully dispel.
The emotional and sexual repression of the Victorian era is another area where questions about the inspiration of Steampunk arise. It is true that as a civilization, we have learned a great deal more about the instincts and motives that drive both individuals and societies, and have moved beyond the casual tolerance of racism and sexism. This is a place where Steampunk firmly rejects Victorian chauvinism, in favor of an inclusivity and respect for everyone, regardless of their sex, gender, race or orientation. Many Steampunk events explicitly spell this out in publically posted policies, stressing the social gentility and manners of the time.
Another critique of Steampunk is that it is a shallow aesthetic movement – “just glue some gears and octopi on it and call it ‘Steampunk’.” It is true that Steampunk does place a high value on its own brand of style, but it goes deeper, for it also values utility along with its beauty and craftsmanship. While you find people making steam-powered arm prosthetics and jet-packs from PVC and brass plumbing fittings, you also find applications of the aesthetic to beautifying more practical items, such as computers, clothing and furniture.
The emphasis on recycling, reusing and repurposing ensures that these items are one-of-a-kind, and impossible to mass-produce on a large scale. Artists, engineers and designers (both professional and amateur) are accorded a respect in the Steampunk community they often find lacking in the mainstream.
Roots of the Steampunk aesthetic can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1800s. This Victorian movement was a backlash to the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century. From this, Steampunk adopts its preference of skilled craftsmanship over commercial factory-made products, and the rampant consumerism it fuels.
Some claim that this is “cherry-picking” the Victorian era – selecting only the parts you like, and ignoring the rest. As seen above, it is true that Steampunks only accept those some, not all aspects of the time they adore. Critics claim this makes the movement hypocritical and shallow. But Steampunk proponents would answer that they are not interested in re-creating the past – rather, they wish to transcend time and culture into a new creation. Such lofty ambitions are notoriously difficult to realize. Only time will tell if the Steampunk Movement has sufficient determination and energy to achieve them.
Steampunk philosophy could be characterized as “post-nihilistic,” in that it refuses to adhere to the dystopian vision of the future found in most current science fiction. Steampunk is unrepentantly optimistic, intentionally calling upon the past for the inspiration to build a better future, free ourselves of limiting inequities, and to make a place where each individual is empowered to explore their own creativity.
During the Victorian era, humanity was utilizing science in a systematic way to explore the universe, both inside and out. This was the time when Freud and Darwin explored the dark roots of human development, both mentally and physically. As a species, we were learning to self-reflect and to view ourselves more objectively through the powerful tools of science to learn about human nature both internal and external. It is this conscious questioning of “who and what we are” that drives the inspiration of Steampunk.
The “Punk” aspect of Steampunk infuses a healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism, eschewing rigid definitions and limitations imposed by culture. No one is in charge or even leading the Steampunk movement. It is entirely self-perpetuating and self-generating. Many times the genre and movement have been declared dead, yet Steampunk has failed to go away as predicted. It continues to attract and inspire new devotees, as evidenced by the growing number of Steampunk themed events and offerings in the media.
The interest in the environment and a sustainable lifestyle infuses Steampunk with practical grounding mostly lacking from other historical re-creation and cosplay movements. The desire to marry function with beautiful design illustrates Steampunk’s embrace of technology, again, something lacking in the main historical recreation subculture. These values give Steampunk more gravitas and wider appeal than groups focused with laser-like intensity on a single time in history.
Individualism and self-reliance are highly appealing Steampunk values, empowering many who find their work-a-day world to be unfulfilling to seek out greener pastures of self-expression through art. Philosophers from Aristotle to Gurdjieff have expounded on the importance of art to the harmonious development of mankind. It is to the peril of our own culture that we seem to have forgotten this principle. Steampunk seeks to remedy this oversight in its own fantastically mechanized idiom.
These principles of self-reliance and self-expression are well in accord with Victorian-era philosophers such as Emerson, and Nietzsche. The rejection of a consumerist culture harkens back to Karl Marx, who was also developing his theories during the same era. As such, Steampunk represents a longing to return to the openness of the era, in which such thoughts were newly minted, and not confined by academic over-specialization and the dictates of mass production.
In the 3rd and final article of this series, we will examine the Spirituality of Steampunk and its potential for impacting the evolution of consciousness.
Steampunk Part 1: Nostalgia for a Time that Never Was
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.