By Diana Pho
Steampunk studies is an outlier in Victorian scholarship. In fact, steampunk subculture can arguably be called “neo-Victorian” or even “non-Victorian” in the way that it defies strict adherence to a certain periodization or topic relevance. Steampunk is an aesthetic movement inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy. Over the years, however, that umbrella phrase has expanded to include speculation outside of an established time-frame (such as post-apocalyptic or futuristic), outside of the established geography of the Western world, and even outside of history (as with alternate history and secondary fantasy worlds). How can we, then, describe the relationship between steampunk academic work and Victorian studies?
James Carrott and Brian David Johnson argue that steampunk subculture is a reactionary response to today’s digital revolution.[i] Steampunk subculture is also intrinsically linked a different cultural understanding of time – namely the inter-connectivity between the cultural relevance of the past and the present, as Rachel Bowser and Brian Coxall note[ii]. This flexibility of cultural time coupled with retrofuturism is no mere coincidence, then, but speaks to a shift in how the individual prioritizes time due to technological change and how this attitude is reflected in taste cultures. The Victorian serves as a loci point on the parabola plane of steampunk.
Steampunk subculture, however, brings relevance to Victoriana, especially in current speculation about the direction of our current culture, making steampunk less “sub-” (as in “the underground”, the rejection) and more “sub-” (as “in subservient to”, the co-dependent). Most interestingly, it is captive to the tenets of technological time more than the community cares to admit. Because of speed, ideological aspects – such as the “punk” element, DIY, and its progressive framework – are taken for granted by steampunk participants as subcultural mainstays, although these ideas that have only been discussed in-depth over the past few years, as I note in my previous studies.[iii] Additionally, Web 2.0 not only speeds up the exchange of ideas, but reinforces a repetitive loop of ideas. Links make their rounds through social media on a periodic basis. Blog posts written years ago can resurface and foster discussion as if they had been written yesterday. Opinions expressed years ago – whether they have changed – live on in infamy thanks to the Way-Back Machine. Time, simultaneously, is of the essence and completely irrelevant. Thus, the realm of the digital acts as a perfect meta-commentary for an anachronistic remix subculture such as steampunk.
Steampunk subculture is also an example of how mass culture has become what Henry Jenkins refers to as “convergence culture”: the essential funneling of individual knowledge and skill-sets using Web 2.0.[iv] Those skill sets contribute to the overall intellectual diversity of the community. Additionally, they reveal how much greater pop culture impacts what had been viewed as an exclusive set of community interests. As much as the steampunk community thinks that its interests are selective and exclusive to itself, the subculture’s evolution is dependent upon its responsiveness to mainstream cultural dialogues more than any single subcultural object, artwork, advocacy blog, or person.
As a case in point, let’s address one issue that has has been relevant in pop- and sub- cultures: multiculturalism. Over the years, I have kept tabs on other voices in my community that has contributed to this issue out of personal interest. Admittedly, the goal of this track record isn’t a comprehensive listing, but a display of an overarching pattern of influences and how they can snowball into a community norm.
The roots of this conversation about multiculturalism involve two shifts in perspective about the steampunk aesthetic. The first is the acknowledgment of an ideology that can support different geographical spaces in the steampunk imagination. The second is the development of localized steampunk communities online and offline.
Concerning the first point, the anti-imperialist perspective offered by Steampunk Magazine, in their premiere issue in 2004 and early posts on non-Western histories by G.D. Falksen starting a few years later set the tone for looking at steampunk away from one set geographical space (though the authors of both pieces had differing political reasons for this).[v] News sites like the Steampunk Tribune, and existence of strong communities such as the Russian ru_steampunk community on LiveJournal, and SteamCon of Seattle also highlight areas where steampunk communities contribute other non-Anglo perspectives.
2009 was a watershed year for these conversations, coming from multiple perspectives. Outside of the steampunk community, the Racefail conversation, which began in January 2009, opened up new dialogues between people in the science fiction fandom that expanded to cover other areas of geekdom. In March, I contributed my own thoughts on how Racefail is relevant to steampunk – mainly by pointing out how the community largely ignores, erases, or objectifies people of color and non-Western cultures. My work was picked up by Racialicious, a major media blog on race & pop culture, and Jaymee Goh was asked to write a keystone piece on the subject in June. In August, Cherie Priest explained multiculturalism as an aspect for why she loves steampunk, and in September she published the critically-acclaimed Boneshaker, which changed the landscape of the steampunk genre entirely as the first major modern steampunk work set outside of England. In October, Tor.com’s wildly popular Steampunk Month, curated by Liz Gorinsky, also expanded definitions about what steampunk is and where it could take place.
It was in this fevered climate for change that Beyond Victoriana was founded. It began as a conversation I was having with Jaymee Goh about the necessity of a website with a focus on non-Western cultures and people of color, without the neo-imperialist connotations of having those conversations instigated and directed by members of the dominant culture. Beyond Victoriana started off as a personal project in October 2009, and Goh began her own postcolonial steampunk blog Silver-Goggles days later. This month, our websites will be celebrating our fifth anniversaries – or “thirty-five in internet years” – and the impact of the multicultural conversation has increased steadily since then.
In the years since, other ventures de-centered the Anglo-sphere. Steampunk conventions became a popularized form of community-formation, with dozens being formed around the United States and other parts of the globe, the most notable from 2009-2011being Asylum in the UK, the Steampunk World’s Fair in the US, French Steampunk, and Conselho Steampunk in Brazil. Other news sites such as The Airship Ambassador (who kicked off this site with a declaration about moving steampunk out of London) and the Steampunk Chronicle were founded and thrived in the growing international community. Other artists have influenced the genre, such as James Ng digital paintings from his Imperial Steamworks series. Tor.com’s annual events remained a marker on the status of these conversations in the community: Steampunk Fortnight in 2010, and Steampunk Weeks of 2011, and 2012.
The publication of The Steampunk Bible in 2011, the first book about steampunk subculture, prioritized international communities and the impact of non-Western and non-white elements into the larger subculture. Other subculture books since then have at least mentioned multicultural elements: Steampunk Gazette, Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions, International Steampunk Fashions, Vintage Tomorrows, Steaming into the Victorian Future.
Later developments include the establishment of other websites by steampunks of color, including Multiculturalism for Steampunk (now on hiatus), The Chronicles of Harriet, Tokyo Inventors Society and Steampunk India. The topic has made its rounds on more general steampunk blogs and yet is still critiqued by mainstream media for being pro-imperialist and racist, most recently by Hari Kondabalu of Totally Biased. This shows how, despite the extensive movement within the community influenced by outsider input, the image of steampunk to others still has a ways to go.
Nevertheless, this brief record demonstrates how the speed of the digital and the convergence of the Internet has had an enormous impact on our understanding of steampunk subculture, moreso than any definitive text. For years, steampunk has been moving “beyond Victoriana” on multiple levels–in a direction instigated by outsider critique on larger cultural issues. Thus, this subculture is not divorced from the mainstream, but is another lens by which we interpret popular culture. That concept, actually, dovetails neatly into the idea of multiculturalism: a subculture is one of many voices, contributing what they know best, and as a result, the community fosters an alternate media source. Most importantly then, as this trend shows, online life itself can help empower people to control their own culture. It is fighting back against the greatest monolith from the last century: a top-down-controlled mass culture.
Steampunk is a phenomenon that recognizes how cyborg our social and political lives have become, and this subculture uniquely connects it to a 19th-century understanding of how human societies undergo technological change. Exploring those possibilities – past, present, future – is key during our current digital revolution.
[i] Carrott, James H. and Brian David Johnson. Vintage Tomorrows. New York: O’Reilly Media. 2013.
[iii] Pho, Diana M. “Objectified and Politicized: The Dynamics of Ideology and Consumerism in Steampunk Subculture” in Steaming into a Victorian Future, edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Cynthia J. Miller, 185 – 210. London: Scarecrow Press, 2013.
[iv] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
[v] G.D. Falken has taken an apolitical stance on the subject of politics in steampunk, while the editors of Steampunk Magazine are decidedly progressive with a radical bent.
Independent scholar Diana M. Pho has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from New York University. In the steampunk community, she is known as Ay-leen the Peacemaker, the founding editor of the award-winning website Beyond Victoriana. Her latest writing can be found in Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism, which publishes this month. You can follow her profile on Academia.edu and her Twitter @writersyndrome.