Jonathan Potter, ‘A Box From Another Time’: Reading Steampunk Objects

Jonathan Potter recently finished his PhD at the University of Leicester. He is currently working on a monograph on 19th-century visual technologies and literature. His broader interests include the intersections of literature with the histories of science and technology. He is on twitter.

A Box From Another Time: Reading Steampunk Objects

[…] every antique is beautiful merely because it has survived, and thus become the sign of an earlier life. It is our fraught curiosity about our origins that prompts us to place such mythological objects, the signs of a previous order of things, alongside the functional objects which, for their part, are the signs of our current mastery. For we want at one and the same time to be entirely self-made and yet be descended from someone; to succeed the Father yet simultaneously to proceed from the Father. Perhaps mankind will never manage to choose between embarking on the Promethean project of reorganizing the world, thus taking the place of the Father, and being directly descended from an original being.

Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (New York: Verso, 1996) p.83.


I want to consider a set of instructions for building a box to house a router. These instructions, along with images and a video of the finished product, are published on the DIY website  Instructibles. The box itself is a ‘Steampunk Network Centre’ which houses an adsl modem, router/access point, and network switch inside a faux-antique wooden box complete with decorative brass dials and clock cogs.

A lot has been written about Steampunk already (you can find some helpful starting points here and here if you’re unfamiliar with it) but this Steampunk redesign of computer paraphernalia intrigues me especially because of its position on the intersection of a number of facets of culture.

In her blog post on Steampunk in the classroom, Kathryn Crowther writes that:

Rather than encouraging us to open it up and see, today’s technology forbids us from looking and touching, thereby prohibiting us from learning and reinventing. The appeal of Steampunk, then, points us back to the Victorian age from which it takes its inspiration:  a unique moment in time when technology was rapidly developing, yet it was still open and available to anyone who wanted to tinker, build, or transform existing models into new inventions.

Taking the complex mess of wires and plastic boxes that make up modern desk equipment and turning this into a faux-antique wooden box with brass trimmings and old dials and clock cogs decorating it is an act which, in Baudrillard’s terms, searches for the ‘solidity of old things’. It is a transformation of technology which acts on an invisible level (even wires are becoming obsolete), a level largely incomprehensible to many of its users, into a technology which exists in the tangible, visible world of conventionally understood Newtonian physics. This is signified by the cogs and dials. The wood suggests material honesty, a physicality that one can sense with hand, eye, and even nose, and a sense of simple cause and effect in place of complex machine and chemical processes. If the antique object represents a search for an origin, a mythical ‘Father’ as Baudrillard puts it, then this faux-antique operates in a similar manner despite its complete newness.

One of the most interesting things about Crowther’s blog post on using Steampunk in her teaching is the emphasis on ‘punking’:

The more we engaged with the ideologies of Steampunk, with the notion of “punking” or revising in the sense of re-envisioning and recreating, and with an emphasis on building and craft, the more the class dynamic pushed in the direction of free creativity.

This, it strikes me, is hugely important in understanding the Steampunk object. It is not a return to the past, it is not a genuine search for an origin or a history. Rather, it is a re-imagining of the past, a re-writing of our cultural history. And it is an individualised re-imagining of the past: the Steampunk Network Centre is only available if you construct it yourself, which means that it is always unique to its creator/owner. This is a transformative process in which the functional, mass-produced plastic (an artificial, machine-made material) objects are hidden, aesthetically changed into something hand-made, naturalised, and individualised. As Crowther suggests, it points us back to a period identified as ‘when technology was rapidly developing’ – it is a gesture back to the birth of the computer, the birth of the railway, the birth of audio and visual reproduction, and so on.

But it is only a gesture. Rather than a search for the past, or a search for authenticity through the past, it is more like a re-imagining of the present through an imagined past we wish we had once had. Building objects like the Steampunk Network Centre is thus a physical process that seems to say: ‘Instead of what we’ve ended up with, I wish the past had been like this so that the present would look like this’.

The creativity of it, the free-reign that is given by ‘punking’ the past, gives these objects a freshness and vitality, a feeling of life, which is difficult to find in traditional antique objects. The antique object represents a life once lived, whereas the re-imagined faux-antique represents a potentiality: a possibility from another timeline that has only just been realised for the first time.

The interplay of the imagined past and an implied alternative future gives these objects a unique cultural significance. Authenticity becomes something that is acquired from a past which never existed and offers significance to a present that is, like the future, a potential rather than an actuality. The cogs do not whir, or if they do, they do so to no purpose; the wood only hides, it does not contain. Like the antique, these objects contain no functionality, their purpose is purely to operate as signs. But unlike the antique, these objects do not signify the past, they signify a present in a timeline that could, at least in the logic of the imagination, exist but, of course, doesn’t.

Many of these ideas have been discussed elsewhere – Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall, for example, consider the tangibility of Steampunk technology in their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies that includes Stefania Forlini’s examination of ‘Technology and Morality’ in Steampunk material culture.  But I am intrigued by the place authenticity plays in these re-imaginings of Victorian culture. Why return to the Victorian era when re-imagining the present? Why these particular aspects of Victorian culture – why steam, why brass and wood, why clocks and goggles?

Having recently read Emma Rees’ recent article on ‘Mesearch’, I can’t help but question the assumptions I bring to my research. I am a researcher specialising in the Victorian period; in discussing the Steampunk Network Centre I assume that it is modern, wireless technology which is alienating and that the past is easily understood and imagined. Could these things be linked?

Consider a highly speculative argument that runs counter to, or even alongside, the one I outlined above:

Rather than modern technology causing a feeling of alienation, it is history that is alienating. It seems likely that, by this time, many Steampunk followers will have grown up in a world in which complex, largely invisible, wireless technology is ubiquitous and normative rather than alienating and unsettling. Yet, on the other hand, history can seem distant and, dare I say, irrelevant. This is perhaps especially true for Victorian history, the relics of which can often be overwhelming and sometimes oppressive in their solidity and physicality – for instance, the grandeur of the British Museum, the thickness of canonical Victorian novels, the inadvertently didactic thickness of histories which privilege the Victorians as the venerable forebears of our society.

In this case the dynamic of the Steampunk object changes. Rather than an attempt to hide or transform an unknowable, imperceptible technology into something tangible and comprehensible, could the Steampunk Network Centre represent a way of appropriating a history that is itself perceived as distant, vague, and  perhaps even didactic?

Technology becomes the medium through which a difficult and abstract history is rendered palatable, palpable, and personal – the past is appropriated and rewritten through a recreation and re-imagining of its technology alongside our own. It is, in fact, something like this process that Crowther describes using to teach her students.

This emphasis on technology makes sense in a modern culture in which technologies, and technology companies, are some of the most powerful and obvious driving forces. In this sense, technology, to modern observers, might well seem the most accessible facet of past cultures.

This sense of appropriating history reminds me of another quote from Jean Baudrillard, this time from Simulacra and Simulation (1981, trans. 1994):

Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution – today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references. It is into this void that the phantasms of a past history recede, the panoply of events, ideologies, retro fashions – no longer so much because people believe in them or still place some hope in them, but simply to resurrect the period when at least there was history […][1]

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, your criticisms, your anecdotes, your pointers for further reading, and so on. Comments encouraged below. I am also on twitter.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994) p. 43-4.

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