Helena Esser studied Anglophone Literature and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, from which she graduated with a BA thesis on retrofuturist feminism in steampunk literature and an MA thesis on female identity in WW1 memoirs. She is currently busy trying to coordinate her many research interests, which include steampunk subculture, cityscapes, cyborgs, and airship pirates, Ouida, WW1 history, Terry Pratchett, and cyberpunk. You can find her on Twitter @EsserHelena
In my last post I outlined in which way the steampunk aesthetic re-imagines and punks the past, using a literary example. Today, I want to examine why steampunks think that building a house on wheels can save the future.
Burning Man, an annual festival or an ‘experiment on community and art’ that takes place in the desert of Nevada, cites among its founding principles ‘radical inclusion, gifting, decommodificaion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, civic responsibility’ and ‘participation’. For thirty years, these values have inspired ‘Burners’ to practice radical self-expression with costumes and often large sculptures that synthesized a variety of aesthetics, but when Shannon and Kathy O’Hare and their crew from Obtainium Works built a 3-storey house on wheels in a distinctly Victorian aesthetic in 2006, they clearly gave new impulses to DIY and maker culture. From here on, steampunk becomes a tangible style, an aesthetic movement, and an active subculture. I have already suggested that the recurrence to a Victorian past supposedly filled with adventure, romance, and early science fiction opens up a sort of speculative playground that can be fruitfully mobilized to make statements about the present: A closer look at steampunk ‘making’ can illuminate how the revisionist aesthetic re-purposes Victorian narratives in order to examine, challenge and re-direct our relationship with technology.
Steampunks proclaim to ‘love the machine, hate the factory’- how does that work, and why?
Whereas Babbage and Ure had already described the factory as a productive cooperation of labour and machinery, Karl Marx defined it as ‘machinery organised into a system’ and understood it as a facilitator of capitalism that contributed to the alienation of the workman from his labour: ‘In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. […] In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.’
It is in this spirit that steampunks reject the ‘factory’ as a symbol of hegemonic systems and hierarchies of power, particularly capitalist ones, while at the same time venerating the machine as a product of individual artisanship and skill in a neo-Ruskinite spirit. Much like the Arts and Crafts movement, steampunk recognizes manufacture and craftsmanship as domains of human agency and dignity, and utilizes a historical aesthetic to resist ‘the factory’, here consumer culture and the mass market. They do so in order to ‘rediscover the inherent dignity of created objects’, according to Professor Calamity in his aptly named column, My Machine, My Comrade. Cultural historian James Carrott even goes so far as to claim that ‘playing with the past can help us find our souls again.’
Clearly, the Victorian design aesthetic as perceived by the steampunks- brass, wood, ironwork, copper, steel, clockwork, etc – in a way faintly resonates with debates about labour and agency, particularly the voices of Ruskin, Morris and Marx. It therefore becomes an inter-textual shorthand in which to encode concerns of the present. The Catastrophone Orchestra puts it this way in its seminal column: ‘Colonizing the Past so we can Dream the Future.’ In their manifesto, the group states: ‘First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. […] It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics. [S]teampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages and even dies.’
Steampunk objects and machines are physical. They are tangible, bulky, and even clumsy. They are alive, emotional, and full of (dangerous) possibility – unlike the sleek, streamlined devices of the digital age. Rebecca Onion has suggested that through ‘recovery of the everyday danger of interacting with volatile objects, steampunk practitioners desire to re-engage with the physical world, subverting the sterile and safe relationships they perceive to exist between people and objects in contemporary society.’ Considering that in cosplay, steampunks seem to have a fondness for the mad scientist archetype, or the explorer, for re-imagined impossible flying machines and jet packs, this seems certainly plausible. As Diana Pho explains in Vintage Tomorrows: ‘Modern science fiction tell us: ‘Oh god, don’t go build giant robots. They’ll kill us all!’ But Victorian science fiction says: Yay! Let’s go build giant robots! Oh shoot, they killed us.’’
Alongside this desire to revive a sense of adventure when it comes to discovery, progress and making, steampunks derive a sense of certainty from the tangibility of created objects. Today’s technology is recognized as powerful, but fragile. “We love what our devices do, but they’re cultural blanks”, says cultural historian James Carrott. “They’re empty. If you drop your smartphone in the toilet, it goes from magical communication node and life repository to useless piece of glass.” Alienated by today’s industrial design aesthetic, steampunks reject the smooth, seamless and impersonal surfaces of digital technology, referring to them as “something that doesn’t look like a machine”. A smartphone, once it is turned off, is just a brick. Activated, it is a black box animated by hidden circuits and abstract sparks, its processes removed in an invisible digital dimension.
A steampunk machine, however fantastical, ideally offers at least the promise of accessibility: ‘The Victorians’, says steampunk writer Cherie Priest, ‘thought if you were going to make a giant death ray killing machine, it should fill an entire room and it should be gorgeous and it should have a million levers and buttons that don’t even do anything they just look cool, but it should look like a giant death ray killing machine.’ How much of this romantic vision is indebted to early cinema and the nostalgic designs of, for example, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a topic for a different essay, but Priest neatly sums up the steampunk spirit of enthusiasm and irony that fuels its maker culture: Perceiving that slick, shiny and streamlined devices lack a sense of humanity, steampunks seek to replace sheer functionality with creations offering a sense of “humor, history and humanity”. The Catastrophone Orchestra states: “The machine must be liberated from efficiency and designed by desire and dreams. The sleekness of optimal engineering is to be replaced with the necessary ornamentation of true function. Imperfection, chaos, chance and obsolescence are not to be seen as faults, but as ways of allowing spontaneous liberation from predictability of perfection.”
For steampunks, digital technology as such is as marvelous and indispensable as to anyone else, but they think the packaging should reflect the power and brilliance of the device itself. In their eyes, the ‘Apple principle’, that is the design aesthetic of sheer functionality, visually encodes a computing device as a replaceable and disposable commodity, not a sublimely intricate device. To them, analog surfaces and technologies signify a more ratable connection to the real world. “What steampunk does is make you remember just how miraculous it all is”, says Cory Doctorow. Here, clutter and imperfection represent accessibility, vulnerability and individuation.
Steampunks utilize personalized storytelling in order to re-frame and re-centre the relationship between object and user. “I didn’t want culture handed down to me anymore”, says musician Jordan Bodewell, “I wanted to give it back.” In this spirit, community and sharing are important values to steampunks; How-to instructions are shared on youtube, in make forums, at maker fairs, and in magazines, which helps build an opposition to the homogenization of technology. By reclaiming the creative process and sharing knowledge about it, steampunks seek to resist the consumer culture in which only an elite of experts can operate beneath the impermeable surfaces of digital devices and the user is denied access to and understanding of a device he/she relies upon. Steampunk devices highlight the inner workings of machinery, adding coils, wires, light bulbs and clockwork whether it contributes to the functionality or not. In doing so, they produce a counter-aesthetic that is visually interesting and emotionally more valuable to the creator. Underlying this philosophy of resistance and re-crafting as a form of reclaiming agency within consumer culture is a desire to, as Steampunk Magazine founder Margaret Killjoy puts it, “re-develop technology from a more human perspective and with different motivations.”
Another reason why the Victorian design aesthetic proves so productive may be the notion that personalizing an object imbues it with a sense of history and provides an emotional link. It implies longevity and establishes a visual connection to a past in which objects were built to last instead of being disposable. “The nice thing about a slower era”, says Cory Doctorov, “is that you could master a technology before it became obsolete. You can’t do that anymore.”
Steampunk is not about reviving Victorian ideals and forms, but utilizing them in order to build something new and sometimes impossible. Hair dryers may become ray guns, outdated cameras become parts of phonographs or jetpacks, and other fantastical technology that is situated and functional in the logical framework of a made-up alternative past. Steampunks draw on the now seemingly whimsy inventions of the Victorian era, perceiving the first vacuum cleaners, or tea pots with mustache guards as relics of a lost logic, as indicators of a spirit of enthusiasm and faith in progress that inspired the works of Jules Verne and now infuses steampunk’s humorous and sentimental experiments. In doing so, as James Carrott suggests, steampunks create a sense of history for a technology that often feels too futuristic for our own present: “We need that history to understand [technology] and give it meaning in our lives. By creating artifacts of an imagines technological past, steampunk provides narrative roots for the future. […] Steampunk gives our future a past. […] [It] uses history to make sense of the increasing complexity of the technology that surrounds us.”
Bruce Sterling’s User’s Guide to Steampunk formulates it thus: “Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable…. Once they’re gone, they’ll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks, and paper-scrolled player pianos.”
There are many ways in which the Victorian design aesthetic resonates with steampunk makers: It conjures up Victorian debates about labour, craftsmanship and agency that can help build a creative resistance to an impersonal consumer culture. The physicality and volatility of Victorian machines also provides emotional links to a technology that becomes increasingly invisible, and imbues it with a sense of humour and humanity. Love the machine, hate the factory. Or, as James Carrott suggests: ‘[Steampunk] reminds us that we’re still the ridiculous old apes we’ve always been, even though we have all this fancy new stuff.’
For more steampunk, visit the sites included in this blog: