Is Steampunk intrinsically a fascist aesthetic through a seemingly playful back door?

It’s times like this I feel like I should probably have paid more attention when I skimread the futurist manifesto, and similar bodies of aesthetic fascism. I’m already worried that even that one sentence was enough of a blasé misinterpretation to make the intellectually rigorous run to the hills.

I am probably kidding myself if I believe that people are around here for the intellectual rigor.

Anyway, let’s get some definitions out of the way. Steampunk is essentially an aesthetic/lifestyle subculture focussed on alternate history Victoriana. The punk doesn’t come directly from punk, it comes from cyberpunk. There are however, some shared theses. A home made attitude to creation is approved of, for example.

Steampunk basically imagines a world where we stayed Victorian in style, but developed technology to a point much closer to the present, if not all the way, only using the medium of industrialism rather than computerisation. We’re talking steam driven computers and zepellins. We’re talking cogs as brooches, suede corsets, elaborate pocket watches and waistcoats. Hats with tiny binoculars strapped to the front. Eye patches.

I find it particularly odd, because it seems to detach from any kind of real political statement apart from ‘doesn’t this look cool’. It strikes me as a very ‘pure’ aesthetic. Evolving from the gaslight sci-fi of Jules Verne and HG Wells into a wealth of comics, computer games, gatherings, stories and deviantart home pages. This is one of those proper subcultures. I always smile when I see someone dressed inspired by it.

So where does the fascism come from?

Well. First of all, it’s essentially nostalgia for the era of empire. Idolising the industrial revolution and the Victorian age is like saying ‘wasn’t it great how cool we were when we were annhilating the resources of half the world’. I mean, to be fair, we are still doing that, so I guess you can maybe be nostalgic for when we did it slower?

No. I don’t think it’s a particularly pretty thing to idealise from any perspective. The question comes down to whether you can boil down an aesthetic to just its aesthetic properties. Can you hark back to an era of history without invoking the history of the time? Can you laud the Victorians without celebrating empire?

You get the same problem walking around the V&A, or just about any other London Museum. The treasures of the world, stolen, claimed and encased in glass. Our treasures now. Free for public appraisal. Come and learn about the world, through the eyes of the most refined brigands.

Then there’s techno worship itself. The utopianism of the futurists, written in the praise of industrialisation. Man made free by technology. Again, it’s not far from the philosophy of today. It’s just more visible.

Perhaps that’s the point. Steampunk draws to the surface the underlying political weirdnesses of now. The technoutopianism, the brutal oppression, the way man and machine interrelate.

Only they make it look cool, anachronistic, special.

I don’t know if that’s okay.

Illustration by Henry


About Alex Ava

Joiner of Dots. Player of Games. Unreliable Narrator. Dancing Fool.
This entry was posted in Illustrations by Henry, Questions by Colewelle. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Is Steampunk intrinsically a fascist aesthetic through a seemingly playful back door?

  1. Pingback: Unstruck | 62Stockton *

  2. Septimus says:

    My, my, you do seem to be overthinking this don’t you.

    Perhaps Steampunk is more about people who enjoy each others company and love the anachronistic and inventiveness of the whole scene rather than a hazy form of fascism? Perhaps they merely enjoy dressing up and creating gadgets and props to go with their outfits? Maybe, dare I say, a few are rather fond of pith helmets and goggles.

    Using your ‘logic’ above it would follow that Saxon and Viking re-enactors are all some sort of stealth Nazi’s and anyone who enjoys technology in any form (even pretend sci-fi tech) is clearly a resource eating industrialist who cares not for the world around him.

    I can only assume an element of trolling is present here. Although of course, applying your logic here again, trolls are from Norse mythology, Norse are a branch of the Germanic family tree and thus, quite clearly you are a back-door Nazi… also you appear to be using a resource eating computer to post your painful and ill defined musings, thus you are an industrialist…

    My evidence for these remarks is as sound as yours of course.

    How very entertaining. Do carry on old chap.

    • Will do!

      I’m fairly certain I was being trolled with the question in the first place.

      As it is, I think I stand by what I say. It’s clearly just an aesthetic choice, but its interesting to think about the ramifications of those aesthetics. It depends on whether people are looking just at the look, or at the implications beneath it. I personally think the look is pretty awesome, though it doesn’t quite suit me (alas).

      It’s also worth noting that you’re making a fairly accurate connection, perhaps accidentally. The Nazi’s were very much into the idea of reclaiming native germanic mythology and using its iconography to reinforce their own silly costumes. With their ‘hornpunk’ aesthetic, I’m pretty sure most of them just enjoyed dressing up in trim uniforms with plenty of eagles and skulls and suchlike. Maybe, I dare say, a few of them were rather fond of metal helmets and sturdy boots?

      I’m pulling your leg, I promise.

      Thanks for your comments. You’re almost certainly right on every count. Especially the overthinking.

  3. Septimus says:

    Fear not dear sir, there was more than a little tongue in cheek in my responce I can assure you 😉

    My comment on the Nazi misuse of their ‘Germanic’ heritage stemmed from thoughts of the recruitment posters the Third Reich used in Scandinavia that depicted a German soldier and Viking side by side and their subversion of several symbols including the swastika – which, ironically, has an Indo-European origin.

    Alas, such propaganda has been misused by many cultures and many countries and will be again no doubt.

    I feel sure your name can now be removed from the execution list for when we do seize control and force steam power on the world. I will put a good word in for you with High Command 😉

    Yours, etc.

  4. Jyesthi says:

    I think you’re way off-base there. There is neither a nostalgia for an ‘age of empire’ neither for a technoutopianism. Rather the steampunk aesthetic, which is, as you say rather inconsistently, ‘pure’ for its emptiness of political content, is a form of neo-romanticism in which the technology of today is disparaged for its inhumanity and lack of aesthetic appeal. The appeal of steam technology in particular is a uniquely a combination of the visceral and carnal, and the classical and abstracted. It is both sensual and nonviolently ‘progressive’. Taking it for what it is, it’s excessively far-reaching to attribute to it the political ideology of futurism, the doctrine of progress and early fascism. The technoutopia of steampunk, if it can be called that, is a unification of the forces of nature and man’s artifice. It is in effect a rebellion against forms of prevailing real-life technology that omit a reliance on the earth, the elements and natural forces.

    • I don’t think I over-reach any more than you do!

      First off, I was given a pretty leading question, so I had to push for a connection somewhere. I stand by the problematic nature of nostalgia for the victorian era, which I think is implicit in the aesthetic, though I’m also fairly certain that nobody does steampunk because they long for slavery and exploitation. They may do it for the exploration and invention though, which was intertwined with the former.

      The fascism and techno-utopianism is much more of a stretch though.

      As for my contradiction, I think most people get into steampunk as a ‘pure’ aesthetic, and rarely for political reasons (though if they do, some of the ones you list are much more likely to be their credo than what I suggest). However, I was asked about the aesthetic itself, not the culture, and I think you can stretch the semiotics of an aesthetic in any way you choose. It’s initial emptiness, if anything, makes it more ready for this kind of (mis)treatment. So yes, I’m talking nonsense, but I’m talking valid nonsense.

      And that makes everything you say valid as well. Rejecting modern technology in favour of technology that is more direct and understandable. That makes sense.

      Though I still think for most people it’s more a case of ‘that looks cool’ than anything else.

      Of course, it is helpful that it does look cool.

      Thanks for stopping by and dropping your thoughts in. Is much appreciated

  5. nahtanadam says:

    Have you ever read China Mieville, particularly Perdido Street Station?

  6. appleofdiscontent says:

    Both fascism and steampunk envision a society of capitalism without capitalism–an explosion of industrialization with no purpose, an end to itself. But fascism, in real life, has to have something to do with all those tanks. Steampunk, as fantasy, can avoid this reality. Steampunk is the fantasy of fascism.

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