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