Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Steampunk in Progress

Raw notes instead of a post. From a 2008 New York Times article:
"...steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines."
Steampunk Cat pictured here, is sold by Citrus Tree on Etsy. What's funny is that, in general, in its literary manifestation and in all of those blog sites where young men are wearing bowler hats and vests, steampunk is not an aesthetic that appeals to me ---though I like the cat a lot--- and I'd guess that if I had to name the quality that limits its appeal, it would be weightiness: the encumbering gravity of the diving helmet, the Victorian petticoat and boots, the frocks (not all steampunk aficionados are into the dress up end of this). In the article, Jake von Slatt, the proprietor of something called The SteamPunk Workshop, says that steampunk "is the intersection of technology and romance," but this doesn't quite do it, because the Romantic aesthetic and the steampunk mise-en-scène do not quite coincide. But the connection to the victorian era is obvious: HG Wells, Verne, the steam engine, in short, the age of industrial marvels, beasts of machines that snorted, clanged, and and changed the view of the landscape forever (dirigibles, trains, and the diving bell all had profound effects on how one could experience the landscape, and so, one's sense of existence). There is an old book, part of a PBS series, Shock of the New (now revised), that talks about this, but it is about modernism, the antithesis (at least on the surface) of the aesthetic of steampunk. Not to overstate the obvious, but steam is the crucial element here, bespeaking all manner of archetypes of the elemental (fire and water), the transformational (the evaporation of water into hot steam), breath made visibile (and so, the life force of human and machine is linked), obscurity and loss/being lost (fogged mirrors, engine rooms, factory floors, all full of steam pouring out everywhere, mmm... Toni Morrison would have a field day with this, given what she wrote in her Nobel Lecture on whiteness and the literary imagination. Note to self: think about this, seems very fruitful). And of course, the beasts, black against their white breath, the iron horses of the rails, grey dirgibles with flame in their bellies. Most of the reading I've done seems to claim that steampunk rests on one contrafactual: the internal combustion engine is never invented; everything else, though, is fair game. (But does this really mean that we'd all still be in hobnail boots ? What of the women of steampunk ? Back to the corset and bustle ?) The answer, over at a blog I found while pursuing these musings, Daily Steampunk , is, to my despair, yes, if you take the corset pictured here to be typical, as also the unfortunate term "steampunkettes." So I need to do some serious research, that is, for any of you twenty-somethings and below reading, from real databases not found via Google, sources from vetted journals and articles, and see what's being written on this. To my mind, "steampunkettes" not withstanding, this seems to be a very male place to play, very rigid, very heavy. Maybe this is not being fair to the second half of the compound, the "punk," which is often an autopilot signal for subversive or counter-cultural, but it seems there is a lot of reinscribing of norms here. This is not polished thinking at all; writing late again, too late to read the book I bought when I thought I'd have time to read (sigh). Finally reading The Dogs of Babel. Seven pages in.
PS I like the cat because it is not Victorian. In fact, it has the feel of Newark, NJ, when you fly in over all those flaming and smoking oil refineries at twilight. It has that feel, a different one, to my mind, than corsets and pocketwatches. Is anyone still with me ?

1 comment:

Steph Mineart said...

Yep, still with you. You've put your finger right on much of my discomfort with the idea of steampunk - I had an initial attraction to the general concept, until I started to see it applied by various artists and it became clear that their interpretation included things that mine didn't. Like corsets. And misogyny. Not at all sure how the lack of combustion engine would left us stuck with either of those.

I think the general zeitgeist shifted from being a fun examination of victorian-esque design style (think the inside of the Scrumptious factory on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - wonderful) to being another costume nerd/ren faire geek trope.