Monday, June 6

Steampunk 101

I don't know why, but that cracks me up.

And really, yeah, it IS kind of like that, as I understand it. “Steampunk” has recently been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, with the definition "a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advance technology.” Oh, but that definition does not even begin to actually explain the genre. Because Steampunk is at heart make-believe--specifically playing with historical "what ifs" and imagining alternate realities, mixing up the metal and machinery of the Industrial Revolution with modern values and even insecurities. Steampunk celebrates liberty, scientific knowledge, ingenuity and invention. Therefore, it is fascinated with apothecaries, explorers (esp. scientific), inventors and early entrepreneurs, and collectors of oddities and antiquities. Steampunk treats all people as equals, and even allows those disenfranchised by history--or contemporary culture--to be given new voice and place in "history." For example, women and black Americans who participate in Steampunk events often purposefully remake their characters as if their gender/race had not been exploited and overlooked by the white males who were the scientists, explorers, etc. of the time.

Steampunk represents a modern yearning for innocence, when there were still virgin lands to explore, when the limitations of steam engines had not yet been realized, when there were still such things as Gentlemen and Ladies. Even in its materials, the emphasis is on a sort of historical authenticity, but also a desire for what is naturally beautiful and long-lasting: dark wood, brass, copper, iron, luxurious fabrics like velvet and brocade. There is no plastic in Steampunk. I imagine I could write a whole essay on what plastic means to our society--something along the lines of how we cannot help but conform our cultural identity somewhat to the things of which our culture is made, and then cannot help but create more things from this identity. So what happens to our view of ourselves as a cultural collective when we have rejected traditional materials for man-made ones, longevity for instant gratification, the weight and strength and beauty of stone and wood for flimsy, meaningless plastic, that never decomposes, never dies, like sins that can never be forgiven?

OK, sorry, I got a little carried away there. But the ideas and implications of Steampunk I find fascinating. And appealing. So hopefully, even if you are completely confused about what Steampunk is, you got the gist: that it is a genre of ideas that is inspired by, and in turn inspires, everything from philosophy to home decor. So, Steampunk is a style choice for some, wishful thinking for others, a socio-political statement for others. It can be pure fun and whimsy--grown-ups playing dress up and getting together for geeky conventions--or it can be academic and serious, esp. in what its longings say about our view of ourselves in the modern world.

I did not even know what steampunk was until this past year, when I started looking for new clothes on etsy while simultaneously researching kitchen and bathroom fixtures and architectural possibilities for our house. Suddenly in my web browsing I kept running into things I really, really liked, and which had certain consistent themes and textures and materials and looks. And then I realized they were all part of a larger cultural movement, and then I realized--hey, I think Husband Dear and I are steampunk at heart! It is a strange thing, to think you are something unusual and original in your tastes, and then suddenly realize, no, actually, there is already a thriving subculture that you never knew existed but within which you fit perfectly.

Once I knew it existed and started looking for it on the web purposefully, my occasional searches have been fun and fascinating. I have wanted to share some of them with you for a long time, and hope to do so this week. If you have any interest in understanding more of what I mean by Steampunk, you can visit wikipedia or this New York Times article. Or just wait for me to post again!

So, Coming Next. . . Steampunk for Women!

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