mirrorshard: (Default)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
Further to the paperblogging in my con report, there's a really interesting essay on steampunk & colonialism here.

There are basically two steampunks - I'll call them the Morlock and Eloi trends. The first is about all the incredibly cool things the Sons of Martha can do, hacking metallurgy and thermodynamics and then decorating the results with random twiddly bits Because You Can, while the second is about poncing around in interesting costumes with shiny brass accessories, and generally being a Victorian Gentleman (or Ungentle Lady).

They can both be read as responses to a highly abstracted technological environment, either knowingly (punk versus goth - react to an ontological threat by spitting in its eye, or by dancing on the volcano) or unknowingly (two different and equally valid ways of Having Fun).

I think there's some perceived difference in the nature of that ontological threat, though. To the Morlock trend, it's out to destroy their agency - their ability to build, modify, control, or subvert the world around them. I'm less sure about the Eloi, though. Anyone care to venture an opinion?

(crossposted from DW)

Date: 2009-05-09 06:54 am (UTC)
ext_15862: (Default)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
I can see the appeal of being courteous, mannered, precise and dressing to look good. There can be a pleasure in the formality of a tea party.

I could see some appeal in being a Victorian lady (as long as one had money, of course).

Date: 2009-05-09 10:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Oh, no disagreements there. It's just the potential ickiness of the precise trope used - and while that's easy enough to subvert for us, I'm told that others have difficulties. Hell, I have enough Welsh-working-class difficulties with being an English gentleman myself.

Date: 2009-05-09 10:25 am (UTC)
ext_15862: (Come with me if you want to live)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
I view it in the same light as the Society for Creative Anachronism. One accepts that the Middle Ages were not really like that, but it's still fun to pretend.

All tropes have hidden ickiness, except those that pretend to impossible utopias.

PS. What's the costume in the icon? (Makes me think of tok'ra)

Date: 2009-05-09 10:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Mm, I'm familiar with the SCA thing, but I still have trouble getting away from it in the here-and-now - I think of it in the same way as Blake's dual-vision thing. I can see what they want, aspire, to be, at the same time as looking at the material culture and the signifiers attached to it. In a way, it's crippling, but interesting.

All tropes have hidden ickiness, except those that pretend to impossible utopias. I'd argue that the way to get around that is to problematize the ickiness and drag it out into the open, really.

The costume - I'm not really familiar with the screen version of the original, but it's an iconized version of Sabalom Glitz from Doctor Who.

Date: 2009-05-09 11:07 am (UTC)
ext_15862: (Default)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
All tropes have hidden ickiness, except those that pretend to impossible utopias. I'd argue that the way to get around that is to problematize the ickiness and drag it out into the open, really.


Depends on your reason for doing it in the first place. We all need escapism sometimes. As there are no real worlds without ickiness, it is occasionally necessary to invent ones without.

Sometimes I read fiction to be challenged and enlightened. Sometimes I read it for a bit of fun.

Date: 2009-05-09 06:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] strangederby2.livejournal.com
Maybe attacking the threat by smothering it in nostalgia.

Date: 2009-05-09 08:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] valkyriekaren.livejournal.com
Interesting. I've recently got a little bit into Steampunkery after making some costume pieces for Whitby. I wouldn't claim to be particularly knowledgeable about the genre, but I don't really think it's any more sinister than goths dressing up as Victorian gents or medieval princesses. You can ask the same questions that Forthwritten asks in her essay above - where are the syphilitic child-whores among the Vicky-goths? Where are the horny-handed serfs among the knights and ladies?

And actually to an extent I think steampunk does this better - not everyone is a nobleman or a lady adventurer. There's no shame in being the cabin boy on the pirate airship, or the greasemonkey on the submarine. (My own developing steampunk 'character' is a little subversive, in fact - a spy/mercenary who's brought herself up from poor beginnings with intelligence and deviousness, attended by a non-too-bright but burly ex-army chap of shadowy but undoubtedly aristocratic origins - that'd be [livejournal.com profile] d_floorlandmine).

I'm sure there are some right-wing elements with dreams of empire, but then I've encountered that in other subcultures too - including goth, punk and SF.

Date: 2009-05-09 09:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] valkyriekaren.livejournal.com
Also (sorry for the multiple comments, adding thoughts as I come to them), the DIY aesthetic is very appealing. I'm just about old enough to remember what goth was like in the mid-90s, before it was possibly to buy a corset off eBay or on the high street, and how people would buy vintage and secondhand clothes, or cheap skirts and shirts from hippy shops, and trim, tailor and dye them to create an outfit. It wasn't about having the most flamboyant outfit or the most expensive period-authentic dress, it was about creativity. And while I love playing dress-up, I'm also an inveterate bargain hunter who will get more pleasure out of a £5 charity shop jacket that I've changed the buttons on and added some lace to, than a silk brocade corset I've spent £300 on. And steampunk harks back to that - because it's a small subculture and the clothes aren't mainstream, people get creative with what they have.

The Arts & Crafts movement is definitely a big influence in terms of ethos (whatever Cory Doctorow says). "Have nothing you do not know to be useful nor believe to be beautiful," William Morris said, and that definitely comes through. Functional objects such as goggles, scientific instruments, bags and clothing made of beautiful materials, embellished and made with love and care, not mass-produced and stamped out of a mould. (There's also something pleasingly subversive about taking something that was stamped out of a mould, like a water pistol or mobile phone, and making it look old and precious). And there's a make-do-and-mend aspect to it - recycling old/obsolete things such as broken clock parts, keys or bottles into new and exciting things. A reaction to disposable culture, if you like.

Date: 2009-05-09 10:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Oh, totally! I think what Doctorow is missing is that every reaction to a cultural trend comes in two parts, technological and artistic. (Cf. modernity vs modernism, or is it the other way around... I can never remember.) They can't get away from each other, but they're not pulling in the same direction or with the same goals.

Don't apologise for commenting! Your perspective on this is very interesting. Have you seen this thread (http://freakangels.com/whitechapel/comments.php?DiscussionID=1412&page=1) on Whitechapel?

Date: 2009-05-09 09:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] claudacity.livejournal.com
perhaps for the eloi, the ontological threat constructs some kind of reality they're stepping out of? ok, maybe that's just writing the definition of ontology large, and I'm rather poorly informed about this. one of my friends has just finished an undergrad dissertation on punk and queer theory, and that's part of his argument (stepping outside constructs).

Date: 2009-05-09 10:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] claudacity.livejournal.com
oh right, I've read the linked piece on colonialism (it's great and almost relevant to my exam on colonial Burma) and now the question you posed makes a lot more sense! I quote a comment on that post, "it's an interrogation of modernity."

Date: 2009-05-09 10:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Mm, which is a much nicer way of putting it than "escapism".

I can see the stepping-outside-constructs thing - Punk is all about not letting someone else set the rules for you. Cf. Hakim Bey and TAZ, I think, though that's more a Carnival sort of thing.

Date: 2009-05-09 03:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] redcountess.livejournal.com
Having a brief scan of the post you linked to, I would like to make the point that a lot of Steampunk, at least originally, seems to have been inspired by such Victorian ideals as invention and exploration. And while there was a lot of exploitation, Imperialism and "down 't pits", there were also a lot of people who were trying to make the world a better place for everybody, Dickens, Prince Albert, Brunel, etc. Steampunk seems to also has a lot to do with the frontier spirit of the Wild West in the USA.

Date: 2009-05-09 05:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arkady.livejournal.com
The attraction, for me, is that whole "Frontier spirit" ethos (also the reason why I love Joss Whedon's Firefly). We've run out of frontiers. There are no more places that are unknown. Nowhere left to explore. Everywhere has been settled, mapped, photographed and turned into a tourist destination.

Date: 2009-05-09 05:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] redcountess.livejournal.com
That's a big attraction for me, I love the Steampunk that Doc and the train was in Back To The Future III even though I don't think the term had been coined back then.

Date: 2009-05-09 05:02 pm (UTC)
reddragdiva: (Default)
From: [personal profile] reddragdiva
WTF. Someone is trying way too hard to be a douse.

Date: 2009-05-09 05:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dasquian.livejournal.com
Fascinating articles, and discussion.

I always thought steampunk was compelling simply because of the sheer narrative potential the industrial advances and colonialist era provides: both for "non-fantasy" fiction and the escapist, fantastical fiction we actually associate with the name.

I agree that technology is key to the genre, which is why I'd disqualify Mary Poppins (in particular, as it was mentioned in your paperblog) as a potential ancestor of it simply because that story is children's fantasy in a Victorian setting. That makes me wonder what your Eloi trend actually is - does it require a Morlock-inspired setting or mindset to be separate from Victorian roleplay/culture?

To answer your question about the Eloi ontological threat: I would speculate that, like much other fantasy/sci-fi, it's the closing of doors and lack of adventure the mostly-explored, increasingly depressing modern-world with its infrequent and generally uninspiring technological jumps presents. Where the Morlock wants to retain control of their ability to create, and creates something specific in the steampunk theme to prove that they have, the Eloi is happy to simply revel in the steampunk genre (perhaps particularly in "generic steampunk" which hasn't been taken anywhere specific?), when things were (perceived) hopeful, the enterprising spirit was in full (perceived) force, and Things were waiting to be Discovered.

Well, that turned into a bit of a ramble. I hope I correctly understood what you meant by Morlock and Eloi trends, and that my speculations on the motivations of the latter (as someone who mostly enjoys fictions from the former) hasn't fallen too wide of the mark!