Steampunk as a Cultural Movement

We’ve all heard the “steampunk is an aesthetic” and the “steampunk is a genre” discussions that have been going on recently, but while I would argue that it’s both depending on what you are talking about, I’m not interested in going into detail on that subject. While Cap and I were on our way to get dinner this evening, we were discussing why is steampunk, as a cultural movement, worth fighting for. To begin with, I should probably expound upon why we feel it is a cultural movement.

In our early days on the steampunk scene, we encountered quite a culture of snobbery. It wasn’t ever-present, and it wasn’t everyone. But it was enough to be a real turn-off to the community. People tended to be possessive of geographic areas and didn’t really like seeing new faces on the block. It was really hard to get started in the community, and we had to really ask ourselves why we even wanted to try. After much debate we decided that the push of creativity and the spark of innovation that steampunk seemed to inspire in everyone that came across it was enough to fight for. It was so contrary to the 8 to 5 workday, everyday dole-drum hobbies that even tinkering in the art-form was enough to change the way you looked at everything around you. Your broken bits and baubles became gold, and your arts and crafts classes became a way to express a long repressed desire to create. Once started, we all asked the same question. Why, again, did I stop playing dress-up, and when exactly did I stop seeing the world as a giant canvas for us to paint? It’s those questions that ultimately make this a cultural movement.

Steampunk challenges the idea that make-believe and hand-made creativity should prudently come to an end at the age of 18. The formal end of childhood also marks in our culture the expectation to “grow up”.  At one time, entering science and engineering was a formal way to continue the creativity and innovation of childhood, but in the last 30 years we have seen a marked increase in dogma in those fields as well. Less and less funding has gone to theoretical research and otherwise “alternative” scientific fields. This is doubly true if the field and study doesn’t have an obvious way to turn a profit. With the privatization of scientific research, funneling large sums of cash for the purpose of improving the human race or the understanding of the universe isn’t exactly a priority. Beyond that, the cost of higher education has sky-rocketed, and many people can no longer afford to attend college especially in fields that will require more than four years of study. Traditional art is another option, but it is both highly competitive and requires a natural talent that very few of us possess. Even then, the term “starving artist” is a very real testament to the value our culture places even on the most talented of us.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Those of us who have either already completed our higher education or are not able to start for whatever reason. Those of us who don’t have the drive or the natural talent to strike out as artists. Are we suppose to give up all of our innate creativity in exchange for more practical pursuits? In terms of occupation, maybe. But in terms of hobbies and lifestyles, society would say we are more than welcome to take up jewelry making or soap making or model building or knitting, but those things hardly make a lifestyle. I have found that steampunk often starts just like knitting and model building would, as a hobby. But it involves more than rote mechanics and learning a craft. It engages the imagination. It encourages people to imagine a world that doesn’t exist and to place themselves inside of it. To create their own place and personna in which they play roles that range from princes to janitors in much the same way we created our outlaw worlds in childhood cowboys and indians.

Society frowns deeply on this, and you have to ask yourself, why? The answer isn’t as simple as it may seem. In our travels we have heard a number of reasons why we should “just grow up and stop this”. One, it’s weird. Why? Because it’s not normal. That’s only true because more people don’t do it. Two, it detracts from the normal progression of adulthood. This is true, but the comment assumes that our “normal progression” is a positive and desirable goal. I would argue that it’s not. It stifles cultural, mechanical and scientific innovation at a time when there really isn’t a non-profit driven vehicle for this type of exploration. Three, it’s silly, and you are embarrassing yourself. Well, it is silly, but I’m not embarrassing myself at all. I may be embarrassing you, but I’m doing just fine. And again, the statement assumes that being silly is an undesirable quality. I, again, do not accept this statement. Being silly helps you to retain your sense of humor and calm in a world that is increasingly bleak. Four, and my favorite, aren’t you too old for this? Which brings us back to the original assumption, once you are past 18 years of age, you should no longer be creative or silly in ways that are outside of the established norm. I reject this wholeheartedly for all the reasons I have already stated plus one. The one that answers the question that hasn’t and won’t be asked by those who are disturbed by what we are doing, and that answers how steampunk is a cultural movement.

Those of us, especially those of us who are older, who have embraced the steampunk aesthetic and have involved themselves in the character and world creating genre ultimately find themselves asking the question how did the world that we are living in now get so screwed up? It is inevitable, really. When you start creating worlds in your mind, you can’t help but do so in light of the world you live. You are attempting to either build a better world or to find the ways that it will ultimately fail, depending on how you are looking at your characters. But all roads lead to the same place. They lead you to look critically at the “real” world. Just as in childhood, acting out your conflicts, your inner demons and your fears helped you to cope and to change your responses, so it also works in adulthood. Writers think in this manner as a matter of course, and are often considered some of the most dangerous and influential people in the world. It’s no wonder a genre/aesthetic that encourages and trains people to embrace this mindset might seem disturbing.

In the last year, I have begun to see more and more people embracing this playground, and as they do, I see more and more of them waking up to the reality that they are living in. Every moment of our lives are choreographed and planned according to the dictates of age, race, and class. The odds of breaking free of whatever cycle you were born into are nearly insurmountable, and the society in which we are embroiled has done little to nothing to improve those odds. We have a host of failed and over regulated programs that many of us have begun to wonder if they were ever intended to succeed, or whether they were always meant as a placebo to people that noticed and called for change. From our laughable education and public assistance systems to the empty promise of bettering ourselves through higher education. And by and large, people are trained to look the other way. We are trained to accept as inevitable the oligarchy that this country has become. We accept that our jobs are tenuous and just working is a privilege for which we should be thankful. How far have we fallen even in the last hundred years? We watch with placated eyes as the work our grandfathers fought for is taken from us without so much as a backwards glance. We fight to get ahead for the promise of comfort and security, when neither are even a probable outcome for the vast majority of the populace. We no longer fight for happiness and well-being, but for a bigger house, a nicer car or a new ipod. Happiness is measured by how much money you have in your bank account. To that I have an answer that is often used around the Airship Isabella shop. Money may buy you comfort, but it will never buy you happiness. We have made a conscious choice to live a life where we are happy, and have rejected the idea that success can only be achieved by making the appropriate amount of money. While many have not made the same type of leap, I’m starting to see more and more people reach these same conclusions.

In addition to abandoning the idea that the newest toys are the best toys, today, I am watching as an involved and creative community is starting to turn what they are learning playing games to apply to their real brick and mortar lives. A series of steampunk cultural norms are beginning to emerge and develop by which those in the movement are expected to adhere. Honor, loyalty, respect, free expression, compassion and sharing, especially in the do it yourself/maker aspect of the community. You hear the saying, There are no such things as “trade secrets”. I have seen a return to a community support system, and quiet but real push away from the old snobbery of a few years ago. It has been replaced with a open arms and teach everyone philosophy. While the differences to accepted cultural dogma might not be drastic, the ideals that are being formed are different enough to be considered a real deviation from the norm. As far as a cultural movement goes, by it’s very definition, it is a change or deviation in the way a culture approaches work or thought. We definitely fit that criteria.

This is not to say that the community is without its problems and inconsistencies, but in all honesty, that is to be expected in a movement as young as we are. By the time this sees the public page, some of this will already be outdated. We are growing and changing so fast. But in that break-neck pace, mind-blowing train that is steampunk is a spark that I haven’t seen in my entire life. The encouragement of creativity and inclusive mentality is a positive point of growth for our culture, and that alone is worth fighting for.

Besides, we have better cookies. <wink>