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Is Steampunk actually Punk?: Counter-Culture, Revitalization Movements, and Cool Stories Collide!

June 28, 2012

A question came rushing into my head last night while I walked down the street, and it has been plaguing me ever since. That question is a deceivingly simple one: Is Steampunk really Punk?

I found this very simple yes or no question to be shockingly difficult to answer. Like all good questions though, there is some unpacking that we need to do before we can even begin to actually tackle the direct question.

First, what is Punk?

Most people are certainly familiar with Punk rock or Punk music. That collection of fast-paced sometimes angry, sometimes mournful, sometimes actually a little sweet, music supposedly listened to by people with multi-colored mohawks. More than a few people will also be familiar with the idea that that music is a part of a subculture that espouses certain ideals. It prizes the individual perhaps most of all; the individual’s ability to express themselves, the freedom to do so safely, and the ability to vote ‘with your feet,’ (or your dollar or whatever democratic expression you prefer). Not necessarily arrayed against society and order as it often happens to merely be at odds with it due to society’s nature as a constricting inexpressive force.

The punk scene, or subculture or movement or whatever label we choose to give it, is a democratic and theoretically open thing. A free exchange of ideas that supposedly teeters toward the pure expression of utopian anarchy.

Of course, like most groups that claim to be open to all, punk enclaves can be just as close-minded as the groups they seek to differentiate themselves from. They are a counter-culture, and anyone is welcome to make their place in it, if they’re willing to adjust to the rules of the new culture. A problem that can be summed by the classic complaint of the cynic, “Non-conformity is only ok if you non-conform like we do.”

Still, the ideals espoused by Punks are far more important than the actual practice when we begin to talk about [fiction]-punk.

As we creep further down the rabbit hole, we begin to discover that notions of Punk began to seep themselves into various kinds of media; literature, film, animation, and so on. Far beyond the music, and far beyond the contemporary, Punk has become intertwined with visions of the past, and future. The expressive anarchist rocker has made his way to the farthest stars, and across windswept prairies astride machines of his own creation.

It is strange that [fiction]-punk has spread so far, and yet traditional Punk is almost sort of floundering about these days. To some people, Punk died out a while ago, and everything left is just old men who don’t want to admit it or imitators. Of course, as perhaps suggested by the first forays into [fiction]-punk, Punk can’t really die. There will always be individuals, and individuals will always need to express and be.

A quick clarification, when I say [fiction]-punk I am referring to the large body of work that relate the ideals of the Punk counter-culture to fantastic settings. This includes the widespread cyberpunk, and steampunk, as well as the lesser known: retropunk or pulppunk or radiopunk, gothicpunk, electropunk, atomicpunk, dungeonpunk, and so on.

The first was cyberpunk though. Cyberpunk began to explode in the late 80s and early 90s in the pages of science fiction magazines in the west, and the pages of manga in Japan. As modernization increased its speed, and we were truly beginning to feel the difference the transistor made in our technology, mankind was quickly being outpaced by its own creations. At the same time, the world was growing increasingly smaller, corporations were going global, people were becoming concerned with the world around them, and eventually the internet came into being.

It was also a time when the corporation was beginning to be open with the fact that it was larger and more powerful than many nations. While corporations had been writing laws in several countries for some time, it had only been within the past decade or so of the cyberpunk explosion that no one was trying to hide it anymore. This coupled with the materialism of the 80s in America that was quickly beginning to peak, and the economic booms happening elsewhere, created a time period when it seemed that the individual was going to be subsumed by the institutions he had constructed.

Thus came the envisioning of the individual’s worst fears in the cyberpunk dystopia. Unlike traditional dystopias, like we saw in 1984 or Brave New World, in which the control was in the hands of an all encompassing State, the cyberpunk dystopia was controlled by mega-corporations with the State little more than a puppet. People were cubicle drones, possibly indebted to the corporations in exchange for much-needed cybernetic or genetic enhancements, though not always. Sometimes the cyber in cyberpunk merely came from the all-consuming nature of technology within the setting.

No matter what, a cyberpunk dystopia is aimed toward technology; people eat soy-product while watching a television the size of their wall, they sleep in basement apartments while jacked into some sort of VR-internet, and traverse through streets choked with advertisements to work for the company that makes up 75% of the ads they see. It is a world where the individual is malnourished in every way possible, and that world definitely lacks an authenticity that it tries to make up for with distractions.

Enter our hero.

Sometimes astride some sort of tricked out motorcycle, or merely traversing the miles in a worn pair of Doc Martins, they arrive on the scene as an individual who is at odds with society. Not by some sort of choice to fight the establishment, but because they are The Individual, and their individuality makes them a deviant in the eyes of corporations, it makes them a no-good punk. They fire the first shot against the hero. In some way, the injustice of the world forces the hero to act and try to fight a corrupt system. Sometimes the hero wins, sometimes he discovers that he too is just a pawn of the corporations, or sometimes something worse happens.

Cyberpunk is in some ways the natural response to what was going on at the time. It was abandoned, like many similar ideas of that era, and sometimes going back and reading it or watching it can be difficult because its projections of the future are so entrenched in how computers worked in the late 80s and early 90s. For example, expect for some reason that the far off cyberpunk dystopias of 2084 will still have an obsession with floppy disks. However, the future it showed us is still something that we grapple with, especially as corporations have grown in the intervening time period and technology has rapidly increased. It’s no longer a VR-net that we ponder over, but a reality augmented by computers inside of our minds, the idea that you’ll see a person’s Facebook page when you see them walk by on the street. The idea that you will no longer catcall at a woman but “Like,” or “Upvote,” or “Reblog,” her. The individual’s place in the future is still an uncertain one, and there will always be battles to fight.

Then something weird happened.

We started to connect with the past instances of humanity standing on the precipice of great cultural change, and undergoing grand technological shifts, then inserting the Punk ethos into these wider stories. In a sense, we began to imagine the Punk as an archetype outside of time, if the Punk can exist in the future than he certainly must have existed in the past. The counter-culture, the rugged working class individual, the mad inventor who expresses themselves through science. These were the Punks of ages before, and we could grapple with their struggles through the fantastic.

Thus we see the birth of things like Steampunk and Retropunk.

Much like cyberpunk took modern science and cranked it up to the eleventh power of probability, so too the settings of other [Fiction]-punks worked. Steampunk wasn’t a world where the steam engine was merely the prevailing engine of the time, it was a world where whole cities were powered and fueled by a labyrinth of copper pipes chugging steam through homes and businesses. Retropunk is dominated by electricity, vacuum tubes, and the radio. Genepunk or Genipunk or Geneticpunk is about a world gone absolutely batshit with genetic engineering.

For some reason though, it has been Steampunk that has gained massive amounts of popularity, and a sprawling fanbase. It has, in some sense, even eclipsed the Cyberpunk genre that spawned it. You go to any convention and you’re far more likely to see people dressed in copper tubing and top hats than subdermal neon wiring, goggles, plastic trench coats, or the other strange attire that we expect the counter-culture of tomorrow to wear.

The thing that makes me feel strange about Steampunk though, to return to the original question, is that I have never felt it was particularly punk.

I mean, certainly many of the works that helped spawn the Steampunk culture have focused on the Punk and the sorts of stories that Punk concerns itself with. Yet Otomo’s* great work Steamboy, definitely something that at least helped the genre gain a wider audience, isn’t what often leaps to mind when I (and others) think of Steampunk.

What comes to mind is a fellow like this.**

While this certainly feels expressive, definitely being possessed of the personal flair associated with the Punk community, it makes me reflect on Steampunk as a whole and its relationship to the culture that gave it the latter half of its name. Steampunk enthusiasts often seem to put on airs, partially for humor and partially because it is part of how one must comport themselves at a steampunk gathering. I’m reminded of how Felicia Day described them on The Guild, “They’re sort of the Eurotrash of the Nerd World.” The moment I heard that, I felt it fit. It brought me back to a Steampunk gathering I attended where someone asked for a corkscrew and I offered them my suitable corkscrew/bottle opener combo, and they then looked down their nose and announced that they were looking for a wine key.

Granted, that could just be one pretentious douchebag out of a much larger group, but the fact that many of the people at this gathering were of a similar mind seemed indicative of something about the culture. Of course, as I stated above, a little bit of pretension and close-mindedness comes out of subcultures that pride themselves on open-mindedness and punk attitudes. Still, I don’t find that yearning for anarchy, the feel that the characters of the Steampunk world are chafing under their faux-Victorian rules.

Remember the hero of a Punk story still doesn’t like his society. The hero is at odds with the society because he is something else. He is the individual that society cannot stand. It’s very angsty in a sense.

Whereas Steampunk, Steampunk is a reimagining of the past to better suit the tastes of the present. Sooty Victorian London where everyone wore drab clothing and drabber expressions, is replaced with a whimsical city covered in sprawling copper, fanciful diodes, colorful hats, and zeppelins in the sky. New York City isn’t a bubbling pot of flesh constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding itself, but a world where amongst the steel girders rising to scrape the sky, a steam-powered automatic-carriage navigates windy streets. Tesla wins the popularity contest against Edison, and his earthquake machine is viewed as a great idea.

Steampunk is not a counter-culture or a part of the Punk movement. Steampunk is a revitalization of the Victorian era, including its misunderstandings of physics.

A revitalization movement comes in eras of uncertainty, reimagining a better past to harken back to, while presenting something that really has nothing to do with that imagined past. It’s an attempt to bring us back to something that once was, in the hopes that it will take us away from our current troubles. While the classic revitalization movement was the Ghost Dance that spread across the remainder of Native American tribes in the late 19th century, there are also Cargo Cults in Pacific Islands.

Cargo Cults are groups that, remembering a time when the United States Navy was widely present in the Pacific and more importantly generous to native populations, try to essentially summon the Navy back to them. These groups re-enact their understandings of U.S. Naval procedure, building runways, constructing bamboo air control towers, and marching across this constructed space. Their hope is that by doing this, by harkening back to their past, that they will make a better future.

In America, Britain, and Japan, there are small groups of people that tinker to build copper plated apparel or silver wired jewelry. They match these creations to tight pinstripe suits complete with waistcoats, or multilayered frocks with a cinched waist and flowing skirt. Top hats, bifocaled sunglasses, and so on. Fashion that at first glance seems to be from a previous century but with subtle whimsical differences, or color choices that are thoroughly modern. It’s almost there but clearly not.

These groups meet to discuss their creations, how to make things seem more authentic but yet still ultimately functioning off of modern technology. I remember a man at a steampunk gathering who was trying to build his camera to look like one from the late 19th century. Yet inside of this large box of copper and wire, was a digital camera. He was ritualistically performing the same actions that a photographer of the 19th century would perform, but with no other purpose than to mime them.

He does this to escape into a better, more interesting world.

This is not to call him delusional, or crazy, or maladjusted. It’s stating a fact, his escapist fantasy is a world where Victorian presumptions about science were correct, and machinery was based around a whimsical interpretation of steam-power. He imagines and creates a better world, and it is not an oppressive world that seeks to stifle the individual, but one that runs on the creativity of individuals to propel society forward into new and exciting realms of possibility. That kernel of a positive future that held from the late Victorian through Edwardian, and overall Modern time periods, is still present within Steampunk.

This isn’t the post-modernist cyberpunk that worries about the individual being stomped out by the heel of a megacorporation or the State. This is a group of people that have reimagined the world as a place where creativity, science, and fashion meld together to create something new. They are people who are trying to grapple with their respective countries various industrial revolutions, and the vast social changes that occurred then.

By framing their own social issues within the escapist revitalized past, they are better able to create a continuum of social change that helps them imagine and perhaps even construct a better future for themselves.

After suggesting that this idea of Steampunk being a revitalization movement means that it is not Punk, I realize I may have been too hasty. I wonder, quite suddenly, if it is merely a Punk Utopia. Whereas other flavors of Punk are about grappling with the individual’s place against his own institution, and the almost inevitable conflict that will exist between them, perhaps Steampunk is about the Punk in a world that is anarchic and truly expressive. A world where the Punk won.

While I will state that Steampunk as a revitalization movement, and Steampunk as part of the wider Punk subculture, are not mutually exclusive, I personally am still inclined to say that Steampunk isn’t punk.

I say this largely because Punk is a counter-culture, it is the thing that rises up when society pushes too hard against the individual. There are Steam Punk stories, where the emphasis is upon the individual who is being harassed by society or man’s other created institutions, and the trappings are leather jackets, steam engines, and far too much copper. Yet Steampunk as its own culture, as its own grouping, seems very distinct from the media and movement that helped spawn it. Largely because, as I said, it only appears on the surface to come from these sources.

Certainly, Steam Punk fiction helped to popularize the fashion and encourage us to reimagine the eras. Yet, Steampunk is much more about the steam than the punk. It’s about returning to an age now gone, an age that could have been far more impressive if only things had worked in certain ways…

 

I’d like to take a moment at the end of this to state that despite what I write here and the approach I’m taking, I don’t dislike steampunk. Hell, I think it’s one of the cooler genres out there, and I find the fashion to be somewhat delightful. I too was long fascinated by the Victorian era, and enjoy putting on the humorous, almost ironic, airs of a member of the gentry from that time period. I just never got a particular Punk vibe from something that has punk in the name and decided to air this grievance

I’m also more than open to dialogue on this subject, since I after all am merely an ethnographer and not a member of the culture.

 
*: You may be familiar with Otomo’s other work, Akira, a major entry into cyberpunk.
**: This is my friend Tom, he is a pretty awesome dude, and a picture of him as the epitome of Steampunk can be taken however you please.

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