Monday, May 25, 2009

Steampunking: What the "Punk" Means To Me Edition

I was thinking about my observations of the local punk scene and that how I understand the punk genre is alienating to me. When I first read the term "gaslamp fantasy" to replace the term "steampunk", it seemed to make enough sense to me in the context of the literary genre.

But the more I looked at examples of steampunk'd work, the less satisfied I became with the term. It seemed dismissive of the amount of effort and thought put into making something which is both functional and beautiful, which is borne from the loving DIY ethic of punk.

If "punk" means anti-establishment, then how does "steampunk" roll? After all, it plays on established aesthetics as a method of visual expression (Steampunk Scholar Gotthammer talks about it here), so where does the rebellion come in?

In my correspondence to Ay-Leen, I said, "Steampunk - leading into gaslamp fantasy - gives us more leeway to explore methods of anti-establishment while playing into established norms. We
steampunkers are out experimenting with MAD SCIENCE and exploring in dirigibles and blowing up local geography with hand cannons and building analog computers and twirling our pocketwatches in a dastardly way..."

"Frills and lace," I continued, "CAN be subversive," because the steampunk adventurer not only has a handy toolkit and weapons arsenal on her person, she can also have a lace handkerchief, and that makes perfect sense.

Steampunk, informed by the cultural artefacts of the past, gives us a chance to engage with the future in a way that is appealing, visually with gold and lace, politically with the fight against imperialism, which has its roots in racism, colonialism, cultural appropriation, and the White Man's Burden.

Steampunk, for me as a minority (whether in Canada or in Malaysia), becomes even more of an investment. Whilst I never felt my ethnic identity to be really threatened in Malaysia, I understood that I was very "Westernized", and this made me an outlier. In Canada, engaged with anti-racism, I see more and more how North America exports its culture to the rest of the world, and everyone else takes their cue from NA. I have no doubt that something similar happened during the era of Empire, except possibly slower because, you know, back in those days there was no Internet, television and reading wasn't really done by the masses.

Steampunk, while certainly deriving some of its appeal from the nostalgia for the past, is politically appealing for the history revisionist aspect of it, from which we imagine better presents. It's appealing to those of us who feel our heritages don't get enough attention by giving us a means to express the race bit of who we are while having a lot of fun at the same time in more "mainstream" ways.

Looking back at that history, I can start to put together a vision of how I want the future to look like, a future that isn't informed by the imperialism and colonialism of the past, a future informed by the anti-racist activism of the present, a future that can hark back to elements of the past and turn to other cultures for inspiration without the attendant societal ills.

Trying to transform the world? Yeah, yanno, that's pretty fucking punk, ya'll.

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