Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Steampunking: Politics Edition, A Response to Dru Pagliasotti

I read Ms. Pagliasotti's essay a while back, upon the recommendation of Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, and meant to make a response sooner, but decided to hold off until I had more to respond to. And I have, which I found in the innocuous description of LJ community steamfashion (which, in itself, is a fabulous community for inspiration when putting together a steampunk wardrobe). The last large paragraph within the profile is as follows:

The "punk" in steampunk is a reference to cyberpunk, because when steampunk first formed it was comprised essentially of cyberpunk (that is, dystopian high tech sci-fi) stories set during the Victorian period. The word punk is a very old English term that originally meant a prostitute, but which by the 20th century had evolved into a term meaning an outsider, a street person, or a ruffian (it's fairly clear why the punk rock subculture used this word to describe itself). There is clearly no link between the people of a steampunk setting and members of the punk subculture (simply because the environment that produced our modern "punks" did not exist during the steam age). For all practical purposes, the "punk" in steampunk is a cute turn of phrase used because it sounds interesting and exciting, without any deeper meaning than that.
Ignoring completely how disingenuous it is, half of it is, simply, plainly, inaccurate. It is true that steampunk grew out of cyberpunk, it is true that the etymological root of the word stems from being an outlier, but to say that there's no link between steampunk and the main punk subculture?

There is one. I'll grant you that it's a pretty weak link and there's not much that's political about this link, but it's there, and to say that its weak links thus strip all political messages from the steampunk genre is to ignore what the original punk subculture was trying to do in the first place. The punk subculture broke off into several factions - the two most relevant ones to steampunk would be the cyberpunk genre and the goth subculture. Stephen H. Segal wrote in Fantasy Magazine, "A lot of kids in today’s steampunk music & style scene used to identify with the goth aesthetic."

The next claim I want to tackle is the idea that the environments which created the punk culture did not exist in the Victorian Age. My first reaction was "wth? Have you people no sense of history?"

Going back to the very basics of the punk subculture, punk arose from a sense of anarchy, individuality, anti-conformity. This was during the 60's (punks eschewed the colourful happiness of the hippies) and even today, punks exhibit the same can-do (though the term is a lot more chirpier), anti-establishment attitudes, with varying attitudes and motivations.

Why would anti-establishment, anarchist attitudes exist? Because the systems in place are oppressive.

Now let's have a look at the Age of Victoriana - the boom of the Industrial Revolution leading to a working class mass that was oppressed (just what punk is fighting), the sexual repression which found its outlets underground (just like punk!), a rising middle-class bourgeoisie that became dissatisfied with being only ignored by the status quo (many punks come from middle-class / working class backgrounds), the imperialism and Age of Empire beyond England's fair borders (hmmm, wasn't America trying to do something funny during the 60's?).

So, when I hear stuff like "we use it because it's cute but it has no deeper meaning", I raise an eyebrow and all sorts of tags appear in my head: shallow, superficial, the opening to cultural appropriation, easy to please, easily misled, meaningless.

Between "steampunk" and "gaslamp fantasist", I think the latter sounds a hella lot cooler.

We are responsible for the labels we use, what attendant meanings we give them, what we do with these labels. Partly for identification. Partly for solidarity with others who use the same term. Partly because words have power.

Ms. Pagliasotti writes, "Does steampunk really need to take a political position?"

As a feminist, and a woman of colour, in fair North America, within media or on the street, my personal being is fair game for the political statement telling me that white male supremacy has the right to erase me at any time.

In an environment when the personal is political, because the very simple personal desire for autonomy and agency is a powerful political position unto itself, a person who wishes to buy into the aesthetics of an age where imperialists imposed themselves over their own working-class and several other countries beyond their own borders must, at least, question why they are doing so, and what they hope to gain out of it.

And honestly, I think it's fine if all they want are the pretty clothes and the genteel manners. I want those too. But I expect more than just pretty clothes, genteel manners, and nostalgia for the past. The age of Victoriana had a great deal to offer us politically, if we dare.

As an Asian from a colonized country (Malaya), living in yet another colonized country (Canada), thinking with a colonized mind, and working within a fandom that's very much a white colonial space where I am a colonial minority, I don't get the privilege of ignoring the politics of steampunk.

Which is fine and all, because I believe the politics of steampunk, informed by everything we know today, could help us shape a future that is a lot prettier than the bridge of the USS Enterprise.

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