Thinking about my contributions for “Steampunk Hands Around the World” this year made me reflect upon my time spent in the community. There have been highs and lows, and admittedly enough, I had no idea how much my life would change in the past eight years because of this aesthetic and the creative community inspired by it. One of the reasons why I have stuck around has been the belonging I have found through the people, places, and things we have created.
A few years ago in graduate school, I took a class called “Performance of Everyday Life”, which interrogated how we understand ourselves and the way we move through the world as acts of performance. From religious ritual to amateur hobbies, from gender roles to cosplay, from sports to clubbing to fashion — what all of these activities have in common is the idea of how different levels of theatricality, presentation, and action is incorporated into our daily identities.
My final paper was an ethnographic study contemplating making and community spaces in New York City and the convention scene. Reading this over, I see how this can be interpreted as a counterargument of a recent critique of the maker movement written in The Atlantic. Unlike The Atlantic‘s critique of the capital-driven, competition-oriented DIY movement, I think steampunk community’s values provide an alternate view to making which is tied into group identity and fostering spaces of non-competitive creativity that values both traditional masculine and feminine arts. Artistic camaraderie endows the steampunk object with affect value that grows into something greater than the object itself. Though it was written in 2012, and some of the steampunks featured in this article I have lost touch with or left the community for one reason or another, this essay overall embodies many thoughts I have about the inherent beauty of creation and sense of home I get with fellow steampunks. This is, more than anything, a love letter to an art movement.
I’ll be posting a new part of this essay every Sunday this month.
Objects footnote meaning into people’s lives, and for steampunks, this is especially so. Steampunk subculture first emerged from fiction, drawing upon 19th century scientific romances, historical records, pulp novels, penny dreadfuls, and other forms of low-brow literary sources as its primary form of inspiration. In recent years, however, the steampunk aesthetic has evolved into a lived lifestyle and a visual subculture. Steampunk subculture today has placed an increased importance upon steampunk “objects”: namely, clothes, fashion accessories, prop weapons, artworks, and music.
More than just passive consumerism, steampunks also create and distribute their own self-produced subcultural products; the steampunk “prosumer” – in reference to futurist Alvin Toffler, who coined the term1 – problematizes the capitalist system, and this challenge to capitalism is one of the many qualities that have labeled this aesthetic movement as being subcultural. Moreover, the use of technologically-enhanced media centered around the steampunk object – in the form of blogs, websites, online zines, and virtual communities – creates what Benedict Anderson calls an imagined community: by which, with the aid of print media (and online media, in this case) a physically disparate group of individuals formulate a sense of collective identity which can be politically utilized. In fact, the growth of the steampunk community is also tied into a productive imagination that draws motivation from steampunk’s literary sources to build real things. This process can be compared to an actualization of Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary chronotope, “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.”2 In steampunk subculture, the literary becomes literal in its engagement with reality.
When speaking about a steampunk lifestyle, then, it is important to recognize how much the community values the actualization of the imagination through the creation and maintenance of steampunk objects. When speaking of a lifestyle, quotidian practices are coupled with materialism, and inside the steampunk subculture, mundane mechanical tools are transformed into signifiers: the toothed cog, the interlocking gear, a pair of goggles, rust and copper, brass and mahogany. Yet how can we evaluate the meanings behind these signifiers as part of a larger social or ideological framework?
As Dick Hebdige argues, subculture is constructed out of a language of signs to be read within style, and he suggests the existence of a subversive coding where challenges to hegemony are expressed in stylistic choices. To Hebdige, style is weaponized, and the body becomes an ideological battlefield those struggles happen on a quotidian level: “a struggle for possession of the sign which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life.”3 The sign today, however, is a broken one, whose meaning is interrupted in today’s postmodern, post-industrial world. Style has for the most part lost its ability to signify in part because of the impact of the mediatized image and consumerism speeding up the disassociation between the sign and its meaning; as David Muggleton observes, “Perhaps the very concept of subculture is becoming less applicable in postmodernity, for the breakdown of mass society has ensured that there is no longer a coherent dominant culture against which the subculture can express its resistance.”4 In the postmodern desert of the sign, where can meaning be derived?
I propose an alternative way of viewing the object in subculture and the meaning of its signification. Rather than nit-picking over the interpretation of signs, and thus flattening the object into a mere image, I will focus on the creation of the object itself in all of its dimensions, a turn toward form over function as a doorway that we walk through into a lifestyle without any particular ideological claim.
As Pierre Bourdieu notes in his work on habitus, a lifestyle cannot be assessed merely through material calculation, but in the engagement of the material with the embodied: “The world of objects, a kind of book in which each thing speaks metaphorically of all others…is read with the whole body, in and through the movements and displacements which define the space of objects as much as they are defined by it.”5 Signifiers of a lifestyle mean nothing without recognizing the history that comes with their creation. These aspects embody a lifestyle of the everyday, and thus, taste cultures can be defined not in terms of ideological or social standpoints, but by the imaginative space generated by subcultural objects that translate into lived experience.
Through analyzing what would constitute a steampunk lifestyle, not only it is a matter of evaluating the social manifestations of its style, but it is also recognizing the habitus that is partly created by the impact of objects in everyday life. Aesthetic objects in steampunk in particular exist to enrich the participants’ lifestyle by evoking an alternate temporal and spatial reality apart from the larger world. Citing Adorno, aesthetic scholar Sandra Corse refers to the everyday, usually utilitarian-oriented objects as “craftworks” that symbolize the value of individualized human relations in an alienating, mass-produced world:
“What they offer the public is an alternative aesthetic (even when the actual object may be similar), an item that has been shaped by human hands rather than machines, that has been individually designed and planned by the person who produces it, rather than being produced or manufactured by machines and designed by a person or persons obligated to the profit process of manufacturing. What craft objects offer is an aesthetic value that is related to, though not identical with, the aesthetic value of ‘fine’ art. They offer an aesthetics of the everyday.”6
By distinguishing steampunk objects as craftworks and as signifiers of individual style, I want to emphasize the importance of the steampunk object – whether it be a modded piece of technology, an item of clothing, an art piece, a book, or a playful accessory – in subcultural lifestyle. Thus, I will approach how steampunk lifestyle functions through ethnographic stories from my own life in the steampunk community focusing around the objects that have fallen into my hands over the years. Moreover, I supplement my experiences with those from other members of the New York and New England area steampunk community, drawing from a series of interviews I conducted in February through March of 2012.
Along with the object, the central focus for my stories also involves the spaces where steampunk lifestyle is enacted. Physical places can become sites of imaginary greater worlds where, in the words of Gaston Bechelard, “The exterior spectacle helps the intimate grandeur unfold.”7 Together, the object, the story, and the space all constitute an inter-relational dynamic that affirms the existence of lifestyle practices. The movement of oneself inside that lifestyle can be described as a process where identity shifts and changes – from steampunk to non-steampunk and back again – inside a liminal node, a space betwixt and between hegemonic and minoritarian cultural existence.
1 Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, (New York: Bantam Books), 275.
2 Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialectic Imagination: Four Essays, Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press), 84.
3 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (New York: Routledge), 17.
4 David Muggleton, Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style, (New York: Berg), 48.
5 Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, Trans. Richard Nice, (Pala Alto, CA: Stanford University Press) 74.
6 Sandra Corse, Craft Object, Aesthetic Contexts: Kant, Heidegger, and Adorno on Craft. (New York: University Press of America), 17.
7 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press), 192.