Rounding out this year, University of Minnesota Press came out with a new academic anthology that I’m proud to be a contributor for—Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures. This anthology tackles the cultural influences that lead to the rise in popularity of steampunk from the early Naughts onward; as its website description states, “From disability and queerness to ethos and digital humanities, Like Clockwork offers wide-ranging perspectives on steampunk’s history and its place in contemporary culture, all while speaking to the ‛why’ and ‛why now’ of the genre.”
My contribution, “Punking the Other: On the Performance of Racial and National Identities in Steampunk” had a long journey from grad school paper to publication, and finally seeing this in print has made me reflect about how much has changed since the article was first written, and how much of its commentary has become hauntingly relevant today.
The premise of Like Clockwork posits that the traumas of a post-9/11 affected our social and cultural understanding of time, technology, and the individual’s role in the historical narrative. Steampunk is fun and imaginative, but it is also ironic and critical of the past it draws from (and the future it mashes up with). The genre is about humor and pulp storytelling, about fashion and maker culture, about cosplay, satire, and pastiche. “Steampunking” became a cute catchphrase meaning how can one retrofit an object, an idea, or a narrative: a verb to ignite creative re-imagination. But steampunk is also passionate, critical, and serious in its performance.
The Past — What I was interested in back in 2012 was how people constructed their creative identities around imagined retrofuturist self, combined with current pop culture. These identities, made for play and entertainment, also speak about the political self. In the essay, I state that “A postcolonial view of steampunk posits the reexamination of dominant historical narratives in Western canon to embrace cultural hybridity and challenge the traditional power dynamics of national identity. It asks, ‘What groups are seen as part of the ‘nation’?’ and ‘Who gains the rights and privileges of citizenship?’, questions that have been increasingly defined against racial and cultural difference.”
Back then, I was thinking about who was seen as the explorers and who the savages, who had the honor of serving the Queen versus who slaved under Her, who held the power and what did they do with it. It makes for great games of wish-fulfillment and subversion, or wistful explorations of nostalgic superiority. Or a lot of creative works that fall in the gray in-between (good art never asks simple, binary questions). Art can be empowering; it can unintentionally or actively endorse problematic messages; it can be catchy and have great hooks and beautiful aesthetics, and it is never, ever amoral. These were the questions I kept asking when I critiqued the artists and performers I wrote about.
The Present — The anthology, written to address a post-9/11 world, now is out in a post-Brexit, pre-Trump world. It is a darker world, one where a whimsical longing for a “historical past that never was” rubs up against slogans about building walls, registering religious minorities, and Making America Great Again. It is a more nationalistic world in a frightening way, where playacting as fascists comes too close to the swastikas and hate speech I see graffitied on the streets of the city I love.
Many people did not foresee the stuff of our worst imaginations and in our moral selves being brought to light. Society wanted to sanitize our histories for modern consumption, and in doing so, we forgot how easy it is to repeat history’s mistakes.
Are you seen as part of our future nation? Do you deserve the rights and privileges of citizenship? You might, but do they?
And what will you do about that?
The Future — Over the past few weeks, I’ve overheard and participated in conversations all asking the same question, “What is my duty as an artist now?” More questions: Does my art mean anything anymore? Should I be doing something different with my life? What can I do to protect the most vulnerable, the people I love?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions. No one does. But there are many, many acts happening right now that will show what the future holds.
Steampunk has typically been seen as a positivist, optimistic genre, under the premise that we still have the opportunity to make things better as long as there are ways we can put dreams into action. To make things into reality. To question our pasts in order to stop terrible futures looming in our present.
Because, we must remember that steampunk subculture is performative. It is an action and not a static identity. Steampunk is a verb.
Featuring work by: Kathryn Crowther, Perimeter College at Georgia State University; Shaun Duke, University of Florida; Stefania Forlini, University of Calgary (Canada); Lisa Hager, University of Wisconsin–Waukesha; Mike Perschon, MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta; Diana M. Pho; David Pike, American University; Catherine Siemann, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Joseph Weakland, Georgia Institute of Technology; Roger Whitson, Washington State University.