I am at C3 at MIT today, and I am sure I will have lots of interesting things to report by the end of the day. But let me point to an article that appeared in the NYT this morning, for those of us interesting in trends and movements in contemporary culture.
La Ferla describes the Steampunk as a
subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.
The term comes apparently from the The Steampunk Trilogy, written by Paul Di Filippo (eyes right). I went to see if I could download this to my Kindle, but the publisher (Running Press) has yet to make this possible. So I contented myself reading the excerpt on Amazon. (This is a kind of "stealing signals" that shuts the author out of proceeds due to him. Still, I am only going to take a little, and I would ask you to look the other way while how I generalize shamelessly on the strenghth of a page or two.)
The opening paragraph of the Steampunk Trilogy gives us a writing machine, all burnished copper, Moroccan leather, pumps, hoses, and glass jars, assembled in a gratuitously complicated contraption that appears in the "lambent, buttery glow" of Victorian gaslight. It’s operator is Cosmo Cowperthwait, a gentleman of "comfortable income" who on this occasion wears a "Paisley plastron cravat, embroidered waistcoat, [and] trig trousers." Cowperthwait also carries a large turnip-watch which he sets by the passing of the 11:45 Totting omnibus.
Lambent and buttery. That’s the key. We respond to this image, and, perhaps, to steampunk because it plays out our technological present in an interesting mirror. First, this fun house reflection of our Airbooks and iPhones. In this world, a passing trolly is better time keeper than our turnip shaped watch. In this world, technology is on the verge of springing apart, something my ThinkPad does only under exceptional circumstances and duress.
We imagine the Victorian social world is a rickety machine, one that works perfectly well without ever inspiring confidence that it will continue to do so. This happens to be exactly the way Mumbai seemed to me. By contrast, we live in an exquisite machine. Tokyo, at the limit. We like the idea of a world made of crafted beauty, where seams show, and things continue to be a miraculous even when they work.
Victorians appeal to us in several ways, not only out of a faux nostalgia. These were people who were profoundly crafty, inclined to working on combustion engines in the tool shed at the end of the garden. It was a place where rank amateurs could make a contribution to knowledge in their spare time, a motive that is a great motivating hope here at This Blog. Several institutions of the Victorian period, including the Oxford English Dictionary, and great swathes of the periods of natural history came from amateurs working together in a thoroughly distributed way. As an anthropologist who is Scottish only by genetic "origin" and otherwise Mediterranean, there’s a puzzle here. How can the English have been so demonstrative from an intellectual point of view, when they were so utterly undemonstrative for a social one. Aren’t ideas animating. Do they make us marionettes (mechanically demonstrative) whether we like it or not? One gets the feelings that the English men and women in Steampunk (past and present) are pretty darn demonstrative.
These are early days in the trend, the moment when the thing is still forming. Now that the New York Times and the likes of This Blog can have at it, we may expect this cultural innovation to begin to over-form and eventually to sit so far down the Kauffman continuum that the early adopters bail out and the thing turns to cliche. I do my best to serve.
Just a last note: who would have guessed how syncretic and cooperative punk was going to be. This look was designed to be uncompromising, hostile to every other form of social life. But it turns out that punk plays well with others. We have had gothpunks, skater punks, almost as cooperative as hip hop. True, still no hippie punks, or luncheon punks, or preppie punks. There are some places punk can’t play. Still you can’t help feeling that luncheon punks might be a movement waiting to happen. No, not really.
La Ferla, Ruth. 2008. Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds. New York Times. May 8, 2008. here.
von Slatt, Jake, proprietor of the Steampunk workshop. here.
To Sara Winge for helping me to understand the present trend for craftiness.