The Politics of Steampunk

Steampunk Mask

Photo: Jim (CC)

I thought it would be interesting to continue the discussion from my previous post on “Steampunk and Anarchism” (found here). This next article by Magpie Killjoy explores the intersection of radical politics and steampunk fiction and aesthetic Via

I first consciously got into steampunk back in 2004. It was the perfect aesthetic lens for my interests: history, mad science, genre fiction, the underclasses, and radical politics. It was steampunk, really, that helped me realize how awesome it is to be classy yet poor, that we can celebrate individual and communal ingenuity without babbling on about how great this or that nation or empire might be.

Now, seven years later, I’m constantly amazed by how many people, including some of the most die-hard steampunk adherents, seem to believe that steampunk has nothing to offer but designer clothes. There are people (a minority, I would argue, just a loud one) who act like steampunk is simply a brassy veneer with which to coat the mainstream. But sorry, whether folks are happy about it or not, there have always been radical politics at the core of steampunk.

Perhaps our two most famous antecedents are H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Wells believed strongly in creating a stateless society and dismantling capitalism. As he stated in his 1908 socialist book New Worlds for Old, “Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices.”

Verne, less radical, still brought us the anti-civilization touchstone Captain Nemo. He also, near the end of his career, wrote the hard-to-find-in-English The Survivors of the “Jonathan,” which pits a man who’s motto is “neither God nor master” against the limitations of his anti-authoritarian beliefs when the character helps survivors of a shipwreck establish their colony in South America…

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3 Comments on "The Politics of Steampunk"

  1. Leachpunk | May 10, 2012 at 7:26 am |

    Magellania – Jules Verne 

    “The Survivors of the “Jonathan”, also known as Magellania,[1] is a novel that was written (as Magellania) byJules Verne in 1897. However, it was not published until 1909, after it had been rewritten by Verne’s son Michelunder the title Les naufragés du “Jonathan”.”

    Wasn’t that hard to find…

  2. Liam_McGonagle | May 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

    My commentary would probably be a more ironic example of the ways Steam Punk is misunderstood than it is correctly understood.  I’ve only had the most cursory introduction to the genre.  But here goes:

    Every work of art gets its purchase on its audience’s imagination through an implicit promise to resolve certain psychic tensions.  My guess is that one of Steam Punk’s primary appeals is to return its mainly Anglophone western audiences to the golden age of British hegemony, while reducing its more disturbing aspects (e.g., horrific class inequalities, racism, jingoistic warfare, police brutality, etc.) to mere plot points emphasizing their ultimately satisfying resolution through increased authoritarian power.

    I know that the mindful participant in Steam Punk culture will be well aware of the socialist and anti-imperialist themes underlying the Victorian art that Steam Punk re-interprets.  I’m aware, too, that its aesthetic is to some extent a reaction against today’s consumerist, mass-production homogenization.  I just think that the ways art is mis-understood are probably at least as important as the ways in which they’re correctly understood.

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