Politics and Steampunk

I just re-read the epic conversation that’s unfolding over on the post about Professor Calamity, and while it was fascinating, it was also pointed out that that particular thread was not the place for that discussion. So here we go!

What the all-knowing Google turned up on Steampunk and politics, for your reading pleasure:

Does Steampunk Have Politics? both introduces the genre apolitically and explores how a Steampunk ideology might develop.

And perhaps that’s why steampunk as a movement has, thus far, avoided addressing the question of its own politics. After all, reserve and deference were key elements in Victorian etiquette, and punk is quite the opposite: would it really be good manners to, for example, publish a steampunk manifesto? But if steampunk is ever going to deserve its provocative suffix, it needs to offer more than simply nostalgia for a retro dream that never was. It needs to suggest ways in which we, as a group, can revive and rethink that lost ideal.

I thought I would have some other articles to throw at you, but that was actually the only one I found. Oops.

However, Google also turned up our own Gaslamp Bazaar; I would remind you that discussion of politics, community, and anything else you care to debate are more than welcome there, as well!

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17 Responses to “Politics and Steampunk”

  1. Maybe the punk bit comes in Victorian reserve (deference too maybe? I hope not) being in direct confrontation with a society that is confrontational and loud? Could we be punk precisely by being all the things that traditional punk ISN’T?

  2. Well, in our world the conformists are the lazy ones, the fast, the cool. They eat macdo & starbuck, can’t live without electricity and avoid thinking at all cost.
    Steampunk is the opposite !
    IMHO, Steampunk is a society with etiquette, beauty, autodiscipline, elegance (in a dandy kind of way) but also a society that praise liberty & equality through anarchy.

  3. I think to have a meaningful discussion we need to be clear about what we’re discussing, because there’s several questions raised here:
    Does currently Steampunk have a political side?
    Has Steampunk ever had a political side?
    Should Steampunk have a political side in the future?
    Can Steampunk have a political side?

    We also need to define a few things, like:
    What is Steampunk?
    Where do we draw the line between personal choices and political choices?
    Who decides what’s Steampunk and what isn’t?
    How do we differentiate between a political Steampunk, and a Steampunk who makes political choices independent of their affiliation for Steampunk?

    Okay, so I’m deliberately difficult. Steampunk could be argued to have a political side, because every decision we make could be argued to be political. Do you buy your waistcoat first-hand, make it yourself, buy it and adapt it? Do you buy books, buy them on-line, or get them from the library?

    Does your involvement with Steampunk directly influence your political decisions? Again, it could be argued it does. How do you finance your Steampunk projects? Where does your web hosting come from? What do you spend any profits you make from Steampunk on?

    At the end of the day, it comes down to a very simple statement: It’s personal. For me, Steampunk without the politics falls apart into cosplay and gaslamp fantasy. The aesthetic comes with a set of political pointers it’s impossible to ignore: Hand-made means small-scale production and traditional crafts and techniques; tinkerers in their workshops means tactile and self-serviceable technology; Victorian manners means mutual respect… As you expand the basic concepts more and follow the trails of logical thought, you end up with a political philosophy which you can then apply to the rest of your life. (In my case, my political views lead me to Steampunk, which is a case in point of Steampunk having a political side.)

    Others are going to disagree with me and find holes in my arguments, and that’s fine. Every argument has holes and everyone has their own opinion, and surely there’s one thing we can all agree on: Everyone is entitled to hold their own opinion and should be allowed to pursue their own path without interference, so long as they let others do the same.

    (As a side note, I really don’t think you can argue the Victorians were in any way a-political. Maybe the ruling elite were, but then they’re not going to want to change the social structure because if they do, they lose their sources of power and wealth. But this is the same era which gave us imperialism, anarchism, Marxism, nationalism, the Labour party, the Trail of Tears, the Rape of Africa, the list goes on and on…)

  4. […] das Steampunk Magazin greift den Gedanken “Politics and Steampunk” im Zusammenhang mit der Festnahme von Professor Calamity erneut auf und verweist auf diese […]

  5. Dylan, I think you’re right that we could have a very in depth conversation about the politicality or non-politcality of Steampunk, and I think this movement, like any movement will always have some level of political leanings, because it’s made up of people. I think that you’ve hit it on the head saying:

    “The aesthetic comes with a set of political pointers it’s impossible to ignore: Hand-made means small-scale production and traditional crafts and techniques; tinkerers in their workshops means tactile and self-serviceable technology; Victorian manners means mutual respect… As you expand the basic concepts more and follow the trails of logical thought, you end up with a political philosophy which you can then apply to the rest of your life.”

    And I don’t think anyone would disagree with your point here — at least, I don’t.

  6. Full Disclosure: I am an Anarchist, Much like the Gentleman who’s arrest sparked this wonderful conversation, though I can’t speak to his particular flavor of Anarchy, Most Anarchists are entirely peaceful. The same can be said of Steampunks. Those plastic ray guns are completely innocuous.

    The problem is: The State does not see them that way. Steampunks, along with LARP gamers, Electronics Hobbyists, and several other sub-cultures, are often “profiled” by governments as dangerous. The FBI Raided Steve Jackson Games during Operation Sundevil, because they were creating a GURPS sourcebook based on the Cyberpunk genre of fiction. It would not take much for the same to happen to SPM’s offices, simply because some faceless functionary decided that anything with the word “punk” in it must be bad.

    The issue at hand is not “Should Steampunk be Political”. Steampunk is, in itself, Apolitical, except in the fact that the historical setting from which it derives its aesthetic is a royalist culture. Does Being a Steampunk make you a member of a particular political group? No, and neither should it. Does it prevent you from being a part of a particular political group? No more than being a Star-trek fan does. Steampunk is Apolitical. Steampunks, on the other hand, are not. They are just like any other group of people.

    The issue is the fact that the State often chooses to act upon sub-cultures, such as Steampunk, through ignorance of the actual “goals” of the sub-culture. Whether or not you agree that the State is inherently evil, it is, at the very least, uncaring. It wants one thing: continued existence, and preferably, growth, and it will ruthlessly destroy anything that it thinks will threaten that goal. The account which started the discussion clearly illustrates that. Should the State begin to see Steampunk as a threat – and this is entirely likely, given the unexplainable devices the average Steampunk has in his/her workshop – It will come down upon us with the level of intensity displayed in the account. This is the fear that encited the original post: He was one of Us, and the State has snagged him. It hit close to home.

  7. Way to raise a billion complicated questions, Dylan.

    Does currently Steampunk have a political side?
    Has Steampunk ever had a political side?
    I still consider myself rather new to steampunk, especially its history + literature – I’m working on it, but one can only read so many books at a time – so I’d have a hard time answering this one. However, what writing I’ve read (fiction, mostly, but some nonfiction) seems to have a bend towards ideas of gender equality, economic equality, and some degree or another of sexual freedom (ie gay people are not thrown in jail, young women who have sex are not considered nymphomaniacs.) All of those things are definitely political, and could be seen to give some basic politics to Steampunk outside of the literary.
    Should Steampunk have a political side in the future?
    If people want it to, sure. I’d really like to see some of the political decisions you talk about – the DIY mentality stuff – become more of a central idea, if it’s not already, especially as steamy-looking stuff becomes more readily available. Gear earrings from Hot Topic made by underpaid third-world workers are nice and all, but perhaps not what the more philosophically-minded steampunk is looking for.
    Can Steampunk have a political side?
    Absolutely – but it can also be just an aesthetic/genre of science fiction/”those weird kids with the goggles and toy guns.” And all of these are fine.

    We also need to define a few things, like:
    What is Steampunk?
    My default answer is “an aesthetic/genre based on Victorian science fiction.” Obviously, this is not good enough, but it’s all I got, sorry.
    Where do we draw the line between personal choices and political choices?
    Political = with the intent of fulfilling an ideological belief. For example, “I shop at thrift stores because I believe certain things about sustainability and consumerism,” vs. “I shop there because it’s cheap.” Both valid, one more political than the other.
    Who decides what’s Steampunk and what isn’t?
    I want to say the person doing it, but there’s probably more too it than that…
    How do we differentiate between a political Steampunk, and a Steampunk who makes political choices independent of their affiliation for Steampunk?
    Do we have to? I tend to think of political choices as so mixed up in every other aspect of one’s identity that it’d be kind of tedious to try to pick out which belief is because of what identity.

    Now that I think about it, your big list of questions might have been rhetorical, but I enjoyed trying to answer them.

  8. Those of you involed in this discussion may be interested to know that a few of us who run the community’s magazines and websites have decided to begin making arrangements to have a Great Steampunk Debate on the matter of politics. This will be happening some time in the new year, so stay tuned for that one!

  9. A curious thing this, how it seems easier to uncover the philosophy of l’Steampunk as opposed to the politics. Generally, such genres/cultures/obsessions are quite the opposite.
    But l’Steampunk does have its politics. And none of the trendy green riffraff neither. Buried betwixt the Epicurean and Absurdist constitution is a heart of Objectivity by way of the Romanticism of the Edwardian days. Wistful realism, if you will.
    Generous ethics in global terms and ideals, but crudely sharp in the more immediate and localized social causes of education and healthcare- all of it calling for more ingenuity from the individual.
    I could well be wrong of course, but I am supremely interested in any other thoughts on the matter.

  10. To My Gentle Friends & Readers,

    First let me extend my sincerest apologies for the lateness of this reply, as you know my life and work has been seriously, and may I add rudely , inconvenienced by the bully-boys of authority. I hold to the hope that none of you shall ever have to feel the indignity of being shackled and helpless while for 16 tedious and harrowing hours so-called “public servants” with guns ransack your parlors, workshops and your very bedrooms. I need to also point out this raid was carried out at the rather uncivilized hour prior to dawn so thus we were all resting in the sweet embrace of Morpheus when they shattered our door and our respites.

    I have recently blundered upon this conversation concerning my travails with the government. I would like to thank all of you for your concerns and interests on my behalf and those of my band-mates. The legal details of these unlawful incursions both in the land of William Penn and here in my beloved New York are out there, as much as there are details, on the webosphere and other muck-racking sources for the education of the masses. I shall not dwell on the absurd fiasco that is said to be carrying out in the name of justice. As of this writing much of the supposed evidence against us is sealed and thus we have not seen it. Instead I shall address the primary concern about the political ramifications of such a blatant abuse of power and its specific implications for those in our dear steampunk community.

    We need not yet bury our goggles or write our fictions in elaborate and ingenious ciphers (unless we want to). Nor do I believe the so-called “authorities” will be ransacking our conventions in the nearish future. I understand why some consider my arrest and my band-mates invasion of liberty and privacy to be relegated to the clean borders of “anarchy” or politics and thus outside the curtain of copper that shields steampunk. While it is true I am an anarchist and have been since before I made my first clockwork dancing bear (a story for another time…) and I believe my latest and most unpleasant misadventure is a result of my peculiar political beliefs. I have had the sorry pleasure of witnessing these types of authoritarian and barbaric treatment of political dissents too many times to recount, and I believe I am alone in that I am also a steampunk.

    That being said, my dear friends, there is much to cause concern in our shared community. It seems the eye of conformity is upon us. My library has thousands of curious tomes but no-one can deny the obsessive interest in steampunk my would-be captors seemed to possess. They have in fact used steampunk writings, paraphernalia, and even bits of our instruments as a substantial component in justifying to the world this obvious breech in etiquette and liberty. If they were seeking additional evidence of the stated “crime” for which they have maligned me namely: felonious use of twitter in a protest in Pittsburgh. Then I ask you why would they ransack my home in New Amsterdam box up my goggles, steampunk magazine, writings for the next seasonal, and so on? Do they honestly believe the secret to twittering could be found among these items? They are brutal, never forget that, but not bumbling. They knew these items are in no way connected to the so-called twitter revolution. Their paranoid desire for total control seeks to attack anything that can be construed of a threat, even if it is a pair of 1896 goggles or an essay on the strange cures of women’s hysteria in the 1880’s. It is not conformity in dress (wear your top-hats without fear) or music choices (Abney Park will continue to fly) but in politics they demand total conformity. If steampunk or even a small part of it becomes political then we should expect a few more early morning visits. We should not shirk away in fear by their blind strikes at us, or those that see many worlds are possible, for this will lead us to proving that ridiculous adage: “History repeats itself”. We visionaries of future-pasts should never allow this to happen. We must remain true to our own currents and beliefs whether anarchist or otherwise. The important thing is to be true to one self. Remember the heart is a muscle the size of a fist.

    Love the machine, hate the factory.

    Thank you for your tender indulgences. Rest assured, those we can call comrades, that our mettle was tested but we remain unbowed.

    Humbly your servant,
    Prof. Calamity

  11. There is one problem with the idea of a non-political Steampunk subculture and it is this: The name contains the designator “punk”. Punk implies by it’s very nature Political involvement. Not that all punks must have the same political views, as Wikipedia states:

    “Punk politics cover the entire political spectrum, although most punks could be categorized as having left-wing or progressive views.[citation needed] Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out. Other notable trends in punk politics include nihilism, anarchism, socialism, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-nationalism, anti-homophobia, environmentalism, vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights.”

    Now here we have a whole spectrum of political views. The thing that ties them as one? Action. Living your beliefs with no apologies. That is what punk is.

    If you believe that discretion is the better part of virtue, then by all means keep your beliefs to yourself in the proper “no talking about politics in mixed company” Victorian way, but when with other Steampunks we are not in mixed company, so at least amongst ourselves, the debate should be grand, lively, and hopefully accompanied by brandy.

    A note to those who feel that they could not EVER mix politics and steam, might I suggest a moniker change? Mayhap Steampulpers or Steamgoths or Gasslight Fantasy Enthusiasts? Punk is a charged word when applied to a group of people rather than to a mixing of literary genres, so either live up to it or get used to people assuming that you are more political than you are.

  12. Fellow Creatures,

    We seem to be forgetting that the Victorians had their own ‘punks’ in shape of a vibrant anarchist movement; many of whom were committed to ‘propaganda by the deed’. The black caped, bomb wielding anarchist is a classic Victorian phantom.

    Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ was set in 1886 and inspired by the failed Grenwich Observatory bombing of 1894. And Tangent Books have just released a Victorian Sci-Fi classic called HARTMANN THE ANARCHIST.

    Published in 1892 (but written years earlier) this was the creation of a 17 yr old public schoolboy called Edward Douglas Fawcett. It is the tale of Rudolph Hartmann who attacks the political and financial institutions of London using an airship called ‘The Attila’. It’s very ‘Boys Own’, but the politics (and Hartmann’s targets) remains strangely relevant to today’s world. I can’t recomend it highly enough, especially as it’s only a fiver (including postage) from http://www.tangentbooks.co.uk

  13. Tsk. I’m no anarchist. I believe in small localized governments. Who the hell else will pay for bounties?

  14. Why must everything be infected with political propaganda ?


    I hate them all, both left and right, both commie and anarchist, both conservative and liberal.

    They are all the same poop.

    Love the machine, hate the factory ? wow, what a new trendy slogan that doesn’t mean anything, i will tune into MTV to see if they have printed it on the latest fashion t-shirt.

  15. Politics is a part of everyone’s lives. It influences our decisions even in our subconscious thought processes.We are environmentally influenced from in the womb. To ignore it is to squelch the reason for the clubs, to promote the use of clean elegant sustainable energy in style and grace. We must past this on to the young. Make Science and Civility a revered part of our lives. Show that Good can triumph over Evil even when outnumbered or over-matched, if you stay calm and use your head. This can only be accomplished by strict discipline and proper education. We can all do our part to further Man-kind into the future by supporting the Steampunk Party!

  16. ”Radiator Ralph, on December 17th, 2010 at 12:41 pm Said:

    Politics is a part of everyone’s lives. It influences our decisions even in our subconscious thought processes.”

    Only if you let yourself be brainwashed, and you let yourself be brainwashed.

    Its the same thing as saying that sport is a part of everyone’s lives, nope, only the people who are into sports.

  17. PiL: I can understand why you’d think that, but at least as we’re defining politics in this discussion (most of us, anyhow), that analogy really doesn’t hold up. In fact, I would argue that it is the brainwashed position to believe that politics are not a party of our every day life.

    The analogy I would consider more appropriate would be to say that politics are part of everyone’s lives in the same ways that our bodies, not sports, are. We can deny the physical existence of our bodies and their demands all we want, pretend to live purely in the mental, but our diet affects our mood. Politics means the ways in which societies are organized, and as we are part of a society, we are part of a political process.

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