My first brush with steampunk came with reading Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2000. I loved being exposed to a world that was a futuristic echo of our past. It was after that, that I began to witness the rise of steampunk online and in our culture. At first it seemed novel and exciting, the idea that people were dressing in waistcoats and corsets and attending public functions, looking as if they had stepped out of a Jules Verne novel. But as time went on, and the prevalence of brass and steam worked its way into every bit of nerd subculture, I began to ask myself, is their more to this thing than cogs glued to top hats?
When you ask someone what steampunk is, the average person may not know how to describe it, but they would ‘know it if they saw it’. But the root of steampunk culture lies in Victorian fantasy literature. Stories that were developed during a time in our history when people where thrilled with the future and science was a growing interest of everyone. This period may also have been the last time when your average citizen knew how everything in their house operated, and could repair these items if need be. Though we live in a magnificent modern culture that often seems besieged by the future, very few of us know how to repair our television or iPod. We live in a state of Clarke’s axiom: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ We of course know that our mp3 players are not magic, but few of us really know how they work. However, there is a functional philosophy to steampunk that has begun to take us from a culture of users and absorbers, to a culture of learners, thinkers and makers. This change in how we are learning and applying what we learn, is the intersecting philosophy of steampunk and the ‘maker movement’.
In her 2011 article for WIRED magazine, Brigid Ashwood sites Victorian era designer William Morris with his quote: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’, reinforcing her belief that steampunk in inextricably linked to the arts and crafts movement of the 1860s, which was a response to the industrial revolution. It’s hard to argue otherwise, and it would appear that we are experiencing the same response to our consumer/disposable culture. There has been a recent resurgence in ‘do-it-yourself’ application and self sufficiency.
More and more we’re seeing people who are using their skills in engineering, woodworking or arts and crafts to create art, functionality or some syntheses of the two. These folks are working on projects in their own homes as well as publicly shared makerspaces/hackerspaces where they can create things with others who share similar aptitudes. In his blog raisinggeeks.com, maker, Ian Cole writes that comment makerspaces serve the function of a research university “Hackerspaces are also a great incubator for ideas given the constant focus on learning, the influx of new technologies, and the depth of the talent.” Maker culture has an affinity for the handcrafted and thrives on personal use and curiosity. And it’s not just specialists in these fields that are getting in on making things, it’s everyone. People are using blogs and YouTube, to post how-to instructions on everything from cooking to automobile maintenance. This maker philosophy exemplifies one of the tenets of steampunk – functionality.
It seems as though people are demanding more from the items they use, and there is a new era of craftsmanship, experimentation and curiosity. More people are learning to garden, preserve their food, sew their own clothes and choosing to repair things versus buying new things. People are learning how things work, weather it be in creating a steampunk keyboard or fashioning neo-Victorian couture for cosplay, these practices in practicality and aesthetic are infusing our modern culture with renewed interest in learning and creating. Steampunk and ‘maker culture’ are both optimistic pursuits that foster creativity, curiosity and action, all traits we could use more of. Who would have thought that we would be pushing toward the future, by returning to the past.
Now if anyone needs me, I’ll be harvesting my own honey and tending to my collection of antique monocles.