As a genre, steampunk was hardly political. Cyberpunk, in its reverence of alienated hackers and all sorts of outcasts, might carry some political weight but the very term “steampunk” was coined as a joke (by author K.W. Jeter in 1987) and never meant to describe the sort of movement that we know today. Because of its newly-acquired subculture status, steampunk has made bold fashion and design statements but it struggles with finding an ideology. While some recognize anarchist potential in putting the “punk” back in steampunk, others emphasize that steampunk is inherently apolitical while others yet seek a middle way between these two positions by interpreting the “punk” as a more general rejection of modern-day consumerism and the loss of the individual associated with twenty-first century industrial society.
In the words of Peter Bebergal, steampunk, in its “embrace of the toothy cog and the sooty pipe,” indeed represents a rebellion, “against our iPhone moment.” The iPhone may be a technological sensation, he argues, but there is something alienating about its mass produced quality. Steampunk on the other hand seeks to recapture “the spirit of invention and craftsmanship” reminiscent of early nineteenth century industrialization but the dirt and the factories and the technocratic mindset of the latter part of the era are often notably absent from the genre.
SteamPunk Magazine editor Magpie Killjoy explains just what is so appealing about this spirit: “A lot of people are unconsciously drawn to this time period because there was marvel and wonder to be found in machines,” he notes. “There was a time when machines were new, and they could go any direction.” Is that to say that steampunk promotes an actual return to times past? The consensus seems to be a firm “no” to that question. SteamPunk Magazine reminds its readers that industrial progress in the Victorian era came with numerous vices (pollution and poverty foremost among them) and suggest that steampunk ought to “[love] the machine, but [hate] the factory.”
This sentiment was further explored by people like Datamancer and Jake von Slatt; the latter of whom admitted that when he found steampunk, “do-it-yourself” (DIY) was no part of it — “but I wanted it to be,” so it became. According to Cory Gross, this co-option of steampunk with DIY sparked debate between older and newer fans of the genre: the view that DIY and even punk were part of steampunk “won out in short order,” he claims, “and the dynamics of steampunk as a subcultural movement were regimented.” Gross suggests that an influx of enthusiasts from “counter-cultural movements such as Punk, Goth-Industrial, and DIY hobby groups” was responsible for this shift in focus, “marginalizing, consciously and unconsciously” the science-fiction and role-playing background of steampunk. It has been proposed however to merge the “newer” elements with the “old” in order to make sense of things.
Catherynne Valente calls the punk “nearly meaningless” to steampunk and states that disappointment. Instead of adopting only the lighter and pretties aspects of the past, Neo-Victorianism must be “honest and ruthless.” She asks the steampunk enthusiast to consider what punk means to him or her: “the rage and iconoclasm and desperation, the nihilism and unsentimental ecstasy of punk rock.”
Bruce Sterling, co-author of The Difference Engine (1990), is skeptical. “I wouldn’t get too permanently attached to any enterprise with the word ‘punk’ in it.” He warns that punk is “a generational signifier for people who are now well into middle age.” Youngsters who call themselves “punk” today are “somewhat pretentious” says Sterling, and, ironically, anachronistic.
Another possible interpretation of the “punk” is offered by Dru Pagliassotti who notes that the DIY ethos of steampunk implies opposition to “mass marketing and consumerism” which harkens back to the “loving the machine, but hating the factory”-spirit of SteamPunk Magazine; or, in the words of self-declared steampunk scholar Mike Perschon: “raging against the machine of industry, or the powers behind it.” Pagliassotti adds however that “thus far anticonsumerism hasn’t emerged as a unifying theme for the movement.” She proposes a rather novel approach to the ideology of steampunk by exploring the implications of one of the genre’s quintessential heroes, Captain Nemo. Jules Verne’s submariner, and with him, steampunk, rejects the imposition of exclusive boundaries, argues Pagliassotti. Nationalism and “cultural imperialism” may be defining characteristics of the Victorian era but Neo-Victorianism has not to adopt them. “Instead, it’s that peculiar upper-class Victorian sense of enthusiasm, optimism, confidence, manners, and good sportsmanship that steampunk wishes to reclaim,” she notes; “not its sexism, racism, classism, poverty, and other ills.” Rather “steampunk authors often write around attitudes toward race, class and gender” that defined nineteenth century Europa, according to Damon Poeter. “Just because steampunk enthusiasts like the grandeur of the British Empire does not mean they are willing to accept the racism and colonialism upon which it was built,” argues one such author, G.D. Falksen. Poeter however notes that the average steampunk enthusiasts tends to “dismiss such baggage entirely.”
That, at least, requires less documentation. As far as the average enthusiast is concerned, steampunk is a form of entertainment foremost. Whether he or she is interested in steampunk literature, fashion or design, the genre provides an outlet; a fantasy to escape whatever perceived ills or shortcomings one associates with our modern world. “And I believe this, if nothing else, puts the ‘punk’ in steampunk,” says Cherie Priest. “It’s the tongue sticking out at history books; it’s a poke in the eye to a condescending footnote. It’s a pointy boot up the ass of stuffy literalists and stitch-counters.”
“Steampunk refuses to let what was written years ago become the last word or the bottom line,” claims Priest and she finds Ruth La Ferla agreeing with her. “If steampunk has a mission,” writes La Ferla, “it is, in part, to restore a sense of wonder to a technology-jaded world.” That, all steampunk enthusiasts can probably agree on, is at the heart of the steampunk spirit: Adventure!