Steampunk Means Different Things in Different Places

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Map of Europe
Photo by Chad Miller

In a discussion about the punk in steampunk at The Steampunk Forum, Vagabond GentleMan from the United States raises an interesting point — that steampunk can have different meanings depending on one’s location.

Vagabond GentleMan suggests that steampunk isn’t a genuine sub- or counterculture because unlike earlier countercultures, it isn’t just scattered but divided geographically.

When a New York hippie in the 1960s traveled to San Francisco, he “pretty much found that the West Coast hippies had the same basic sociocultural mores and the same basic ethos” that he had, according to Vagabond. When punks from Los Angeles traveled to Baltimore, “they found that though there might be some superficial differences in self-presentation or philosophy, they knew the Eastern punks were gonna ‘be about’ the same sorts of things.” Same thing with Goths.

Not with steampunks though. It’s not just that there are many subgroups within the steampunk community (Neo-Victorian, Weird West, Victoriental); “steampunk” is a different thing in England than it is in France than it is in America. And even within the United States, there are differences, as Vagabond points out.

Why is this relevant? For one thing, it’s difficult to speak of a global steampunk community when location matters so much.

There is, for instance, a vibrant steampunk presence in France that’s almost completely shut off from the Anglo-Saxon experience — by language and by substance. There doesn’t appear to be much discussion about “punk” in the French steampunk scene nor is dieselpunk particularly popular there.

In Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, by contrast, dieselpunk is far more popular than is steampunk and the culture is altogether darker and prone to post-apocalyptic overtones whereas British steampunk is steeped in Neo-Victorianism.

This also complicates the notion of a steampunk “movement” that’s held together by common values.

There may be a majority of steampunk enthusiasts who share a do-it-yourself ethos and an appreciation of nineteenth century style and manners but does that constitute a movement? Does it mean that people who aren’t makers aren’t steampunks? Does it mean that people who like reading steampunk novels but don’t care to dress up in Victorian costume aren’t steampunk enough?

When steampunk is a rather different phenomenon in one part of the world than it is in another, it may be presumptuous to speak of a “movement” and better to think of it as a “style” instead?

9 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with some of the statements here. Steampunk doesn´t the same everywhere.

    But the examples about hippies, punks or gothic are not very exactly. Hippies, punks, gothics and many many others were and are diferent on every part of the world, even some of them aren´t agree on some many things.

    Talking about steampunk is talking about the variety of people who are part of the community (i will not call it movement just at this point at my comment)
    There are not only subgenres around SP (wild west, neo victorian, victorian oriental, steamgoth…) the thing is i guess we came from other kind of movements like comics, sci-fi fans, rpg players, gamers, cosplayers, modelism aficionados, sculptors, musicians, writers, alternate history lovers, speculative fiction fans…the list is exhaustive and then you must put the ideology from country. Then you have a big world community talking about the same word with many diferent points of view.
    That´s what i think at least.
    Regards

  2. There may be differences between hippies, punks and goths in different parts of the world but as Vagabond pointed out, they do all have the sense that they’re about the same thing. There isn’t, I think, such a unity among steampunks.

  3. A critical point of difference between the hippies/punks/goths and stempunk that could stand to be pointed out one more time is that the former subcultures had a cultural binding agent in the *music* said groups listened to and created. Importing (or bootlegging) music across regions was frequently done in the pre-internet days, the followers being kept informed of releases and the like by magazines catering to the various scenes. End result, bands like the Cure had a following in France, German acts had followings (and considerable influence) the Anglosphere, New World acts were known of in Europe, etc. This overlapped the output of local acts who were informed by the music from other regions.
    There is no steampunk music. There are bands that jumped on the trend circa middle of the last decade and labeled themselves steampunk but they are a case of following a trend and putting their unremarkable, uninspired music in front of it in the hope that they’d bought in early enough to “the next big thing” and that this would propell their career. And hey, the comicon niche is a paying gig so one can’t fault them too much.
    On the periphery are the Neo-vaudville/cabaret and Electro Swing genres which both have some overlap interest amongst steampunks but in both cases the musical genre operates without relying on steampunk participation or imput, the steampunks are allong for the ride when they’re there at all.

    Campy pulp novels just don’t have the same force as a cultural binding agent the way a shared music does. They lack the immediacy of music’s transcendental power.

  4. Maybe all we are on the wrong side trying to analize steampunk everybody tend to compare with another post punk movements, or former subcultures wich all of they starts as a music tendency.
    Steampunk is not that case, music it is only a consecuense of the steampunk movement growing reaching more aspects of art.

    Maybe we need to view steampunk just as an artistic propose, like Art Deco, wich was named very diferent on the world and has some variations on diferent art expressions.
    I wrote on El Investigador #4 in our Retrofuturism section than steampun is not a subculture yet, but has all the potential to become a big one because it is reaching almost any artistic expression… so I think that is bigger than hippies/punk/goths, and I meant on a potential sense.

    Unfortunatly, my english is not the best and Im not having too much time now to do the traslation my self but if you could find someone who can do for you, maybe there will be some feedback.
    It was on page 20 on our June issue, Droping the link here hope you don´t mind.
    http://mercenariosddios.blogspot.com/2011/05/el-investigador-4-junio.html

  5. Ian raises a good point in that music may be a vital element of a subculture but I don’t think the lack of a “steampunk sound” has stopped steampunks from feeling that they’re part of something (a movement, a community, whatever).

    I realize that it may seem now that I’m arguing against myself because I wrote in the opening post that steampunk isn’t a subculture because it’s so divided but it hasn’t stopped many steampunks from believing that it is. This shouldn’t be overlooked. Evidently, without a steampunk music, there’s enough to bind us to make us feel part of something.

  6. Naw, you’re not contradicting yourself there. A subculture and a community has different rules. I think in this case, a subculture is seen to be a lot more uniform, with clearer boundaries on how it’s different from the larger culture, whereas a community is more organically formed. They both perform the same function, just with different nuances.

    It seems to me that when different kinds of people talk about steampunk, we talk about different aspects of steampunk AND different perspectives of it. I, for one, would be happy to never hear about steampunk as a genre again and speak of steampunk as aesthetic only. Yes, it’s an aesthetic that is gaining critical mass in popularity so it looks like a movement, but really remains an aesthetic that people are deeply attracted to and find expression through, in great numbers.

    (And what with the US/Canadian anxiety about technology, I think it’s safe to say steampunk is something of a movement in US/Canada…. but this CANNOT be applied everywhere. I’m afraid US.centrism does tend to prevail in this arena too ^_^ I will try my best to ensure such clarifications in my own work in the future.) (And of course, steampunk manifestations different from East to West coast, to Canada.)

    I for one talk about steampunk in US/Canada as a subculture because we appear to have our own rules and protocols which differentiates us from what we perceive as the mainstream (even as I argue that everything we do is derived from mainstream anyway), and we are a community in that we have our own social hierarchies and factions and groups, which is very characteristic of communities wherever.

    So when you read about this “steampunk movement”… is it in English-language spaces and strongly referring to the USA/Canada? That is the sense I get from every article speaking about steampunk as a movement, but I don’t read every English-language article out there on steampunk.

  7. I think you’re exactly right that at least in parts of the US, steampunk is more of a culture in a “movement” sense than it is in continental Europe, for instance, where it’s more of an aesthetic indeed than even a clear community.

    It’s important to distinct between community and subculture, I agree. There is a fairly strong sense of community among steampunks but I think the differences are too great to speak of a subculture (yet?).

  8. I haven’t read the full topic on BG, but I think one aspect might be a little overlooked and that is the existance of expectations of customers. Where the bottom line might be if customers in the global village, ie the internet with all its possibilities for worldwide webshopping, are so different from each other.

    Google is boss: if you are looking for anything steampunk, and you type “steampunk” in the search engine, what do you expect to pop up in the search results? Do you have to narrow your search request to get to the kind of steampunk you like? And is that steampunk indeed from a specific corner of the globe? Do you need to buy from webshops in specific countries to get the kind of steampunk items (books, art, clothing, music, props and all) you would like to have? Is that your own country, or someone elses? If you go shopping in another country (for those who are only comfortable in English: the USA, the UK, Australia) differ the items on sale so much from what you see in your own country, and what you expect from what steampunk is?
    I do not think the differences are that large. Steampunk is a perfect label to use in advertisements: people always get what they expect, no matter where on earth you are. That is what we have in common, that is steampunk to “us” and to the spectator from outside the “movement”.

    The whole idea to make it a movement is a sad one. Because there is no common picture of how “steampunks” should act or think or vote. Everyone can like the aesthetics of steampunk, no matter who or what you are. Steampunk is more or less something that happens, a kind of fashion. For a real movement you have to have some idea, an ideal, a vision that people can share and spread. Steampunk has no such thing. On BG, some “common political and social ideas” have been mentioned, but they don’t concern every steampunk, nor are they exclusively for steampunk. You can’t define a steampunk over his political or social ideas.

    The “worst” of it may be that steampunk aesthetics have gone mainstream and “steampunk style” stuff is on sale at every corner. Which means that the “true steampunk” cann not distinghuish himself from the common people, his look has become normal on the streets, and without a shared vision the movement grinds to a halt, overthrown by a huge wave spitting images. With less gears, but still…

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