There We Go Again: “The Radicalism of Steampunk”

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While most steampunks generally support a revival of nineteenth century aesthetics as a response to modern alienation, many don’t like to acknowledge that their attitudes could be considered ideological.

Steampunk girl
Photo by lightstargod

Indeed! The quote comes from the article “Leftists Constructs,” published in the recent issue of the progressive Overland magazine and written by steampunk blogger Diana M. Pho of Beyond Victoriana.

Notice the subtlety: “steampunk don’t like to acknowledge that their attitudes could be considered ideological.” Of course, Pho is here to tell us that they are, whatever we like it or not.

Reinterpreting history, according to Pho, “is always a political move, whether that’s admitted or not.” She volunteers some thoughts on why the rugged conservatives who like steampunk to be just a hobby refuse to admit it.

Maybe the refusal of politics by some steampunks is rooted in their wilful ignorance about how the personal becomes political. Maybe they only think of politics in terms of petitioning for signatures, marching on Wall Street or freeing dolphins from fishing nets. Maybe it’s because they associate political action with the messy Bigger Picture (and Bigger Failings) of the state.

Perhaps it comes down to what defines politics. In any event, the best description of steampunk’s politics that Pho is able to provide is that it constitutes “a community supporting the belief that we do not live at the end of history but are constantly reconstructing it for the better.” You can call it progressive but then again, this is very much a liberal (in the classical, European sense of the word) idea as well. It hardly defines a coherent political philosophy. Even conservatives can live with this definition.

You have to read between the lines to find out just what sort of politics Pho actually has in mind for steampunk. She admits that there is such a thing as “a leftist steampunk ideology” (emphasis mine) and contrasts it to the blissful reminiscing of genre enthusiasts whose “attitudes may remain staunchly retrograde.” There are references exclusively to left wing steampunk thinkers and left wing steampunk publications and, yes, the regular condemnations of “Victorientalism” and imperial romance.

The reader who doesn’t know anything about steampunk will be hard pressed not to get the impression from reading Pho’s article that steampunk is in fact a left wing ideology and there are just “some” who don’t realize it yet.

Nice try but you’re going to have to do better than pretend we’re all latent leftists who simply don’t understand that reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or dressing up in nineteenth century costume to meet up with friends constitutes decisively revolutionary activity. We’re just trying to have a good time. Stop trying to force a political agenda on what we’re doing because you can’t separate your politics from your hobby.

8 COMMENTS

  1. We’re just trying to have a good time. Stop trying to force a political agenda on what we’re doing because you can’t separate your politics from your hobby.

    *applauds*

    I’m also sick and tired of people ragging on Victorientalism. Yes it is often loaded, but what with the people having made their thing from it? Are we suddenly going to alienate steampunks like Yuki and Mary from Strange Artifact or Crystaline (one of the main driving forces of the Tokyo scene, together with the people from SA)? How far is this actually going to go with the condemnation of a valid steampunk substyle?

    Or have the purists failed to notice that there’s actually steampunks over in Asia as well? (maybe it’s better for them that they’re off the radar, then they can avoid having a bunch of people wander in and tell them how to do steampunk and suck the fun out of it for them).

  2. I applaud, too.

    Pho doesn’t get it. Steampunk is not “reinterpreting history.” It is a fictional interpretation, not a rewriting of the history books nor a celebration of everything the Victorians did. This is the same mindset where some people think that anyone who dresses in American Civil War uniforms and reenacts battles are closet KKK members who support slavery.

    I’m sick of the leftists who just want to smear anyone who doesn’t follow their orders or who condemn what they don’t understand, and I’m really sick of “open-minded people” who label me and try to shove me into a category.

    They’re too blinded with self-righteous anger to see their own prejudices.

  3. If that article annoyed you may I point out steampunk author Lavie Tidhar’s post “Fascism for Nice People”(http://lavietidhar.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/fascism-for-nice-people/) for some more Cultural Marxist criticism of steampunk.

    These Leftist Puritan kill-joys like to guilt trip people for their “insensitivity” for failing to see things their way or to demonstrate their moral superiority through their exquisitely delicate sensibilities. Just wanting to have a bit of fun is an offence to them.

  4. Hear, hear! I agree (despite being more on the left side of the political spectrum than on the right – those rare days I actually think about politics).

    What is wrong with escapism and pure fun? (I suffer from recurring depressions: escapism is one thing that makes life bearable.)

    The “personal is political” (and “everything is political”) view reminds me of the far-left groups (Maoist, Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyite, etc.) of the 70s; the idea has not become more appealing or convincing over the years. Nope, not everything and not every personal choice is political.

    Besides, if you like the Steampunk Scholar think of steampunk as an aesthetic (http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.se/p/aesthetic-101.html) I can’t think of a reason to consider an apolitical, conservative, liberal (in the European or the USian sense), or any other non-far-left steampunk a contradiction in terms.

    Why does steampunk suffer from these besserwisser activists to a larger extent than say fantasy (it does, doesn’t it)? (But of course, we all know that mediaeval Europe was a much more progressive place than Victorian Britain (obs! sarcasm).)

    And Lavie Tidhar … He calls people fascists and is surprised by them feeling insulted and being upset. I for one don’t like being called a fascist by anyone in any context, especially these days, one year after Utøya.

  5. “Why does steampunk suffer from these besserwisser activists to a larger extent than say fantasy (it does, doesn’t it)?” This is because Mediaeval Europe was pre-industrial and pre-enlightenment, and most importantly, pre-colonial/imperialist. Expectations are (and reasonably so) different for the Victorians, who are temporally much closer to us.

  6. I am an American, from Ohio (US), and incongruously, a leftist, who understands why people from Europe say awkward things like “USian,” in an attempt to be specific and not imperialistic. I would never want to try to separate my politics from my cultural interests, and if I witnessed consciously fascist or racist behavior or endorsements from people in the Dieselpunk community, I would condemn it and feel unrepentantly righteous in doing so. Although I understand that there are unconscious assumptions at work in all of us, the creative writer, musician, artist, no less than anyone else, I do not assume that all of their expressions are going to reflect my politics, nor do I find them lacking value if they do not.

  7. cont: People who get caught up in these sorts of critiques are missing the point of POD based fiction. It can be argued that such alternate world fiction is heavily skewed toward imperialist, colonialist and bourgeois perspectives. I cannot argue against that critique except to say that alternate histories are mostly not about the politics/justice issues in which they are framed, and if you find the way they are constructed offensive, take some time out from your valuable politicking, and write your own! Stop trying to indenture creative people into your activism, by labeling them if they fail to represent your theories of class and culture.There are many viewpoints in this Steam/Diesel milieu. One of the best Steampunk novels is The Difference Engine, By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and it is decidedly critical of industrial capitalism.

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