Steampunk and History

A lot of people have been asking “what is steampunk?” and that is a good question. Its this eye-catching offshoot of goth, involving young people who wear aviator goggles and saying things like “smashing, good sir!”.  It seems to evoke the late 19th and early 20th century “mechanical revolution” – the train, clockwork, camera lenses, typewriters and early lab equipment (think the Nine Inch Nails video to “Closer”), and many other images related to early science.

An image from Godey's Ladies Book showing Victorian fashions.

Married to this mechanical world of early science is the fashion of the Victorian era – spats, top hats, coats with tails, long tight-fitting dresses, corsets, and bustles. The Renaissance Faires and cosplay ushered in a grand new era where we can wear costumes off-stage, so now steampunk is having events of their own, like the “Steampunk World’s Fair” where fans can show off their finery together and stroll about the hotel corridors with parasols and the trappings of the absinthe-drinking “flaneur”. OK, exhibits may not be the latest in radio or glass building technology, but it’s more fun to look at each other.

Although steampunk is mostly a visual arts-and-crafts movement, there seems to be music too and most of it is very enjoyable and swell.  Dr. Steel is a vaudeville entertainer/rapper/mad scientist hellbent on taking over the world. Professor Gall has a brass band with banjos and foot-stomping carnival fun a la Tom Waites. Thomas Truax makes his own crazy instruments. And Vernian Process sounds like Dead Can Dance combined with carnival music. Many of the bands sound basically goth, (like Vernian Process) and Waites has had a good bit of influence.

Dr. Steel
Dr. Steel - Steampunk Rap

Steampunk can also include literature, jewelry-making or even home decoration. It’s home-grown pop-culture, so it hasn’t reached the level or architecture. But if you own a 100-year-old-home, then get an old iron potbellied stove, you are in!

Now that we know what steampunk is, what is it not? It is not modernism. It is not “The Shock of the New” which has influenced American culture more and more throughout the 20th century, from the post WWI moment of “The Lost Generation” – Hemingway and Picasso and Miller, and Sartre when everything was stripped down to nothingness and minimalism. It is not the mysterious “olden days” before modernism, that long expanse of before machines when people meekly worked the farm with horses and plows. But it is the tail-end of that time. Steampunk is inspired by the exact pre-modern moment of transition, the rise out of agriculture to the steam machine but not quite the era of jazz and existentialism. With steampunk we are forced to re-examine the “olden days” as they really were in daily life, instead of dismissing them like so many dusty old photographs. Similarly, the era before our information age seems kind of fuzzy too in retrospect. What was life like in the 60’s and 70’s? Some people remember it and some do not. Everyone knows about Woodstock, but do we think about daily life when people only had phones on their desks and not computers? When people still wrote paper letters and used typewriters and local TV stations with their own Station IDs. We really don’t have the time to think about it anymore, and the collective amnesia of postmodern entertainment leaves us precious little time to speculate and dig up memories.

Steampunk is not hipster-ism, and yet it is, because really it just another flavor of goth, which is another flavor of punk, which appears at the end of that long line that began with that Lost Generation. But still the whole steampunk genre delivers this uncanny sense that the angry era of Post-WWI bohemianism just never happened, the whole jazz -> rock-and-roll -> hippie -> punk -> to hipster-ism path just disappears in a cloud of opium smoke. We have to learn a new pop cultural language and understand how they were thinking in 1890. People weren’t angry and rebellious. Nor is this the modernist “cool” lack of affect that has permeated since the 1940’s. In steampunk, people are affected! They are surprised and amazed, just as people were in the age of inventions. I say good sir! It’s marvelous and stupefying! The cinema and the circus is Dazzling!

Another question might be “why steampunk?” It’s because we are in an era much like that of 100 years ago. We are now emerging from another “turn of the century” with many new technological inventions – the “information revolution”. In fact, it’s uncanny how similar our era of computers, text messaging, digital photography and video is to the era of trains and film. Like the people of 1900, we are having constantly to react, to pay attention to the next new development so that we won’t be left behind, but we don’t have too much time to write modernist manifestos on it all. Other times, such as post-WWI modernism or the 1850’s with the French Revolutions, are characterized as being eras of political manifestos, when people were at the center and their thoughts and philosophies (and egos) were more important. Today we cannot even express a complete thought because it would be too much trouble to type it into a text message! Back in 1900 people were similarly distracted by the blindingly new light bulbs, or the cars and cinemas moving into the neighborhood. I think of that scene from “Hugo” where Melies films of trains are causing the audience to gasp in horror because they thought that a train was about to crash into them.

Joseph Niepce. A Farmhouse in France. 1826.
the earliest photograph

Ironically, the mechanical era of the turn-of-the-century was all about progress. Mass-production and assembly lines were supposed to make life better. Now, with steampunk we are disgusted with mass production, and the cheap faceless Chinese goods that it and global capitalism have led us to. With steampunk, we have adopted the the “maker” and “hacker”  cultures, and are beginning to create items and machines of our own, which ironically look like they come from the  Sears Robuck catalog of 1890.

In the mid-nineties I studied art history at the University of Chicago. The department there was experiencing many cultural changes. For one thing it was the era of “culture wars” or “political correctness”. This meant that I could no longer just look at a painting by Gainsborough and admire its prettiness or read a book by Bronte and admire its romanticism. Instead, I had to feel guilty because of all the oppression wielded by the people in the painting or the characters in the book. The other big movement in humanities at the university was an interest in the first “era of mechanical reproduction”. This was probably due in large part to the influence of the Art History Departments director and professor Joel Snyder, an enthusiast of early photography and all that was late 19th century.

Under Snyder, we took classes on art historical methodologies. We learned to rethink the way we had done art history and become more politically correct. We also learned a lot about art during the first “era of mechanical reproduction” and how it tied into our contemporary era – the mid-1990’s where the Internet was being established. We studied early photography and film, conceptualism with a heavy dose of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement, and “visual culture” – sort of a catch-all where we studied anything we could see and talked about post-structural ideas of language. We read the writers of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Benjamin in particular was a favorite of Joel’s. The most important text that year was Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction” which we discussed over and over again: the impact of the mechanical revolution and how it created mass culture and turned art on its head by casting aside the cult of the “original”. These ideas were further cultivated by others such as Miriam Hanson of the film department who was interested in early cinema and the heterogeneous nature of film programs in the 1890’s.

Studying at the university in the “grunge 1990s” and working as a cinema projectionist, I was memorized by all of the opportunities I had to get close to the first “gilded” 1890’s. It seemed so exotic and romantic not just to be “punk” or “modern”. OK, I gravitated towards the modernisms that I had always known and felt more comfortable with – Russian Constructivism such as Rodchenko or Vladimir Tatlin or Duchamp, and Le Corbusier, but in between the shock and starkness of so many glass-and-steel skyscrapers, I also saw glimpses of that earlier, sepia-toned more “steampunk” era which had preceded it, when things were still ornamental and heavy and people were not so dramatic. With Miriam Hansen I learned  and read about the composite programs of early nickelodeons – combinations of vaudeville and magic and film. I read about Edouard Manet and the idea of the “flaneur” who strolled about Paris, drinking absinthe and observing the sordid sides of street life. These were my first introductions to steampunk. They, combined with being in Chicago, home of the World’s Faire, and the industrial landscape and early skyscrapers, led one to feel many parallels with the earlier “fin de siecle”.

All of this experience in Chicago was wonderful of course, but it was at the level of academia. No one else talked about the 19th century. Most people were still interested in modernist things – the 70s retro movements, grunge, or trip-hop, tails ends in a long line of pop cultural movements – punk, mod, goth, glam, industrial, grunge which had begun with modernism and had once been so shocking  but were now kind of tired, (just as modernists had once thought the 1890’s to be), while we in the steampunk revival believe it to be the most exciting of new trends!

And now, almost 13 years later, the steampunk thing has really taken off in pop culture. And it has so much resonance. When I, urban citizen of our current information age, am sitting down reading the paper, then being pulled away by the need to check my smartphone or any number of bleeping things, I am reminded of the dizziness that it must have been to live in 1890 and walk down the street, amazed by photographic posters on the walls, turning quickly to avoid a streetcar, or the machinery of a steel building being put up by European immigrant workers, or blinking light bulbs, cursing the smoke and pollution and the factories just as we curse the emissions and global warming today, feeling agitated and thrilled by it all just as we are now, like there is something coming up over the horizon, anything but “cool”.

And now, since steampunk has hit on the level of mass culture, I am suddenly noticing it everywhere – from “The Velveteen Rabbit” which I read to my daughter at night, that innocent story which I heard as a kid, now noticing its references to clockwork animals. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is steampunk, with its images of early flight and motors and cars. Is “Mary Poppins” steampunk? Sure! “Little House on the Prairie”? Steampunk? (OK, well maybe I’m going too far. Ma didn’t use a sewing machine. Maybe “Little House” was just old-fashioned). And of course I am proud to say that my very own hometown of Edison, New Jersey, is steampunk! And I thought it was just a working class town with low taxes. But in fact it’s right near Menlo Park where Thomas Edison once sat up late at night just a few miles away, playing with electricity, completely unaware that he was not just an inventor, but would also one day he would be ancestor of an international fashion craze.

And what about the pre-modernist era before steampunk? That will be in the next essay…