I’d like to discuss the idea of what one might call chronological acclimatization, or better put, “what year you think you’re in” and how it relates to Steampunk. To the uninitiated, those who dedicate themselves to the Steampunk movement, fashion & lifestyle especially, often look like a group of people who cannot come to grips with the fact that it is “2010 – not 1910”. My girlfriend, the lovely KL Kenzie, has even remarked that some of her friends have quipped “how is the 19th century treating you?”
This is something I know that many a steampunker has dealt with. And this concept of “is it then or now” stems from both sides. To the mainstream, steampunk may look like a bunch of people who are trying to escape to the modern world – and many arguably are. But when one looks inside the subculture a much broader perspective can be seen. Within you have those who like the style but don’t necessarily care to ensure that it is or is not period, or, for that matter, even feel that “period” has relevance to steampunk. Meanwhile there are those that refuse to wear anything that doesn’t firmly plant them in an alternative 1888. If I was to relate to one or the other, I would choose the first and I do feel that if Steampunk is to go further than just a subculture, the first is what needs to be shown to the masses.
Steampunk is not a reactionary culture. It has reactionary values – dressing better, speaking in a more esteemed manner, holding one’s self to a higher standard of social grace – but it is considerably more socially, economically and environmentally progressive than many other movements of today. You would be hard pressed, at least in my experience, to find a steampunker who upheld the racial, gender and social discrimination found in the Victorian era.
Thus we are not necessarily dedicated Neo-Victorians. We’re a contemporary movement. We believe in our equality alongside dressing nicely, speaking as though one was from a century ago. Then there is the tinkering, yes, the building of strange machines, the modding new things to look – that is all very steampunk but that is NOT all of what is steampunk. One need one be a maker to be a steampunker. Not all of us spend our time making contemporary gadgets look like they are one hundred years old. That is something I for one do in passing, but I more so dedicate myself to holding my lifestyle and my person to a higher standard — something very 2010. So let us look at the past decade and how the steampunk movement might be pushing us forward, not back as so many may think.
Economics & Environment
Of course you know they go hand in hand – but so few of us actually consider those implications. We live increasingly in a world with a dwindling middle class, a sore lack of jobs and a workforce that has become increasingly alienated from itself. I will in no way disagree that it was the Victorian area itself that spawned this but the Victorian era was just a bit of the many innovations that brought us to the point where we are today.
We have become a disposable society and when everything you surround yourself with is disposable, you eventually feel disposable as well. Just as the plastics and chemicals of that old iPod touch or Windex bottle slowly breakdown and leach into our environment, the idea that when something breaks it is to be not fixed but thrown away so leaches into our society. Work forces are disposable, friends are disposable, family is disposable — perhaps I’m going to the extreme here, but, how many of you know your neighbors anymore? Our lives have become made up of individualized packets that we plug into ourselves and throw away anything deemed “obsolete.”
One of the things I hold up about Steampunk is the rejection of plastic. Of course, in no way would I suggest discarding all plastics as my cellphone and netbook both depend upon plastics, but to give a small instance I no longer use plastic spray bottles in my home. I use plant misters along with large, concentrated bottles of cleaning solutions (Caldrea, organics, do check them out) and fill the misters as I see fit, labeled and categorized accordingly.
For another example, purchase a nice canister for your kitchen (Home Goods offers a large variety of them for inexpensive), fill it with coffee beans, rice, flour, salt or any other necessary ingredient. Do this for all of your needs so when you require more consumables, purchase in bulk. You will save a significant amount of money, the ingredients will last you longer, and the canister looks far nicer than a cardboard box, while being environmentally friendly. This method works best for things with a long shelf life.
You can take the two examples above and run with them. Make a game of trying to remove as much packaging and plastics from your house as possible. Order milk from a local dairy, get eggs from a farmer. It may not be as convenient and sometimes it could be a bit pricey, but believe me as you will feel better in more levels of your life.
The Resurrection of the Repairman
When I buy a product whether it be a computer, vacuum, phone, car, refrigerator or toilet I will spend the bit extra for something that will last longer, if not forever. To say the least I have no intention of upgrading my large appliances. My car is going on 100k miles and it runs beautifully. My production computer that I built seven years ago still serves me well. How could I possibly live like this? Only through the long lost art of repair.
I believe very strongly in getting something repaired before throwing it out. This is very much in line with the Steampunk ethos, because the first repairman I go to is myself. When I buy something I figure it out, understand it, read about it. When it breaks I disassemble it and see what the problem is. I’ve lost faith in warranties. If you have had a positive experience with one then you are in the minority good sir or madam – see here and here for some great examples as to why it is better to repair something that is broken through a local person. The only real use for a warranty is if the product is broken upon arrival to your hands.
We have lost an entire sector of our community. The repairman went from a vital part of the community to a blue collar nobody. With the rise of the plastic disposable consumer lifestyle, repair has taken a backseat. True, there is the computer repair industry and there are the mechanics that work on your cars, but do you remember your first computer? How long did you have that for? Did you ever get it repaired or call tech support? Or the machine you are reading this on now, how long have you had it and for how long do you plan on keeping it? The same questions can be asked of cell phones, musical devices and most electronics.
It is no surprise that the poor economy has actually helped the repair industry – but will that last? We keep our cars, our computers, our television, and virtually everything for shorter and shorter periods of time. It is costly to both yourself, your psyche and the environment. So what is there to do? Instead of filling that hole you have with a new car or plasma-screen, find something that interests you. Take a trip. Invent something. Learn to fix things and offer your services to the neighborhood for a nominal price.
Bringing it back to Steampunk
Perhaps I’ve gotten a little far flung here.
So why Steampunk? How is dressing in vests and bustles 2010? Well for one, vests are very in right now, but that’s beside the point. The style of Steampunk is not necessarily 1890, it is how you make it, it is just having a bit more pride in yourself. It’s not going to Walmart in your pajama pants. It is thinking twice before letting a string of expletives shoot out of your mouth. It is men not cat calling women. It is perhaps turning on the radio before television, or even reading!
Our movement is one where we take the thrown away refuse such as a clearance rack plant mister or broken walkie-talkie in the alley and re-purpose it into a new non-disposable spray bottle or a new wireless microphone. It is trying to live and eat in the here and now with the awareness that people used to eat what was available to them based on the seasons. It is trying to find a way to live life both in a cleaner and more organic way. Supporting local farms and businesses over large corporations. I see Steampunk in all of that.
The “steam” after all represents the idea of using the potential of nature and the world around you toward progress. The “punk” represents the idea that what is authority can be broken, taken down and rebuilt with populist intent. With that stated, I can hardly think of a better time to get our steam engines fired up and punk the corporate interests that have been trying to steer the world into their pocketbooks for decades now.
One last thing. The most basic ethos of Steampunk I would argue is DIY – Do It Yourself, an ethos that has never sat well with those who vie for control and power.
-Joseph C.R. Vourteque