Does Steampunk Matter If It Isn’t Revolutionary?

Two self-progressed progressives explain why activism and escapism can coexist within the same movement.

The administrators of the Steampunk Facebook group and proprietors of Parliament & Wake have an interesting op-ed on their site where they argue that, “as a movement of social revolution, steampunk has failed.”

Kate Franklin and James Schafer point out that writers at The Gatehouse never recognized steampunk as such, “but we were some of the few who wanted to believe,” they write.

We were never convinced that people were only attracted to steampunk because it looked cool and made a great setting for adventure novels and RPGs. Instead we believed that steampunk’s appeal was its inherent rejection of disposable consumerist culture and the dominance of our contemporary society by modern-day robber barons. We felt that, even if most people couldn’t enunciate it, they were embracing steampunk as a way to deal with the pervasive unease experienced by nearly everyone raised in the West on a steady diet of ideas like “planned obsolescence” and “for-profit health care” — on ideas spawned by a nineteenth-century capitalist ethos run amok with twenty-first century technology.

They still believe that but write that they “can’t deny the reality that this hasn’t created a community of steampunks who seriously adhere to a revolutionary, or even a particularly progressive, philosophy.”

I applaud the authors for the courage to admit it, because it’s almost taboo in progressive steampunk circles to recognize that steampunk isn’t a political movement — and never was.

Franklin and Schafer believe that steampunk can still be relevant to them, “because it allows us to imagine change and that is the most important step in ultimately making such change a reality.”

Which is fine. Not all steampunk enthusiasts believe that the world is secretly run by “corporate plutocrats” who have deluded us into thinking that freedom is real and capitalism works. But if you do, you can still enjoy steampunk.

You can even think of steampunk as an alternate vision to our modern-day, globalized world. For some, this is escapism. For others, it’s activism. Either works so long as neither pretends that only their motivation is proper.

Franklin and Schafer agree. They suggest that “some measure of apparently escapist fantastical role-playing is actually protective against the malign influences of mass commercialism.”

This isn’t to say that all steampunk role-players are leftists or anti-capitalists. We all cherish individuality, though, and personal creativity. None of us particularly cares for the soullessness of mass-produced consumer goods, but that’s not to say we all intend to “fight the system,” destroy the factories and dismantle consumerism altogether. That’s the critical distinction Franklin and Schafer are willing to make and I hope more political steampunks will.


Add Yours

Hi socialists – I can’t stand you and do not wish to be associated with you or your inane ideas for one second. Please stop claiming to represent ‘steampunk’ or claiming it is a socialist political movement. It’s frankly embarrassing.


“as a movement of social revolution steampunk has failed.”

Well maybe because never was one…

Why is so difficult for many people understand that this is fictional?

As with reggae music there is people who likes, who enjoy it, and there are those who are on politics.

Many steampunks want a better world yes, but mostly don´t think the steampunk is the way to do that.

Ahh……..Paliment and Wake. Quality stuff. This mob caught my eye some time ago not only for the caliber of their artistic output but by being upfront about their unease at the (then growing) dominance of the convention-based sci-fi fandom/cosplay facet.

When steampunk first came to my attention as something outside of “gaslamp”-style fiction and stray Jules Verne references, I too projected a lot of hopes for an alternative approach to material culture onto it. I had hoped that some people had grown tired of planned obsolescence, and instead desired lasting goods made by area craftspeople you knew one’s name. A chance to negotiate a mode of living that as P&W put it was in some ways “less efficient but more awe inspiring”.

P&W goes on to asert that aesthetics have power, I agree wholeheartedly.
I have a hard taking much of steampunk’s current styling seriously. Is the steampunk aesthetic then a hothouse plant? Unviable outside of its artificial “spaces”?

Have we been Neo-Vic’wardians all this time….?

Steampunk beyond sci-fi… let’s imagine that.

^ Avante garde political? No thanks. That way lies madness.
Social (as per a different take on consumption and what is desireable material culture) or artistic movement, that strikes me as both more useful and more viable.
Such existed before steampunk, will continue after it and has gone by a half-dozen names, none of which people trouble themselves with much. e.g. Edward Gorey likely never troubled himself wondering “is this morbid-romantic/neo-vic/anarco-anachro revolutionary enough?” he just got on with making beautiful, melencholy, retro-referencing images and stories.

But what you suggest, I suspect as well vis a vis names: the better examples of ‘steampunk’ art put forward in recent years tend not to self-apply the steampunk label but rather tolerate it if it means more exposure to a buying audience. The worst examples tend to start with ‘steampunk’ and proceed to check through the list with nil subtlty or taste (Gears? check. Leather? check. Goggles? Reference to airships? check.)
It is the quantity of the latter that has probably scared off the former from dipping into the Victorian wellspring. At least for some time.

Aren’t the steampunk-is-radical proponents suffering from a tendency to conflate not wanting their particular brand of politics included in the definition of “steampunk” (or “good steampunk”) and banning politics from steampunk? It’s after all quite possible to object to “Steampunk is radical” and enjoy, for instance, a steampunk take on Im Westen nichts Neues (if there were such a thing) or some other story with a political bite, as well as some apolitical steampunk murder mystery or ghastly ghost story. (Now, someone will argue that nothing is apolitical, that everything is political: don’t bother. I had that – together with enough politics to last me a couple of lifetimes – rammed down my throat as a kid during the 70s. I still don’t buy it.)

That’s exactly right. I don’t mind political steampunk stories. I don’t mind people using steampunk as a vehicle to promote their political beliefs as long as they don’t pretend that they speak for the whole of the steampunk fandom.

You’ll notice that our forum, the Smoking Lounge doesn’t ban politics whereas The Steampunk Forum does. That’s because we welcome debate here at The Gatehouse. All we’re saying is, stop claiming that a few people speak for all steampunks and stop claiming that steampunk is not just inherently a political genre but that it supports a particular ideology with that. It’s just not true.

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