The “punk” genres of alternate history can claim both aesthetic and political stances. The “steam-“, “diesel-” and “atomic-” may suggest an historical look and feel; the suffix “punk” references that aesthetic’s historical stance toward power, that is, its political intentions.
All art movements are rooted in the culture and context of their time. When artists forget this, they become privileged, precious, ahistorical, appropriative and/or culturally adrift.
That is why, as a historian, I am not interested in or persuaded by an aesthetic which disavows the political. On the contrary, I would argue that any public-facing art — especially an art situated within the long twentieth century — is either inherently (if implicitly) political, or willfully blind or hypocritical.
I’m also a veteran of the late-1970s punk revolution. To me, “to punk” means to occupy the subaltern, to push back against the dominant, to hack the norms and counter-jam aesthetic presumptions, and — most importantly — to question or subvert the cultural politics and entitlements from which those presumptions emerge.
To “punk” an aesthetic therefore means to read the prefix “steam” or “diesel” or “atomic” against the grain, against the norm; to critique and/or subvert the dominant culture of those periods. This is what the original punk-rock did and what the original cyberpunk did: they turned the dominating aesthetic of 1970s glam-rock and 1950s utopian science fiction on its head.
Continue reading “Re-punking Dieselpunk”
Steampunk performer Professor Elemental is back with some common-sense advice on how to deal with politics in steampunk:
At times, I have tried my hand at politics on stage, and had people shake my hand and thank me for taking a stand. But other times, I have annoyed or upset people who were just out for a good night and a bit of escapism. As the world gets harder, I’m trying to make live shows softer, sillier and less partisan. Some people don’t want politics with their steampunk and we need to respect that and stop bothering them.
I remember when I argued in my controversial “Who Killed Steampunk?” article more than a year ago that the genre had become too political, and this was chasing people away, Elemental was one of many critics who thought I was exaggerating.
A few months ago, he, too, recognized that politicizing steampunk can do more harm than good, and he urged people to stop excluding others on the basis of political beliefs.
Sounds reasonable, except when I suggested the same, I was accused of tone policing; of only caring about white and straight people (although I’m gay); prioritizing the hurt feelings of those who want to oppress others; and called naive, a racist, the son of skinheads and a complete and utter jackass.
In short, I was “canceled” — like so many others who have stepped outside the narrow confines of accepted political thought as defined by steampunk’s leading (and loudest) opinionmakers.
It’s a fate Elemental has so far been spared. Let’s hope that, as an opinionmaker himself, he can help turn the tide.
Continue reading “Steampunk Doesn’t Have to be Political for Everyone”
Noam Chomsky is probably the world’s most famous anticapitalist. David Frum is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. I doubt they agree on much, but they agree free and open debate is vital to a democracy — and that it’s currently being attacked by the far left as well as the far right.
With 151 other leading intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Chatterton Williams, they caution in a letter to Harper’s that resistance to the illiberalism of the right must not harden into a dogma of the left.
Specifically, they worry that the “censoriousness” of so-called cancel culture is creating a “stifling atmosphere” in which authors self-censor their stories, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity and editors are fired for publishing controversial opinions.
Their laments will sound familiar to anyone who has been involved in the politics of steampunk. The movement has been taken over by social-justice warriors, who brook no dissent from woke orthodoxy.
Continue reading “Steampunk Has Its Own Cancel Culture”
When I argued we should avoid letting our real-world political differences kill steampunk, I was accused of tone policing, caring only about white and straight people (I’m gay), hating on steampunk that doesn’t put straight, white, wealthy imperialism at the forefront, prioritizing the hurt feelings of those who want to oppress others; I was called naive, a racist, the son of skinheads and a complete and utter jackass. (This coming from the sort of people who insist they’re trying to make steampunk a “safe space” for “diverse” points-of-view.)
Steampunk performer Professor Elemental wrote an op-ed for The Steampunk Explorer arguing I was freaking out for no reason and steampunk was doing “better than ever.” Bill Bodden wrote an opinionated blog post, in which he dismissed me as an opinionated blogger and insisted that “new enthusiasts are coming in all the time.” Cora Buhlert argued that if steampunk is changing, that’s a good thing, “because the static genres are the ones that are close to death.”
Yet here we are, one year later, and the same Professor Elemental reports that steampunks are leaving the scene because of political rifts. He speaks from an UK experience, where Brexit has sorted people into opposing camps. The divisiveness and polarization is even worse in the United States.
- Don’t walk away from steampunk or exclude people just because of the odd wrong opinion.
- People who disagree with you are not deserving of hate.
- Steampunk is and should be for (almost) everyone. If we want our little subculture to thrive, we need to work hard to bring people together wherever we can. (Excluding actual bigots.)
I suppose I should know better than to expect Elemental to be canceled for suggesting anything so outrageous. Let’s hope his appeal will be taken more seriously than mine.
Continue reading “Maybe Steampunk Is Becoming Too Political After All?”
My “Who Killed Steampunk?” story from April continues to make the rounds with an unfortunately common reaction being to stick one’s head in the sand. Many people seem to believe that because they’re still doing steampunk, or because there is a well-attended steampunk event in their region, the entire movement must be doing fine.
The introduction to a recent op-ed by performer Professor Elemental in The Steampunk Explorer goes so far as to reassure readers that not only “everything is fine,” but steampunk is “better than it ever was in fact.”
It contains no evidence for this “fact”. I’m not even sure it’s what Elemental believes. In his op-ed, he recognizes that blogs and message boards have disappeared (although I think he’s overly optimistic when he writes, “Fewer blogs and message boards about steampunk means there are fewer blogs and message boards, not less steampunk”), that events have been canceled, and he has noticed the same attitude I blamed in April for “killing” steampunk: a tendency to scrutinize every steampunk costume, creation and story for signs of Eurocentrism, imperialism, misogyny and racism.
As Elemental puts it:
Continue reading “Nothing to See Here, Steampunk Is Doing Fine!”
Subcultures like ours don’t do well under extreme scrutiny.
It was Sunday morning and the first thing I read on Facebook was a call from someone in the steampunk community demanding that another person be “unfriended” by all of her followers. Along with this, she posted a screencap of a meme this terrible person had posted which said, “Share if you also want to see Hillary Clinton in jail.” It had the former secretary of state’s face photoshopped behind bars.
For one anti-Clinton meme, this steampunk woman demanded the deplatforming of someone I didn’t even known before this incident. One wrong meme in some circles and you’re out.
By that logic, I should have been “canceled” a long time ago. I’ve disliked Hillary Clinton since the early 1990s. But social media has made it much easier to scout out thoughtcrimes. Don’t belong to the right political party? Don’t hate politicians from the other side? Someone will screencap something you wrote, share it on their own page and demand that you be shunned.
We’ve crossed into a weird McCarthyism — Jenny McCarthyism — where if you’re not liberal enough you’ll be chased out of whatever fandom you’re in.
Continue reading “The Steampunk Political Guillotine Machine”
To keep up with all the responses to my “Who Killed Steampunk?” story, I’ve spent more time than usual reading Never Was‘ Twitter feed in the last couple of months. I follow almost everybody Twitter recommends to me, as long as they look or sound relevant to steam- or dieselpunk, and I follow back almost everybody who follows Never Was. So I made no effort to tailor this feed politically.
What I get is half steam- and dieselpunk and half left-wing politics. I don’t see any tweets that suggest they’re from a person who is center-right.
This isn’t new. I asked eight years ago where the steampunk Republicans were. Nor am I the only one who worries steampunk has become an echo chamber. Others who have written on this topic include Professor Elemental and Moriarty Viccar, both of whom are left-wing.
I can think of three possible explanations:
Continue reading “Can You Be Right-Wing and Steampunk?”
- Twitter is left-wing.
- Steampunk is left-wing.
- Right-of-center steampunks don’t tweet about politics.
More than two years ago, I caused controversy with the rant “Requiem for Steampunk” in which I outlined what had gone wrong the genre. I wrote in declarative statements that what we call “steampunk” isn’t steampunk anymore by bookending the article with these two paragraphs:
Since it has lost the anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects, “steampunk” is no longer steam “punk.” It’s something else now and I’m not sure what to call it… So either steampunk is dead, it’s dying, or it was never what it should have been and what is now called “steampunk” is a bastardization.
If steampunk — and for that matter, dieselpunk, decopunk and so on — isn’t about flipping society right-side up with a splash of non-conformity and anarchy against the ruling class, we should find another suffix besides ‘punk.
Sandwiched between those statements was the thesis of my argument and how I came to my conclusion that steampunk was in a lot of trouble as a “social movement”.
I have continued to write and talk about the topic, including in a review for The Steampunk Journal and in an appearance on “Radio Retrofuture” with Bonsart Bokel.
So have others. Nick Ottens’ recent “Who Killed Steampunk?” is the latest entry in this debate.
I have come to the conclusion that if only I had written “Gatekeepers Are Killing Steampunk” and made that the title of my rant, I would not have caused so much controversy. I could still have heaped much of the blame for what’s killing steampunk on the people who are trying to control it and make it their own and I wouldn’t be the villain and scoundrel that I am accused of being today. (Although, let’s face it, I actually enjoy the “scoundrel” part.)
I suspect that a more mundane title would have also spared Nick much of the heat he has taken for his article.
Continue reading “The Gatekeeper’s Scythe”
I’m not often moved to write articles, usually it’s fiction for me. But I was intrigued by the two “Who Killed Steampunk?” articles here and surprised by some of the responses. All genres have their ups and downs, and I’m hoping any steampunk downturn will soon turn around. Again, like the original article, I am restricting this to written steampunk only.
Nick’s articles made me think. They made me wonder what was my unwritten agenda? When I started writing the Shades of Aether series, I just wanted to write a light-hearted adventure (under my other author name I write dark gritty crime and I needed a break from that). The books started as an adventure and forbidden love story, but grew into something more. While I created that, I didn’t analyze or worry over it. It just came about organically.
Continue reading “Writing Steampunk”
My last story, “Who Killed Steampunk?“, provoked a lot of comments, both here and on social media. I’ve tried to read all of them, but I couldn’t respond to everyone individually, so let me follow up here.
Most of the criticism fell into one of three categories:
- You’re ignoring the convention and music scene.
- You’re trying to force your view of steampunk on others.
- You’re blaming “social justice warriors” and providing a refuge to misogynists and racists.
Each of these arguments deserves a more thorough response than fits in a tweet.
Continue reading “Who Killed Steampunk? A Response to My Critics”