Steampunk is … Reaction, Rebellion, Resolution

When people are first exposed to steampunk, they may read stories set in an alternative Victorian history, they may see movies filled with creatively designed if not primitive versions of modern technology, and they may see people in the real world wearing stylish if anachronistic clothing and using decoratively modified devices.

They see the resulting resolutions to an individual’s rebellion against a personal situation and a way to make changes a lived reality. Underlying those external expressions and behaviors by others is a guiding philosophy of how one wants to live their life and be fulfilled in it.

While the term ‘steampunk’ is a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘cyberpunk’, coined by K.W. Jeter in 1987,  and it is not the ‘punk’ of ‘punk rock’, it can be argued that all three have a similar basis of feeling and response.

For some people, the steampunk world, encompassing both the physical aesthetic and the virtual themes, is driven by that ‘punk’ attitude: a refusal to accept the world as presented, with a correlating desire to reshape it, and ultimately action to bring those envisioned changes to reality. Individuals with their independent ways and views, with a more encompassing or outsider attitude, and with a desire for something at least different if not more fulfilling, see how their own status quo is lacking or oppressive and seeks to make a change for themselves in their own lives for their own happiness. Punks test the limits of societal acceptability, confront conformity and complacency, and create jarringly unexpected new forms of expression.

Reaction: an idea evoked by some experience; a response that reveals a person’s feelings or attitude; doing something in opposition to another way of doing it that you don’t like;

Reaction is where everyone begins before making a change. Sometimes, the reaction is positive when we find something pleasant and agreeable, like delicious new foods and fulfilling experiences. Alternatively, the reaction could be negative when something causes tension and discord in our lives, like stifling limitations, disappointment and frustration, and overt or subtle oppression.

The strength and endurance of our reaction determines the next step: yielding to inertia and maintaining a course of action, or making a decision to change. Some people will experience the variety of expressions in the Steampunk community and will walk away unimpressed, uninterested, and apathetic. Other will find it offends their very nature and be completely opposed to any consideration of what it might offer. But there are those who embrace the initial emotional, even sub-conscious, appeal and enticement to explore their newfound interest.

Rebellion: refusal to accept some authority or code or convention; refusal of obedience or order; break with established customs; break an allegiance.

Rebellion often follows a strong negative reaction against something, a visceral feeling or attitude to pull away from something for simple escape, to fulfill an attraction to something else, or even a desire to change one thing into another. As simplistic examples, one might want to leave an unhappy relationship, or move to a better job, or transform one’s physical appearance.

Steampunks may rebel against something in their lives feeling a need to explore new things beyond their experience, or find more visual or tactile fulfillment in the physical things around them, or desire to create or modify something anew. Rebellion may happen against social injustices of the past and present, or current inconsiderate and uncompassionate behaviors, or the effects of monotonous, mass-produced, corporate design.

“Punk in the seventies was a rebellion against contemporary society. We are most definitely rebelling but we are making a stand against: throwaway society, poor manners and antisocial behaviour, homogenisation and commercialism. We are punks who are polite, friendly, care about the environment and the past and encourage creativity.” “What is Steampunk” by John Naylor, The VSS

Resolution. finding or being a solution to a problem; a decision to do something or to behave in a certain manner; resolute = firm in purpose or belief.

Resolution is the cathartic action taken to change a situation from a problem to a solution, a liability to an asset, a life-sucking depression to an energetic elation. It is finally doing something after feeling and thinking about a need to change.

Steampunks may find resolution by reading the growing list of literature and sharing their interest with friends. They may want to learn more and add more to their lives by participating in online forums, initiating discussions with others and by attending local meet-ups and regional conventions. They may want to expand their skills by making and building something never seen before.

Steampunks may require more direct and tangible actions. Some will be moved to write their own stories and make their own movies. Others will design and sew their own clothing, and create their own accessories. Some will transform mass produced, commonplace, soul-breaking lackluster objects into unique, hand crafted works of functional art.

Steampunks will find their reaction, rebellion and resolution spanning the spectrum of motivational reasons. Perhaps it’s the desire to learn more, do more and be more, or the need to break free of internal or external imposed limitations, or an inherent revulsion at the excess materialism clothed in a complete lack of style in a commerce-driven society.

Our group resolutions, our common acts of rebellion, take the form of corsets and top hats, of artisanship and intellectualism, of re-creation and re-imagining. Mainstream society may not understand, but then, it usually doesn’t initially comprehend nor accept something perceived as radically different or out of synch with conventional norms. But it is that rebellion which drives us forward as individuals, as a community, and as a society.

Regardless of the reasons for rebellion, the Steampunk community is a collection of journeys of self expression through paths of individualism, creativity, and acceptance. We are inclusive, inquisitive, and always evolving. Our resolutions to our own rebellions are dressed in form and functions of times past, knowledge and skills of times present, and optimism and visions of times future. Paraphrasing Arthur O’Shaughnessy, we are the dreamers of dreams and we are the makers of our reality.

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 7:09 am  Comments (16)  
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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well put, sir! Particularly loving the shout-out to Arthur O’Shaughnessy. 😀

  2. […] Steil of Airship Ambassador, a shiny new steampunk blog, has an interesting discussion of the “punk” in […]

  3. Fantastic article. You summed up a lot of how I feel about the subject, and did so in a very nice package. I always thought that the whole “is steampunk actually punk?” question was sort of a moot point– the whole thing is about subversion of norms, whether those norms be past or present– different types of steampunk just sit in different places on the punk spectrum. 🙂

  4. or an inherent revulsion at the excess materialism clothed in a complete lack of style in a commerce-driven society.

    Heh, if you believe wearing Victorian and Edwardian era clothing counteracts today’s materialism, you should read more about both time periods! 😉

    • Exactly! The victorians, living in the first major era of mass production were the heralds of materialism, elitism and social climbing. It was the first throw-away era – the era of the disposable razor and the rising middle class. And while the face of the society was full of rules and etiquette, more often than not what happened behind closed doors, in dark alleys and lower class hovels was much closer to our modern sensibilities than most people want to admit.

      Also, I find it intersting that so many self-defined steampunks gravitiate towards the romanticized versions of upperclass of Victoriana, often leaving out the ragged, unclean and imo’steamiest’ ranks of the Victorian society in favor of bad british accents and half-learned period etiquette. While I’m quite find of the Victorian era and its many innovations, I would love to see some more branching out in the Steampunk movement. There’s a whole world out there of steampunk awesomeness so get out of Great Britain and go find it!

      • I am afraid Evangeline you are missing the point. Steampunk is not about trying to go back to or recreate the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It is not re-enactment or an attempt to turn back the clock.

        Steampunk is about a future which never happened and about a creative alternative MODERN lifestyle and art form. It may lift aspects from the Victorian and Edwardian but as inspiration only just as the New Romantics lifted Medieval inspiration.

        People are of course free to choose their own sources of inspiration. It is not just about the aristocracy of England. Steampunk is a very wide and eclectic genre and I enjoy the diversity and creativity. I hope it will continue to develop and explore new areas and ideas just as you suggest crescentwench.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Allegra Hawksmoor, Mike Perschon. Mike Perschon said: Airship ambassador's erudite reflection on the ostensible 'punk' in steampunk: […]

  6. On the ‘punk’ part of steampunk. Back in the ’70s, I was under the impression that American punk culture was an unfelt fashion ripoff of English punk culture. (I mean, you could go to boutiques in Westwood Village and buy pre-ripped t-shirts with safety-pins in.) Since then, I’ve learned that, at least to some practitioners, the core of the punk movement was engagement. Joey Ramone encouraged people with something to say/sing to get up and make music even if they didn’t have formal skill with an instrument. The movement had less distinction between performer and audience than, eg, stadium rock, and promoted involvement. I think cyberpunk had some of the same aspect (it was about, among other things, being somebody other than a computer genius involved with virtual worlds, etc) and I think steampunk, *as a movement* has some of the same aspect. You can participate without writing a book / making a movie /being a star.

  7. Fascinating read here! I really appreciate the community dynamic your essay emphasizes; there has been a lot of talk about subject-based definitions of steampunk concerning history, literature, fashion, etc, but not enough that stresses the fact that steampunk is more than an aesthetic and a subgenre, but a growing and active subculture too.

  8. […] As we continue to be intrigued by the question, what defines steampunk? in anticipation of the Great Steampunk Debate to be launched next May, SteamPunk Magazine linked to an interesting contribution by one Kevin Steil at the blog Airship Ambassador entitled “Steampunk is … Reaction, Rebellion, Resolution.” […]

  9. […] Steil of Airship Ambassador, a shiny new steampunk blog, has an interesting discussion of the “punk” in […]

  10. There seems to be an surfeit of definitions, which is good. My interest in Steampunk is perhaps a combination of an appreciation of Victorian engineers (especially the nuttier ones) and engineering (used to be a railway nut), the aesthetics of the same and that whirling cogwheels are less abstract than bits in a computer (my livelihood), and an unhealthy appetite for anachronism (also, wearing the railway nut hat, its nice with a world where the railways reigns supreme – except for the occasional Zeppelin of course :-).

  11. […] Steampunk is defined all over the web. I will attempt to break it down for you, but here is a link to supplement my definition: Airship Ambassador […]

  12. This is bloody brilliant. Clean, organized and classy. Thank you for doing a splendid job on the compiling of related events, media, etc. Spot on job

  13. […] good way to put those ideas out into the wild. Katie Casey at Steampunk Magazine read my blog about Steampunk as Rebellion and passed along the information to their readership. There were almost 1,000 views that day […]

  14. This piece has inspired me so go out towards a more cyber style in my latest creation as pure ‘rebellion’. I like the feeling of… a future which never happened 😉
    Once I’m done I’ll post a link.

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