Imagining Backward: Or, Why Steampunk Is History, the Past Is Present, and Up Is Down*

*Except that last bit.

By James Carrott

steampunk_hands_ Araceli_Rodríguez

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a historian. It’s what I do professionally, but it’s more than a job or a calling. In the direct, functional use of the word, to do history is to be a historian. Pretty straightforward there, but I’m not done yet. I’m going to argue that if you are engaged with steampunk at all (even just intellectually through reading this), you are, in a meaningful way, doing history. So there are two historians here right now: me and you. Welcome aboard. This is a good thing. I’ll tell you why along the way.

If my calling you a historian, sight unseen, seemed like a bit of a leap, you’re not missing anything. It was. I’m going to explain it, though, starting with what exactly it is that I am accusing you of doing. This history thing.

I’ll start by telling you what it is not. First off, history is not the dry white toast that many of us have been served in middle school classrooms or in the pages of the pseudo-liberal hagiographies that make up a good deal of the popular history we see on bookshelves. Dull dead lies told about dull dead white men. I’ll grant that I’m painting very loosely and with a broad brush here, but in the service of a functional point. In terms of what it does to people’s minds, bad history might as well be no history at all.

Good history—history worth the doing—is a messy and vibrant marriage of pattern recognition and storytelling. It’s active and critical. It doesn’t blindly regurgitate “facts” or assume itself into foregone conclusions. History is a living thing. It’s something we create: weaving the past into the present in our daily lives. We identify and translate patterns, imbuing our world with energy through stories. We wear it, drink it, smoke it, and lose ourselves in it to get away from it all. Heck, we even punk it. Which gets me a step closer to my point.

What does this have to do with steampunk (and what I love most about it, the ostensible topic of this little essay)? Rather a lot, actually. I love steampunk because it is history. Living, breathing, crazy, imaginative, present-tense history.

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “I thought steampunk was science fiction and fantasy… you know, awesome, entertaining bullshit, historically-related bullshit, but still just bullshit.”

Sure, but there is a world of difference between bullshit and “just bullshit.” The latter can be dismissed. The former? You’d be missing something real and meaningful if you did. Why? Because there’s a fundamental link between science fiction, fantasy, and history.

Science fiction, fantasy, and history work the same muscles: the ability to imagine life in other times and places, to weave a compelling story, to re-build and re-engineer the past. Both also afford us a unique opportunity to re-engineer the present, too. Perspective is an amazing thing, and the past is a deep well of possibility. The ability to imagine backwards fuels both history and steampunk.

I’m not suggesting that all history is fiction, that facts are meaningless, or that subjectivity should reign. Rather, I’m reminding us that the past, whether fake or fact, happens in our heads. And it happens now.

Every time we access memories or add information (through reading, research, and so forth) to our mental picture of the past, we tap into our hippocampus in the present. In a very real sense, history happens now.

The same, of course, is true of steampunk—the process of repurposing, imagining, and crafting new pasts happens over again ever hour in shop and sheds, sewing rooms, bookstores, and convention halls around the world. Physical objects remade and repurposed write smaller pasts into new tales. Even the simple, sometimes superficial act of donning a brass pair of goggles makes a cultural statement on the role of technology past, present, and future. Our stories happen now, but they can’t be extracted from then, and they’re more about tomorrow than either yesterday or today.

In order to do anything with the past at all, you must first be able to imagine. To tell a story about the past, you first have to imagine that past. There’s no getting around it. Even the frumpiest, most conservative historians have to imagine the past. Names and dates mean nothing if you can’t connect the dots. A timeline alone is as useful as a skeleton with no organs or flesh. In this sense, then, the facts are overrated (even more so when you consider that those same frumpy conservative advocates of “objective truth” are themselves often the fastest and loosest with the data).

Am I saying that facts don’t matter and that we should accept the Tea Party’s manure on the same level as my graduate advisor’s lectures on early America? Hell no. What I am saying, though, is this: names and dates only make sense in context, and it’s the context that really matters. What we get out of a historical story is the ability to act and think differently—better—than we did before.

Steampunk shines a huge crazy-colored gas lamp on that process, freeing the stories from the facts and knocking out the ceiling that limited their growth. It makes historians out of the craziest variety of folks and brings the past lurching into the present in the wildest, most inspiring ways. It is history on the deepest level that history resonates: the living imagination of the past, applied in a changing present, to create a better future.

Steampunk takes our preconceptions of possible pasts and sets them spinning. In the process, it casts a spotlight on the doing of history itself. When we get past the surface preoccupation with facts (which have to be right, but are to history what a calculator is to physics), we can start to see the gears turning behind the clock face. Like a good acid trip for our culture (bear with me), steampunk exposes the inner workings of the past—it’s not real in the day to day sense of the word, and can cause some serious cognitive dissonance, knocking our assumptions for a loop; it shakes us up and reminds us just how much of our experience of the world is mediated through our minds (i.e. all of it).

Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s Boilerplate wasn’t actually unveiled at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. But how much does it really matter that he is himself a fictional character if his adventures tell important stories that are very much real? Maybe an imaginary robot is actually the best way to learn about the Yukon Gold Rush or the Battle of San Juan Hill.

The Neverwas Haul never was. Its adventures beyond 21st century Black Rock City and the Bay Area take place only in the imagination. Does that make it any less a catalyst to neo-weird Victorian adventure? Any less inspiring to dig into archives of strange old photographs or read turn-of-the-20th-century adventure pulps? What can we imagine differently as a result?

Does the fact that Sterling and Gibson’s Difference Engine was never actually built make it any less theoretically possible? And what does it tell us about ourselves (and our possible futures) that we can imagine a late 20th century computer operating in 19th century London? What has shifted more, our technology or our frame of mind?

I’ll grant that these kind of things just spin around in my head in the day-to-day because I am obsessed with the past. That said, it’s pretty clearly not just me. Steampunk continues to imagine and inspire, and our culture is growing ever-more sophisticated in its appropriation, manipulation, and application of the past. Is it messy? Absolutely. It’s also a force to be reckoned with.

Having closely observed steampunk for nearly a decade, I have come to believe that there is a lot more to it than first meets the eye (no surprises here—my journey is laid out in my book, Vintage Tomorrows). This is true of popular culture more generally, but is deeply and specifically relevant here.

Aesthetics go in and out of vogue, art scenes dissipate and re-form, countercultures evolve, but there is a bigger kind of 21st century conceptual DNA at work here, too. When we engage with steampunk, we expose ourselves to the idea of imagined past—our palette of the possible gets wider. That, in turn, gives us greater freedom in the present—it could be better, it could be different… so why not try to make it better?

Surely that’s worth the mess.

James H. Carrott is a freelance cultural historian. He consults with businesses and other organizations, working collaboratively with futurists, ethnographers, designers, and technologists to help them apply the patterns of the past and build better futures. His book, Vintage Tomorrows, co-written with futurist Brian David Johnson, is now also a documentary film of the same name.


Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 10:26 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] James Carrott – Imagining Backward: Or, Why Steampunk Is History, the Past Is Present, and Up Is Down* […]

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