Springingtiger's Blog

Steampunk Spirituality


Glasgow Ubiquitous E. Steampunk Society

There are differing opinions on what constitutes Steampunk and there are within Steampunk many streams, from the Wild Wild West of the United States through the Neo-Victoriana of the UK through to the Samurai Steampunk of the Far East. However I think most people would agree that the foundation that underlies Steampunk of every description is a certain attitude an alternative way of looking at the world. However I suspect there are many who would dispute my referring to this as Steampunk Spirituality.

20160312_123358.jpgI would like to postulate that the thinking of the world exists in an antithesis between a sentimental longing for the past and an obsession with the technological possibilities of the future. For many there is a very real fear of the future expressed in films like the Matrix and Terminator series. Equally for many there is a horror of the past with its squalor, poverty and exploitation. For most there is a discontent and disatisfaction with the present where the abuses of the past remain manifest and the primary purposes of technological advance appear to be to reduce the wages bill, spy on ordinary people and to kill, preferably those less technologically able to fight back.

Steampunk represents a synthesis of the best of the past with an optimistic embracing of the technology of the future. The curse of the present is the globalisation of business which is enforcing a hideous conformity upon the peoples of the world. Goods are made cheaply in one place then sold universally to people whose desires have been programmed to conform to a certain uniformity of diet and dress. The same is true of food where exoticism of diet has displaced the challenges of seasonality of produce. Steampunk’s response is individuality and innovation.

20160312_123953.jpgThe clothing code of Steampunk lies in its ethos of individuality, there is no uniformity. Common folk adopt a uniform and try and outdo each other merely in the desirability of their manufacturer, which is why the labels are now on the outside of garments. Steampunks seek to out do each other in their creativity. For some that means customising everything from garments to guns and other accessories and for others it is a matter of putting together the creative products of other people to produce an overall look. It is a point of pride in many cases to up-cycle purchases from charity shops, even skip discoveries into items that evoke a Nineteenth Century that didn’t actually exist.

IMG_20160323_185753The Nineteenth century evoked by the Steampunk reflects all that was good in our past. The adventuring spirit of our explorers, which explains the fondness for pith helmets. Steampunks may actively despise imperialism and exploitation of other races, however they will celebrate the courage and commitment of those who built and protected the Empire while not accepting their economic and moral values, hence a mock military tone to many Steampunk outfits. Steampunk stands on the shoulders of Shackleton, Mallory, and Scott as well as Gordon, Kitchener, Havelock and Campbell.

Another thing that Steampunk seeks to revive is an age of courtesy and elegance perhaps even drawing on influences as far back as Beau Brummel and innovations such as rejecting excessive ornamentation for understated elegance. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate, because while we may look back on an age of elegance, we don’t eschew ornamentation. In fact the celebration of technological innovation that gave us railways, airships and Dreadnaughts tends to find its way into the dress of Steampunks. However the costume is merely an expression of an ethos of adventure, courage, innovation, individuality and jolly good manners.

20151122_123152As the Glasgow Ubiquitous E. Steampunk Society leaflet says ‘goggles are not essential’. I suspect the first thing mention of Steampunk summons to mind is indeed goggles. To some extent goggles are a shorthand to identify an outfit as Steampunk. In reality a Steampunk costume could avoid using mechanics at all, no mechanical arms, guns, jet-packs, not even goggles. It is possible to evoke that alternative futuristic Nineteenth Century by the subtle blending of influences in an outfit that remove it from a specific historical period and instead imbue it with the ethos of Steampunk by suggesting its moral underpinnings. Having said that Goggles are cool and they do rather shout “Steampunk!”. As I said earlier, a key part of Steampunk is individuality, it is a vehicle for self-expression and so there is no wrong way to do it as long as the expression is of the ethos. One person may be elegantly dressed in top-hat and tails, another in khaki while a third may look decidedly nautical. One woman may have a long skirt with bustle with an elegant jacket and carry a parasol while her friend may wear a cancan skirt, leather corset (over her clothes) and carry a gun.


So why have I called all this ‘Steampunk Spirituality’? The religious myths of humankind, as Joseph Campbell shows, are an expression of universal psychological truths. Much of our storytelling both popular and literary expresses the psychological challenges facing humanity. We cope with these challenges by becoming the hero of our own myth and we mythologise our lives. When we talk about ‘facing our demons’ it is not just a figure of speech, the challenges we face when they enter story become allegorised as monsters. Our dream worlds and our fantasies draw on a stock of stereotypes crafted and assimilated by thousands of generations, even if they have surrendered their armour and wings for a trenchcoat, fedora and Chevvy they remain the same stereotypes. The Steampunk asserts their right to create their own mythology and to deliberately express the universal stereotypes as they choose regardless of social programming. Most people have a spirituality of the mundane imposed upon them by their upbringing and society, some choose to rebel against that society and upbringing. Steampunk prefers to recreate it in an alternative form that transcends both social programming and rebellion whilst affirming the positive in both. Steampunk is essentially synthesis in a world of antitheses.




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