Springingtiger's Blog


Steampunkery and Politics

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Steampunk Superhero’s Cosplay

I think it is fair to say we live in strange and troubling times, what with the decision by the English to turn their back on Europe and drag their neighbours also into a new parochial rejection of the outside world, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA who appears also to want to turn his back on the world whilst at the same time plundering its resources. I accept this is somewhat of an over simplification, but the political details are not really my concern here, but rather how people respond to them. I think it is fair to say that that feelings are running high not only in The USA and the UK, but in Europe and throughout the Middle East, look further afield to Africa, Asia and Russia and it looks as if the whole world is on the edge of some sort of emotional cataclysm. So what, if anything, has any of this got to do with Steampunk?

I know that Steampunks like other folk hold political opinions, some are guided by political and religious beliefs so why, when countries are bitterly divided within themselves and from their neighbours, are Steampunks from all around the world still bumbling along together cheerfully? The answer is not ‘Gin’…at least not entirely. I would like to postulate that there are several reasons Steampunk is not dragged into the political morass in which the world now wallows. I have to confess at this point that my reasoning is based upon my observations of British Steampunk, it may be that some countries Steampunk differently, however I suspect that what is true for a British Steampunk is as true for others around the world.

fb_img_1464539054462.jpgThose who know my personal political beliefs to be extremely socialist, republican, and nationalist may find it strange to see me including Scottish Steampunks in the umbrella term ‘British Steampunk’. The truth is that apart from some details of expression there is little to distinguish the attitudes of Scottish Steampunks from their southern neighbours…when in Steampunk mode. And I think that is my first point: Steampunk as a way of thinking occupies a place that is meta to ordinary political thinking. Some Steampunks live in a permanent attitude of Steampunkery, for others Steampunk is more of a cosplay that they put on and off. However as I have said, when in Steampunk mode Steampunks relate to the world differently from other people.

DSCF2074I remember being startled when I realised that in a whole weekend at the Asylum in Lincoln I had heard not one swearword nor a raised voice. There is something about being a Steampunk that induces courteous behaviour. A Steampunk uses politeness like a shield to parry the unpleasantness of the world and wit the blade to return the blow. I will not pretend for one moment that Steampunks do not insult each other, but we do so with wit and humour, perhaps some buffoonery so that there is almost as much enjoyment of defeat as pleasure in victory…when the other side scores a try (or a six) we applaud and enjoy the moment for its own intrinsic artistry. What is saddening about politics at the moment is the depths to which people have sunk in their interactions with each other, people have become nastier, xenphobia, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination and abuse have become commonplace. People have no embarrassment at being caught in a lie. Respect for the rights and opinions of others is no longer considered important or even desirable, there is no place for old fashioned courtesy. Except in Steampunkery where old fashioned courtesy lies at its heart (we do like old fashioned or even an Old Fashioned).

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One might expect a strong conservative streak in Steampunk because of its embrace of old fashioned courtesy and dress. However Steampunk cherry picks what it takes from any era and so while embracing the virtues of the past it rejects its vices. Strong women are very evident in Steampunk circles, frequently armed to the teeth with customised Nerf guns and they’re not afraid to use them! Steampunk is undoubtedly trans cultural as can be seen in its Facebook groups, but also at major Steampunk gatherings that attract attendees from all over the world. Our Glasgow Ubiquitous E. Steampunk Society is not only associated with the Music City Steampunk Consortium of Nashville, Tennessee, but has scheduled a jolly day out with the North East Steampunk Society from England (now that is true internationalism!). I haven’t noticed religion entering the Steampunk conversation except as a costume, we have Steampunk monks with goggles and Victorian Bishops with gaiters at one end and goggles at the other. Given the international nature of Steampunk, I assume that it contains folk of all faiths, but they don’t let it come between them or get in the way of the fun.

Conservatives may not be very evident in Steampunk, but conservation is. Steampunks have a respect for history especially, as the name suggests, for its technology. Nothing sets the Steampunk blood racing more assuredly than polished brass, well oiled pistons, smoothly turning gears, and the ecstatic call of a locomotive whistle. “Ah but,” I hear you say, “Steam engines run on fossil fuels and pump carbon into the air!”…don’t expect a clever argument from me, although I would argue for balance and responsibility. However the Steampunk embrace of steam should be interpreted rather as an embrace of the best of contemporary technology, which in Victorian times was steam. I think we should note that Steampunks are equally enamoured of clockwork. The essential thing about the Steampunk attitude is that technology is employed for the good of society. You may object that Steampunk has its evil villains india94-070and mad scientists with their death rays and killer robots, but they only exist as villains in opposition to the positive technological vision of Steampunk…besides they are playing a role (or possibly over playing in the case of Kenneth Brannagh’s Dr. Loveless) we all come together in the bar at the end of the day. In Steampunk science is treated with respect and so is scientific method and evidence, some (many) of our inventions are fanciful, but they can be so because we are aware of the difference between science and superstition and so are free to play with both. More importantly in Steampunk the urge to conservation manifests itself in an abhorrence of waste, or more accurately a love of recycling and up-cycling. Steampunk is not part of a disposable society; where civilians dispose, we reuse and re-purpose.

I think what sets Steampunk apart politically from much of society is that it is cooperative and sharing. In victory there is little inappropriate triumphalism whether in cosplay competitions or a tea duel…okay there may be a little (I’m not sure ‘little’ is entirely the correct word.) triumphalism in tea duelling, but there’s none of the vicious denigration of the losers that has marked the conduct of Trump supporters and Brexiteers, nor the bitter resentment we have seen from the other side. Steampunks are building a better future for all based on the best of the past and that means magnanimity and mutual support. You will rarely find a Steampunk rubbish someone else’s work, but they will be generous with suggestions for improvement. Steampunks help each other, they share their skills and insights, they encourage each other. I think it is safe to say that wherever you observe someone indulging in selfishness, discrimination, misogyny, xenophobia, abuse, or any form of discourtesy the person you are observing is not a Steampunk. Steampunks are building a future on the foundation of the most noble values of the past. To put things more simply: If they ain’t nice, they ain’t Steampunk! Now it’s Time For Gin!

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