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Steampunk’s Work Here is Done

Last weekend at the Atlanta Steampunk Exposition I was asked to speak on a panel called “The State of Steampunk in the South”. As someone who’s been a prominent figure in the Steampunk community for over a decade, was one of its earliest scholars, and who runs a 25,000+ member Steampunk group on Facebook, they felt that I was fairly qualified to speak about my opinion on the state of Steampunk in the South (and elsewhere), but what I had to say wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

What I said was that in America, Steampunk’s work was done, and that while it wasn’t in danger of ‘dying’ anytime soon, it would likely never again experience the surge of popularity that it had enjoyed in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.

“What was Steampunk’s work, and how can it be done?” a brave audience member asked, after I’d finished giving my somewhat provocative topic sentence.

The answer to that question lies with the origins of Steampunk itself. As a Steampunk scholar, I assert that the beginning of Steampunk as an aesthetic or genre began in 1965 with the airing of the first season of television’s The Wild, Wild West. Other scholars may disagree, and point to the earlier 1955 Disney film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or perhaps even the later novels by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter from the 1980’s. Either way, Steampunk had been going for quite some time before the explosion of popularity it received starting in 2006.

If that’s true, we have to ask ourselves: what changed? What was it about the mid-2000’s that was different than the earlier decades? Why wasn’t Steampunk more popular in the 1960’s, or 70’s, or 80’s, or 90’s? The answer isn’t simple at all; rather, it’s long and complex, and since I don’t want to write a novel, I’ll summarize. Steampunk gained widespread popularity in the mid-2000’s because the time was right; our society experienced something of a perfect storm of factors that all led to a widespread, diverse group of people all finding something meaningful in the Steampunk movement. We can break that down into a few main categories, but the actual reasons are more diverse than I could cover in one article.

  1. Increased prevalence of minimalism in technology and design – The mid-2000’s saw a resurgence in the art of minimalism, particularly in so-called “iDesign”. Sleek, smooth iPods had taken over, and the new iPhone was the latest craze on the horizon. Even laptops were changing from their old, bulky design into similarly minimalist fashions. This was frustrating to many folks who wanted their gear personalized, or more decorative. Minimalism is great, but not everyone appreciates it effectively being forced upon them.
  2. Increasing acceptance of casual clothing for all occasions – In the 2000’s, the trend of casual clothing being acceptable for all occasions rose to new heights (or sank to new depths, depending on your perspective). Jeans and t-shirts became fairly common to see even at places like fancy restaurants, and the opera. Skinny jeans were in. Jeggings became a thing, as a precursor to regular leggings being acceptable as pants in most public places. For the people who thought that certain clothing was “proper”, it was an assault on their senses. Steampunk’s perceived conservative mode of dress was a very appealing form of rebellion.
  3. Decline of so-called ‘traditional’ etiquette – Many of the folks who are into Steampunk are older, currently in their 30’s to 50’s (or even older/younger), so they grew up as children in the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s, which were times when many children were taught that there were certain ways to behave in certain situations. Always say please and thank you. Hold the door for ladies. Never swear. Etc. Personally, I haven’t read any studies as to whether the decline in etiquette in the 90’s and 00’s is real or just perceived, but either way, there are many folks who believe it’s real, and are frustrated by society’s acceptance of people who do not abide by these “rules”. Victorian etiquette was the embodiment of the reverse of that trend.
  4. Increased technological complexity and planned obsolescence – In the 1980’s — and even into the 90’s — technology was something that anyone who had the dedication (and the user manuals) could understand. An average person could replace a part in their car, for example, or even fix their Walkman if it broke. But moving into the era of iPods and cars with onboard computers, fixing broken devices at home became nearly impossible. Even if you take your iPhone to an Apple store, they often just give you a new one instead of fixing the old one. This frustration from lack of control over one’s own devices, and spending money on products designed to be replaced after only a few years, hit many people pretty hard. That frustration contributed to the growth of the DIY movement, of which Steampunk was one small part.
  5. Lack of original designs at fan conventions – As the fan convention scene began to pick up steam (no pun intended) in the 90’s and 2000’s, it became generally unacceptable to cosplay an original character, and only the costumers who chose to embody ‘familiar’ characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. were given attention and recognition at these events. For many people who don’t have a ‘super’ physique or don’t look like established characters, that was downright disheartening. Additionally, many costumers wanted to express more creativity in their art than just bringing to life someone else’s designs. Steampunk, where every character was unique, was a godsend to those folks.

While I could delve into more reasons why Steampunk became popular when it did (including an eerie similarity between the Victorian era magnetic telegraph and the modern internet), those are the highlights. So if those are the reasons why Steampunk came into popularity, then addressing those issues would be Steampunk’s ‘work’. How, then, could it be ‘done’? Many of those problems are still an issue today for people, so it would seem as though Steampunk would be just as relevant today as it was ten years ago, but it clearly isn’t (as pretty strongly demonstrated by the shuttering of scores of Steampunk conventions in the US), so what gives, right? The fact of the matter is that Steampunk’s effect on society was exactly the same as society’s effect on Steampunk; which is to say that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares back into you.

Steampunk blazed a trail in the convention scene, creating room for other costumers to portray original designs much like how an older child breaks the rules to create room for their younger siblings to get away with more. Just like how those children’s parents have had their expectations adjusted by their first child, the source of the yearning for more decorative and ornate designs wasn’t ignored; it was only a matter of time before all sorts of phone cases and laptop stickers came into being, tempering the pure minimalism of pristine devices and creating a space for uniqueness and lush visuals on the canvas of sparse design.

At the same time, though, society was doing some trailblazing of its own. The shock value of a lack of etiquette, or casual clothing, or even the complexity of technology, has slowly subsided over the course of the last ten years. Put simply, people have gotten used to it. While social change creates anxiety in a populace, that anxiety can only last so long before people adjust and adapt to their new circumstances. Instead of continuing to rebel for the rest of their lives, most people have found a ‘new normal’ where they’re pleasantly surprised when someone displays proper etiquette, or they’ve become blind to pajamas in public, or they’ve found new outlets for their repairing/constructing impulses. I’ve personally watched people’s outlooks adjusting over time, possibly without them even realizing it, thanks to exposure to people and media who were willing to push the envelope.

That all said, Steampunk did a great job. It provided a welcome refuge for people who needed a creative outlet, or a safe haven, or an identity during a difficult period of adjustment. Much like with other subcultures before it, though, it was only a temporary stop for most of the people who partook of it. There will always be some “lifers” who live true to that subculture for their entire lives, but many more folks will move on to other things. Quite frankly, the world of 2017 and onward has much more serious things to worry about than Steampunk, and I look forward to seeing the next form of rebellion and refuge that arises.

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