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.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!