Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Commercialization of Steampunk

Steampunk Moves Between Two Worlds - Ruth La Ferla @ NYT

It's hard to define steampunk because much like any kind of punk, it intentionally defies definition. But some trends are apparent, much like with it's originator: cyberpunk. The ethos is based around the questions of humanity in the face of modernity and technology. While there are fashion statements to be made, the real thrust of steampunk is the idea of electric gods made human like Telsa, adventures like Charles Lindburg and dramas like the stories from the Great War. Steampunk reinvents the end of the 19th century as a time when the industrialist was also the genius of the time, when any technology was possible and society had quickly adapted to the radical shifts without much effort.
Sadly, this was not how it happened. Steampunk writers know this, hence the questions of morality and the human spirit. They are the same question we, and the cyberpunk writers, ask now. To make a tenuous historical hypothesis, I think the responses to modernity during the 19th century (a desire to return to a purer time, virulent nationalism and the rise of fascism, or at the very least it antecedents), kept the West in particular from arriving at any real answers. We are confronted with these questions again due to the rise of the Internet and all of its possibilities. The adventurers of steampunk flying airships and discovering impossible lands (Warren Ellis' Planetary should be required reading for both steam and cyberpunks) are translated into virtual adventurers moving between the physical world and the virtual with ease and where actions on one side have consequences on the other.
I do love the steampunk ethos as much as I love the ethos of cyberpunk. Both put these questions of what humanity means during times of great technological change. And both have their responses in characters that aren't quite sure of what is really happening but retain their humanity after great struggles with technology. The style, fashion and romance of both sub-genres, and now sub-cultures, are merely outward representations of these questions. However, as sub-cultures like steampunk gain wider acceptance I fear that the true punk ethos of anarchist reaction to the mainstream will lose itself in the commericalization of the culture. Just as goth, fetish and even punk its were subsumed by consumer culture, so too will steampunk fall before the needs of retail. Honestly, I believe that cyberpunk will remain the only non-commericalized sub-genre for a while due to its futuristic settings and necessary technological advances. Even so, commercialization will infect it as well.
Despite that, I don't think I will really mind such commericalization. It's inevitable in today's world. What I will mind are those who mistake the accessories of steampunk, the fashion and the attitude for the real ethos of steampunk. They, like the poser punks of the 1990s, will actually retard the progress steampunks seeks to accomplish. By ignoring the real questions steampunk poses, they will become another in a long line of fashion charactures. Yes, the fakers will come, because they have money and material desires to meet. But hopefully there will remain the writers and thinkers of steampunk and cyberpunk who look to constantly reinvent the style and shape of their genres.

No comments: