As a favor to a friend I went to NY Comic-con yesterday to appear on a panel on alternate histories and Steampunk, featuring the work Boilerplate, created by the talented duo of Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett. Guinan and Bennett were on the panel, along with Ay-Leen the Peacemaker creator of Beyond Victoriana. Before the panel I viewed a documentary on Steampunk, Vintage Tomorrows. The trailer, below:

Some years ago I read the book that kickstarted the movement, The Difference Engine, written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (who, not coincidentally also kickstarted the cyberpunk movement that spawned steampunk). I recall at the time thinking that situating the birth of the computing era some 100 or so years earlier than it actually happened had literary possibilities. But I lost interest, in part because I felt that the alternate history project whether we’re talking about steampunk, or re-imagining World War 2, never really spoke to me.

Simplifying I believe there are three different ways to examine the politics of cultural production. We can focus on the political content itself and the messages contained therein. We can also focus on the production process, the way a given form is created. We can also focus on the politics of circulation–the politics of spreading a given work of art (some works and ideas are more likely to circulate than others…why?). Finally we can focus on the politics of consumption–the effect a given work has on individual attitudes, behaviors, identities. I dealt with this with varying degrees of success in Stare in the Darkness.

In the case of Steampunk, the questions that loom large to me are circulation and production questions. Why steampunk at this particular time? Some think of steampunk as a partial reaction to anxieties about the present, and to the almost immediate obsolescence of contemporary technology (the IPhone 3GS I bought almost three years ago will be useless in a year or so). Yes. I get that. But this doesn’t explain why folks return to the Victorian Era. What’s in that period? Well it represents the first moment where people really begin to understand the effect of technology on their lives. (Gibson noted the Victorians were the first to live in a state of ongoing technoshock.)  It is also the moment where the world becomes open for exploration and adventure.

But what else happens during this period? Africa is cut up and distributed amongst colonial powers, poor men, women, and children are literally and figuratively mangled by growing industrialization. Finally during this period population control becomes INCREDIBLY important, and as such elites use sex and sexuality to control women. In Vintage Tomorrows one of the interviewees talks about imagining a Victorian Era death ray, so huge it takes up buildings.

If this imagined yesterday actually happened such a machine would most likely be stained by the blood of child labor. And manned by indentured negro servants. The industrial revolution itself is not possible without brutally subjugating entire continents.

With exceptions (and I’ll get to this below) this is neatly ignored, and instead of novels dealing with for example the mundane lives of black laborers forced to build Jules Vernes’ rocket to the moon we see novel after novel dealing with high society, with the lives of Victorian era elites. And extending our discussion of steampunk to other elements outside of literature we definitely see a similar embrace of high society in steampunk fashion.

So when asked in the Q&A a pointed question about the political elements that made steampunk possible, I said that it isn’t hard to connect the growing anxiety about the nation’s shifting racial demographics to the growing economic anxiety many of us feel (that itself undergirds the growing occupy movement) to a move to a much better time that just so HAPPENS to be a time where it was really really good to be white, male, and privileged. Steampunks who don’t read the literature but wear the gear, build the toys, and participate in the community may not consciously do so wanting to be white, male, and privileged. But they do so nonetheless, just as a kid wearing a confederate flag does.

Now I mentioned exceptions.

Exceptions probably isn’t the right word, but right now I don’t have a synonym handy. The central “stuff” that makes a given subculture identifiable is always open to re-interpretation and re-imagining. Steampunk doesn’t necessarily HAVE to focus solely on high society, it doesn’t HAVE to valorize whiteness (either by valorizing european victorian-era design aesthetics, by writing about/depicting white populations, by ignoring non-whites). It doesn’t HAVE to valorize heterosexuality. It just TENDS to.

Which means that progressive minded steam punks have to basically re-imagine the re-imagining process steampunk embodies (just, as I think about it progressive minded folks within hip-hop have to re-imagine IT). Boilerplate does an excellent job of inserting its central robotic character into a number of situations that bring the regressive political elements of the time to light–Boilerplate fights Jack Johnson for example. And Ay-leen the peacemaker isn’t the only one invested in creating a more progressive steampunk. NisaNisi Shawl and Jaymee Goh are just two of the people invested in this project.