Thursday, May 08, 2008

The labor contradictions of steampunk

I never thought I'd see a New York Times article on the literary, technological-tinkerer, and aesthetic movement loosely known as "steampunk," but there it is today, in the "Fashion" section:
The lead singer of a neovaudevillian performance troupe called the James Gang, Mr. James has assembled his universe from oddly assorted props and castoffs: a gramophone with a crank and velvet turntable, an old wooden icebox and a wardrobe rack made from brass pipes that were ballet bars in a previous incarnation.

Yes, he owns a flat-screen television, but he has modified it with a burlap frame. He uses an iPhone, but it is encased in burnished brass. Even his clothing -- an unlikely fusion of current and neo-Edwardian pieces (polo shirt, gentleman's waistcoat, paisley bow tie), not unlike those he plans to sell this summer at his own Manhattan haberdashery -- is an expression of his keenly romantic worldview.

It is also the vision of steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early '90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.

I must admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I'm something of a steampunk fan myself. But this affiliation manifests itself in different ways. In my consumption of popular culture, I'm indeed drawn to the airship-filled worlds of young adult science fiction paperbacks and Hayao Miyazaki anime DVDs. In my own technology aesthetic, I guess I'm less "steampunk" than "electropunk," as my campus offices are filled with cast-off media technology from the last fifty years ... analog record players and analog microfilm readers, vintage Atari games (antiques after 30 years) and vintage iPods (antiques after less than 10). And while I don't clothe my digital appliances in burlap, I do wrap my bicycle in wooden baskets and plastic flowers; I don't electroplate my computer in copper, but I complement my wireless-laptop-based blogging with wooden pencil sketches in a Moleskine notebook. In a sense I feel that the students I see who plaster their notebook computers with political bumper stickers and encase their industrially-designed iPhones in handmade, recycled-material pouches ("hippiepunk"?) are doing the same thing. Of course, the original meaning of "cyberpunk" itself was filled with similar anachronisms, nostalgias, and contradictions.

What I find interesting about all these "technopunk" aesthetics and longings are the way they reveal our simultaneous desire and discomfort for both the future and the past. We long for the latest technology -- recognizing that "latest" is perpetually reinvented and continually just out of our reach, by definition -- but we cradle and contextualize that latest technology within an idealized representation of past technology, seemingly undermining our desire for the new with a sense of loss for the old.

How does "information labor" -- and ideas of social class and social power connected to information technology -- relate to any of this? At one level, being a technopunk of any sort means expending labor to recast, recontextualize, or reimagine your present-day technology in the context of another (usually idealized) age. It's a valuing of craft labor, amateur labor, fandom labor of a very particular sort. It's a repudiation of both mass production and flexible production, a challenge to notions of planned obsolescence and incremental upgrades. And it's a social practice that takes significant time, expense, and education (literary, historical, or technological) to carry out. When affluent consumers use old technology, it's "retro chic." When poor consumers use old technology, it's a digital divide.

But there's another sense in which labor and class lurk, specifically in the "steampunk" world. Combining formal Victorian clothing with digital consumer technology seems to connect both the noble utopian visions and the harsh political-economic realities of the modern and the postmodern age. Steampunk suggests a nostalgic world of possibility, where the visions of peace and prosperity through technology articulated by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne might yet be realized. But steampunk might demand a world of imperialist resource extraction, rigid class boundaries, widespread economic unrest and perpetual technological warfare as well. The late nineteenth century was no picnic.

Yet I remain a steampunk fan. I think at its best, the literary, artistic, and playful processes of casting our technological dreams back 25, 50 or 100 years can be an incredibly creative exercise, illuminating the ways in which technology is constantly mobilized for the most beautiful of imagined futures even as it is put to use in the most terrible of present-day projects. Calling an alternate technological history into being forces the dreamer to engage with the same issues as those academic practitioners of the history of technology: not just the question of what difference technology can make, but the question of how we make sure that technology makes the difference we want.

1 comment:

formative_foundations said...

Your view of steampunk seems to be a bit different from the ones I have encountered. While of course there is no set definition of the genre, I have run into many steampunk sources than tend more towards the proletariat and anarchic-egalitarian side of things and away from imperialism. A prime example would be the works published as "Steampunk Magazine" by a small anarchist collective.

I think one of the strong elements of steampunk and many other punk subcultures is the diy asthetic; modifying objects to make them our own, studying and sharing techniques that make us less dependent on major corporations, and reusing found and lost materials of the past.

I think in the future there will probably be a co-opting of the steampunk aesthetic for more mainstream purposes with an abandonment of the steampunk ethics. Whether this be a natural progression of the subculture and a point for division we will have to wait and see.