jadegirl: (honor)
[personal profile] jadegirl
Steampunk is having its moment in the sun these days, with appearances in major network TV shows and front page articles in metro-area papers; even Disney's hopped onto the bandwagon, releasing a series of sepia toned, gear adorned accessories. In a lot of ways, it's a very good time to be a steampunk. Being lucky enough to live in NYC I can't go a month without a steampunk gathering to attend, filled with live music, fashion shows, and authors reading new work.

Of course, brass tarnishes. Frequently, as any subculture comes into its mainstream moment, battle lines are drawn, and the subculture becomes a target for all sorts of ire. While having its moment in the sun, steampunk is also taking its turn against the wall. This can be a wonderful thing, actually. Any cultural movement needs to be interrogated, questioned, told it can do better, be better, and it must. Without this pressure, culture stagnates and become stale parody. Steampunk in particular requires a great deal of critique and interrogation, because of the problematic nature of the history it encompasses.

However, this pressure, this interrogation needs accuracy above all things, else it devolves into mere ranting and divisiveness that merely offends, silences, and sets the speakers up into camps, ending all possibility for communication. This phenomena is easily observable in many of the essays decrying the popularity of steampunk coming out of the Net at this moment. Many of the complaints about steampunk lack the thinnest accuracy, and are more than questionable.

I shall begin with the concept that steampunk is inherently forgetting or eliding the inherent ills of the 19th century. Please consider Steampunk Magazine, maintained by a collective of people who describe themselves are mainly anarchists, and whose fiction not only acknowledges the labor issues of the 19th century, but frequently revolves around labor riots, or the lives of those at the bottom of the social strata. Consider Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, whose protagonist is a single mother who works in a factory, and whose path leads her to living amongst those who have utterly rejected traditional society. These works are not in the least obscure, and yet NPR references a recent essay by Charlie Stross with a title that asks if we've forgotten the word “Dickensian”.

Some will even point to the clothing of steampunks as evidence that they are ignoring the epidemic levels of poverty in the 19th century. I beg your pardon, but are you really policing my clothing, attempting to tell me that I am ignoring my own lower class background? Isn't the concept of policing women's clothing (interestingly it's most often bustles and unisex items like top hats and goggles that are brought up as evidence of these failures of consciousness) fraught with enough issues that you might want to avoid it? Except, of course, in the case of cultural appropriation, but that's been addressed by better authors than I whose links I will include in the appendix.

Another frequent complaint is that steampunk is inherently a monoculture, ignoring the existence and perspectives of people and cultures outside of the British empire. This ignores and silences the voices of steampunks of color who are quite active in critiquing these issues. For example, if you Google “steampunk and race”, the first result is an article on Racialicious written by Jha of the Silver Goggles blog. Google “steampunk and imperialism”, and the first result is once again an essay by Jha, the fourth by Ay-leen the Peacemaker, of Beyond Victoriana. “Steampunk and Multiculturalism” leads back to Ay-leen, who recently won the Last Drink Bird Head award for Gentle Advocacy for her work in Beyond Victoriana.

These people are not difficult to find at all. My husband recently had a birthday party at which a few friends had their first introduction to steampunk. These friends happened to be women of color, and within a day one of them emailed me excited to have read Jha's The Intersections of Race and Steampunk essay. Tor.com recently ended their “steampunk fortnight” which featured the work of Nisi Shawl, Amal El-Mohtar, Jha, and Ay-leen. They tirelessly engage in exactly the sort of interrogation I mentioned earlier, and without them steampunk would be much worse off than it is. Why is it that those who are writing their “Against Steampunk” essays seem to have no idea these people exist? The silencing of so much excellent and difficult work is distressing, to put it mildly. The act of silencing the voices of those who are working in the arena of addressing steampunk from a specifically multicultural perspective is fraught with privilege, especially when done by white authors. Considering the fact that much (by no means all) of this silencing is men ignoring the voices of women of color adds to the extraordinarily suspect nature of such work.

Some say that steampunk literature is shallow, more interested in the tropes of the subculture than any real literary merit. I must ask if they've looked at bookstore shelves lately. We have our paranormal romances, our wizard's schools, and now, steampunk. Like any other genre, the pearls are few and far between, but that is not a sin particularly inherent to us. It can and has been said of any genre.

Finally, the endemic nature of steampunk at this moment is often brought up as a problem. Over saturation is a complex question. How much of anything, be it paranormal romance, telepathic animal companions, wizard's schools, etc. is 'too much'? If gears are being slapped on any old thing in order to hitch a ride on steampunks coattails, is that a fault within steampunk? The wide world of marketing has followed this formula for a very long time.

Indeed, as I said in my opening, we are having our moment in the sun. Our current era resonates strongly with the 19th century – war and rumors of war, the movement of empires, the rising levels of poverty, social injustice, and the pace of technological innovation are all quite similar. Steampunk can be an attempt to own and remake these things, humanize our technology by making it aesthetically pleasing, work towards new ways of interacting with the world by learning from the injustices of empire, etc. This is the platform which some of us chose to stand on while trying to enact a better future.

Popularity fades, and soon steampunk will move back into the shadows, replaced by the next big thing. I'll stay, though. I like it here.

Further Reading, in no particular order and by no means complete:
Jha's The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective [Essay]

Ay-leen the Peacemaker's Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk

Steampunk Magazine

Jha's Silver Goggles

Date: 2010-11-04 08:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bethynyc.livejournal.com
Thank you for writing this--beautifully expressed!

Date: 2010-11-04 09:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silme.livejournal.com
Hear, hear!!

Date: 2010-11-04 10:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chelseagirl.livejournal.com

Date: 2010-11-05 02:59 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-11-05 04:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fantasyecho.livejournal.com
Thank you for the mention!

Date: 2010-11-05 04:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jadegirl.livejournal.com
Thank you for the amazing work you do! (I *loved* your review of The Windup Girl.)

Date: 2010-11-05 04:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
Thank you, yes.

Date: 2010-11-05 04:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] asim.livejournal.com
The point that you keep using the term "silencing" in reflection of those actively critiquing, from outside, the overall movement's lack of reflection of the PoCs who are critiquing is troubling me. Greatly.

I'm an outsider to this culture, looking in. But I can parallel this to the SCA, which I do know, and which has many of the same issues. It's not that there aren't people talking about it -- it's that, to the outside observer, to the journalist who's writing about them, to the people who see steampunk from the books on the shelves and the occasional media mention, those voices do not exist.

And I point out that the movement, not he media, needs to more explicitly incorporate and raise up those internal-to-Steampunk critiques. Example: Cherie's Clockwork Century work comprises a series of novels, that -- as you point out -- target some of these troupes, enough so that I'm looking to purchase them as a set for my Brother, who is into the genre.

But it concerns me that the 1 of the 3 books, with an African-American on the cover, is also the one not published by Tor, and is, indeed, out of print -- and was published this year, no less. You can imagine how that impacts me.

It may not be Cherie's fault. It may not be Tor or Subterranean's fault. Heck, that might have been planed -- I know she's done limited runs of other books. But it strikes me that I've not seen any discussion, amongst the steampunk folks I know -- and understand my Brother, with whom I live, is hip-deep into this movement -- about that issue. Or many others.

And that's where I live, with this. Nisi's essay -- which I've read -- talks about "chances", not the reality of today. Amal's, which is new to me, talks about tearing steampunk down. Jha's two essay's here, one of which I used before as a jumping-off piont for SCA discussions, are about the reflection -- or lack thereof -- in the movement of these issues, in no small part.

And I'm reading these, and I'm seeing people who are invested, but voices who are not reflected in the overall steampunk conversation, by and large. And I'm left wondering how much of a minority they are, in the movement. and how that reflects, again, on the argument that the media is silencing these voices. I honestly think that critique has a point -- but the bulk of the ire might be better pointed to the rack-and-file steampunk folks who don't appear to talk about these issues much, if at all. And I daresay that is why these people are not part of the larger media conversation.

Perhaps they aren't difficult to find for the average person. But -- and I know this from both belly dance and SCA experience -- if the people you meet, and the conversations you hear, not only avoid these topics, but dismiss their importance? Then these kinds of essays, although clearly helpful, are also, just as clearly, marginalized within the actual movement as a whole.

ETA: To clarify who (media, etc.) is producing the critiques in my first sentence.
Edited Date: 2010-11-05 04:21 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-11-05 04:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jadegirl.livejournal.com
One note about Clementine - it's going to be reprinted as a major market run next year. While I can't find it right now, I do recall there being a lot of conversation about how that particular book needed to be made more widely available. I *do* find it unfortunate that of all the stories, that one was first published in a limited edition.

And I point out that the movement, not he media, needs to more explicitly incorporate and raise up those internal-to-Steampunk critiques.

Absolutely agreed. It is quite possible that my perspective is coming from inside a bit of a bubble, which did concern me in the writing of this - understand, some of the bloggers I link to, like Ay-leen, are personal friends with whom I'm in pretty regular contact, and the internal-to-steampunk media I consume is generally related to those circles. I've also observed at major steampunk cons the panels on these issues being so well attended that they're getting larger rooms and longer slots (in theory, I haven't seen any actual schedules yet) next year.

The reason I have called the 'outsider' critiques "silencing" is that my impression of them was that they were saying that there was no internal conversation about the issues of race, class, and imperialism at all, and my first thought was that perhaps indeed these people are a hard-to-find voice within the movement, which is why I did the google experiment I outlined. Finding them so easily gave the outsider critiques a disturbing cast, though.

Gah. I feel like I'm not quite grasping what you're talking about here, nor communicating my response well. Am I addressing this at all?

Date: 2010-11-05 06:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pantryslut.livejournal.com
Thank you for this comment.

Date: 2010-11-05 11:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dmp.livejournal.com
It's a very interesting note you make about the role of the media, because I think the current criticisms largely have to do with how outsiders get their information, and how this information is disseminated.

As steampunk hits the mainstream, news outlets are going to go to the largest, most visible figures available. And, to be frank, those sources --the main representatives of the steampunk community-- are mostly white. And so most perspectives talking about steampunk subculture are, more likely than not, going to be affected by the speakers' white privilege. Not to say that issues of race, colonialism and cultural appropriation won't be addressed by white speakers, but that the community as a whole has issues of privilege--and so does mainstream media. And thus, both parties would more likely not realize the privilege they have, which results in silencing marginalized voices.

By and large, however, I have to say that I've been impressed by the ally support that people of color are gaining in the movement, and that slowly, that presence is growing. And some news sources are better than others in getting inclusive coverage (for instance, the infamous New York Times article on steampunk a couple of years ago also featured the James Gang, who are black performers based out of Harlem: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/fashion/08PUNK.html).

The simple fact that Nisi, Jha, Amal, and I were even *asked* to blog for Tor--the largest sci-fi publisher in the US-- is *very* significant. And even before Tor, I had received a lot of support from white allies in the community such as Jake von Slatt, Jeff Vandermeer, C. Allegra Hawksmoor, and Michael Perschon. Those names might mean nothing to you, but all of them are prominent figures in the community, people who *do* get interviewed by those media sources.

I think in terms of community dynamics, people are just now starting to realize that we are here. Of course, as the media grapples with the steampunk subculture, coverage can always be imperfect -- news stories are only as representative as the reporters who write them after all. And the community as a whole is still only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being self-reflective enough about their own issues. But so far, steps are being taken in the right direction.

On another note, I can speak from a publisher's insider perspective about Clementine. This book is a novella not originally part of Cherie's book contract with Tor, which is why it got sold to Subterranean for a limited run. But the instant success of that run--copies were all sold out from presales-- prompted Tor to pick it up for wider distribution. And I myself can't wait to read it. ^_^

Date: 2010-11-05 11:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dmp.livejournal.com
Thank you for your insight on the topic and the shout out. And, (as you know from Scott Westerfeld's blog), it looks like some people are better Googlers than others ^_~

Date: 2010-11-06 03:27 pm (UTC)
ext_35267: (Peaceful)
From: [identity profile] wlotus.livejournal.com
I am neutral about steampunk; it neither sets my imagination on fire nor turns me off. So I look at the ire and tend to think, "Some people don't like to see others have fun, do they?"

After seeing "Avatar: The Last Airbender", Janelle Monae remarked that she not only enjoyed the movie, she also got some insights into life. She was familiar with the criticisms about the movie's casting, so she remarked that sometimes we are too busy ripping something apart to enjoy and learn from a thing. Some of that may be going on with the harsher critics of steampunk, too.

Date: 2011-01-27 11:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mlleviolet.livejournal.com
It seems being a steampunk means being apologetic. Firstly because, even in NYC, in which whites are a minority, my photos of steampunk events in the last few years depict overwhelmingly white attendees. I find this distressing and wish there was something I could do about it, but being white myself, I'm part of the problem and feel helpless to change it. I'm not going to hunt down PoC who might be interested and ask them to get involved in steampunk. That goes against my own personal belief of valuing people for their character and not their genetic make-up, and anyway, I routinely invite anyone who might be interested in steampunk to the local events. And secondly, because steampunks are regarded as idealizing the 19th century and longing for a return to it. I have never met a steampunk who actually approves of racism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, oppression of women, or the cruel treatment of even upper-class children, nor all the dreadful aspects of day-to-day life in the early 19th century. But for some odd reason, steampunks are regarded in this way. People freely dress as pirates without anyone thinking they approve of thievery and murder. 1940s-style pinup girls and those who dress in 1950s clothing made fashionable by the Mad Men television program aren't viewed as racists, even though the United States was appallingly racist during that era - both in governmental policy and individual attitudes. The largesse granted to history buffs and vintage clothing fans is not accorded to steampunks. I believe that's why there are so few steampunks who wear American frontier clothing - it's harder to forget that the expansion of the American West was made possible by the oppression and genocide of the Native Americans, and wearing frontier clothing seems to advocate the atrocious policies of Manifest Destiny.

Yet most steampunks I know are quite knowledgeable about history and very much want to talk about even the darker aspects rather than sweep it all under a proverbial rug. It's sad that steampunks aren't given the same benefit of doubt that contemporary rockabilly girls or pirates are. Perhaps once steampunk disappears from mainstream media, as it eventually will, there will be less accusation of whitewashing history. And maybe the fine work of people like Ay-Leen & Co. will result in a more diverse community, one which better reflects the city in which I live.

Date: 2016-10-12 02:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] franiq3fk0yv3wa.livejournal.com
However this pressure this interrogation needs accuracy above all things else it devolves into mere
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