If subcultures are ever about anything, they are always about aesthetics. This is not to demean or belittle the political aspirations of subculture, nor is it to say that subcultures cannot produce culture, ideas and artifacts of real depth and value. Subcultures articulate their politics through aesthetics, which is after all only a way of speaking...
Some subcultures express an inherent, unarticulated politic, which is no less a politic for having not been referred to or thought of directly. For example, Goth, an ostensibly apolitical subculture, derives its essential themes (transgression, alienation, a romantic insistence on the legitimacy of individual perspective, the invasion of fantasy and art into everyday life) from the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, just as gothic literature did, as well as its countercultural antecedents of the 20th century, notably Dadaism, surrealism and 60’s psychedelia. Other subcultures, most noticeably the –punk (punk-as-suffix; crust-punk, peace-punk etc.) family of subcultures, explicitly and deliberately develop a politics both through their aesthetics and independent of aesthetics, in the realm of critical writing in zines and elsewhere. The greatest commonality among subcultures, that which aids them in transcending “mere” fashion, may be in this relationship, in which a look or aesthetic speaks to a greater idea that in turn charges the aesthetic with meaning.
It is fascinating, and problematic, therefore, to witness the persistent popularity of a style-cult in which, for the life of me, I cannot detect the necessary depth to develop an articulable politics or an aesthetic of substance and depth. This is the thing (probably the only thing) that fascinates me about Steampunk. Aesthetically it is of so specific a range that I don’t see a lot of room for individual expression, which restricts its popular appeal and staying power. Conceptually it is so specific that I have a hard time relating its founding concepts to larger, more universal social ideas and experiences-or, at least, to larger ideas that I would want to align myself with. If Goth offers an impassioned, informed humanist nihilism, if Punk offers an existentialist moral framework peppered with righteous indignance, if Rave (god rest its soul) managed to offer an ecstatic, transient utopianism, what does Steampunk offer?
It is always dangerous to stand outside of a culture (which in Steampunk’s case is certainly where I stand) and offer judgments and analyses. I am only bothering, in this case, because I recently had a moment of revelation in which I could suddenly recognize what exactly it was Steampunk might be about; not only this, but that Steampunk and I might, each in our own way, be “about” the same thing. That is, the Big Idea that Steampunk may be trying to articulate through its aesthetics may be the same Big Idea that I spend a lot of energy attempting to articulate in words. We may, Steampunk and I, be two dissimilar children of the same horrible parent, the same ongoing and unanswerable cultural moment.
Steampunk may be an attempt (primarily, I would guess, an unarticulated and unconscious attempt) to imagine an alternative Modernism.
Steampunk may be an attempt to redefine the relationship between culture and technology.
Steampunk may be an attempt to extricate social life from the hostage position technology currently holds it in. It may be an attempt to rehumanize technology, to place it in a human scale and within a “human” (that is, pre-modern) social and cultural continuum.
The Steampunk aesthetic produces endless fetishizations of antique and obsolete machinery. These machines and peoples’ relationships to them seem to me to be the most fundamental conceptual element of Steampunk. In Steampunk’s vision of Technology there is a much greater degree of human agency over and interaction with technology than the relationship to technology we are privileged to experience today. The obsession with tinkering, with technology whose operation is rooted in observable, comprehensible physics, reveals an insistence on a technology without experts, and without necessary abstraction into the incomprehensible. Steampunk attempts to refer to, or imagine, a cultural moment before modernism and its social consequences had so totally transformed our relationships to one another and the natural world, while insisting on the privileges, possibilities and comforts technology offers.
Of course, every subculture has its conservative elements. In Steampunk’s case it is exactly the premodern world it invokes as ideal, with its unambiguous gender roles and preoccupation with social class, with its premodern certainty and order, that allows its adherents the security of not having to stray too far afield in order to enjoy themselves. The Steampunk world is curiously full of queens (and I don’t mean the fun kind), nations, colonial adventure, military pomp, the romanticized underclasses, rigid and restrictive gender production, and a quaint and tolerant attitude toward social institutions like international finance. The whole nauseating, premodern-edwardian horrorshow, itself at the root of the modernism Steampunk may be attempting to escape, is treated with a sentimental fondness, as a backdrop for narratives of adventure that (so far, in my experience) never issue an explicit challenge to the structures of power.
Maybe more significant, and more disturbing, is Steampunk’s challenge to present-day modernism. Steampunk’s collective imagination continues to produce visions of a technology that provides the same extravagant privilege that we enjoy as a benefit of our real-world technology, but without the social and ecological costs that we cannot help but acknowledge. Despite its focus on machinery and its uses Steampunk is actually a disengagement with the challenges of Modernism, a social conservatism that, unlike alternatives to modernism like anarcho-primitivism, includes the pleasure and privilege of modernism’s toys. My understanding of Steampunk is that it is essentially conservative, in the classic 20th century meaning of the word-the old ways are the best. Beneath the tarnished brass it bears a strange resemblance to the late-modernist fantasies of the Eisenhower American 1950’s: all of the convenience, none of the ambiguity.
What a subculture is ever about is, like all culture, an ongoing and collective process, the product of the efforts of its adherents. Steampunk’s DIY-technology ethic and desire for another world could transform it into a subculture to be proud of, if it develops a political and social consciousness.