There’s a system of belief that change is, overall, a good thing. It can force us out of tired or bad habits, reinvigorate old ideas and bring new ones to the fore. The same is true in Steampunk. Change, as a whole is good; it keeps Steampunk fluid and evolving. This is part of the argument as to why Steampunk can never be truly mainstream; it is simply too mutable as a genre for any company to get a firm grasp on. However, there’s also an element of “sameness”. There are faces and elements that will always be there, regardless of the trappings of time, and there are feelings that go beyond the need to evolve – feelings of safety and comfort in what is already known.
It’s important that all Steampunks recognise that there are many types of people within Steampunk, all with different beliefs, ideals, and views on adaptation and change. I know that it seems like an obvious statement, yet it’s one that gets lost an awful lot (particularly during online interactions, where it is easy to hide behind the curtain of anonymity).
I have personally observed a lot of anguish and heartache over this idea that change in Steampunk is the only way forward, and those who did not want to change have been ostracised; made to feel that they are inherently bad or wrong despite them being perfectly accepting and understanding of people’s right to a difference of opinion. The problem stemmed from the other side not wanting to accept that same right and at one point, the depression it caused was so bad, I almost threw in the towel on the whole community. Thankfully, it never came to that, but the fact that those thoughts have crossed not only my mind, but the minds of many others because of this attitude to change, needs to be talked about openly.
I wrote a similar article called “Remaining Splendid at All Times”. The way people behave online is terrible and I don’t think there’s any place for it in Steampunk. Interestingly, my experience of people not accepting one side or the other is established residents of Facebook pages shooting down newcomers because they don’t think that the creation or photo posted are Steampunk enough. It’s really simple when you don’t know these people to not actually think of them as people. They’re just a bunch of words on a screen, so denigrating them is easily done.
I grew up in the photographic industry and whenever a new technological breakthrough occurred,everyone said it would be the end of photography. It happened with autofocus, APS film (actually justified though), Digital, Photoshop and SLT cameras. What’s actually happened is that some people have embraced the new tech, some have adopted it later and some have shied away, but photography still remains photography. Go onto a photographic Facebook page and you won’t see someone belittling a newcomer on there telling them that their photographs aren’t photography. Sure you get some elitism, but you will wherever you go.
Change is inevitable, but that does not mean that everybody should have it forced upon them. And it isn’t even a question of “newbies” versus “oldies”. There are people who enter Steampunk and who immediately want to mould it to their own vision. There are also new members who are happy to adopt a view from an older member because it matches their personal feeling of how Steampunk might work. On the other hand, there are older Steampunks who are incredibly adaptable and mutable, who adopt new ideas easily and willingly and whose idea of Steampunk is constantly changing. At the same time, there are older members whose view is less adaptable, and who are steadfast in their belief of what Steampunk is and what it means to them, and who find a form of safety and security in what they are, believe and make.
Take, as an example, the idea of Victorian modesty. Some members are happy with the more modest approach to Steampunk garments, hiding those terribly tantalising ankles, and finding a degree of security and comfort in the fact that it is okay to hide their bodies under layers of sumptuous fabrics and colourful designs. Others believe in the complete reversal of those strict fashion codes, exposing areas that would have been considered unwholesome to Victorians, finding freedom and exploring their creativity in extravagant and revealing outfits. That doesn’t mean that either of these directions are wrong, it simply means that people are choosing to express themselves in different ways.
Change will happen as you say and I think it’s important to remember that Steampunk has changed drastically from 1987 when the term was coined up to now. It started off as a literary term but now the Steampunk umbrella includes music, creations, art, video, photography, events, dressing up and even a way of life to some. If those transitions hadn’t taken place then we wouldn’t be where we are now with one of the largest and most recognisable subcultures in the world.
One of the most inspirational people I knew was an Area Manager at the company I worked for. One day he called and asked me to implement a certain procedure to the staff. I started it right away. He called three weeks later and told me it was all wrong and I had to do it a different way. I explained that I was implementing the procedure exactly as he’d instructed and couldn’t understand why he’d changed his mind, to which he replied: “Just because I said something three weeks ago, doesn’t mean I think that now.”
That illustrates to me a forward thinking mind of acceptance, tolerance and open mindedness that recognises the need to change as the situation necessitates it. I’ve tried to live by that philosophy ever since.
The important thing to recognise is that, even though all of these ideals are correct (as Steampunk is an incredibly personal and individual thing), attempting to force your ideas of Steampunk onto others is wrong, regardless of whether you are old or new to the culture.
If an old Steampunk doesn’t want to change when new people join with new ideas, that doesn’t make them wrong, elitist or rigid. If a group decides to change their standpoint after an influx of new members, and thus loses some old members who do not share those new values, that doesn’t make the group’s new direction wrong or either set of members “traitors to the cause”. Also if a group that has been established for some time with a certain set of values, values that it is known and respected for, resists changing those values when new people join, that also doesn’t make the group fascist or inherently bad. It just makes the group and the newcomers incompatible, and that in itself, is again, not a bad thing.
Not all groups are a good fit for every Steampunk, and whether a group decides to change or not, there are bound to be members who will leave for various reasons. Why people embrace or resist change is, as a whole, unimportant, unless you are genuinely interested in the person on a deeper emotional level. What is important is the way in which we deal with these differences of opinion.
I think it’s important to put this into context. If you went and joined, say, a book club in the evening, would you go in and start trying to take over? Tell everyone what books to read, adapt existing rules and bend them in order to satisfy your view on how it should be run? Or would you accept that how it’s done is how it was started by the creator of the group. Then once you’ve found your feet and gained the trust and respect of the group, begin to suggest areas where it can be improved or adapted with the democratic agreement of everyone?
When one becomes passionate about something, it’s easy to lose control and let it run away from you. It’s important to step back and take a look at what you want to change. Is it worth proposing at that time? Can it be tolerated until you have become a regular attendee and understand why things work in a certain way?
A difference of opinion is good. It allows for the expansion of Steampunk, and paves the way for new groups, new ideas, and new imaginings. But playing nice to someone’s face, then spreading nasty comments behind their back about their creations is wrong (hypocrisy). Attacking a group (whether established or not) that has a clear set of rules that were agreed to when joining, spreading rumours about them and attempting to overturn everything they have built is wrong (it’s bullying). Telling people that they cannot take part because they don’t meet your criteria is wrong (discrimination). Setting yourself up as an “expert” on Steampunk, putting yourself on a pedestal and then publically denouncing anyone who doesn’t follow your views is wrong (intolerance, possibly bigotry). I’ll stop there as I think you get the idea!
Steampunk is about accepting people’s differences, accepting that not everyone has the same views as you, and being the bigger person by moving on, not by attempting to take control and change them. If you don’t like how one person puts together their Steampunk outfit, by all means, tell them you don’t agree. Give clear, concise reasons. Be sure that you have a reason to give them or at the very least, express that it’s not your vision of Steampunk, don’t just say “that’s not Steampunk”. However, don’t expect or attempt to force them to change their methods and views. If you don’t like how a well-established group is run, and the membership are resistant to changing a formula that has worked for them for some time, you are welcome to start another that better fits you and those who agree with you.
That’s what is truly beautiful about Steampunk. It doesn’t matter if you are old or new, in what direction your ideas flow or how mutable or fixed you are in those ideas. All that matters is that Steampunks accept that Steampunk is different for everyone and that none of it is “wrong”.
Change is beautiful, but staying the same is beautiful too.
“Ask 10 Steampunks to define Steampunk and get 100 different answers.” I think that’s how the saying goes. It may be different to that. Anyway, the point is that no-one can truly point out a definitive answer to what Steampunk is. Therefore when you tell someone what is and isn’t Steampunk you tend to look silly.
This has happened before and it’s been discussed at length on here and elsewhere. As a digression, the article on what is and isn’t Steampunk has been updated and amended in the recent years. I like to think it’s since Steampunk Journal published the counter article “Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction”. An article which had had well over 1000 shares in it’s first few weeks of being published). The term may have less relevance now than it did a couple of years ago. Several years ago, author GD Falksen published an article on Steampunk fashion. It had rules that he suggested must be abided by in order to be considered Steampunk. It was torn apart by many including here at the Journal as it suggested that in order to be Steampunk, you must approach it using some sort of “patented Falksen method”. This flies directly in the face of the individuality of Steampunk and much of the credibility that Falksen had built up in the community was eroded away because of that.
Professor Elemental wrote a wonderful article for Airship Ambassador (where’s my wonderful article Professor? Hmm?) in which he suggested that Steampunk can be taken far too seriously, and he’s right. After all, we’re a bunch of geeks strolling round market stalls dressed in hats made out of faux Octopus skin. We have ray guns. We have corsets and we worship an Elder God from an HP Lovecraft novel. Yet some people treat it as though it’s something that should be somehow taken seriously.
Some people make money from it and if it’s a business then yes there should be a degree of professionalism. However if you’re simply attending a meeting or event, you’re there to have fun. The great news is you can have that fun because someone else has done all the hard work organising it for you. Don’t let that go to waste; have a good time and get to know all the crackpots in the group. You won’t regret it.