I don’t usually court controversy.
I do my best to stay out of the debates over whether or not something is “really” Steampunk because all they do is make me angry. Preferring instead to look at the things people have called Steampunk and then highlight what I see that is consistent with any aspect of the genre. Perhaps it is my background in Anthropology that makes it so, but my approach is usually descriptive, not proscriptive.
In other words, I see myself as an involved observer looking for patterns and meaning without trying to define the boundaries. And I recognize the irony of having a rant about what it means to really embrace Steampunk and criticizing people who go on rants about what Steampunk means… but here goes.
Being part of a fandom (or in anthro-speak, a “micro-culture”) shouldn’t hinge on limiting other people. The point isn’t to tell other fans they can’t participate, like an entire genre/aesthetic/cultural tapestry is a ball you aren’t willing to share just because someone wishes to participate on their own terms, because their vision of what is to come is different than what has come before. Or maybe the creator does not have the funds or technical skills to execute what their imagination has produced, and that creative impulse should not be snuffed out.
Here’s an Example
I saw the following meme come up on a Steampunk page feed on Facebook once:
Many of the people who responded made jokes (But what if I like dragons better? Dragons have to eat too!). A few people supported the statement. But it seemed to me as I watched the comments accumulate that most people COMPLETELY missed the point. They responded along the lines of “But if something ISN’T really Steampunk then I should be able to say so. Sometimes people are just wrong and they need to be put in their place.”
This one got the most thumbs up, and manages to miss the point twice by both making a joke about dragons and by being ignorant:
“If it’s not Steampunk, then it’s not steampunk… If a kitten dies everytime [sic] I say a cactus is not steampunk just because you glued some gears on it (a very bad example, but you get my point) so be it. I’ve always rooted for Khaleesi and her dragons anyway.”
Let me Break it Down
If the person who made the gear-cactus was inspired by classic sci-fi literature or anything at all in the Steampunk canon, then the thing they create IS Steampunk because it was influenced by Steampunk or its roots. It is THAT PERSON’s contribution to the ever-evolving discussion (even if they do not apply the label themselves, but that’s a discussion for another time).
You don’t have to like it. You’re welcome to think that it is not as high a quality an item as a REAL clockwork cactus would be, or that it isn’t the BEST example of Steampunk. But that doesn’t mean it ISN’T Steampunk.
Second, if a person has a vision of clockwork cactus but they do not have the money or skills to make exactly what they imagine, does that mean they should not be allowed to create at all? Imagine you are that gear-gluer and you finally get up the courage to post your creation because Steampunk is all about DIY, right? The wild west is a popular backdrop for Steampunk and in the story you are writing there is a whole battalion of clockwork cactuses poised to attack the backwater town. But when you post your vision of a clockwork cactus you are met with a tide of criticism telling you that you failed to create something Steampunk and people are not interested in your contribution. They are effectively telling the creator to shut up and sit down.
And this is an act of violence.
Not only is it an act of violence, it completely undermines punk, and so Steampunk, as an ethos. I know how us geeks like to be technically correct (which is the best form of correct) but there needs to be room for kindness and encouragement as well. Why police the way people interact with the things you both love when it’s so easy to find common ground?
The person who says the gear-cactus isn’t Steampunk could just as easily say: “You know what would be even MORE steampunk, if it was a fully functioning clockwork machine!” That would acknowledge the effort and vision of the creator and allow the commentator a chance to express themselves, but no harm is done.
In the act of building our identities, humans find it easiest to split the world into a series of opposites. We are prone to pattern recognition and then use the patterns to shape who we are and how we interact with the world, and dichotomies are simple and easy to understand. So the act of trying to define S is an act of identity-building for those engaging in the conversation. And that is a valid process. It is true in all genres; people everywhere nitpick details of the things they love. But just because the propensity is there, it doesn’t mean that is it the most productive way to look at the world.
I believe a lot of the backlash I see about things that aren’t “really” Steampunk is understandably from people who have been fans for a long time. They have been LARPing, writing, creating, reading, attending cons, dressing up, and spending their time and energy on something the love for a long time. They see their beloved idea being infiltrated and changed by the newcomers. But…
Making it to the party early doesn’t make it your party.
In fact, hosting a party doesn’t even make it your party, as many an event planner will tell you. The party, or in this case the Steampunk scene, cannot help but be shaped by those guests who come later, who come with a different set of experiences or skills, who want to join in the conversation. And they should not only be allowed in, but welcomed with open arms.
There are two ways to deal with a difference of opinion: “No, but” and “Yes, and”. The first is how most people respond, especially if something they believe is being challenged. They circle their mental wagons and create arguments to justify their own sense of self (though of course we aren’t aware that this is why, we think of it as “truth”) and let the bullets fly. They do battle with their enemy and try to vanquish them with words. But, what if instead we acknowledge the other person’s point of view, find a common ground (Yes) and then continue the conversation in a constructive way (and).
Humans love to draw lines between things, but couldn’t we just keep moving the line and widen the circle?
What Does “Meaning” Even Mean?
Of course there are some facts that are immutable. Gravity works whether or not you believe in it. The energy of the sun powers our world. But can you say with certainty that it rises in the East? Sorry friends, but most accurately, the sun appears to rise in the direction commonly agreed upon by the majority of human beings to be called “East” (or one of it’s counterparts in another language).
We believe that there is an “East” because we need a way to bring order to our world and communicate with others, but that doesn’t actually make East a “real” thing. Most other animals use detectable magnetic field lines to navigate, not some imaginary arrow superimposed on a map by those uppity primates. Birds only fly South for the winter because we say they do. In their own minds, they are simply flying.
Steampunk is not an immutable fact. It is an idea. Further, it is an idea based on punking the status quo, and striving to innovate and express themselves however they are able. Telling a person their voice is not welcome is the opposite of the movement that bore Steampunk in the first place.
On the flip side, I encourage anyone who has ever been told something of theirs or something they posted or loved “isn’t steampunk” to stand up for your right to add to discussion with this phrase:
Making it to the party early doesn’t make it your party.
This doesn’t mean I forgot about you beautiful weidos who have been here all along. But if we want to see Steampunk flourish, we’re all going to have to share the sandbox. If I haven’t convinced you yet, I doubt I ever will. So just take a deep breath, close your eyes, and focus on all the cool toys the new kids might bring to the playground when they arrive…