Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Steampunk Effect

The eventual co-option of steampunk into psuedopunk, tailored to mass media consumer-frenzy tastes, will miss the point entirely. It will be assumed that steampunk is just anachronistic cosplay. Trekkies with brass goggles. Nonfunctional gears becoming aesthetic jewelry (and probably ruining many functional watches). And for many that is what it is: fashion, but it is more than that.

The 'steampunk' label is already outdated, but the movement doesn't bother to rename itself because:
1) it would have to just change that name in a few years after further co-option, and
2) it has an ironic sense of humour for passé pop-IDs and self-identification, for example: Gentleman's Emporium (who sell old-fashion clothing), and the The Royal Ladies’ & Gentle-mens’ Experimental Madness Society (who make ghost hunting equipment). But it is more than a cheeky ironising of industrial / commercial society. Real steampunk will never be seen by consumers, in the same way that a graffiti style tag on a manufactured t-shirt will never be about street art.

At its truest heart, steampunk is part of maker culture. Why steampunk is important is because of the implications behind what is being made. A friend, who was just dipping her toe into the idea of steampunk pointed like a two-year-old to a stripped down Terminator doll, all of its pistons and cables showing and said with the glow of labeling: 'steampunk.' Not so, I replied. The mechanical man was too slick, he was the product of an industrialised process. Steampunk objects are one-offs. There is only one Nautilus, one Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, one Tesla. Even in the case where objects are made in factories there is an element of customisation. Huge electrical generators were made to order, not for Walmart. Mass culture, mass production, mass media are for a by-gone age: the later twentieth century. Steampunk is about customisation. Whether modification, accessorisation, or ground up machining, we desire to give our creations life. I won't bore you with pointing out that this is Toffler's third wave, nor that it correlates to the ikea effect. Suffice to say: diy good, me too bad.

But it is not just an ego-trip about being 'special.' External forms of dress, and decoration are not the key to specialness, they never were. They simply are a calling card telling others that we are in the same pursuit for a personal life. It is ironic to say there is movement towards choosing one's own values. But this is the key to steampunk and why blunderbuss marketing will only delineate the wanna-bes from the true believers. Steampunk is a multivalent movement. It isn't just about one thing, but everything.

Steampunk is about being conscious of not only our personal but societal facticity, what we have been, and looks at what we wish to become, and how that our personal choices effect the group choice. A flexible and creative commons will never arise from complacent consumers. The tragedy of the commons has to do with marketisation, which can be understood as a monovalue, tit for tat, this for that, purely functional, relationless, zero-sum, cost-benefit analysis. Any individual who is operating on a monovalue system is an addict. And as Ariely notes, it negates the multivalent social system of give and give back, gift and reciprocation, by leveraging a single value (often money).

The more values a system can cohesively contain, the more robust the system. The fewer values it can contain the weaker it is. Cohesion is the by-word here. A value 'system' is not just a bunch of values thrown in together, but a systemic outgrowth of a central idea, (which can begin as a more nebulous feeling). Steampunk is still in the feeling stage, but is, excuse the pun, gathering steam. The external forms are telegraphing the internal structures that are being assembled. They aren't just for fun, they constitute the visible outer shell of a deep cultural transformation.

A science-friendly, fallibilistic, humanistic, aesthetic, community oriented (manners and such), gender neutral but not neutralising, polarity embracing, art-embracing, mystery and philosophy positive, literary, personally empowering, decentralising, anti-bureaucratic, guerilla movement means it is a new age and we are ready for something wonderful.

It is time to write a new constitution.

Mr. Kingfisher