Friday, December 9, 2011

Ruminations on the Broken System

So here's a thing I was thinking about.

I've been reading a few books lately. I mean, I've been starting to read some books, and by the 50th page I put them down. They were steampunk books, even, which just goes to show how sick I am of mainstream right right now, and by mainstream, I mean stories stuck in the straight white cis able-bodied "rational" male paradigm that so much of the world is steeped in.

(Look, I know there are some steampunks wailing about mainstream getting into our steampunk, but hrrnngghh, what does it take to explain that much of what comprises steampunk is already mainstream?)

And because I am a simple-minded person, I think right now in terms of spectrums and stories.

There are stories about broken systems. There are people who like stories about broken systems. The are stories about people who live in these broken systems, because it is so painful, look at these people so brave to live in these broken systems, to challenge it and stand up against it. These are stories about people who learn how to smart and savvy. It is an act of heroism to cast your defiance into the teeth of the broken system's machine. And from this broken system someone will rise and be supported by sacrifices of friends and family, and there is a glory to their rise, and there is so much pain they have to go through, but it is so noble and so true. They fix the broken system, maybe, or maybe they create a new one far far away, but what beautiful people they are to do so.

I love these stories. When I was a kid I wanted to be that hero. Even today I could be persuaded to die fo my ideals.

Then there are stories about broken systems, very much like the one I described above. And there are people who don't think broken systems are anything special, because they live in those broken systems. If they wanted nitty-gritty, they wouldn't read stories about broken systems. They lives those lives of pathos and despair, they challenge the broken system with their very existence. They're not thinking about the heroism of survival, they want to know how to get through to the next day. It's not a gritty life, it's just daily living. It's not especially terrible, who has time to make that judgement call? They survive by working together even though they live in corrupt places where it looks like everybody's out to get each other. They try to make things work, try to feed their kids, try to feed themselves. They know something is wrong, and work to fix it with their limited resources. Theirs isn't a life of glory or of self-improvement, but of getting by and doing right by their neighbours the best they can. In this kind of story there isn't a single person to follow. They cobble together whatever works the best they can, with whoever they feel they can trust.

I don't think I've ever come across any published books that talk about these stories because they're not pretty enough unlike Austen's high societies, and also because they're too real.

Plato wanted to ban poets from his ideal state for a reason. Capitaism co-opted the poets instead to sing hero songs that always sound so great, so full of hope and potential and life, but in the end, not terribly challenging to the status quo.

A mother shot her two kids and then killed herself the other day. A poet could tell her story, but in our broken system, the only story to get light of day about this would be one that drives in the pathos of her story, how sad, how pathetic, all she had to do was keep trying--filled out, all over again, that 18-page application--and eventually she would have gotten that aid she so desperately needed. The story that wouldn't get published would be the one that asked why people applying for welfare, already under stress, already hungry, already unable to think straight from desperation, have to fill out 18 pages of a form. That story would articulate, in paralysing detail, all the numerous factors that would have led to this decision, and in doing so, make the readers understand their complicity in that system.

You know, what I like about steampunk is that it makes no illusions as to new-ness. I like the sight of things cobbled together into some lackadaisical mish-mash, things replaced over and over again, things falling apart over and over again. I don't understand the purpose of getting new things and making them look old, but I understand the purpose of finding old things and making them work, all over again. It's not that we make them new; it's that from the old stuff, some bits here, some bits there, we make something that works with us and makes us happy. Or we take something broken and then we find out why it's broken, and we re-build.

Amal El-Mohtar declared last year, "I want to destroy steampunk" because she wasn't satisfied with the way things were and wanted to reshape them to accommodate new visions of what steampunk could look like. I felt that way too, felt her clarion call to create something new.

But I've studied steampunk awhile and I know this shit is not new. The challenge Amal and I and so many others face is not that steampunk is limited, but that people are limiting it. And this, too, is not a new challenge.

If you can understand that something is not new, then you can also understand that something has a history. What is this history? How did it come to be? Who made those decisions? Why?

I look for these stories. I like doing steampunk stuff because it brings me into contact with people who bring other stories into my life, stories I usually have no idea about, which I'm not sure how they're even relevant, but I assume they will be, someday. Stories that help me find out what my place is here. And that tells me who I need to thank, who I need to be careful around, who I need to help, who I need to be responsible to. Steampunk is a helpful label to find other people like me, although I have found just as much wonderful affirmation through other names too: feminism, science fiction fandom, social justice.

I keep doing steampunk because it helps keep me aware of my complicity in the broken system. The way I do steampunk keeps me on the search for the stories where I can trace how I came to be where I am, how I came to make the decision that I made, how I can make more responsible decisions in the future.

It's not how I came to steampunk, true. I liked the shiny shit just like so many others do. I still do; I was born in the year of the Rat, and we will make of with shiny shit if we want to. There's nothing wrong with this, okay? Don't let anybody ever make you believe otherwise. You have a right to a shiny that makes you happy.

More than that, but the more stories I kept reading, stories that weren't mine, but stories that are inextricably linked to mine anyway, however tangentially, the more I come to understand the broken system for what it is, and the more I come to understand the necessity of calling out the broken system for what it is.

This blog is about postcolonial steampunk. It's a kind of steampunk that seeks to examine the broken system left behind by centuries of colonialism. It's a kind of steampunk that will go right into those stories of colonialism and re-tell them, over and over, until the descendents of colonialisms the world over squirm in their seats, because they will be held accountable for their continued complicity in it. It's a kind of steampunk that says to those who have been marginalized by colonialism, hey, you know, this shit is fucked up, and you're not alone in feeling that way. It's the kind of steampunk that points out how those patterns repeat themselves, over and over and over, into new forms of colonialism. Until everybody gets a goddamn clue and gets on board with fixing this.

I personally do not think I'm doing a good job of it; there is so much to say and so much to learn. But you know, it's not really just about me, which is the other part of why I think I'm doing a pretty crappy job at this blog. It's about the people I meet. I learn about the legacies I inherit, I learn about the responsibilities I have to take up to the rest of the world. It's through them that I learn how to identify the patterns of how things happen, and it's through them that I learn I, too, can commit the same mistakes of the past.

I'm part of the broken system. I'm a result of the broken system, and frankly, the way I live my life, I contribute to the broken system.

Here's one of the cool things I've seen being done in steampunk: people find broken things all the time. Salvage them. Repair them. Make them better. Or use the parts into something else, something that works, something that fits their vision.

I won't lie, I can't do this. Not even metaphorically like in the hero stories. My vision is about a system that quits hurting people. And to find out how that even works, I have to find out what it is that hurts people, and how. Sometimes I find the thing that helps some people hurts others. Sometimes I find the thing that helps is not sustainable because of the rest of everything which is so broken, it takes any little repair down with it. (You know how it is with today's methods of production; it's so much cheaper to just buy a new thing than it is to repair it.)

But I am kind of tired of trading in new things for new things for new things. The system is broken and I can't fix it by myself, because not only is that beyond my ability, it's also pretty fucking presumptuous and arrogant of me to assume I could. The system has been broken a long time, and there have been many people at work, fixing it, and nobody notices that there are efforts to fix it because no one ever tells those stories.

That's how I would like to do steampunk. Nothing on this blog is new or special; it's just building a bridge that wasn't there before, and the idea of a bridge is admittedly not a new thing.

So, there's my thing I've been thinking about. I know! A whole new post just to tell you it's not really new! But just because it's not new, doesn't mean it's not worth talking about. That's another neat thing about steampunk, eh?


  1. And this is why your blog was one of the first things I bookmarked when I started looking into this "steampunk thing". I like the look and the aesthetic, the maker ethic, and the literary roots - but it all seemed to be very much the sort of thing that would be profiled on "Stuff White People Like". In fact, one of my good friends (who is in grad school getting a Ph.D. in Religious Studies), with whom I've had innumerable conversations about privilege, racial projects, and cultural blind spots, asked about this very thing - "Is there such a thing as post-colonial Steampunk?" (his focus is on post-colonial religious identity, specifically among the largely white religious minority that we both belong to).

    I was quite pleased to be able to tell him that yes, there is in fact such a thing. It may not be "new or special" - but it's THERE, and that's important. And for those of us who live by Moff's Law, it's critical.

  2. I find "Stuff White People Like" a bit problematic sometimes, because stuff white people like are also sometimes stuff not-white people like, too. But it IS especially white in steampunk, because its first inspiration is from a time period more visibly white supremacist than it is now.

    I think the other challenging thing is that, "postcolonial" is still very much an academic term, and very full of contradictions as well. So it hasn't really been taken up in general conversations. And there are MANY ways to take up postcolonialism/postcoloniality as well, further complicating the task.

    Also, Moff's Law is SUCH a goddamn productive meme! I dunno, it's good times with Moff's Law.

  3. I got to see this first-hand at MileHiCon in Denver this year, during a panel on trends in Steampunk. The conversation eventually turned to (fairly general) questions of diversity within Steampunk, and the idea of cultural diversity was met with considerable approval. And at that point, someone on the panel noticed the same thing I'd been seeing, and pointed out that it was all well and good to TALK about diversity within Steampunk, but "you'll notice that the overwhelming majority of us in this room are very similar, albedo-wise...".

    As for academic terms, I keep thinking that maybe I should go back to grad school at some point - it does seem to be where all the thinking that I'm doing has some practical application. Or if not that, at least the people around me will know what I'm talking about.

  4. Yeah, that's one of the problems I have with this blog; finding material to talk about. I mean, sure, there are some good stories out there featuring POC characters but... they're written by white authors. And sure, literary analysis, yay, but that's not enough.

    At SteamCon they had a "Multicultural Brunch" which was nice, yay for the costumers, but I saw all these white people walking around in costumes that would get POC exoticized if we took to the streets in them. I didn't go, so I didn't take a headcount of POC there. Ay-Leen and I have been taking POC headcounts since 2009 and the numbers don't get better, it seems.

    Grad school is fun, if it's a good department! And if you're lucky. Otherwise it's an anxiety-producing machine!