Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Friendly" Tech

So I was having a conversation on steampunk today on Tumblr, as it occasionally happens, because that is the kind of thing that happens on Tumblr, and then remembered a friend dropped a link to an article on BoingBoing which is really a link to another Tumblr post about Why Steampunk Is Good And Important. I'm not going to lie: I thought the essay itself was kind of inane and boring and didn't say anything that hasn't already been said, and even brackets off some really important concerns with all sorts of handwave-y stuff.  But I was really in a procrastinating mood, so I broke with my policy for a bit and read through the comments. Most of which are the regular run-of-the-mill critiques of steampunk (“it’s not really punk” “it’s just LARP” “it’s not a real movement”) but then I came across this gem of a comment from Scott Saunders of Dieselpunk Industries (which is pretty much an online archive of old movies and serials from that period dieselpunk looks at… pretty neat stuff):
He writes that steampunk “values our bounded selves” and “insistently re-makes technology as something friendly” under a (self?) portrait of a man wearing technology that augments his human sight and strength and carrying a very large handgun. The technology he makes up for his costume is focussed entirely on projecting strength and wielding power. It is not friendly, nor does it value the bounded human condition. It is quite the opposite.
And I want to have ALL THE “THIS!” GIFs attached to this comment because, well, THIS. There is so much talk about how steampunk makes technology friendly, or even how steampunk is a friendly subculture in the first place, that THIS is what gets missed in the conversation: the fact that if you actually pay any attention to the props people are carrying? Steampunk is not friendly, and reflects pretty much all the violence of the period it draws inspiration from, whether it’s outright, like the gun props, or the violence of colonialism implied in the costuming. 

One could read the prosthetic arm and oculars as aiding a disability (because, hey, violent times, you have to expect your eye and arm to get blown off, amirite?) but very often there is this gaping hole where conversations of disability should be—relegating this performance to little more than crip drag. 

And Scott Saunders is right: this is not friendly. This is not a vision of the past or present or future that encourages community. And while rayguns may no longer be the defining item of steampunk anymore that I can see, it’s still pretty prevalent because we haven’t latched onto anything else yet that shouts “steam era, and bad!”

Anyways, discuss if you please.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


My fabulous comrade Ay-Leen wrote an interesting piece called "Yes, I Did Stick A Gear On It" for Steampunk Canada and it harks back to a long-time debate over whether a prop needs to be functional before it can be truly called steampunk. Or something! 

Since my way of navigating steampunk has to do with words (and more words and conversations and discussions) and less performance, I've never really dipped my toe into that debate. It seems a little odd to me! Not all of us are capable of mastering the skills needed to create something functional. In fact, not all of us have the resources and tools needed for functional stuff!

It's not that I'm against the position, either! I fully believe that all my steampunk gear should be stuff I can wear on a regular, non-performative basis. (As an aside, I've started gardening, and considering agricultural forms of engaging with steampunk. Moniquill and Steampunk Emma Goldman had this very brief, interesting chat about how steampunk can use anachronistic tech to help people which is unfortunately frustrated when the focus instead turns to unthinkingly celebrating militarist aesthetics.) (This conversation of theirs was spurred by this Kickstarter Project of a ship that will sail from port to port selling local farmers' produce... a kind of floating farmer's market. It is a hark back to how food was distributed Back In The Day.) I think it's cool when stuff works, just as much as I appreciate the effort that goes into making something that needs no function beyond supporting the imaginative. 

Because I've never been invested in the debate, not being a Maker myself, I don't really know anybody who says "functional is the superior" to the weird extent that keeps being brought up in these debates. (Cory Gross was yelled off Brass Goggles because he didn't Make, period.) I know a lot of people who are in the camp of "non-functional is just as legit" but who are these people who purport that steampunk props must be functional or else it's a form of "glue a gear on it"? Do they have names? Surely they have to have been fairly big names in the past in order to have their opinions become entrenched so firmly into the discourse, but my Google skills... kind of fail me =( *wails "I'm a faaaaaiiilluuuuure" you know how it is* Are they a myth, a strawman? (THEY'RE REAL, RIGHT?)

I think there could be interesting questions to ask here. The folks on the "doesn't have to be!" side use imagination and props together; there is no tension going on there because there is a tacit understanding that the props are exactly that: props. By divorcing themselves from the necessity of functional items, the imagination interacts with the physical items for a particular purpose. 

But those on the side of "function!" are also doing interesting things with their interaction with physical technology too. Maybe I am looking in the wrong places, but surely this conversation is happening somewhere? I don't really feel like theorizing about something if there's already stuff out there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Silence May Be Golden, But Promises Are Not

It has been a while since original posts that aren't reacting to something have come up on this blog. Part of it is school keeping me busy. Lots to read, lots to digest. And sadly, not all of it helps me ruminate on my new steampunk project: examining white supremacy and neocolonial processes.

Since year I began this blog, I have pretty much said all that needs to be said and I'm much more interested in pushing the conversation further. But how to do that, without pushing my own self further?

So, I've been keeping quiet, and examining. Examining my hubris, examining my privilege. Examining the fact that I want to critique steampunk by distancing myself from it; examining the fact that I have to tear myself away from being on the ground into the ivory tower. Examining the resources I am taking up and being given; reconciling the fact that I am in graduate school at a time when so many undergraduates are struggling to make it through, with the fact that in order to further my goals, I need credentials. Because a woman of colour needs just as many, if not more, credits to her name in order to be taken as seriously as a man. This is thankfully not reflected in my publishing oeuvre thus far.

I know there are some fine Tom Doubters out there who question why I spend so much time "attacking" steampunk when I "claim" to love it. I myself am not a fan of loving the potential over the reality. (Especially boyfriends, do you really want to clean him up in the hopes that you'll have a happy relationship once he gets his act together? but I digress.) There is not much in the reality of steampunk, once you get past the novelty, that is really outstanding. Creative people are always thriving, wherever one goes. We always find a way. 

But there is not much reward in loving mere potentiality, either. When The Steampunk Bible came out, I noticed that works like mine appear in the chapter entitled "The Future of Steampunk" and I got a little mad after the fact. Why are our stories considered "the future" rather than part of the present? 

Feeding ourselves a promise means that we never have to take responsibility for the stupid shit we do today, because In The Future! Things Will Be Better! 

And then when it's not "the future will be better" malarkey, it's the "roots of steampunk" nonsense: that steampunk began with a critique of the modern world and has thus always been about critiquing the modern world. These kinds of critics will cite their Moorcock, their Gibson and Sterling. And when I told this to Monique, she said, "look at the fruits of steampunk now. They don't look anything like what steampunk used to do."

There are two kinds. The kind of steampunk which wants to circumscribe the aesthetic into a particular definition, a particular look that inevitably evokes colonialism whether they want it or not. The kind of steampunk which is "anything goes" and anybody can participate because we are just that inclusive. And even the latter has hubris and some strange arrogance that ignores the implications that if you include just anybody, you are always giving way to the oppressor to participate and take over. 

That includes the oppressor in you, in me, in us. 

So I've been keeping quiet and looking inside, at my participation in an industrial complex that has its roots in institutional oppression, because yes, universities, the bastions of knowledge, are themselves rooted in prestige and status afforded only to an exclusive class. And now, universities, transforming into sites of consumption where you pay for your education, a paper certificate that is supposed to open doors to you, are now becoming sites of consumerism and capitalism where you pay a price to get a product that is supposed to afford you prestige and status through social mobility. Again with the promises! 

I've been keeping quiet and examining my discourse, the discourse I've been pushing forward into the ether, and how it's been changing. I can't speak for Ay-Leen, but the more I present "Steam Around The World," the more aggressive I have become about dealing with racism. It's not a very intersectional approach, but that's what "A Better Steam Society" is for. It still tugs at me. And while my discourse is changing, new people are entering steampunk and they say the exact same thing everyone says when entering steampunk.

It is.... mind boggling, and yet, so interesting. Mind-boggling because it's like, I and so many others have spent all this time building this space and now folks are coming in and ignoring all the furniture we put in there for other people's convenience. And interesting because it proves further to me how steampunk is in a constant state of re-constitution. I haven't yet decided whether I'm more annoyed or more smug. 

A space of constant re-constitution is a good place to be, in my books. But it is also the most dangerous. While the privileged may see this space as dangerous because it could produce something that threatens their privileged, those of us on the side of anti-oppression also need to recognize that it's dangerous because at any time, someone more powerful can come in and occupy it, the way the powerful occupy everything else. 

It wouldn't be such a source of anxiety if I didn't hear so much claptrap about how everyone is equal. 

Ideally, everyone is equal. In reality, that isn't the case. Some of us have more power than others. The refusal to acknowledge this is what lends to the everyday violence that the oppressed face. 

I say this to you as a member of the oppressor class myself: the rich, the comfortable, the one never in fear. 

So I've been keeping quiet, learning about all the discomfiting about privilege and oppression and how I am a part of it. Learning to live with the discomfort. Learning not to leap to defensiveness when a group I recognize as being part of is rightfully attacked for being oppressive. Learning not to disavow that group. 

Promises are valuable only when they are achieved and delivered. 

I have nothing left to say to you that would lead to your promise, your potential of helping everyone who needs you to change the world and overcome the oppressive structures you operate in. I believe in your strength to do so and that is all I can say for now. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Steampunk POC: Theresa Breaux (Black Canadian/American)

Hello, Canada! This time we're talking to Theresa Breaux, a friend of mine on the Toronto steampunk scene, with whom I have hung out and we have counted POC together. It's fun hanging out with her; we've gone to Dundurn Castle together, and had looooong chats about moving across borders (she's from New Orleans!). She writes paranormal romance as well as urban and high fantasy, and she has several writing samples up on her site, so go check her out! I actually got in touch with her back in January, but I suck and only got to this for April. 

Without further ado, Theresa!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Fool's Day is also Time To Show Your Racism Day

Locus Magazine, one of the many bastions of white male SFF out there, put out some spoof articles today for April Fool's Day. Among them has this title: "Underpopulated, Bankrupt Detroit Renames Itself “Boilertown,” Goes Into Full Steampunk Mode".

I've read article upon article about Detroit's problems, much of which stem from class and race issues (which in turn then influence other problems). Detroit, already suffering from problems which essentially stem from white supermacist capitalism, is picked to be the butt of this "joke" article. 

About slapping on a white consumerist image onto a poor industrial city often coded as black. 

Let's talk about the erasure of racism in this article. Let's talk about jokingly migrating big names, all of whom are white because seriously apparently this writer cannot think of a single big name in steampunk who is not white, to Detroit. Let's talk about a space where radical dreams are being dreamt and solidarity must be built, and slap on for shits and giggles and a fucking laugh an image driven by consumerism. Let's talk about using manual workers, child labour, disintegration of unions and gentrification as jokes. 

Because these are funny, you know.

Is it satire? Who is it satirizing? Steampunks? Have we forgotten that many steams are regular folk who just like playing dress-up? And does this satire need to come at the expense of having a laugh at a city like Detroit and the issues I pointed out above? 

Of course it's a joke. Privileged racists find it funny to pull shit like this. 

Let's mull on the fact that Locus Magazine, long-established mainstream SFF magazine, had the gall to pull this shit. Let's sit on that. 

This is the establishment. This is how white supremacy is enabled in SFF. This is racism in action. 

And this is why I will not fuck with anything remotely mainstream-looking in steampunk anymore.