Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Inevitably of Imperialism: On Kyriarchy and How It Factors into Steampunk

When Racialicious first posted Ay-Leen’s “From the Wilds of America”, the accompanying image was a map from Steam Century’s game in which the RPG re-imagines a different political landscape on America’s face, where France and Russia had sizable territories, the British were not quite so hegemonic, and where Native Americans had their own lands marked out.

I remember someone remarked, “I wish that map was real.”

Someone else said, “Actually, us Indians would be better off with *nobody* living off our backs, but that should be obvious.”

Because of the history and current politics of North America, there are certain ideas we take for granted, and most pervasive is that white folk would go out colonizing America no matter what. It is easy to see why; the current default American experience is that of the culturally-Christian white male – all too often, we forget the indigenous peoples who were here way before them.

Many steampunks claim an anti-imperialist agenda. Some American white steampunks imagine that America was still a colony of the British. The thing about this is, if you were anti-imperialist, you wouldn’t be so pro-Colonies! Then again, that leaves only Europe as a playing field (with possible trade routes) (in the sky) which in turn leads to Occidentalism and exoticizing Europe (which already happens, let’s face it), and that isn’t so hot either. (Maybe this is why so many white steampunks don’t want to consider such issues – it’s quite the process of self-displacement, isn’t it?)

But this isn’t a Thou Shouldst Feel Guilty article. History happened. And sometimes, steampunk is about re-arranging history. With the hindsight history gives us, it is good to confront what potential ramifications any re-envisioning of geo-political geography will have.

On the Inevitably of Imperialism

Al-caid commented recently that imperialism - or rather, the performance of it - is to be expected in steampunk. Not only do I accept the veracity of this statement, I shall even qualify this with an explanation. (He also said, in what I suspect is a sentiment confused by translation, that it is acceptable. I take umbrage to this and will explain why.)

     Most of us in the world live in what is called a kyriarchy, a system of oppression that remains in place because we value power, authourity and the means to prove it.* It is because of this value system that when a group gains the wherewithal to impose themselves on others, what happens, as history so displays, is they usually do seek to control other spaces, with various pretexts. This value system is so ingrained to the point of subconsciousness, that revolutions and revolts turn sour since old leaders are disposed and new ones struggle to maintain power without truly changing anything, that liberal movements fail to consider marginalized groups, and that we keep feeling that no matter how much progress we make, we’re still the same ol’, same ol’. It is this value system that leads us to believe that humans are intrinsically predisposed towards perpetrating evil, because “we’re human, what do you expect?” (Here’s a good answer: “More.”)

     When we re-imagine the world, it is inevitable that some of us will shift geo-politics around, especially if we start with grounding in history. Even secondary world imaginers will use some reference to real-world spaces. Power imbalances due to advancements in various fields are bound to occur, especially in such a setting as the 19th century. The prosperity of a country is sadly, often built on the exploitation of another.

     It is good to recognize that marginalization of certain peoples will happen in many re-imaginings of the world.** Because if you don’t, you run the risk of assuming certain defaults which are already causing enough trouble in real life. By refusing to recognize and factor in real-life marginalizations, you condone imperialist narratives and oppressive systems, whether you intended to or not.

On Rejecting Imperialism

     Imperialism, and by extension oppression, is never acceptable, except to supremacists who have investment in maintaining the kyriarchy. It is one thing to switch things up theoretically to see which different results we get, to see how one party might get parity over another; it is irresponsible to ignore or erase those already affected by imperialism for the sake of entertainment.

     Imperialism is a series of actions, of one entity taking control of another entity, with or without the permission of the latter, informed by what we know and meted out through available means. Steampunk is a construct, also informed by what we know and performed using available means. It is easy for these to intersect, and easy for our performance of steampunk to mete out imperialist acts.

     In order to actively reject imperialism, you must be acquainted with what it is. This, if you are part of a dominant group, sadly, involves examining the hubris of your heritage, and how it continues to play out today. If you are part of a minority group, chances are you are well-acquainted with the abuse of your ancestors, and how it echoes in your community.

     When you see history and its modern echoes laid out before you, when you acknowledge the patterns of abuse that pushes people into the margins, underfoot into the cracks in the floor, you’ll know better how to build a world without the guilt, fear and pain.

     Especially those of you who use steampunk as a means for escape. You need to know what you’re escaping from, and acknowledge for who the escape is. (As we like to say, we’d rather deal with someone who’s honestly, vocally a racist, then someone who only says they're anti-racist but behaves otherwise.)

     Oppression-free settings are not impossible. If they were, every step of social progress we have made would be rendered bunk. Feminists, humanists, and all other social justice seekers wouldn’t bother. No one would care about democracy and representation (which, I understand, is what many Western countries are being built upon today, but feel free to correct me).

     They are, however, difficult to achieve, because there are so many human factors to take into account. You know, like, real-life people.

     This is why we have conversations.

An Example

     I don’t know what Steam Century’s map should look like, ideally, because I’m not Native / First Nations / Aboriginal / indigenous to America.

     I can tell you that in my ideal map, the sultans of Nusantara have created a compact of peace and trade with China and work alongside Siam to industrialize the townships whilst still self-sustaining. The Dutch in Java, the Portuguese in Malacca, the English in Penang are absorbed into the workforce and population. Chinese, Arab and Indian scholars interact and debate in coffeeshops on hot lazy days. These capitals in the Malaccan Straits are thriving entreports where traders from all over the world come to haggle and buy and sell and teach and learn, and eat good food.

     That’s a vision solely for myself, because others from my region would re-imagine it differently, and I ignore the huge class differentials that have led us to continual abuse of our immigrants, our refusal to accept the cultural practices of newcomers, our bloody and corrupt history which allowed the sultans to accede to the British and other foreign powers in the first place. This is pure escapism.

     It can’t happen, because this is not a world that values cooperation. We don’t live in a world where I can find any basis for Nusantara. Not only that, but the cultural imprint left behind by the colonizers are so deep, my ideal Nusantara is difficult to imagine, because everyone in it speaks English and I no longer know the difference between East and West, between local and foreign. Sad, but true.

     Based on historical reality, Siam would industrialize first and tussle with the English over Malaya. I could choose to imagine China as dominant, and it would swallow most of Asia (and some of Russia). Chances are, there would be Chinese supremacists. There would be still be clashes between the adherents between Islam and Hinduism. Skirmishes with Japan in the air would leave our rains black and acidic.

     I can’t leave this historical reality behind, because I can’t afford it. It is in no one’s interests but my own to ignore it. Which is fine, and I do, when no one’s watching and I’m on my lonesome, writing little utopic fics (and sappy love stories).


     By now, I’ve probably painted a really bleak picture of imperialism and colonialism in steampunk. Which is fine and all, because imperialism and colonialism are bleak things to begin with: they are defined by the actions of one entity attempting to erase or subjugate another entity.

     It is incredibly difficult to imagine a world without kyriarchy. Therefore, it is important that first, we must believe that dismantling these institutions, for the betterment of everyone, is possible. And it is. I won’t say that it’s the way of progress, and so in the name of progress, these institutions must bend, because progress hasn’t always been good for the social good. But it is the way of kindness and generosity, of cooperation and communication, and everything that makes anything enjoyable to participate in.

     And that, in itself, is worthwhile.

*Marilyn French’s Beyond Power elucidates on this concept to great extent.
** Don’t expect cookies for this.


  1. 'It can’t happen, because this is not a world that values cooperation. We don’t live in a world where I can find any basis for Nusantara. Not only that, but the cultural imprint left behind by the colonizers are so deep, my ideal Nusantara is difficult to imagine, because everyone in it speaks English and I no longer know the difference between East and West, between local and foreign. Sad, but true.'

    Part of why history moves in certain patterns is also down to events that one can't always predict, that hideously simplified "butterfly wings" concept. Being in the 'right' time/place plays a role. Take the attempted assassination of Mussolini by Victoria Gibson. He only survived because he turned his head just as she had fired. Had he not, then World War 2 - and Italy - could have gone a different path.

    Perhaps the world you envisioned would go that way, perhaps it wouldn't. In alternative universe the Catholic Church is still burning future Giordano Brunos, or the Anarchists managed to make Spain an Anarchist utopia. What it comes down to is individual events that end up having significant consequences. Known that Empire X was like this in year Y doesn't mean that you can accurately predict the flow of hypothetical history. Harold II was killed at the Battle of Hastings either by an arrow to the eye (random) or by being trampled by the hooves of a horse (again, random).

    A friend and I were/are working on a fictional world where early Arab/Viking interactions lead to a European/African/Asian/Americas union where the predominant languages are Latin, Danish, and Arabic. The clothing, devices and overall flow of the world aren't static, and flow according to social forces, environmental changes, and necessity in times of conflict (Arabic variations on the wristwatch, for example). When constructing this world, we mention things like a loose pebble on a road in Copenhagen, or early Arab refrigeration techniques being used to hide a valuable document. Again, it's all random.

  2. It is true that certain events in history are random, caused by coincidence and chance. Certainly, our what-ifs involve changing some small detail - the flap of a butterfly's wings and all that.

    Nonetheless, if it were all up to chance and coincidence, then why does history repeat the same patterns over and over again? It's too easy to say "well, it could have gone either way due to some external, tiny, almost insignificant factor," and that absolves us of responsibility for taking events in hand and causing them in the first place. Revolutions don't start by chance; they start because people work hard to make them happen. Maybe the inspiration was by chance. But the overall movement is not.

  3. I did not say that it was 'all up to chance and coincidence'- if that's what it came across as, that was not the intention. I mentioned chance solely to clarify that when one is planning out an alternate history - whether for steampunk fiction/rpg or any other genre - one has to also take into account that chance elements are *also* in the equation.

    History follows a rhythm to an extent, in part due to social forces, cultural osmosis, or what have you. Yes, event X could have gone a certain way, 'if only', but I did not that this was the only reason why an event occured, but merely a factor when constructing fictional histories/worlds.

    I did not say that people are 'absolved' of responsibility, or that revolutions were by chance. Considering that my maternal grandfather had worked and protested alongside both Jinnah and Gandhi against the British, I'd be pretty offended - and so would he - if someone said that all they fought for was down to 'chance'.

  4. My apologies; that was how I read your response since you emphasized on the factor of chance and I was unsure what you were commenting on in my essay. Certainly what-ifs take into account little details - my main point in this essay is on how kyriarchy affects larger movements. Chance in alternate-history requires its own post! And several spin-off discussion threads.

  5. I remember having a conversation with a friend about POC focal steampunk, and bringing up Avatar the Last Airbender. I pointed out that it had both steampunk stuff (airships! Coal clockwork tanks!) and imperialism.

    The big disjunct for him was that the series is critical of imperialism, instead of either blithely accepting or "ironically" accepting of it.

  6. My next essay is actually going to deal with kyriarchy and imperialism in A:TLA, actually. And it is true, that the basic premise of A:TLA is that it is a universe which, although clearly embracing that age of industrialization, actively rejects imperialism. Thanks for dropping in! I hope you come back when my A:TLA post goes up!

  7. I forgot I had this post from last year on Steampunk:

  8. Just a brief point that fiction, at least, strive on conflict. Steampunk isn't just fiction and RPGs (both of which need conflict), granted, but a dash of imperialism and colonisation makes for good conflict which make for good stories. I wouldn't say it's a simple as this, but I suspect there's a dichotomy of sorts here that part of the steampunk community looks to the fiction to portray ideal worlds and the writers need fodder for conflict and battles and cultural tensions. I'm in the latter camp, personally, but that's a different story.

  9. While it's true that a story requires conflict to be interesting, it seems lazy to assume that colonialism and imperialism will provide the impetus. It's also irresponsible to rely on stereotypes and Orientalist imagery to hold up the story, which happens quite a bit in fiction.

  10. True, though I do think the pull to create a Utopian Ideal and the pull to create a flawed world in which to stage some fiction are opposed.

    And as an afterthought, there's the Temeraire series (which completely kills my previous point I suppose) in which there's very little colonisation since they all have Dragons that fight off the would-be colonising powers. The problem there, I believe, was that consequently the setting made very little sense since Novik still wanted Britain to be a World Player in the international politics of her books and have a huge navy, both of which make no sense without the colonies. The worldsetting is consequently a mess, but I suppose one could argue she's very well-intentioned.

  11. That's an interesting point, one I've never heard. I do think it's possible to be a world player with no colonies, though - see Singapore: it's considered a first-world nation, and it's just an island.

  12. The "Modern" Age brings a lot more into play and I do think it's possible, but perhaps Singapore is probably a example what with being an ex-colony (firstly by the Chinese, later by the British). The ex-colonial history gives it quite a lot of international ties that it may not have had otherwise. But I'm not really qualified to talk about Singaporean history so I should probably stop there.

    I'll add that I meant World Player in the sense that the Emperor of China was nervously asking the opinion of the British diplomat for fear of offending Britain - that rather damp little island a million miles away with barely a scrap of land to its name. Certainly rich for its size, but by no means capable of taking on the might of Chinese Empire and its many dragons.

    The problem with Temeraire is that I think in some ways politics/resources/power is something of a zero-sum game. (Barring the setting where you come up with the machine of infinite resources.) The Britain of Temeraire commands all the power and respect and fear and resources of the historical Napoleonic Era one of our history with no obvious means of getting those resources. Without the colonies, why would Britain have developed its insanely big navy? One can in theory replace colonial resources with, I dunno, technical innovation, higher productivity, insanely good ships, magical pixie dust that turns gold into better gold and so forth. But it does need to be there.

  13. Singaapore has a complicated history of colonization - it's been bounced around between various Nusantaran empires, razed to the ground by the Portuguese, and visited by Chinese traders. Its geographical position made it ideal for international relations.

    I shall have to read the Tremaire series now, to keep up with you on this discussion - it's getting beyond my scope!