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.

1 comment:

  1. I've been away from steampunk for a while now. In my past experience there was certainly an elitism that favoured working devices over decorative props. I don't think it was ever an overt 'rule' - I think the love of ray-guns meant that not all props would be functional. However, I think there is an elitist spectrum of esteem for props. Working items made of brass and wood up the top, purely decorative mass-produced plastic props at the bottom. The rest of the props are just positioned along this spectrum in terms of elitist acceptability.

    While most people are pretty accepting of others' interpretations (and budgets) I think this snobbery is perpetuated by positive reinforcement. The greatest praise goes to Makers who individually craft working items in Victorian technology using original materials. The praise falls off as you move down the spectrum. So while no-one is outright condemning those of us who rely on plastic non-functional props, we certainly feel like less worthy members of the community.