Sunday, September 21, 2014

Outside Looking In

A couple years ago, I sat on a panel at SteamCon*. I'd proposed the panel, the title of which I no longer remember, as a think-tank on how the steampunk community presents itself (or how steampunk communities present themselves, or how steampunk is presented by anybody), and how the public at large sees steampunk.

I brought it up because I noticed, even at that time, how many People of Color were expressing wariness of steampunk, and how many people, white and non-white, were turned off by what was seen as a celebration of a very particularly white history: the height of the colonial era that was the Victorian era. I wanted very much to address how we talked about steampunk, how we introduced it to people who didn't know what it was, and how we could present ourselves better, more diverse than it may seem at first in form and function. 

At the time, I hadn't yet really formulated the problem for what it was, and wanted to know more what other people thought about it. And I discovered I must have been living on a completely different planet, because my co-panelists, straight white men both, were more experiencing the bafflement of what steampunk is. "People don't know what steampunk is, so they don't really have any opinion about it," they repeated after each other. 

"And we don't even know what steampunk is," said one, "because it's so hard to describe, so it's hard to get an impression of what other people think." 

"I have a very strong idea of what steampunk is," said the other, "but it appears to be too rigid and thus unpopular so I'm perfectly happy with saying that steampunk is what you make of it."

So instead of talking about how steampunk is perceived by people not in the community, to witness our awesomeness in whole, we instead spent time talking about how difficult it is to encapsulate the whole of the community into a succinct explanation that would allow outsiders to go "oohhhh" in understanding.

The question, however, has not left me. As recently as my qualifying exams in June, I still met with people who just couldn't get with steampunk, because of its overwhelming focus on Victoriana, and thus a focus on a very particular history, with a very particular trajectory. These are people who are looking beyond the cool fashion, who want the fashion to mean something, because one shouldn't take uncomfortable-looking-but-really-cool clothes at face value. And I still receive emails from non-white readers of this blog thanking me for my Steampuks of Color interviews because it gave them a point of reference for participation, that they wouldn't be the odd one out. 

And of course I have encountered people who don't know what steampunk is. Chances are they have seen something steampunk but haven't had a name for it. Sometimes they just didn't get it at all, and I would have to explain, now armed with my handy-dandy Steampunk 101, in the most general sense possible. These people are also folks who are just not science fiction fans in general, so really, one ought to explain to them science fiction to start with. 

In the last year or so, I've fallen out of the steampunk community. I still keep in touch with individuals, but by and large I've fallen off the steampunk radar. It is both alienating and very fascinating, because for once I am that person outside looking in. Without the in-roads to understand the meaning and intentions behind things, I am forced to extrapolate based on external evidence, based on what is presented to someone who isn't involved in any local steampunk communities, what steampunk is like.

It's an alienating experience because I still feel compelled to defend steampunk to people who see the racism and whiteness, and I also feel compelled to also explain further what steampunk has done and can do to people who sort of dabble in it because it's trendy and don't see it as something beyond that. I do it even knowing that it's not easy just picking up the thread and just getting back into things. I no longer know the landscape, because many of my friends have found bigger and better things beyond steampunk, or have moved on entirely.

Also, I no longer live on the East Coast, and it was so much easier getting out to cons there. (Plus, SoCal needs a car. Do you know how annoying this is, for a person who can't drive? If you can't drive, don't settle in SoCal unless you wish to make a career being a transit activist.)

It is interesting, because it's telling me a lot about how I've grown up. If I knew then what I know now about racism, anti-racist efforts, and white supremacy, well.... you probably wouldn't have been able to get me to fuck with steampunk, nuh uh, no way sir. I would have liked the aesthetic well enough, and thought the clothes were pretty, but there probably was no way anyone, even someone like myself, would get me to fuck with steampunk at the level I do.

There are several factors: 1) that my first real introduction to non-white steampunk was Ay-Leen the Peacemaker (and boy does it make a difference when it's a non-white person introducing the concept versus a white person); 2) the growth of anti-racist discourse across internet fandoms; 3) the proliferation of a very certain type of steampunk by mainstream marketing; 4) the diversity (or lack thereof) of public faces.

Whenever people have complained about how white steampunk is, I always have to state, "but there ARE people of colour involved! You just have to look in the right places."

The problem with this is that if you are new to a community, a subculture, you are not necessarily going to know where these right places, these Lands of Magical Diversity Unicorns, are going to be. And you can ask, certainly, but you have to ask first, because it is not a distinct feature of the community, but still an outlier. The mainstream still remains... not as diverse as it could be.

When I google "steampunk" I predominantly see white faces. I see Kit Stolen's still-famous design. I also occasionally see that Bollywood Steampunk sari that's been floating around. There might be a light-skinned Asian, or Eurasian or two in the first fifty search results.

(I remember back in 2010 people were starting to complain that there's "too much" steampunk. It's a weird complaint. The aesthetic had been around a long time by then. One could even say, it never even left, just became unpopular, sat on the backburner, while everybody else went on to enjoy things like minimalism and go-go boots and flower power and whatever other trends have come and gone. Steampunk is still around, that look is still around, and I love it. Take that, naysayers. It's even boomed! If there is a peak, we haven't hit it. In fact, perhaps it is as what Ms. Beckett said when Vintage Tomorrows first came out, "maybe we started with the shark-jumping.")

And more than ever, I get it. I get the misgivings people have about steampunk groups looking like they glorify Empire and colonialism (even though that is truly not most people's intentions). I get the misgivings of friends of color watching white people run around with ragyun props. Even moreso in the current political environment. (I am pleased that raygun usage seems to have gone down in favour of other strange devices and more clothes.) Everything coming out of steampunk seems either focused on or derivative of an Eurocentric world. We can have accelerated steam technology, we cannot have worlds without colonialism. Or we can posit a world without colonialism, yet clothing always cleaves to Victorian fashions, or always has the same elements of cogs and gears and brass and goggles because we cannot imagine a steampunk beyond these. And inevitably, these elements take us to Victoriana.


I have no definitive answers, and I have to start from outside looking in. It's a tenuous position; I mislike academics who are clearly outsiders to the subculture and the community, my community, making wide sweeping generalizations about steampunk without giving a thought to what is actually happening. I am, strangely, still jealously guarding the integrity of my community, displeased when I see misrepresentations. At the same time, I mislike it when people deeply ensconced in the community do their best to paint the subculture in its best light, trying to avoid much-needed criticisms. When we talk about what it could be, rather than what is.

In about a month, it will be the 5th anniversary of my starting this blog. I'm going to begin -- to re-begin -- here on the outside looking in. The insider sitting outside, to puzzle and wrestle with what is being seen from outside, what is being replicated for consumption which aren't the daring, subversive, countercultural ideals that are being kicked about deep in the playground.

I'd invite you in for tea, but I don't think it's going to be pretty from here on out.

* I did not write this con report, because I had spent the week prior reading for the week after, and it left me so exhausted during the con itself (reading two weeks of work in one week at grad level is no joke) that I have never brought myself to write the con report. I also subsequently gave up all other steampunk cons until such a time I no longer took classes. That time is now, yay!

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh can I relate! I could write paragraphs on why I've drifted away (though my joking short answer is "I'm too naked for Victorian fashion"), but you've covered most of it here. There's a materialism that I'm also not a fan of. I'm not a maker, but there's a huge emphasis on it here in Texas that I felt the need to just buy random things to keep up. Anyway, I look forward to seeing future posts because we could use a dose of ugly amidst the shiny.