Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Transcript: "Steampunk Mad Scientists: Exclamation, Effect, Affect" @ ICFA 36

Recently I had the chance to present a paper at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, which is like a major East Coast Science Fiction conference, and rather than save myself some trouble and present a paper I'd already written, I decided to write a whole new thing! Because after all this could get folded into my dissertation project and get me thinking about more coherently. This was the abstract I submitted:
In steampunk, the figure of the mad scientist looms in the background, either benign inventors who enable the technofantastical imagined setting, amoral villains threatening the world, or the space in between as morally-ambiguous sympathetic enactors of change with questionable methods. Literarily, they provide an avenue to explore the darker side of human choices; theatrically, they offer a chance to chew the furniture. This paper will survey how the figure of the mad scientist has been taken up in various steampunk media—Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, music by steampunk bands Vernian Process and The Clockwork Quartet, and the webcomic Girl Genius. Though the narratives and the scientist figures are wide-ranging, they retain similarities in the depictions of their methods and psychological profiles even as they are deployed self-reflexively. The paper will then compare these mad scientists with one of the original mad scientists, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and evaluate the influence of the trope on the steampunk subcultural values and aesthetic.

However, as I developed the paper, I realized that this abstract was full of lies and I didn't actually want to do a survey of steampunk mad scientists, because that sounded totally boring! I betook myself to the databases to learn everything I could about mad scientists (which was, actually, a lot of fun, will post my annotated bibliography if anyone is interested) but just couldn't figure out an angle with which to tackle the subject.

Then I had to fix something in my apartment, and it needed some problem-solving skills and some other knowledge, and when I was done, I threw my hands in the air and shouted, "SCIENCE!" I am sure everyone in this room has done this. If you have not, I 100% recommend this experience. 
And so I had my paper topic. the affective appeal of the steampunk mad scientist. The mad scientist is not a new figure—he's quite spread out over a range of pop culture media. For this presentation, I will focus not just on literary representations of the mad scientist, but also on the performative aspect in music and in sequential art. I'll also touch on the subcultural aspect of steampunk, in which participants adopt steampunk personas, or "steamsonas" as they are called, with a good chunk affixing the title "professor" or "doctor".

To begin, who is the mad scientist? We could probably list a set of traits of what he is like and never go home, but perhaps more importantly, why is he? He can be traced quite far back in the Western tradition. Peter Pesic takes us to the Renaissance period, the Baconian ideals of new philosophy that broke away from the natural philosophy of the Greeks. There, he identifies the beginnings of the psychological paradox that forecasts the mad scientist: "On one hand, the seekers must be cold, impersonal, testing each theory mercilessly. On the other, they must be filled with ardor, on fire to imagine radically new insights into the depths. … This paradox threatens to unravel the seekers’ selves and to paralyze their desires." Later on, in the long eighteenth century, the sciences would be established among the ranks of conjurers and physicians, and amateur scientists called the virtuoso class. Barbara Benedict argues that in the wake of the Restoration, this virtuoso class of scientists failed to establish themselves as good for the society, as the ideals of objectivity clashed with the desire to claim superiority of knowledge. Continuing with the ideals of Bacon to maintain an impersonal approach, "the virtuosi’s posture of disinterestedness seem deluded, [and] also suggested that they were indifferent to the plight of their fellow men."

Through this historical synopsis we get a sense of how the modern mad scientist has come to be. Because the shape of the mad scientist takes on many forms, occasionally contradictory ones, let’s borrow from cognitive theory the concept of the radial category in which its members are not defined by shared properties, but by “variations on a central model.” Steven Winter writes that “because these variations derive from the central case in different ways these extensions may have little to nothing in common with each other beyond their shared connection to the central case.” Such a concept allows us to count many different kinds of mad scientists as examples.

I could, of course, provide a catalog of steampunk mad scientists! I am, however, pressed for time, and besides which I am more interested in speaking of the affective dimension of the mad scientist figure and why he is so wholeheartedly embraced in the steampunk subculture.

So, briefly, what do I mean by the affective dimension of mad science? (digression!) Affects are usually vaguely described as feelings, or emotions. A concept derived from psychology, it is part of the processing of stimuli. The way I have seen it most usefully taken up is as a form of reaction that does not find itself easily articulated verbally, but rather physically. If I were to describe a shudder up the spine, I might mean it as a reaction to cold—however, there might be other valences to it: of fear, anxiety, sudden nervousness. It might be within the body, or in the atmosphere of the room which affects the body, it might be an individual reaction or a shared one. Thus, although I could share with you how scientists are variously depicted in steampunk, I instead want to focus on texts that are centered on the perspectives of scientist characters themselves, as well as on their physical motions and feelings. First, I’ll look at Victor Frankenstein, then a song by the Clockwork Quartet, a UK band, and finally, the webcomic Girl Genius.

I assume we all are familiar with the story of Victor Frankenstein. It's a morality tale, raising Gothic anxieties of the consequences of transgression. A purely secular figure, Frankenstein embodies the defiance of humanity towards the mysteries of life in an attempt to dominate it, only to have this endeavour backfire against him. During his quest, he collects gross things, he’s secretive about it and loses touché with his family, and, in his frenzy to carry out his experiment, in his surety that he is doing something great, his physical health suffers: [SLIDE] "Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; a disease that I regretted the more because I had hitherto enjoyed most excellent health, and had always boasted of the firmness of my nerves. But I believed that exercise and amusement would soon drive away such symptoms; and I promised myself both of these, when my creation should be complete." Anyone in the throes of research generally can relate to this sentiment. If you don't, you are either good at self-care or lying. However, possibly where we depart from Frankenstein, mentally and physically, is when he actually accomplishes his work. Instead of exulting, he reacts badly, exclaiming, "I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God!" and promptly runs out of his laboratory, to have a nice lie-down and think about his wrongness and feel bad about, only to be disturbed by his creature, to which he responds by running out of the house and pacing the garden all night. And continues to feel bad. It's not enough for Frankenstein to tell you he feels bad; he must also tell you how it affects him, physically. Through this, we get a sense of how horrified he is at what he has done.

How does this translate over into other media? Mad scientist perspectives can be expressed beyond the verbal accounting of physical affects. In examining representations of science, Christopher Tounmey lists three idioms: "(1) the physical paraphernalia of science, (2) scientific knowledge, and (3) the people who are scientists.” This physical paraphernalia interests us in this next example: “The Doctor's Wife” by the Clockwork Quartet. This ballad is a series of journal entries chronicling the deterioration of the titular character, while her husband struggles to keep her alive. As each verse opens, we hear the sounds of his typewriter. [SLIDE] You need the typewriter in science. Quoth Adam Savage of the Mythbusters, “the difference between messing around and science is that in science, you write it down.” The bass of the orchestra (0:08), serving as bass line, lends an air of intense concentration. Towards the end of the verse, the Doctor makes a declaration of what his wife will do, again (0:47). The chorus is his wife, urging him to keep his promise to save her (1:05). Note the softer, faraway sound of her voice, contrasted against the immediacy of the doctor’s voice. As her deterioration continues, this chorus punctuates the doctor's memory of his wife's health. 

 By the middle of the song, he sings [3:13], "for though she's paralyzed, I know that inside there must still be a functioning mind!" At this point we know the chorus is all in his head, creating the haunted pathos for this particular mad scientist. By the final verse, his apparatus is the only thing keeping her alive, [4:23] he has had to stop her heart, and he declares, [4:35] "what nature has neglected, the fruits of modern science shall provide!" (Index: Science!) In the meantime, questionable things are happening: “and I’ve broken every code of practice / but for my love, I’d shake the planet’s axis.” And then he starts shouting and that's the audience's cue that he's totally lost it; we can no longer trust it when he says he can hear her whisper the chorus. In literary form, this would be marked with, maybe, an exclamation point or two; in this medium, the auditory cues build both the image in the listener's mind and the atmosphere of the listening experience.

But could we combine the two? Turns out you can, in sequential art that relies on knowledge of auditory and visual cues, as well as literary tropes. The webcomic Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio, is arguably one of the biggest influences on the concept of mad science in the current steampunk zeitgeist, but I’m not taking any polls. It is the story of Agatha Heterodyne, (note the index: science!) as she unravels her family's mysterious history amidst warring political factions, in an Europe changed by technofantasy. A major plot device in this universe is called “The Spark,” a spark of genius that can be inherited or occurs spontaneously with various levels of strength. The Spark drives several characters to create devices that defy laws of physics (and to also chew the scenery). Going into full-blown “Spark mode” is called “the madness place” by the layperson, “fugue state” by scientists, and in this state, harking back to Frankenstein, all considerations of practical application, consequences, and ethics are sidelined, causing havoc for regular people and heightening feudal conflicts between scientists and aristocracy. In Girl Genius mad scientist characters run the gamut of moral and ethical positions. One must note that the appellation of "mad scientist" does not necessarily mean "immoral person" despite the obvious fear that madboys and madgirls evoke in the general populace. It does, however, mean that appallingly dangerous work conditions are acceptable in this universe, for example in this scene where Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, a love interest, shows off his prototype lightning generator. This casual acceptance of dangerous science is especially marked in the town of Mechanicsburg where the inhabitants, long-time minions of its ethically-devoid rulers, cheer the heroine on and enable her as she re-builds a cafe's coffee engine.

In the visuals of the dialog, font type and word balloons indicate the kind of voice speaking, and when a Spark moves into fugue mode, their dialog font changes, indicating growing intensity of speech and forecasting technobabble. On the auditory front, there are onomatopoeias. These readable sound effects, among other visuals, give an affective language for the atmosphere within the given panel. They also depend on literary tropes and expectations as such, hence even a lack of a certain onomatopoeia indicates something gone awry, as Moloch notes, "I expected a bit more ka-boom."

Between explosions, lightning strikes, clockwork whirring, bells and whistles, whither comes the madness of the mad scientist? Do we view them from the lens of morality or mental illness? More importantly, why is this figure compelling in steampunk, and what does it reproduce? If, as Barbara Benedict says, that one reason for the depiction of scientists as being prone to insanity is "the illegibility, construed as secrecy surrounding science," then, I argue, and I’m not alone in this, possibly the performance of the mad scientist figure recuperates science for the layperson, through roleplay and the Do-It-Yourself Maker movement.

Because steampunk refuses neat linearity, let's go back in time a bit again, to World War II and before, and have a look at attitudes, especially American attitudes, towards science and scientists. In a comprehensive history, Glen Scott Allen identifies two figures, tied to two different kinds of sciences: the Evil Wizard, associated with theoretical sciences which could not be made immediately relevant to the general public, and the Master Mechanic, whose applied sciences could used by independent amateurs to develop inventions that were easily monetized.  Thus, intellectual, abstract work is looked down upon as it does not contribute to a larger community, and indeed encourages self-imposed alienation. The Evil Wizard refers to the aristocratic archetype whose work cannot be commercialized; the Master Mechanic is the innovative inventor, a rugged individual whose work is practical and enables others to conquer nature.

Back to the present, one sees, at steampunk conventions, multiple workshops and lectures are run by presenters affecting scientist-sounding names, without necessarily being institutional scientists. Sometimes these steamsonas are for play only, and sometimes, they are artist brands. For example, Professor Jake von Slatt, a self-described dilettante here with a home-made Wimshurst Machine. The steampunk mad scientist in this field attempts to share scientific knowledge with the masses, even if the knowledge is not immediately relevant, and artistic objects that don’t serve any function abound. They try to bring back the image of the amateur scientist in their own workshops. They romanticize the conquering of the illegibility of science while creating avenues of accomplishment through the application of hands-on skills that may well serve to inspire further searches for understanding. This is particularly important in face of the highly-specialized, copyrighted machines permeating our daily lives.

            To humour me, I invite everyone in the room to do the following: we'll throw our hands up in the air, and yell "SCIENCE!" and give it our best mad scientist laugh. Thank you. Note the difference in the room. Some of you may feel slightly giddy, some may have elevated blood pressure. Some of you may even be smiling. Essentially, the affects of the room have been heightened. This, then is what steampunks look for in marrying the master mechanic figure with the evil wizard—exulting in joining pragmatic skill with specialized knowledge, now made available to all. This is an affect found at Maker-heavy environments and steampunk conventions, and I suspect that this affect contributes to the popularity of steampunk today, in the midst of all the media.
            Thus concludes my presentation, thank you for playing along.

1 comment:

  1. "will post my annotated bibliography if anyone is interested"

    YES!!! Please do so.