On Steampunk

The first article I ever published alone in a newspaper concerned gothic subculture. When I was a boy, goths were everywhere, pale people wrapped in billowing black trench-coats. They were easy to mock. A female friend once waspishly commented that girls dressed gothic style sent mixed messages: from the neck up, it was "I am a bride of death", from the neck down, “yes please, another cheeseburger and a diet coke". True enough, but not devastating, because having an unattainable ideal was the point. Goths were trying to inhabit an imaginary version of 18th century occultism, one where alchemy and secrecy and magic and mystery were all that they at one time seemed to be.

Steampunk marks the turn of an age. When I was a student, the 18th century was not only present in goth subculture, it was the backdrop against which one wrote and thought. One aspired to the cautious empiricism, gentle irony and satire of Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Johnson, and Hume. These were the giants who had somehow given birth to our own 20th century progenitors. But the focus has shifted from the 18th century to the 19th. The past against which my students now define themselves is the colonial past of the 19th century. In their young imaginations, the colonies are, not the culmination of Enlightenment, but a sort of moral dark age, and it is from the evil giants of this time that they imagine themselves descended. In this manicheaen picture, Steampunk is the redemption of the age. Steampunk envisions another 19th century, one where steam-powered engines fulfill every promise, where industrialization does not grind down the human spirit but lifts it to new heights.

No wonder that so many of the traits of the 19th century have returned. Sexual hysteria, along with the belief that women are at all times to be protected from predatory male sexuality. Fastidiously groomed facial hair among males. Cloying social consensus. Whiggish certainty about science. It is worth recalling that the Victorians also thought of themselves as having redeemed their age from an evil past.

I’ll admit, I left my heart in the 18th century. I am reminded of a conversation that is supposed to have occurred between Talleyrand and a young admirer who was to be a diplomat of the 19th century. “I want to talk about politics, and all you talk about is women,” he complained to Talleyrand. “But that is politics,” Talleyrand is supposed to have replied.