admin | March 6, 2011
I’m drafting my proposal for the fourth time, and my supervisor has asked me an interesting question: “what is the project of steampunk conceptually/intellectually/philosophically?”
I’m extremely leery of questions like this, because I’ve gotten into so many arguments about this very question, which is, basically, “what is the point of steampunk?” It is up there and related to questions like: What is the one true way of doing steampunk? What is the best definition of steampunk? And historically, people like me, racialized, marginalized and commodified, have never gotten the chance to define these answers, and we know the danger of assigning a singular answer. Single answers and single definitions are the stuff of exclusion. I don’t want to be the person who explains what steampunks do, because steampunks don’t do anything specific — steampunk is performative in so many ways: What is Jeni Hellum trying to do with Multiculturalism for Steampunk? She’s trying to have fun and expand the playing ground. What is Ay-Leen trying to with Beyond Victoriana? She’s trying to engage with histories of colonization and expand the modes of engagement. Two similar performances, for very different projects. It doesn’t make one better than the other, because both are valid approaches, and both are valid ways of thinking about steampunk.
I can, however, tell you what can be accomplished with the steampunk aesthetic. I can tell you what elements are found in steampunk that can be added or dropped at will. I can deconstruct steampunk. But I could never tell you what the main point of steampunk is. It’s like asking me, “what’s the point of a frou-frou skirt?” I could tell you the history of the frou-frou skirt, explain to you what it looks like. I could even explain what an outfit aims to accomplish with the addition of a frou-frou skirt. But a frou-frou skirt on its own?
But Jha! I hear you cry, are you equating the steampunk aesthetic, with all its complexities and connotations and manifestations, with a frou-frou skirt, a decorative article of clothing? Yes, yes, I am. Can’t a frou-frou skirt be utilized to make a point? To queer a suit, to announce a mood, to showcase a style? Can’t a frou-frou skirt be part of such projects? Yes. And the same with steampunk. We just happen to be able to say more about steampunk, because its history and trends and relation to reality and, most importantly, usage all point to states and ideals and assumptions and mores of society. This is important work! But I refuse to assign a project to steampunk. It’s a murky-assed aesthetic, not a life-defining philosophy.
Which means I have to figure out a way (through all this already) to talk about what MY project with steampunk is, which is to expand the subgenre and challenge imperialist narratives in literature using the steampunk aesthetic.