Punking steampunk

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2010

The inevitable high-profile backlash at steampunk’s oversaturation of the cultural Zeitgeist finally arrives (and about time, too). Take it away, Charlie Stross:

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk […] It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon.

If I was less busy today, I’d spin out a lengthy rant about the inevitability of this sort of cultural shift; it happens all the time in the world of music, for example (and it happens insanely fast nowadays, thanks to music being predominantly a digital domain populated by the young and computer-savvy). But for now, a brief summary:

Subcultural colonialism, in other words, works in very similar ways to the other, older sort of colonialism… though I don’t mean to imply its repercussions are anywhere near as serious. It’s a similarity of process rather than impact, you might say.

Stross goes on to point out that romanticising the Victorian era is a rather odd thing to do, given that it was extraordinarily grim for the vast majority of people. Personally I think that’s a large part of the impulse; I’m reading a rather excellent book on the era at the moment (Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt), and it makes the point that the early phases of the industrial revolution were marked by a wistful yearning for the pastoral/feudal England it had left behind… an England in many ways as mythological and idealised as steampunk’s glossy faux-Victoriana.

Because we know we can never go back, we feel free to reimagine the past as a haven from of the existential horrors of The Now; dreaming about a holiday you can never take is safe, because you can never be disappointed by the reality. Yesterday’s Now isn’t so scary, firstly because its bad sides are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point of Panglossian privilege, and secondly because our very existence implies it was survivable at a civilisational scale – two certainties that The Now doesn’t deliver.

The past is a poster on your bedroom wall. Hi-ho, atemporality.

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One Response to “Punking steampunk”

  1. Wintermute says:

    Well, yeah, that’s the hump-day pop quiz in Pop Culture 101. Pretty much the old pre-Information Age definition of a Bohemia. Temporary Autonomous Zone petri dish of misfits seeking to anticonform or “change a system” or score hippie chicks and hashish or become randomly interested in some eccletic window of culture/history, organically grows new subculture. Subculture grows, more misfits join, internal in-group-out-group politics power struggles et. al., subculture eventually reaches maturity. Culture farm produce is then harvested (w/help of *Cayce Pollard cool-hunters, dipping their overgrown pattern-rec mammalian brains into the hives of the ripe “Street” apiary, withdrawing with honey but painfully swollen psyches, and possibly not-intact moral self-OKness). Subcult cool is then Gap/Hot-Topic-ized, recovering art school dropout graphic designers hammer out all tomorrow’s t-shirts. As their fraudulent CDO-filled supercomputer algorithms smell the stock-rumblings of freshly exhuberant blood, the moneyed class sharks step in to make the exhuberance irrational and global, put their chips down hard on the backs of Hollywood producers to pump out Happy Meal figure marketing and Toronto video game designers to produce interactive Michael Bay popcorn flicks- I mean video games generating a sort of cinematic-cultural lock in. Cultural and literal boom and busts ensue, the sliders are pushed up to 12 resulting in the sort of de-historfying, atemporalizing “Zero History” effect if you will, where all historical cultural significance and meaning of the original movement or period – be it the Birkenstocked social justice and ripped-jeans society shakeup of the 60s or the elaborately gothic fuckedness and mad-hat tech-driven turbulence of the Victorian era – are distilled and shrinkwrapped like kids toys or sawdust McMansions into serried shelves of fashion accessory, reduced to just Birkenstocks and jeans “pre-worn-out” by prisoners and AIDS-addles Nigerian kids, reduced to just elaborate gothiness and funny hats.
    In the new schlockverse mediascape helmed by the latest incarnation of Stephanie Meyer, most every author, designer, and other creative-class tries to cash in (effect multiplied by the ever more post-revenue world), pendulum swinging ultimately into craze-fatigue which slashes and burns the aging subculture leaving the recyclable public backlash anti-cool (parodies, rants, shallow poserness skewered and roasted on kebab) “short-selling the fad X crash” along with a few durable goods AKA long-tail otaku “collectors”, milkable cash cow artifacts enduring beyond the high-watermark. Culture farmers move to next acreage of genre/historical period eventually cycling back to the original when the time-scrubbed zeitgeistial topsoils have become fertile again (Folk -> Rock -> Punk -> Metal -> Grunge-Alternative -> Rock (“Classic”) -> Mall Punk -> Nu Metal -> Indie-Alternative -> Nu Folk — 80’s true-vamps -> Campbellian child wizard fantasy -> Glitzy UberEmo Vamps -> Post Apoc -> Urban fantasy -> ). Thus spake Zarathustra.
    Business as usual since the 60’s and television (or earlier, depending on your metric).

    *Gibson theorizes that perhaps the difference now is that we are not giving the bohemian ‘cultures’ enough time to reach maturity. Where they used to allow several years to a decade before picking the fruits for commoditization, the lead-time has been ever shortening to a year or less, due to the need to feed the culture business juggernaut and the de-isloating, dis-enclaving nature of the ubiquitous, open-web, all mashups all the time primordial cultural ‘mush’, which doesn’t allow or emphasize long periods of disengagement with the mainstream flow necessary to develop a strong unique identity, or new ideas (Jaron Lanier wipes the floor of many a tech conference with the copyleftists arguments for the “wisdom of the crowds” which often in practice tends more toward the “stupidity, uncreative self-similarity, and ignorant malice of the mob”.