It begins with a question. What if? What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, if the Hindenburg hadn’t crashed, or if Thomas Edison had never been born? What might the world be like if history had been different? Steampunk is an expressive genre that explores the possibilities of a past that never was, but might have been. Inspired by the steam-powered and mechanistic imagery of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ novels and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos of cyberpunk art and literature, steampunk combines the aesthetics and materials of the nineteenth century with the technological developments and sensibilities of the twenty-first. It is a style defined by anachronism and guided by an impulse to explore and interrogate the role of technology in everyday life.
Although the genre began as a form of speculative literature in the 1980s and 1990s, it took on new life during the first decade of the twenty-first century, developing into a design aesthetic, fashion, and a subculture. It became a way of making and interacting with things. Steampunk artisans and inventors fabricate costumes, accessories, and whimsical gadgets with complex networks of gears that turn and flutter with the flick of a switch, working plasma tubes, and faux-steam engines that billow puffs of fake steam. They meet at conventions and talk about bargain hunting at Goodwill and about the treasures that they’ve found at junk stores and yard sales. They tell stories about the things they’ve created, the objects that they’ve saved, and the new lives that they’ve given them. Broken television remote controls become epaulettes, discarded transistor radios are bound in leather and amplified through phonograph horns, and vintage vacuum tubes are transformed into retro-futuristic jewelry.
A steampunk costumer stands in line for the Dragon*Con parade
wearing a tweed blazer, black felt top hat and brass goggles, and an
epaulet made from re-purposed consumer grade electronics. Photo by the
At its core, steampunk material culture is about redefining our relationship with technology. Many steampunks believe that human beings no longer have meaningful relationships with technology. They say that modern consumer electronics are cheaply made, aesthetically sterile, and unserviceable and that they perpetuate a culture of disposability. For much of the world, computers, cellphones, and similar devices have become interwoven into the texture of everyday life. They facilitate exchange, organize our behaviors, and enable us to connect with one another and express ourselves, yet despite their importance the average individual’s relationships with their personal technologies are transient and superficial. Devices are purchased and used and when they they break, obsolesce, or fall out of fashion they are discarded and/or replaced with another contrivance. Steampunks bemoan the fact that technology has become something that the masses consume, but seldom produce. They point out that few individuals actually understand how the devices they own and operate actually function. A steampunk costumer I interviewed at Dragon*Con, the largest multi-genre popular culture convention held in the south eastern United States, explained that:
You go all your life with all these magic machines and you can’t see what they do. You don’t know how they work, they’re just in a box, so when you take the cover off it’s always cool. I mean I did that as a kid. I’d rip apart VCRs and everything. Steampunk very much wants to put the mechanics out there and show like ‘this is a machine, it looks cool.’
This impressive ensemble features a mahogany-stained wooden
backpack. A length of metallic cable runs out from behind and the
along the edge of the backpack and through a series of metal rings,
terminating in a pair of wooden handles that hang beside the wearer’s
hands. When pulled downward, the cables actuate a pair of large cloth
covered wings fabricated from scrap lumber and other salvaged
materials. Photo by the author, 2012.
Steampunks take inspiration from the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, times when technologies were often treated as fine furniture. Gramophones, telephones, radios, and even televisions were encased in intricately decorated wood or metal cabinets and were designed in such a way that, if they were maintained and repaired by the owner, would have long useful lifecycles. So long, in fact, that many devices were be treated as heirlooms. Today, however, modern consumer technologies are subject to planned obsolescence. They are made from inexpensive materials (typically non-biodegrading and toxic molded plastics) and designed in such a way that their useful lifespans will be significantly shortened. These throwaway economics “put the owner into the market for a replacement” (Packard 1960:69) and force the customer to purchase new products rather than maintain, repair, or disintegrate and re-purpose the products that they’ve already owned.
A pair of costumers from an Alabama-based steampunk group
display their handcrafted accessories made from modified cheap plastic
toy guns, brass hardware, paint, and a recycled plastic Sprite bottle.
Photo by the author, 2011.
Steampunk is a rejection of planned obsolescence and disposable technologies. It is about exploring human-object relations and re-conceptualizing technology in ways that are fundamentally different from how modern industrial capitalism conceives them. Steampunks approach materials not just as a medium of exchange or a means to accumulate profit, but as resources that have consequences and effects within and on the world. The most common means of production is through a process known as upcycling—the act of converting discarded material recourses into new forms with the intention that the consequent products be of a higher and more sustainable quality than they had been in their previous iteration(s). Upcycling is contrasted with recycling, what William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002) have described as downcycling—a process in which existing materials are continuously reused in successively lower quality and less functional objective iterations until they are eventually discarded.
A young costumer attending Dragon*Con in costume with his
family stops and explains the major components of his retro-futuristic
looking weaponry. Among other things, it is constructed from a
reclaimed plastic gun, a small portable electric fan, two reusable
water bottles, and copper tubbing. Photo by the author, 2012.
Steampunks are detritivores. Reclaiming and refashioning the refuse of modern industrial design, they transform waste into something new and artful and create value where it had minimal, absent, or negative value before. For the majority of steampunks, waste is not an end of production, but its means. Steampunks are concerned with the life cycle of things, especially technological ones. They want to know how they are produced and discarded and they imagine how they might be recreated. This reproductive force revolves around: (1) the reconceptualization of material resources as long-term, repairable and/or upgradable substances that require stewardship throughout their useful lifecycle from their point of disintegration; (2) a demotion or outright elimination of the concept of waste; and (3) a transition away from the use of “virgin materials” (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999:15) and inexpensive/unserviceable substances in favor of regenerative designs that produce value from already existing manufactured resources.
Braungart, Michael and William McDonough
2002 Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.
Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
1999 Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
1960 The Waste Makers. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.