So I wrote this paper about the forum. It's only a first draft, so be gentle. Constructive criticism is welcomed.
Authority, Legitimacy, and Voice:
Right now, there is a war being waged. It is a war for identity, it is a war for belonging, it is a war to define a word. That word is “steampunk”, and the outcome will shape the lives and lifestyles of hundreds of men and women. The unlikely battleground is an unassuming online discussion forum. Though not much to look at, in its archives cultural history is being made, and we are on the ground floor to watch it. <www.brassgoggles.co.uk/bg-forum>
opened to the public on the 23rd of February, 2007. Special interest forums come and go all the time, but this one seems to have unusual appeal. Within a week, the forum had over 100 members. As of this writing, March 16th, there are almost 400, with an overall average registration of 10 per day. Originally a literary genre in the '80s comprised of a handful of books written by an even smaller number of authors, “steampunk” and its themes of victoriana, anachronism and technology seem to have struck a chord with an unusual number of people. As this fledgling community becomes a bona fide subculture, its participants have begun to struggle to define a subcultural ideology in an attempt to gain the status and legitimacy they seek in subcultural identification.
In “Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture”, Paul Hodkinson defines a substantive subculture as a group matching four criteria: first, 'consistent distinctiveness': “a set of shared tastes or values which is distinctive from other groups and reasonably consistent”. Second is 'identity': “a clear and sustained subjective sense of group identity”. Third is 'commitment': “concentrated and continuous practical involvement among participants”. The final defining, substantive factor defining a group as a “subculture” is 'autonomy': where “a good proportion of the productive or organizational activities which underpin it are liable to be undertaken by and for enthusiasts”. (30-32) Within a month, the Brassgoggles community has met, or is rapidly meeting, those criteria.
The battle to define a subcultural ideology began early. On the first day the forum was open to the public, a thread entitled “Steampunk as Subculture” was started by “kiskolou”, a high school student. Though perhaps a bit optimistic considering the youth of the community, it was portentous, and set off a debate that still continues, spread across multiple threads in most sections of the board. Concentrated in this thread and another, “Steampunk isn't Punk...”, would-be steampunk 'big men' are discussing whether the steampunk community qualifies (or will) as a subculture, whether this would be a desirable state of affairs, and what the definition of “steampunk” even is.
Of course, the reality of the matter is that steampunk doesn't need people on a forum to define it. It already has a perfectly serviceable definition. According to the official website of Tim Powers (one of the original steampunk authors), the term was coined in a 1987 letter to Locus Magazine by K. W. Jeter, a science fiction writer, to describe the particular flavor of Victorian-era science fiction he was writing.Dear Locus,
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks," perhaps ...
As implied in the letter, he was one of three writers identified as writing steampunk at that time. Later, other writers, particularly those working in the “cyberpunk” genre (the name of which “steampunk” was implicitly referencing) worked within steampunk, and some stories written as early as the mid-1970's were retroactively included as influential works. It was, at its heart, modern science fiction, dealing with modern themes, transplanted to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells' Victorian 1800's.
Yet many members of the forum feel a need to redefine it, even when arguing against its attaining subcultural status. “Tinkergirl”, the site administrator, has her definition permanently at the head of the board: a multi-paragraph treatise and bulleted list which includes “fiction actually written in Victorian era... Neo-Victoriania - A Japanese originated alternative where the aim is to recreate certain Victorian aspects of life using modern tools and ways... [and] the series of works of Jules Verne...”. In the thread “steampunk isn't punk”, a member identified as “Vernian Process”, a musician, ironically insists that “like it or not[, s]teampunk already has a definition. I mean the genre isn't exactly new... There is no need to redefine it,” and then proceeds to define the genre exclusively as “victorian anachronism”, in large red letters. “Cory”, another member, rails against what he perceives as the creeping influence of “DIY punk elitism”, certain that the theme of do-it-yourself ingenuity never was a part of the literature, and dismayed at the high regard tinkerers receive in the community. In a larger sense, it is argued whether doing computer casemods are steampunk, whether certain outfits are steampunk, and whether certain music is steampunk. A steampunk ideology, or “consistent distinctiveness” is being established, which fundamentally can not have anything to do with a shortlived sci-fi subgenre.
The growing subculture's search to define itself is wholly linked with a search to define its focus, steampunk. Unfortunately, it cannot be defined, as it already has a definition. It must be redefined. It's okay to redefine it, but it doesn't inherently encompass Jules Verne or H.G. Wells or Edisonade fantasy. "Steampunk", as it was originally coined, simply did not refer to those works. Certainly, there is a direct relationship, influence, and lineage between the two genres, much as there is one between blues in the 1920's and punk rock in the late 1970's. Can one call 1920's bluesmen punk rock? Undoubtedly so, and there is a strong argument to be made, but it implies necessarily a redefinition of the term to include values, aesthetics, etc. not explicitly a part of the actual genre/social movement the term was coined to describe. Once you're redefining the term to include values it didn't originally imply, you've opened the discussion floodgates for any number of redefinitions.
It is somewhat misleading to talk about “the growing subculture” searching to define itself or “the community” having needs or desires. While one can convincingly argue that the community is an emergent consciousness of its own with thoughts and desires, fundamentally it is comprised of individuals. The search for an identity is what leads people to subculture in the first place. People marginalized by the larger culture look for a theater in which they can attain the high social status and acceptance denied them elsewhere. It makes sense that upon finding this theater and seeing its embryonic state, they would try to define it in ways that spoke most to the needs they were trying to fill by their affiliation with it.
It seems natural that as participants build an ideology, individuals would push for the inclusion of values that would facilitate the increase of their social status within the group. Many, if not most, of the members of the forum have expressed a feeling that they were “the only one” who was interested in what they were interested in, or thought the way they did. Upon discovery of the steampunk community, they say, they were filled with relief that there were others like them. This is a common sentiment among subcultural participants. A previously disparate set of interests, values, and beliefs suddenly appear to synthesize a cohesive ideology, and, lucky day! It's even given a name. Steampunk. Bonding over this newfound shared ideology, one can imagine, someone points out that something or other “is steampunk”, meaning, of course, complements their unique set of interests, values, and beliefs. Someone else sees it and insists that the item in question certainly “is not steampunk”, of course meaning the same thing. From this, conflict arises as each participant tries to mold the definition of steampunk to something that matches the set of things they do or value, creating a social environment in which their actions and values increase status.
Interestingly, this does not always appear to be the case at first glance. It is instructive to examine a particular item of contention: the inclusion of the aforementioned “punk D.I.Y. ethic”. As demonstrated previously, Steampunk has outgrown its original clothes as a literary genre. As such, it is meaningless for the purposes of this paper to examine whether the “punk D.I.Y. ethic” was an important part of the original body of work. However, a brief survey of the threads in which the culturemaking of steampunk is being discussed demonstrates how crucial the theme is in the current community.
One of the stated core values of the Punk Rock movement of the 70's and '80's was ingenuity and self-reliance, embodied in the slogan D.I.Y, standing for Do It Yourself. The Punks (ostensibly) made their own clothes, taught themselves to play musical instruments, recorded their own music, and generally tried to remain as self-sufficient as possible to avoid participating in what they perceived as an inherently flawed, corrupt 'system', the dominant culture. Anti-consumerist to the point of fanaticism, they sought a sense of connection with the artifacts they interacted with that they felt could only be achieved by creating or personalizing them themselves. Some in the burgeoning steampunk movement question whether when they received part of their moniker (extremely) secondhand from the Punk movement, they also received this portion of the ideology.
Tinkering, building, and modifying the artifacts and surroundings one interacts with to reflect a more “steampunk” aesthetic are common, visible activities in the current steampunk scene. A search for items tagged “steampunk” on Technocrati, a blog-specific search engine, returns mostly hits for original steampunk art, products, and, overwhelmingly, D.I.Y. inventions or mods of some description. The brassgoggles forum itself is attached to “Tinkergirl”'s steampunk blog, in which original D.I.Y. projects of this type outnumber other items immeasurably. Currently, completing an impressive D.I.Y. project, or taking part in actual steam engineering in some capacity is the most effective way of garnering status. One prominent forum member and D.I.Y.er, “Datamancer” reasons that this is because the interest in steampunk is “a reaction to the utter soullessness and disposability of modern tech.” (Aether Emporium) Jake elaborates, calling it “the Personal Industrial Revolution. The 19th Century”, he claims, “was really the last era in which a high school graduate had been given the complete set of scientific and mathematical concepts to fully understand the technology of the age.” (Aether Emporium) It would seem they has a point. Many participants who do not tinker or build, such as “fmra”, agree with them. There is a strong contingent, however, who do not. Paradoxically, one of the most outspoken dissenters is the aforementioned “Vernian Process”. “VP”, as it is often shortened, is another of the community's leaders, with a status roughly the same as that of “Datamancer”'s. Crucially, however, this status is the result of his being one of a very few self-identified steampunk musicians. Though his self-produced D.I.Y. music has garnered him his acclaim in the scene, he vehemently argues against the inclusions of the values that facilitated it. How can this be?
In itself, the act of defining the ideology builds status. Being a part of the dialog, more specifically, being seen and remembered as being part of the dialog builds status. While the Hipsters, Mods and Skinheads Dick Hebdige describes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style could unselfconsciously declare their originality and follow their earnest ideologies, ever since Punk postmodern self-awareness and irony is part and parcel of the subcultural experience. If there are earnest followers of goth or emo, unquestioningly confident in the naturalness and inviolability of their respective ideologies, there can be none in steampunk. It is too new, it has no defined ideology, and perhaps most importantly, it is a fundamentally postmodern construct. It is a reinterpretation of a pastiche of a social commentary. Dialog is its lineage and its substance. To participate in that dialog is quite possibly the most 'steampunk' action one can take. The current form the dialog is taking is one of self-consciously defining a term and an identity, but the definition is secondary. The dialog is the primary social activity, the primary status builder.
Why should “VP” argue in favor of D.I.Y. creativity? He's already gained status from his music, and even if he hadn't, he gains far more by taking such a vocal role in the dialog. By taking the more controversial position, he cements his place as an important culturemaker, even if he loses. By taking the more exclusionary position, he gains ever more subcultural legitimacy. Subculture must be exclusionary. To define a subcultural ideology is to define what it is not. Subcultural participants are characteristically obsessed with legitimacy. In establishing Hodkinson's “consistent distinctiveness”, to differentiate themselves from the dominant group, they must constantly draw boundaries. Participants, marginalized by the dominant culture, must in turn marginalize the dominant culture to achieve legitimacy. They are attracted to subcultural affiliation in the first place because it offers them an opportunity to gain the status denied them by the dominant culture. But in doing so, in achieving that status, they must instantiate the same cultural patterns of status, hierarchy, and marginalization that victimized them. It is all they know; marginalization is inherently linked with- complementary to- power and status.
And if “fmra” never mods his computer case, what does he have to lose by arguing in favor of D.I.Y.? He's unlikely to quantifiably lose status by not doing something, and stands much more to gain by participating in the debate. The Stranglers, and less controversially, The Ramones, were crucially important in defining the early punk sound. Ultimately, they lost. Were one to make the same music today, any punk purist would tell you that it was not punk, had nothing to do with it. But history disagrees. By their participation in the dialectic process of definition, both bands cemented themselves as legendary pioneers in the punk scene.
Subculture has always been about substituting your own culture instead of consuming the one given you. The great subcultural heroes are the culturemakers, the early participants who defined the scene, who first looked at the dominant culture and said, “Bollocks!” The pioneers of Steampunk, steeped in the postmodern, postsubcultural 21st century know that better than most, and can not help but clamor for a snatch of legitimacy and a place in history. “Johnny Payphone”, a member whose profession restoring and maintaining obsolete, largely steam-powered technology wins him enough status to be fairly respected despite his low post count, put it succinctly in “Steampunk as Subculture”: “Sadly, one day you WILL be able to buy brass goggles at Hot Topic, only it will be called Proffessor P. Phineas McGillicudy's Fantastic Gogglemagorium or whatever.” But if he plays his cards right, and keeps making edgy, iconoclastic posts, maybe it will be called Professor Payphone's.
Berlyne, John. "Tim Powers - Published Interviews and Related Articles." The Works of Tim Powers. 17 Dec. 1999. 16 Mar. 2007 <http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com/related.htm>.
Chamberlin, Eric. Pin-Up Punks: the Reality of a Virtual Community. Unpublished.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: the Meaning of Style. Padstow, Cornwall: Routledge, 1979.
Hodkinson, Paul. Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture. Oxford: Berg, 2002.
"Steampunk as Subculture." Brassgoggles Steampunk Forum. 23 Feb. 2007. 16 Mar. 2007 <http://www.brassgoggles.co.uk/bg-forum/>.
"Steampunk Isn'T Punk..." Brassgoggles Steampunk Forum. 26 Feb. 2007. 16 Mar. 2007 <http://www.brassgoggles.co.uk/bg-forum/>.
Note: There are almost no in-text citations. I know this. The situation will be rectified in the final draft.