Science fiction and its fan cultures have become increasingly popular topics at the MLA’s annual conventions. In 2013’s convention alone, panels were devoted to the intersections of science fiction with everything from ecoterrorism and race to dystopias, religion, and feminism. Still, the MLA has yet to sponsor a panel on the alternative history genre known as steampunk. Steampunk is often seen as “Victorian science fiction,” but it also acts as a genre that retrofits new technology onto the nineteenth century; increasingly, steampunk provides a platform and paradigm for fans to engage with the Victorian period in multimedia environments. Such engagement, and its investment in material culture, is apparent in media like steampunk blogs, where you can find iPod decks that look like gramophones, or laptops constructed to seem like they were sold at a nineteenth-century craft fair. These intersections – Victoriana, science fiction, DIY culture, anachronism, and more – render steampunk an ideal locus for portable and cross-disciplinary insights.
Further, steampunk offers some interesting challenges to traditional acts of historicizing the nineteenth century. Some researchers have associated the genre with nostalgia, or as Frederic Jameson notes, a “historical and dated” version of utopia mixed with the “urban decay and blight” of postmodern life (151). On the other hand, Jussi Parikka has noted steampunk’s rejection of older modernist versions of historicism and embrace of a do-it-yourself (DIY) tinkerer’s attitude towards “alternatives,” “quirky ideas,” and “novel paths that fall out of the mainstream.” (2). Steampunk has also become emblematic of newer theories of history and memory that respond to advances in digital archival technologies that make the past more physically accessible. As Wolfgang Ernst puts it, digital memory is not, “as in traditional archives, clearly separated from present operations […] but becomes cybernetically a feedback ingredient of present operations itself, its basic condition” (101). The constant presence of accessible historical knowledge made possible through mobile devices, wifi, and other forms of ubiquitous computing means that the experiences of the present are aligned with the past in ways never before imaginable. Parikka and Ernst see the digital presence of the past requiring a historical approach that incorporates repurposing, creativity, and tinkering as essential scholarly activities. To the extent that these actions are represented in steampunk literature, through steampunk culture, and on steampunk objects, this rapidly expanding subculture/subgenre offers a mode—and often an instantiation—of these new figures for history and memory.
This steampunk panel promises broad appeal to a range of MLA constituents. As a creation of the last 40 years, steampunk is important for twenty-first century genre studies. Simultaneously, the genre’s Victorian antecedents provide scholars of nineteenth-century history, literature, and culture an opportunity to revisit and re-imagine many seminal texts.The genre’s revision of historically-determined subjectivities for men and women are of interest to gender and sexuality scholars, as well as the field of Victorian studies. Finally, steampunk’s thriving fan culture has drawn interest from many scholars working in material culture and fan culture.
Panel in Brief
Each of the presenters will engage with steampunk and history, connecting the genre to issues in trauma theory, critical, maker culture, and gender and sexuality studies. The panel begins with a broad-view of steampunk in Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall’s “Time, Trauma, and Twin Towers: Steampunk after 9/11; Or, Fort/Da, in Brass.” They consider the fluctuating temporality of steampunk by exploring the post-9/11 rise of steampunk in conversation with the re-visioning of temporality that occurred in the Victorian period. The paradigmatic shift in understandings of geological time in the nineteenth century, catalyzed by Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, becomes a metaphor with explanatory power for examining steampunk’s own time, characterized not only by the rise of DIY culture and technofetishism but also by the collective cultural catastrophe of 9/11. From there, Bowser and Croxall take up the question of why steampunk emerges when it does in a wide range of novels from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) to Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy (2009-2011). They ultimately suggest that steampunk’s temporality both manifests as a figure of Freudian trauma and simultaneously deploys a reparative, uniformitarian paradigm in the wake of catastrophe. Lisa Hager continues the comparative historical analysis in “Women of Ill Repute and Dirty Deeds: Steampunk, Victorian Studies, and Dirt,” where she explores how steampunk literature mobilizes the image of dirt in order to critique our contemporary desire to deny its existence and, in so doing, locates dirt in urban environments struggling with the consequences of industrial pollution and overpopulation. Moreover, she demonstrates Seth Koven’s argument about the particular implication of nineteenth-century representations of dirt in terms of cross-class, sexually transgressive relationships by looking at steampunk works that take up this theme to comment on current ambivalences regarding women’s sexuality. In particular, she argues that Kady Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset (2011) and Karina Cooper’s Tarnished (2012) demonstrate different ways that dirt metonymically figures issues of women’s agency and sexuality in terms of their class identities. In the final presentation, Roger Whitson’s “Making Steampunk: Arts and Crafts, Spreadability, and the Varieties of DIY History” illustrates how the ongoing fascination and controversy surrounding DIY / Maker culture has roots in the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement of John Ruskin and William Morris. In both, making is associated with a certain privilege that is usually white, male, heternormative, and middle class. While recognizing this history, Whitson shows how steampunk fan culture simultaneously rewrites histories of oppression found in the nineteenth century. His presentation analyzes steampunk artifacts and how-to manuals distributed in forums, in issues of Steampunk Magazine, and on blogs. The politics associated with these varieties of history-making require a form of analysis that acknowledges the insufficiency of traditional understandings of cultural history, power, and historicity—adding to them an account of the methods DIY / making culture uses to circulate and transmit knowledge about the nineteenth century.
Rachel A. Bowser is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College. She is trained as a Victorian literature scholar, and has grown into a literature-and-science enthusiast; the intersection of these spheres has found her working on steampunk with some regularity, and following the special steampunk issue of NeoVictorian Studies she edited with Brian Croxall with an edited collection on the same, with the same collaborator. In addition to the work located within specifically Victorian and steampunk paradigms, Bowser’s intellectual work has focused on the spread of ideas through internet culture, for example the policing of female identity on-line, the subject of a recent paper at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, and and analysis of the formalism of internet memes at the MLA 13 conference.
Brian Croxall is the Digital Humanities Strategist and Lecturer of English at Emory University. His interests in the digital humanities include visualizing geospatial and temporal data as well as integrating digital approaches into pedagogy. He teaches modern and contemporary American literature as well as courses on media studies, digital culture, and war fiction. Brian serves on the Executive Council of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Committee on Information Technology at the Modern Language Association (MLA). He is a contributing author to the blog ProfHacker, is a cluster editor at the #alt-academy project, and is working on an edited collection on steampunk every third evening.
Lisa Hager is Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Waukesha. Her current book project looks at the relationship between the New Woman and the Victorian family. Lisa is the managing editor for and regular contributor to the Journal of Victorian Culture Online, and her work on steampunk and Firefly is featured in The Philosophy of Joss Whedon. She has published articles in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Women’s Writing, and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and she has an article on Victorian poet John Davidson, aestheticism, and science in The Decadent 1890s, Joseph Bristow’s forthcoming collection from the University of Toronto Press.
Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor in the English and Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) programs at Washington State University and is the author of many articles on the intersections of nineteenth-century literature, adaptation, and digital media. His most recent book William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge, 2012) examines the history of the digital humanities in relation to the study and adaptation of Blake’s work in 20th- and 21st-century visual art, music, film, and social media. He is currently working on a second book project titled Steampunk: Critical Making and the Varieties of DIY Nineteenth-Century History.
Cooper, Karina. Tarnished: The St. Croix Chronicles. New York: Avon, 2012. Print.
Cross, Kady. The Girl in the Steel Corset. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin Teen, 2011. Print.
Ernst, Wolfgang, and Jussi Parikka. Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2013. Print.
Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991. Print.
Jameson, Frederic. “Progress Versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies. 9.2 (July 1982): 147-58. Print.
Killjoy, Margaret, and Professor Calamity. SteamPunk Magazine: The First Years, Issues #1-7. Charleston: Combustion, 2011. Print.
Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
Parikka, Jussi. What Is Media Archaeology? Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012. Print.
Westerfeld, Scott. Behemoth. New York: Simon Pulse, 2011. Print.
Westerfield, Scott. Goliath. New York: Simon Pulse, 2011. Print.
Westerfield, Scott. Leviathan. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009. Print.