“Not everything that goes around comes back around you know”
—Queens of the Stone Age, “…Like Clockwork”
I received my copy of Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, & Futures on Saturday in the middle of a weekend when I was quite visibly struggling with anxiety. Most of my days have been riding on top of an undercurrent of anxiety since the election. So many things are uncertain, and the critical tools we’ve used as scholars seem somewhat quaint in the wake of the violence and hatred emerging before us.
I also read Diana Pho’s ambivalent yet also celebratory reflection on the publication of the volume. She mentions that while the premise of the book discusses steampunk and its many strange temporalities as a product of 9/11, such an argument and their attendant traumas seem even more relevant and complicated after Trump’s victory. “It is a darker world,” Pho writes, “one where a whimsical longing for a ‘historical past that never was’ rubs up against slogans about building walls, registering religious minorities, and Making America Great Again. It is a more nationalistic world in a frightening way, where playacting as fascists comes too close to the swastikas and hate speech I see graffitied on the streets of the city I love.”
History is such a strange, strange thing. It’s been seen as a form of salvation, as a catalyst for whatever moral arc we feel we’re following with our protests and our votes. Now it seems like a corpse, its democratic telos mixed with the hatred of a newly emboldened fascism, the looming threat of climate change, and the attenuating agency of individual human beings. For me, perhaps one of the most stunning and frustrating quotes about history comes from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, when he says that:
People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
It seems to be one of the most steampunk of Marx’s quotes, and Marx is quite the steampunk author. The Eighteenth Brumaire recounts Louis Bonaparte’s (Napolean III) dictatorial coup of the French Republic in 1851. The first chapter outlines how the bourgeoisie revolutions of the eighteenth century clothed themselves in the language of Rome and Greece in order to establish their legitimacy, just as Cromwell’s revolution used the language of the Old Testament to concretize its own authority. Such appeals to the past, Marx argues, were only methods by which the bourgeoisie maintained control in their revolutions over a proletarian class that still saw the past as a source of authority. And these histories remain ripe for exploitation, as Louis Napolean himself couched his coup in “the watchwords of the old society, ‘property, family, religion, order.'” He continues that “[e]very demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most shallow democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism.'”
Marx’s point in the first chapter is that even the bourgeoisie republic is a form of despotism, where a small class couches reform in a language whose conservative appeal to the ghosts of the past can survive, for a time, against claims that such reforms will lead only to anarchy. But these bourgeoisie appeals are also deals with the devil. As we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, the endless compromises of neoliberalism were useless against the fascists who feared the future. It seems impossible to escape the brutality of our past.
It is this context I approach Rachel and Brian’s question in the introduction to Like Clockwork: “why now?” Rachel and Brian discuss the appeal to the past in steampunk as a salve against the explosive trauma of 9/11. In the context of 11/9, the weirdness of steampunk seems to be another context for understanding its appeal. I’m thinking of the weird realism embraced by steampunk authors like China Mieville and filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It’s no shock that Mieville dismisses most of steampunk as a form of nostalgic imperialism. Yet, as his own novels show, appeals to the past do not have to follow the same mimesis that Trump-supporters desperately want to re-create in their fascist dreams. Perdido Street Station, for instance, features a scene that takes place in a freak show that looks suspiciously like those traveling shows differently-abled persons were forced to help produce in the nineteenth century. By placing this haunting nineteenth-century image in the middle of his fantasy novel filled with extra-dimensional intelligences and fantastic creatures, Mieville’s version of steampunk reminds us that we cannot take refuge in the future as if it would deliver political progress to us automatically. Brutality is everywhere, if sometimes hidden to privileged eyes, and no well-meaning bourgeoisie reformist should be able to use either the past or the future to give us false dreams about escaping the suffering that plagues our world.
Alternatively, as I argue in my own monograph Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities, we can use steampunk to fight against the notion of a progressive history given to us by bourgeoisie intellectuals: that there’s anything inevitable about the world becoming better simply due to the ticking of the clock. I’m hoping that the book will form a compelling dialogue with Like Clockwork, in which the point is not to recreate the nineteenth-century past or completely abandon it, but to use its discontinuity with the present to open our visions of history to more diverse actors and participants. Instead of seeing the clock as a metaphor, why don’t we question what makes up a clock and how those actors mediate our hopes and dreams for the future? What would happen if a different culture, with a very different sense of time, inaugurated the Industrial Revolution and dominated technological production for hundreds of years? Such questions seem so quaint, in this world that is constantly telling us to act against the horrors we’re seeing emerge on our Facebook feed everyday. But steampunk might also give us different ways to envision the pasts and futures engaged in the coming struggle.