MLA 2017 Presentation — Steampunk in the Anthropocene


[Slide 1] The title of my talk is slightly different than the one on the program, “Steampunk in the Anthropocene: Retrofuturist Design Fiction and the Digital Humanities,” but it emphasizes the multiple points of intervention that I’m pursuing as part of my recent book on steampunk.

[Slide 2] As the other presenters have mentioned, this panel is inspired by a variety of recent work on the intersections between environmental studies and the digital humanities. Most relevant for my presentation today is from our unfortunately absent moderator. Amanda Starling Gould claims that we need to focus on the ecological materiality of computing devices.
Gould argues that “the immaterial implications of many of our prominent media terms (e.g. the Cloud, wirelessness, ubiquitous computing, cognitive labor) may actually create damaging world views that deny the digital’s relation to the environment and, in so doing, excuse producer and users from any active material responsibilities.”

[Slide 3] Steampunk is a good topic to discuss this material awareness in the digital humanities, since it emphasizes the materiality of mechanical components and processes. Rebecca Onion calls steampunk a form of “object-based work” that is practiced by fans who create various Victorian technologies in order to reclaim technology, but it can be extended to a fascination with the guts of technology, the way things work together. For me, steampunk is a methodology that actively attempts to make visible the infrastructure of technological functions and sees, as an antidote to progressivist fantasies of immaterial technology, an exploration of alternate histories in which that material infrastructure takes more of a central place in our technological designs. What if Apple minimalism didn’t dominate our imagination of the future? What if our entire technological infrastructure wasn’t designed to obscure resource extraction and digital labor? As some examples, you can see Thomas Willeford’s steampunk prosthesis on the left emphasizing the way steam might power the movement of an arm. On the right side is Jim Shealy’s “teacup stirling engine,” which uses steam from a teacup to operate a piston and move the engine. Finally, on the bottom is Rick Nagy’s Clacker – a desktop difference engine that imagines what would happen if Babbage’s mechanical computer could be minimized for desktop use. On one level, steampunk confronts a purist design ethos that is easily observable in today’s consumer electronics, with a notion of technology as thoroughly ecological — embedded in the various components and resources that make it up.

[Slide 4] For me, each of these cases illustrates steampunk’s power as a design fiction. As Joshua Tanenbaum, Karen Tanenbaum, and Ron Wakkary have argued, instead of steampunk’s design invoking sleek future technologies for commercial capitalism (like the two often invoked franchises associated with design fiction Star Trek or Minority Report), most steampunk fans value its focus on DIY and appropriation. By foregrounding the clumsy materiality of technology, steampunk offers multiple design paths for various retrofuturist scenerios. These paths, in the words of Tanenbaum, Tanenbaum, and Wakkary, provide “an explicit model for how to physically realize an ideological an imagined world through design practice.” If, in the case of climate change, civilization is forced to reconfigure its electric grid or manipulate its technologies to address reduced resources, steampunk provides one way of designing for a future of recomposed pasts.

[Slide 5] In fact, the recomposed designs of steampunk and the Victorian imaginary are often invoked in many discussions about climate change. This scene comes from a series of paintings from the design firm Squint / Opera that depicts London life in 2090, after sea levels had risen from global warming. The images mix Victorian cheekiness with a ruined London infrastructure in order to show people surviving and thriving in a doomed cityscape. Director Nick Taylor said that the images from the “Flooded London” exhibit are “optimistic and reveal that far from being a tragedy, the floods have brought about a much-improved way of life to the capital city.” In the picture here, a fish looks upward toward a rowboat tethered to a rusted iron gate. The boat looks deceptively like a steampunk airship. The gate is part of what was once an extravagant home with multiple stories and white and gold trimmed columns. Seaweed drifts and curls above, as fish and other sea creatures swim by largely unaware or unconcerned with the structure. Titled “St. Mary Woolnoth-Rich Pickings,” the airship-like rowboat is captured in a flooded diorama of a once-utopian steampunk paradise. If formerly the unbounded humanist optimism of Victorian industry envisioned a fleet of airships patrolling the skies, now those airships are replaced with humble rowboats stranded in a distinctly posthuman world.

[Slide 6] Marcus Fairs, writing on the Denzeen blog introducing the project says that it depicts “London as a tranquil utopia” and that the images were produced using “photography, 3d modeling and digital manipulation to imitate some of the techniques of the super-idealistic Victorian landscape painters.” The post-apocalyptic picturesque effect envisions a world where the ruins of former London landmarks are repurposed into new uses. One image shows a man about to dive off of a ledge on the top of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The ivy curling around St. Paul’s dome reflects a distinctly Victorian ambivalence in which the reclamation of built environments by so-called “nature” could be seen as almost utopian.

[Slide 7] We see this utopian ambivalence in many of the other images of the series. In another image, two boys fish off of a skyscraper, presumably into the flooded streets below. The toppled business chairs, grimy pillars, dangling wires, and abandoned buildings in the edges of the picture are counterbalanced by the almost disturbingly chipper picnic basket, bourgeoisie Victorian children, and fishing poles in the middle-ground. Alarmingly, Squint / Opera’s utopianism has a certain normativity that is hard to ignore. Almost all of the human subjects in the pictures are white, able-bodied, and either depicted alone or in various heteronormative couplings. There is very little diversity of any sort depicted in these images, and that alone should cause us to question just how much the lives of Londoners are improved by the rising waters. Which Londoners survived? Much like too-many steampunk fantasies, “Flooded London’s” Rockwellian nostalgia is dangerously close to what China Mieville sees as a parallel between the popularity of steampunk in the 21st century and the “rehabilitation of empire in Britain and the U.S.”

[Slide 8] Yet the celebration of reconstructed technologies in these images also evokes a certain ethos of survival that illustrates how steampunk might itself be repurposed in various post-climate change scenarios. One of the more interesting images of “Flooded London” features two older people in a room manufacturing gadgets with various repurposed parts. In the middle of the image, the woman pedals on an exercise bike connected by two serpentine belts to a bicycle wheel and a vacuum-cleaner motor. These power a light bulb held by a man. Apart from evoking the quirky designs of 19th century American Engineer Rube Goldberg — a favorite among steampunk fan communities — the image also reminds us that every machine is made up of various parts and infrastructures that could be put to different uses. Everything in “Flooded London” seems repurposed: machines, buildings, Victorian painterly effects, even nature itself.

[Slide 9] For me, these images of ecological repurposing recall how nineteenth-century writers often envisioned their civilization being repurposed by nature in various ecological apocalypses. Novels like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, in which an unnamed plague destroys the vast majority of the human race; and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which features a scene in which the main character travels to and experiences the heat death of the universe, illustrate how nineteenth-century writers were very much concerned with how their civilization would persist after a disaster. In particular, Richard Jefferies’s After London; or Wild England is unique in its presentation of an ecological paradise emerging after war kills off the majority of the human race. Jefferies was a botanist and a noted author of English rural life, and his unnamed narrator clearly takes pride in describing the reclamation of buildings and streets by fauna.

[Slide 10] Here’s a good example of that description in the second chapter. “The sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the water and the mud brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arose completed the work and left nothing visible, so that the mighty buildings of olden days were by these means utterly buried. And, as has been proved by those who have dug for treasures, in our time the very foundations are deep beneath the earth, and not to be got at for the water that oozes into the shafts that they have tried to sink through the sand and mud banks.”

[Slide 11] Human beings still exist in After London, but all around the novel we get these images of human traces slowly decomposing into nothingness. There’s a certain mediation here that illustrates how nineteenth-century writers were becoming aware of human traces in the environment that foreshadows our own current reflections on the Anthropocene and climate change. Jesse Oak Taylor eloquently puts this sensibility in terms of the climate itself. “London at the end of the nineteenth century was the largest city that had ever existed, the capital of the world’s first industrialized society and of an empire with global pretensions. It was also a novel ecosystem, a manufactured environment in which every scrap of ground and breath of air bore traces of human action. As such, it demanded new modes of dwelling.” The climate, much like the city, is a form of infrastructural mediation. Londoners had to learn to live differently because they sensed that they were manipulating the environment in unprecedented ways. 

[Slide 12] It is sense of infrastructural manipulation and mediation that inspires steampunk engineers to think differently about technology. This is a 9 ton-wood-powered traction engine Hortense, which originally helped farmers supply steam power to their machine. Recreated by the Oakland-based group Kinetic Steam Works, Hortense is often a centerpiece illustrating their “steam powered kinetic art.” Kinetic Steam Works exists to teach and preserve the methodologies associated with steam technology. Melissa Hellman and Susan Cohen argue that they repurpose “defunct machines to teach people how seemingly complicated objects work” in the process “offer[ing] a glimpse into the hardships of the past and “mak[ing] people more appreciative of modern conveniences.” But it also offers an alternate approach to energy sources and machines. By focusing on how complicated machines work and recreating presumably obsolete technologies, Kinetic Steam Works actively resists the planned obsolescence of consumer devices while also taking apart the blackboxing of infrastructure enabling such ideologies.

[Slide 13] One more example comes from steampunk maker Jake von Slatt, who is a poster-child of steampunk maker culture and often featured in Make Magazine when it profiles steampunk. In an interview for James Carrot and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows, Von Slatt says that he sees steampunks “sense of history” as centrally important to him. He also cites electronic hobbyist and workshop cultures typified by publications like Popular Mechanics and The Whole Earth Catalog as important touchstones for his work. His Steampunk RV is inspired by his hatred of the flimsy building materials used in standard RVs, while also using materials like recycled bedframes, CB radios and chairs rescued from the city dump, and featuring a nineteenth-century mirror with an 1831 maker’s mark. Further in his projects for the Wimshurst Influence Machine, in which two rotating brushes build static electricity and create a spark; and even his more recent engine-driven welder, using an engine from a 1946 Austin Dorset and a 250 amp high-output Ford alternator, illustrate how Von Slatt repurposes older technologies into newer configurations.

[Slide 14] For me, such projects usefully question what work we might want to emphasize when thinking about the intersections between environmentalism and the digital humanities. All of the projects I’ve showcased today come from non-academic and public sources. Further, they usefully expand the technological interests of the digital humanities away from an exclusive focus on computing and towards more varied machines. Third, they embrace an ethos of repurposing that challenges the temporal progressivism of consumer electronics and enables a look back to the gadgets that inspired inventors and technologists in the past. If an important part of embracing a more ecologically-informed version of the digital humanities is an expansion of media materialism to the resources used and wasted in the construction of our devices, then the act of repurposing older machines in steampunk can offer one way to embrace that responsibility. Thank you.


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