Last weekend’s steampunk showcase in Providence’s Old Stone Bank, run by a group called the Red Fork Empire, really highlighted the fantastic and dystopian elements of a subculture that I’d thought was mainly historically inspired. (Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert or even regular follower of steampunk. This is an outsider’s view. )
Many paintings drew on horror and sci-fi cliches like plastic masks, tentacled monsters, and Frankensteinian undead. The Victorian influences seemed mainly in the aesthetic elements of gears, skirts and hats, and horror fiction – with an unexpected smattering of Soviet realism, as well. My favorite piece of art at the exhibit was the room full of giant metal insects, which a wall panel explained were drones that collected resources for humans living underground in a postapocalyptic landscape. Nevertheless, what steampunk aficionados and I have in common is an interest in the meanings of being modern – now, then, and in the nonexistent future.
My favorite moment was walking past a table of boxes and knick-knacks, decorated with gears and shiny elements: their creator said, “These are artifacts from an exploring expedition. We don’t know what they were used for.” I love this idea of consciously alienating one’s own creations, and even collecting discarded, familiar objects like old keys with the intention of making them strange. It struck me as a tongue-in-cheek commentary of how archaeologists transform everyday things into scientific objects through that simple deployment of language. Bonnie Clark noted this in her 2011 SAA talk on public archaeology at a Japanese internment camp in Colorado, when she talked about a survivor telling her that what she called “artifacts” were his childhood toys. What kind of authority does that word give us to stand apart from the world and define it? Isn’t it ultimately more important to take our understanding down into the world and really know how our finds were part of human experience?
As we left the exhibit, my companions and I talked a little about the ethical questions inherent in deploying the past in an alternate fantasy world. Is it glorifying the British empire and all of its colonial oppressions to celebrate the clothing and mechanical aesthetics of the nineteenth century, or do those implications vanish when you take them out of context? Can you create an alternate world in which women and people of color can be full and equal participants using the symbols of a world in which they most definitely were not? How could people draw in contributions from non-western cultures without being stereotypical or appropriative?
I lean toward the idea that playing with symbols of the past and taking them out of their historical context helps to deconstruct, rather than uphold, grand narratives of world domination and cultural superiority. On the other hand, I would appreciate seeing more diverse interpretations of nineteenth century “art” and “science,” considering how explorers and early social theorists of the time were actively expanding the boundaries of Western knowledge about the rest of the world at the time. I’m just not sure how this could work in a respectful and nuanced way.