Steampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears, and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages, and even dies” (4).
This is an excerpt from Professor Calamity’s “Steampunk Manifesto,” published a few years ago in SteamPunk Magazine. Though the argument is precipitous and somewhat hastily historicized (as I suppose every manifesto must be), it’s still my favorite statement on a mostly subcultural development that has yet to coalesce into an easily definable genre/movement/aesthetic. This particular passage addresses the steampunk project of de-sublimating technology through imaginative labour that returns bodies to machines.
Reviving a distinctly Victorian strain of technophilia, steampunk charts an alternate course of history cluttered with the kinds of contraptions that visitors at the Great Exhibition found so thrilling. Crucially, these innovations remain stubbornly attached to industrial materials, mechanical construction and analog technology, never yielding to the clean, bright, synthetic future now trademarked by Steve Jobs.
Is this just a matter of aesthetics, a preference for etched brass over the glare of white plastic? Calamity’s compelling description of these “real, breathing, coughing, struggling” machines suggests something more. He imagines a mode of technology that, in its imperfect and transient materiality, feels authentically synchronized with human existence. What does it mean to affirm the life (and death) of machines? Does this ritual function as an allegory for our own embodied experiences and struggles? We know that the industrial machinery of the nineteenth century—whether on the railway, in the factory or on the battlefield—was often less than kind to human bodies. Is Calamity’s rapport with machinery strictly a nostalgic, neo-Victorian disposition, or are there hints of such affinities to be found in Victorian culture and thought?
Calamity, Professor. “What, Then, is Steampunk? Colonizing the Past So We Can Dream the Future.” SteamPunk Magazine 1 (Fall 2006): 4-5.