Posted on 2016/11/08 by

You’ve Been Steampunk’d: Postmodernism Re-Imagined

Steampunk, a relatively recent genre, is most recognizably understood as a hybrid genre that includes contemporary technology, powered by steam, usually set in either the Victorian era or the Wild West. In his speech “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” Bruce Sterling describes steampunk as a “lost future” which is created by a process of “finding earlier methods of production, pretending that they’d never become defunct, and then adding on to those” (Sterling). The style spans across several genres, such as music, film, literature, jewelry, and, for some, has even become a way of life. It is a style that – as with most things – takes its inspiration from something pre-existing in order to create something new.


Yet with steampunk the question becomes: do these artists really create something fundamentally new or simply a variation out of that which already was? Though specifically targeting DJs and computer programmers, in the introduction to his book Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World Nicolas Bourriaud describes a set of notions that provide insight into one potential answer to this question:

“More and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products […] These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape” (1).

Steampunk is a genre that looks both at contemporary technology – in a way that people in the 1800s might have envisioned – it as well as 19th century technology imbued with modern technological capabilities. In both regards, the style is not a creation of an entirely new object, but rather the reinvention and reimagining of already existing objects. As described by Bourriaud, they do not manipulate raw material to form something entirely original, but instead take objects already in circulation and alter or tweak them until they become different objects. By this reasoning, one could argue that steampunk is not “new,” but rather simply a repurposing of old styles.

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However, the distinction here is more complex. Steampunk’s particular type of artistic re-working also spills over into other domains, as different clothing and jewelry styles are merged to form a type of fashion so unique it can no longer simply be termed ‘Victorian’. Yet this renaming adds extra depth to our original question: though this fashion is a combination of various Victorian styles, does the necessity of a new name not then make it something entirely novel? Bourriaud describes the term ‘original’ as “being at the origin of”; is the final result of the re-workings of Victorian era material and styles not the origin of the new genre of steampunk? Granted, raw material is not what gets used, but nevertheless something so different is created that it necessitates a new name, and thus it can be argued that steampunk artists do in fact create something unprecedented.

The genre also embodies the utilitarian aspect of Victorian culture. Artist John Lopez is a bronze sculptor who stumbled upon the idea of using scrap metal as a medium for designing new sculptures. His art embodies the Wild West factor of the steampunk genre. In keeping with steampunk tradition, he “pays respect to the past while also playing with the idea of renewing and reconfiguring familiar imagery into something completely different” (Manning). Lopez’s use of what is essentially trash to create beautiful works of art is a perfect example of Sterling’s notion of the blurred line between “originality” and “creation”. The South Dakotan sculptor is in fact creating something out of nothing, if we are to understand ‘nothing’ as material which has no further intended use. In addition, the steampunk symbol of a pair of goggles also illustrates utilitarianism. Part of the choice to use goggles “may be the result of their portability” as they are easier to carry around than an actual steam-powered piece of technology, but they also “straddle the divide between past and present. They’re comfortingly old-fashioned, but useful for modern steamy activities such as welding the gadgets steampunks love to carry around” (Sullivan). Essentially, steampunks have chosen a symbol that is not only depictive of their mindset as well as useful to have when creating the very objects that make up the genre, but that also re-imagines a way of thinking that evolved long ago with modern-day utilitarian concepts.

Steampunk also allows for political and cultural statements to be made concerning many controversial Victorian-era issues. For example, when interviewed for an article in The Guardian, steampunk music artist Robert Brown declares “The injustice and poverty in the Victorian era were horrific. That’s the great thing about this – Victorian women were repressed, but steampunk women are the opposite of that” (Sullivan). Centuries later, steampunk allows for a way of “reimagining an imperfect past” (Sullivan). Therefore, not only is the genre taking material forms from the era and reworking them, they are also taking intangible Victorian concepts and doing the same. Yet steampunk also protests contemporary issues as well, such as the loss of individuality in a world that is growing increasingly similar and technologically-based. This is where the ‘punk’ aspect of steampunk comes from, as those who adhere to the style defy convention and declare their individuality. However, it is important to keep in mind that steampunks draw their inspiration from the past while using material from today in order to fashion the objects of their rebellion. Are they then creating a new form of rebellion or simply re-imagining rebellion in a different way? Nevertheless, the style is a combination of cultural and political protests from both the 1800s as well as today, which essentially forms a kind of steampunk politics.

The steampunk genre is yet another instance where new material is created by drawing inspiration from old. Yet, steampunk is unique as well in that obtaining inspiration from the past is necessary in order for an object to qualify as steampunk. Ultimately, it is a new form of art that Sterling describes in his speech as “pre-distressed antique futurity”, wherein he urges those of us who want to create to “Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence of the past” stating that if they are “really the same thing, [we] need to approach them from the same perspective” (Sterling). Steampunk does just this – it looks at the past through the lens of the future, imagining what the technology of today would look like in the days of the past. It combines the awe of the future and the reverence of the past to create objects that erase the generational divide – something that is rather original indeed.


Works Cited

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World”. Has & Sternberg, 2005. PDF.

Manning, Jake. “Artist transforms old farm equipment into incredible animal sculptures like none you’ve seen”. . Accessed 6 November 2016

Sterling, Bruce. “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” Conde Nast Digital, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2016

Sullivan, Caroline. “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1899”. (October 17, 2008) London: Guardian. Accessed 6 November 2016.

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