752. “Steampunk: Repurposing the Nineteenth Century” (MLA 2014)
Session 752 ~ Sunday, January 12th ~ 12-1:15pm ~ Chicago F, Chicago Marriott
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Rachel A. Bowser (English, Georgia Gwinnett College)
Brian Croxall (English and the Digital Scholarship Commons, Emory University)
Lisa Hager (English, University of Wisconsin-Waukesha)
- Roger Whitson (English and Digital Technology and Culture, Washington State University)
Context and Rationale
Steampunk is often seen as “Victorian science fiction,” but it also acts as a genre that retrofits new technology onto the nineteenth century; increasingly, steampunk provides a platform and paradigm for fans to engage with the Victorian period in multimedia environments. Such engagement, and its investment in material culture, is apparent in media like steampunk blogs, where you can find iPod decks that look like gramophones, or laptops constructed to seem like they were sold at a nineteenth-century craft fair. These intersections – Victoriana, science fiction, DIY culture, anachronism, and more – render steampunk an ideal locus for portable and cross-disciplinary insights.
This steampunk panel promises broad appeal to a range of MLA constituents. As a creation of the last 40 years, steampunk is important for twenty-first century genre studies. Simultaneously, the genre’s Victorian antecedents provide scholars of nineteenth-century history, literature, and culture an opportunity to revisit and re-imagine many seminal texts.The genre’s revision of historically-determined subjectivities for men and women are of interest to gender and sexuality scholars, as well as the field of Victorian studies. Finally, steampunk’s thriving fan culture has drawn interest from many scholars working in material culture and fan culture.
Roger Whitson, “Making Steampunk: Arts and Crafts, Spreadability, and the Varieties of DIY History.”
Steampunk fandom has an ongoing fascination with, and controversy surrounding, DIY Maker culture. Several scholars have noted this interest, yet few have connected it with the history of the Arts and Crafts movement in Victorian England. Both movements reject the mass production of industrialization, and both have been criticized as being inspired by the capitalist obsessions with collecting. In both, making is also associated with a certain privilege: usually white, male, middle-class — privileged enough to have access to enough resources to tinker with them. While issues of race and class abound in these movements, I show how — conversely — steampunk communities take inspiration from the arts and crafts movement to rewrite histories of oppression found in the nineteenth century. The politics associated with these variates of history require a new form of analysis associated with what Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green call “spreadability,” meaning that it is no longer sufficient to simply understand cultural history in terms of ideology, power, and historicity; rather, we must study the way making culture circulates and transmits knowledge about the nineteenth century. This means that, in addition to showing how Morris and Ruskin find themselves within texts introducing DIY making to steampunk fan cultures, I also investigate how phenomena such as digital fabrication provide fans with ways of remaking the nineteenth century in their own image.
Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall, “Time, Trauma, and Twin Towers: Steampunk after 9/11; Or, Fort/Da, in Brass”
In this presentation, we consider the fluctuating temporality of steampunk. In particular, we explore the post-9/11 rise of steampunk in conversation with the temporal revision during Victorian period itself, which of course informs steampunk. To wit, the paradigmatic shift in understandings of geological time in the nineteenth century, catalyzed by Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, becomes a metaphor with explanatory power for examining steampunk’s own time, characterized not only by the rise of DIY culture and technofetishism but also by the collective cultural catastrophe of 9/11. From here, we take up the question of why steampunk emerges when it does, ultimately suggesting that steampunk’s temporality both manifests as a figure of Freudian trauma and simultaneously deploys a reparative, uniformitarian paradigm in the wake of catastrophe. We read these figures across texts including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy (2004), Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006), Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy (2009-2011), Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books (2009-present), and others.
Lisa Hager, Women of Ill Repute and Dirty Deeds: Steampunk, Victorian Studies, and Dirt
Perhaps one of the strongest and yet least popularly known legacies of the Victorian period is our simultaneous fascination with and horror of dirt. We both want to eradicate its presence in our homes and on our persons and, at the same time, unabashedly wallow in its insistently messy and sensual physicality. Exploring this deep tension, steampunk literature mobilizes dirt in order to critique our contemporary desire to deny its existence and, in doing so, locates dirt in urban environments struggling with the consequences of industrial pollution and overpopulation. Moreover, as scholars like Seth Koven have demonstrated, fictional representations of dirt in the nineteenth century had particular implications for women and were most often figured in terms of cross-class sexually transgressive relationships. Steampunk takes up this theme and uses its reworking of Victorian discourse in order to comment on our contemporary ambivalence towards women’s sexuality, questioning our desire for cleanliness and demonstrating the impossibility of ever achieving such a goal. By examining Kady Cross’ The Girl in the Steel Corset and Karina Cooper’s Tarnished, I seek to demonstrate the different ways in which dirt metonymically figures issues of women’s agency and sexuality in terms of their class identities in steampunk literature and how these representations speak to contemporary conversations about women’s sexuality. Moreover, in teasing out the connections between steampunk representations of dirt’s transgressive properties and the ways in which scholarship of the Victorian period has explored this theme in nineteenth century texts, I will also outline a few of the mutually productive points of intersection between the discipline of Victorian studies and steampunk literature and subculture.