Movements have life cycles much like human beings. Some parts of that life cycle are a lot harder to live through than others. For anyone who cares about steampunk as a cultural movement, 2011 was a very hard year. Internationally we were subjected to Justin Bieber’s idiotic pairing of bland anything-but-steampunk pop with steampunk visuals. For the musicians and DJs who have worked so long and hard to build a steampunk music scene this was quite a slap in the face. In San Diego, the parting shot came from City Beat. The same local publication that praised our budding movement earlier in the year, put us between “Hipster-hating hipsters” and “Tight pants that sag” on their list of trends they don’t want to see continue in 2012. Hipsters, and particularly the hipster press, are always on about how something has become too commercial and needs to die. They do this because pretending to hate things that are trendy is the ultimate way to practice trendy one-upmanship and trendy one-upmanship is the hipster journalist's bread and butter. They are experts at predicting when the wave of a trend has crested, and when it crests they start attacking it. Articles like this are a right of passage that all movements must go through. They let us know we are almost finished with puberty.
I’ll get back to our ugly adolescence in a minute. First we need to remind ourselves of steampunk’s golden idealistic childhood. Our infancy was a tiny literary subgenre that peaked in the late eighties and early nineties, but steampunk didn’t get out of diapers until a handful of artists, makers, musicians, and disillusioned goths, started to recognize that they a shared common past-meets-future vision within that genre. We took our first steps amidst a flurry of discussion and exploration as to what this new creative focus was about. You can find some of the earliest and most intense of these debates if you dig through the circa 2007 posts on the Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles but it's quite laborious to due so. The steampunk ideals we hold so dear were articulated best in 2008.
The finer points of the meaning of steampunk were argued passionately, but two points were agreed upon almost universally. The first was that sudden rise of an obscure subgenre of science fiction to a phenomenon was fueled by a profound dissatisfaction with the twenty-first century. The second point was that the ideals of the DIY or maker movement, and the practice of tinkering were intrinsic to the steampunk movement. Jake Von Slatt beautifully articulated both points for two hundred cheering steampunks in late 2008. Fortunately for those of us who lack actual time machines, i.e. all of us, he preserved his remarks here.
Earlier in the 2008 Johnny Payphone wrote another powerful statement of steampunk ideals for the fourth issue of Steampunk Magazine. His Open Letter to Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer, explicitly articulates how steampunk relates to our society’s dependency on a fragile technological infrastructure and how a steampunk lifestyle addresses this. One sentence particularly stuck in my mind, “I don’t want to survive an earthquake only to die because I don’t know how to grow corn, or fix a generator, or suture.” I remember thinking, “Corn takes land and time to grow. I should work on that first.” That was the beginning of the Greyshade Estate.
Our childhood passed all to quickly. At the same convention at which Von Slatt was making his stirring speech, someone was passing out bookmarks for a website called BuySteampunk.com. It was steampunk’s first pimple. In every movement there are true belivers, hangers on, and during the adolescent phase, exploiters. I expected exploitation to be some distant thing that would be annoying but ignorable. The reality was much more local and personal.
Mrs Greyshade and I worked tirelessly since 2007 to build a steampunk community in San Diego. Our biggest and most successful event was of course our club night, Chrononaut. Chrononaut is now homeless because a moneyed music promoter figured that steampunk was the new hot thing to make money on. The club's venue took advantage of this by pushing the only obstacle to profit out of the way; the steampunks. Anyone who has ever dived into the music scene knows that it is torn between people in it for art and community and people in it for greed and ego, the whole thing is made even messier by drugs and alcohol. What happened to Chrononaut is typical of that.
What's much harder to take was the actions of the people who posed as insiders in the local community. Many of secretly hated, or were at least indifferent to, steampunk. Out of sheer arrogance and egotism, they felt the need to try to control what they saw as the latest costuming and sci-fi trend. Their attitude towards of steampunk art, music, and lifestyle ranged from indifference to open disdain. It will take a long time for the San Diego steampunk community and its reputation to recover from their actions, but recover we will.
Here’s a little secret about subcultures and countercultures, their best years begin after the media has slagged, then ignored them. It is only when they “die” that they truly bear fruit. The exploiters exploit other things, and the hangers on… well they hang on to something else. The original true believers remain and find themselves joined by others who care enough to discover the roots of a trend they were exposed to through the media. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask any middle-aged goth, gray-haired mod or wrinkled punk. Ask the hippies who went on to start organic farms or the Burning Man festival. The best years are ahead, and the turning point comes after the wave has crested.
But how do we know the wave has crested, you ask. What does one article in a free weekly paper in San Diego prove, besides that steampunk is about to get less trendy in San Diego? That’s a valid question since this blog has readers as far away as Russia ( Привет ) and Sweden ( Hej ) Fortunately the Internet has tools to track trends globally. If you look at the graphs for the word steampunk on Google Trends you can see some pretty convincing evidence. The upper graph shows the volume of searches. It's showing the seasonal fluctuation that it has for the last few years but on the whole it seems to either still be climbing or leveling out. The bottom graph, which shows the use of the word by the press, looks like it jumped off a cliff late last year. It may go up again a bit for a while, but I don’t think so.
Exploitation of the steampunk movement will not vanish overnight. There will probably be smaller waves of it in the future, but the worst is over. Now is the time for the people who really understand this movement to come forward and continue building the idealistic subculture we started. We know who we are. The future of steampunk is ours.
Happy New Year, Steampunks
In 2010 a family of four sold their charming little condo in the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of University Heights. With the money they bought a stripped out house in East San Diego previously owned by human smugglers. Their goal was a radical change in lifestyle that would allow DIY Makerism, self reliance, alternative technology, permaculture, and urban homesteading into their lives in ways their HOA would have never allowed. The ideas that lead them to take this plunge came from the steampunk movement as it was during a brief shining period when art and philosophy seemed at least as important as brass, and great essays, speeches, and letters were written. These days they don't worry so much about what people call "steampunk." They call what they're doing the Greyshade Estate.
Comments are welcome but please read our policy.