What does steampunk and multiculturalism have in common? A lot more than you think. Ay-leen the Peacemaker, proprietress of Beyond Victoriana, explains the connection between what we learn in school to how we engage with steampunk in a theory that might change everything you thought you knew about steampunk subculture.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay will be posted in its entirety in the upcoming first issue of Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, and will be reproduced at the website of Steampunk Magazine. Thank you to Ay-leen for allowing me to post the separate parts here first.
Part 1 Multiculturalism: One compass, many directions
When one thinks of the words "steampunk" and "multicultural," there's a moment of head-scratching. Since steampunk has existed as an aesthetic style, first identified as a form of British Victorian aesthetic expression, the word conjures up images of stuffy, pale-skinned aristocrats donning goggles on their top hats while flying about in their dirigibles. "Multicultural" sounds too modern, too varied, too irrelevant to associate itself with the likes of what is steampunk, standards that are quickly-becoming formalized as the subculture becomes exposed to the mainstream and examples of the subgenre's style become more pop-culture friendly (when Lady Gaga dons goggles and twisty pipes on her head, you know it's a sign that people are Getting It). Multicultural steampunk, however, is not only another variant of steampunk, but, in my opinion, is intrinsic to the definition of steampunk as it exists as a form of creative expressive subversion. Thus, the average steampunk engages in more aspects of multicultural steampunk than one would assume; while likewise, multicultural steampunk is a prime example of how someone can grasp the "punk" banner by the handle and wave it for themselves.
Unlike the term steampunk, multiculturalism can be very simple to define--here's the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
Main Entry: mul·ti·cul·tur·al
Pronunciation: \ˌməl-tē-ˈkəlch-rəl, -ˌtī-, -ˈkəl-chə-\
: of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
Like steampunk, however, the concept and application of multiculturalism is ever-evolving. In addition, unlike its common mainstream perception, multicultural isn't always about race and non-European cultures. Multiculturalism, in fact, is a constructed concept created to counter another constructed concept: that of the "dominant culture," the one that the majority of people are told they identify with. In the case of North America and Western Europe, the "dominant culture" is that which caters to the perspective of the white, middle-class, CIS-gendered, straight, able-bodied, Christian male. Already, we can call the dominant culture a bunch of bull, because a majority of us do not identify with what is considered the "dominant perspective." We are women, of color, of different faiths (or atheist or agnostic), of various sexual and gender orientations and economic backgrounds and with different physical capabilities. One can see how there are many aspects of our lives exist outside of the dominant framework and that in itself reveals the relevance of multiculturalism to many people. I'll get back to this point later.
But for the sake of this post, I'll be talking about multiculturalism primarily in relation to race and non-Western cultures, and in relation to an Anglo, Western-European dominant culture. A large majority of steampunk subculture exists in areas where this is the dominant culture; furthermore, as one speaking from an observational standpoint in a larger community, it's also the dominant culture I’ve grown up in. Besides, I certainly don't possess the life experiences and educational background to speak about the steampunk community as it functions in, say, Japan or southeast Asia or even Eastern Europe.
First of all, in order to define the importance of multiculturalism and its impact on steampunk (in ways which may surprise you), let's go back to how multiculturalism has developed and its largest impact upon society: as an educational method in reaction to modes of Western education created during the nineteenth-century.
THURSDAY: Part 2 The Learning Factory: the Development of Mass Education in the Victorian Era