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 4 Steampunk Subculture & Modern Education: Teaching Yesterday's History Today
What does all this educational theory have to do with the steampunk community? How does modern education become relevant to someone's garage hobby of wielding together sonic rifle blasters or going around wearing a pith helmet praising tea? Why am I bringing a modern, everyday issue like education--something that usually comes up in politician’s election speeches or on public broadcast television marathons--into steampunk? Steampunk is just a hobby for most, a style for others, and a lifestyle for a handful, usually those who protest most standards of modern society anyways. How does education relate to the evolution of a subculture?
In a word: everything.
What we learn correlates with how we act. What we consider important and valued and what we do not--these are things we choose on our own, but also, is influenced by what others and society teaches us.
In the development of steampunk as a popular interest and as a subculture, many people profess they "stumbled upon" the word steampunk and then realize how that had defined their interests beforehand. One wonders how so many people from various walks of life so readily grasp onto the term "steampunk" to describe what they like. One consideration for steampunk's popularity that seems too obvious (or, perhaps, too discomforting) to consider is this: because steampunk caters to the Western-European cultural hegemony.
Steampunk is nostalgic because it appeals to the dominant histories that many participants had been taught when they were children, through Western school systems or Western-inspired schooling systems.
Steampunk appeals because it plays into the educational structure which had been created to support the Western-European ideal.
And for people who realize that their interests are in-line with what is considered "steampunk"-- from European history to Regency fashion to model trains and pocket watches and penny dreadfuls -- more likely than not, their interests were fostered in environments that favor the Western-European hegemony. Many people have been taught only the Western Canon, the "classics" the literature and arts and histories of the West over the non-West. And the lingering effects of Western imperialism are connected to one's interest in steampunk.
Yes, there are exceptions and arguments against this idea. For those living in Britain or other Western nations, there is the legitimate appeal of being interested in steampunk aspects rooted in where one is raised. Moreover, not all people in Western societies are into steampunk after all; if this cultural hegemony has had such as impact, wouldn't everyone be "brainwashed" into liking only Western-European things? People from the West are interested in things from the non-West and vice versa.
I also want to note that there is nothing judgmental meant by recognizing steampunk as part of a Western-European cultural hegemony, though I suspect people may be offended. What people would get offensive about is "an accusation" that their personal freedom to like or dislike something had been manipulated in a "conspiracy theory" argument about societal machinations. That is not the purpose of this observation. The greater point is that what people like and what people don't like does not bloom from nowhere. It is linked directly to what they are exposed to, particularly so during the impressionable ages of youth. If people only have a vague conception of what non-Western, non-Eurocentric histories, arts, inventions, etc are, then it's not very likely at all that they would find a deep fascination with them, unlike that same connection that they get towards things from the West.
Thus, what cannot be dismissed is the way we were educated and raised by society has had an effect upon what we are interested in and how we choose to engage in that interest. And, for a majority of us steampunks, we all went through Western or Western-imposed modes of education. Modes of education that has had limited levels of reform since the end of the age of Western Imperialism, and have had limited success in reforming away from Western Canon.
For steampunks from former colonized countries, it means being taught the value of the Western and the Eurocentric before the native, and how the West holds the key values that need to be emulated for global success. In a comment that echoes Thiong'o's earlier statement, Jha Goh says in her essay on The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: "I sometimes feel my 'Western' sensibilities are after-effects of British colonialism, or Western imperialism in general – it would explain my disdain for Malaysian culture when growing up, the admiration for Westerners who seemed so individualistic, who had all those bright ideas, who wrote such interesting stories that even a person on the other side of the world felt transported by them."
For steampunks that identify as being part of the marginalized in Western nations, it means having your personal histories being erased, oppressed, or distorted to be in favor toward the dominant culture. It means when making a choice whether to assimilate or how much to assimilate, many marginalized people will make the painful choice of denying, hiding or masking their cultural and racial identities in order to "blend in" rather than "stick out"--while nevertheless always being recognized and treated as the outsider by the dominant culture.
For steampunks who identify with the dominant culture in Western nations, it means a gap in your own knowledge towards the rest of the world. It means hiding, denying, or masking other aspects that you know are outside the dominant culture (for example, being female or an atheist or queer) because you assume that, as part of "the majority," you have to "fit in" as much as possible in order to succeed socially. And it is these gaps in knowledge and the limiting social-political standards created by the Western-European hegemony that contribute to the "-isms" of oppression that you may be unknowingly in participating in. We are all cogs involved in this machine, even you, even me, even those grouped into the dominant culture who are fighting it (for to fight against something is to already recognize one's relationship to it).
TOMORROW: Part 5 Cracks in the Blackboard--Where the Universal is Personal