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.
Conclusion: Why Multiculturalism is Steampunk
Overall, despite current flaws in its implementation, multiculturalism in steampunk is a welcome development in the subculture. Not only that, its promotion within the subculture fits a subversive premise that many already associate with steampunk. In rebellion against many oppressive Victorian ideas, steampunk's use of multiculturalism can act contrary to the imperialist leanings in education. Moreover, the connection between steampunk interest and imperialist influences in education proves that the steampunk community cannot be enshrined on an imaginative pedestal, untouched by real life. Yet what does multiculturalism mean for the steampunk community now and in the future?
To steampunk hobbyists who don't care about mixing politics with creative interests: this argument was not written to spoil your fun or to make you feel guilty. But an undeniable fact is this: you cannot deny that you are --all of us are-- part of a greater cultural machine that had been constructed generations ago, a cultural system which impacted how we think and how we connect with others. To deny the political factor will always put you at risk in perpetuating socio-cultural machines of oppression whenever you engage in anything multicultural--that is, anything outside your own experience and upbringing. This applies not only to steampunks who identify with the dominant culture, but also to minorities outside of this culture.
The option of "being apolitical" limits people to two options: only to do "what they know"--Anglo-whites only doing British steampunk, Asians/Asian-descents only doing Eastern, etc--or using steampunk to perpetuate all the "'-isms" that reduce them into imperialists supporters who choose to support all the problematic issues that occurred during the nineteenth century. If these options appear extreme, it is because they are. Most steampunks, whether consciously or not, act within a socio-political range. Even simple choices like whether or not to act racist/sexist/classist, to use slurs in-character, to play up stereotypes, or even to believe whether "racism exists" are all political decisions. Steampunks in general, for the sake of well-meaning civility, are steering themselves toward a progressive political mindset, even if they do not consciously realize it.
To the steampunk hobbyist who rejects an “apolitical” stance, remember that when you live in a multicultural world—in today’s world, in our world—to disregard hurtful messages or representations for the sake of art or play sake alone, is to miss the entire point of creativity: as a means of expression. And what do you want steampunk to express about yourself? And how does that expression affect others? The answers to these questions are not simple, but the journey taken to solve them is what matters.
To the self-proclaimed punks of steampunk: Multiculturalism is a vehicle of rebellion against those systematic oppressions in ways just as engaging and productive to "steampunk lifestylers" as D.I.Y.ing your wardrobe, supporting environmental causes, or advocating against centralized authority. You are fighting for freedom, and what greater freedom can there be than fighting for a world more acceptingly diverse than the one we had grown up in?
And a final word: we are all multiculturalists. At the beginning of my essay, I pointed out that the definition of multiculturalism includes more than race and culture. We are not carbon-copy human beings. We come from different backgrounds, across a spectrum of gender, class, race, abilities, ages, and cultures. Diversity is increasing both because of globalization and localization: the barriers of the world are falling away because of massive migration and de-segregation of society, and on the local level, people are choosing to keep and promote their individual cultures as opposed to assimilate. And as the world globalizes, customs and habits that had been previously viewed as different and foreign are now becoming familiar. Our awareness of the world is turning more cosmopolitan; our engagement with it, more global with the Internet.
All this emphasis on globalization and increasing role of technology sounds quite cyberpunk, doesn't it? Add in overarching systems of control, larger paradigms impacting everyday relations, mass technology perpetuating our interconnected lifestyles and transmitting our ideas in a heartbeat: in terms of subculture development, steampunk fantasy is being created through a cyberpunk reality. Not that this is the hypocritical fulcrum within steampunk, or an "unsteampunk" blasphemy, but a social evolutionary signpost. You want your sepia-toned, sunny steampunk dreams? Now is the chance to mold one before it becomes choked with the chains of the past, by using the mindset and technology of the present.
Thus, multiculturalism captures that common sentiment expressed in so many steampunk online communities, websites, articles, interviews, documentaries and fan magazines. We're creating yesterday's future today. We're picking apart the old to engage with the new. We're rebuilding the past to construct a better future.
The steampunk era can be one for me and for you and for that person on the other side of the aethernets and halfway across the globe.
And it is happening now.
Author’s Bio: Ay-leen the Peacemaker is the founding editor of Beyond Victoriana (beyondvictoriana.com), a blog about multicultural steampunk and retrofuturism. For the past couple of years, Ay-leen has been involved with the steampunk communities in the New York metro area and New England as a convention speaker and general rabble-rouser. Her upcoming published work will be included in the fashion anthology Fashion Talks from SUNY Press this fall. She has also been interviewed about steampunk and its evolving subculture for Tor.com and for the Fall 2010 upcoming books The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image) and Steampunk: Reloaded (Tachyon Publications). She currently lives and works in New York City. You can reach her via email at attic [dot[ hermit [at] gmail [dot] com.