Thursday, August 19, 2010

GUEST POST: Steampunks Around the World, Unite: Multiculturalism in Steampunk, Part 6

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 6 Intersection of Steampunk & the Non-West: Endorsing the Hegemony or Rebelling with a Cause?

Until educational reforms promoting a more diverse curriculum comes into full fruition, however, the effects of the Western-European cultural hegemony in education creates challenges when steampunks engage with non-Western and multicultural alternatives to steampunk. From my observations, the intersection of steampunk and multiculturalism largely play out in two different ways:

1) In how marginalized people are perceived and treated in the community as an addition to the subculture rather than a previously existing group in the subculture;

2) In how white participants engage in non-Western, non-Eurocentric steampunk: ranging in a spectrum from co-opting imagery to promote a "rebellious" subversion to nostalgic objectification to a complete dismissal of it from steampunk whatsoever. In all instances, the non-Western is seen as additional, as supplementary, as compartmentalized, and as excluded from a more centered West in all forms of dialogue.

In terms of involvement of steampunks of color, I already commented upon the lack of visual attendance in my assessment of the Steampunk World's Fair and at other conventions. Yet there are steampunk sites and groups run by people of color, some with a non-Western focus: Edwardian Promenade, Silver-Goggles, Afro-Steampunk in Black Science Fiction Ning community, Moorwing Archive on the Steampunk Empire, and Steampunk Nusentara are only a few examples.  This imbalance between what I read online and what I see in person makes me wonder about how welcomed steampunks of color feel in physical spaces where their minority status is immediately identifiable, compared with their online personas.
In addition, a common defense against observation of a white-dominant steampunk representation is how "we can't force people of color to like our stuff" and cries against having "quotas" in the steampunk community. Both are derailing tactics that ignores the honest examination of why peoples of color and from non-Western cultures may not be attracted to steampunk or may hesitate in revealing their racial or cultural difference in steampunk communities. One reason I had pointed out above -- that steampunk as it is now caters to the Western-European hegemony -- adds another implication: that the impression non-Westerners and people of color receive about steampunk is that it (at least unintentionally if not blatantly) would favor a white, Eurocentric audience.

Thus, another argument about marginalized peoples' involvement that has been previously overlooked is the possibility that people of color and non-Westerners are very much interested in steampunk, but choose *not* to engage in the community because they do not consider the community a safe space for them. The most obvious example is the co-opting of steampunk by various conservative, right-wing and white supremacist groups, such as those seen on the white supremacist forums of Stormfront. Less obvious but still significant is the conversations sci-fi fans of color have about steampunk outside of steampunk community spaces. Garland Grey in her essay "Cause I'm Nerdcore like that: Towards a Subversive Geek Identity"notes that marginalized peoples are still aware of their outsider status in “nerd spaces,” even as they embrace these spaces that are supposedly accepting of mainstream outsiders: "Every time we enter nerd communities, we do so knowing that we may be shouted down and dismissed, bored to tears by useless pissing contests, have our legitimacy or motives questioned, or just be completely ignored." In a more steampunk-specific example, naraht writes about the discomfort felt about the prospect of entering the steampunk community as a person of color: "Not that putting brass cases around iPods must inherently be ideological, but the glorification of explorers and adventurers in the late nineteenth century mould isn't something that can be viewed in isolation. Deep down, or perhaps not so deep down, there's a sense in steampunk that having an empire must after all have been rather fun. Perhaps for a few it was. And somehow people are still being persuaded to join in the fantasy that they would have been one of the privileged few." And, as many people from marginalized backgrounds know, pretending to be "one of the few" can feel even more disingenuous when you are definitely *not* treated as one of the privileged few outside of fandom spaces.

Indeed, as outside observers of steampunk question whether the style chooses to romanticize an Anglo-centric Empire, current discussions about steampunk justify these questions. For instance, the argument that steampunk only takes place in Victorian England is one example.  This definition is quickly being knocked down in steampunk dialogues, for it excludes many literary works that are considered steampunk, like Boneshaker, Leviathan, Girl Genius, Clockwork Heart and Alchemy of Stone. On the other hand, what also correlates with critics who state the "only Victorian England defense," is the assumed whiteness of Victorian English society and then superiority of that whiteness in England's massive hierarchy of empire.  Although other nations engaged in imperialism and colonialism, no empire was ever as great as Britain's. Coupled with that fact is the knowledge that many of these other nations (including European ones) had more visibly diverse populations (or non-white ones, as it is the case with Japan). Of course, the idea that there were no people of color living in Victorian England is not true, but their visibility in British Victorian society is not as widely acknowledged as it is in other societies. Therefore, when one argues for "Victorian Britain" as the sole location for steampunk, they are also indirectly associating the idea of a more visible Anglo-whiteness in empire-building and role of that whiteness with what is considered steampunk.

Intrinsic double standards also exist in how steampunk celebrates optimistic and fun creativity by imitating Victorian "stereotypes." In the well-known "What Is Your Steampunk Style?" online quiz featured on steamfashion, for example, the creators point out how Victorian types play a significant role in subculture creativity and acceptance: "Most of these outfits are inspired by certain characters or images from Victorian history or steampunk fiction, and these break down into a collection of styles that share certain features in common." The results of this quiz emphasize how white, European Victorian types are playful, interesting, and exciting: the Aristocrat, the Scientist, the Officer, the Explorer. On the flip side, representations that do not conform to the Western-European aesthetic are not featured, and the reason why they are omitted is obvious. This is because while Eurocentric Victorian types in steampunk fiction are depicted as positive and enjoyable, non-European Victorian types live on as today's damaging stereotypes: The Dragon Lady & China Doll/Geisha Girl, The Savage, The Deceptive Mystic, The Manservant, The Ursurer, The Indian Princess. Since steampunk style has considerable pulp fiction/Victorian fiction elements, the creation of non-stereotypes for steampunk isn't even considered. This oversight is not seen as problematic, though, as long as participants stick with a Eurocentric result. Thus, steampunk encourages the promotion of Western-European tropes as desirable while at the same time ignoring any possibility of creating similar positive non-Western models for creative play.

The most encouraged method for non-Westerners and people of color to engage in steampunk then, is by adapting the roles of the conqueror for their own use, by "assimilating" into the Western-European hegemony. This assimilation can be re-purposed into a rebellious act against mainstream society (as with the work of anachronaut) or seen as a celebration of steampunk's minority inclusiveness.  However, the act of assimilation also has uncomfortable echoes of reenacting the historical instances of assimilation that society had imposed upon marginalized peoples.  In this case then, steampunk isn't rebelling against the dominant culture's standards of conformity, but imitates it in its own microcosm. The "melting pot" theory is played out once again, now in spaces of play as it had in society as a whole.

What can save steampunk into turning into another example of Western-European cultural hegemony is steampunk participants' cheeky self-reflexive attitude towards history and their interpretation of it. A poster created by Brute Force highlights this awareness in the most sardonic (but quite insightful) way possible:

Image courtesy of tripletlads

This ironic awareness of empire's devastations in history is one way that differentiates steampunk from an unexamined interpretation of Neo-Victorianism.

In fact, steampunk aesthetics are continually evolving outside of London, as steampunk scholar Mike Perschon points out in his essay Leaving London, Arriving in Albion:
“Does it matter if steampunk leaves London? Absolutely. If the success of open-sourcing has taught us anything, it is that a proprietary grip in the information age results in the death of a technology. For steampunk to thrive, it needs to be free to be applied wherever people have an interest in gears and gadgets, in the tenuous spaces between memory and history, wherever dreams of traveling in an airship ignore the failure of the Graf Zeppelins. This freedom does not imply it ought to be frivolous or foolish. Good steampunk can blend high adventure with questions about identity, war, nationality, and technology....Further, steampunk’s emancipation from the corseted constrictions of Victorian society permit it to playfully examine what may end up being an endless array of worlds, times, and themes.”

While Perschon's assessment is very progressive-thinking and optimistic, the means which steampunk employs to diversify its definition can be problematic. While views of cultural equality are encouraged, the message becomes less encouraging when promoted through vehicles that still endorse the concept of white supremacy in the community. The Gatehouse's editorial remarks denying racism's relevance in its Victorientalism issue is one example (and the implications of that issue has already been discussed at length by myself and several steampunk sites and observers). G.D. Falksen's article on "The World is Not Enough...but it is Such a Perfect Place to Start" is an informative basic primer on non-Western steampunk possibilities, but the article's title and authorship allude to a imperialistic relationship between the West and the non-West in the steampunk community by having a white male speak for people of color and their histories (of course, this perspective is countered by Jha Goh's own work on The treatment of multicultural aspects, then, typically exists as a supplement to Western history controlled by white authorities. Extending this observation, then, one can argue that in steampunk, the non-West does not matter unless it has a Western association. In many historical-based steampunk narratives, the non-Western world exists in conjunction (if not subjugation) to the West as opposed to being independent from it or treated with equal respect.

The use of multicultural steampunk also risks the encouragement of cultural appropriation, especially as white steampunks are "inspired" by non-Western styles. Cultural appropriation is a complex subject, and as steampunks engage in steampunk belly-dancing (which I also discuss in-depth) and other forms of non-Western steampunk, results have been varied.  As Canadian artist Richard Fung pointed out in his theory of cultural appropriation, interest in non-Western lands was spurred in part by the economic and political benefits they possessed for the colonizing nation/people:
“Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism).....

Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts.”

In steampunk, while there are sites and publications that focus on appreciating non-Western culture and histories in itself, much of non-Western cultural representation has also resulted in the commoditization of non-Western culture as steampunk accessory items (on Etsy you can find hundreds of Eastern, African, and Native examples of this). While the appreciation of the non-Western in steampunk can be positive, the relationship between this appreciation and consumerism reduces cultures into trinkets that can be made and bought by anyone.

Yet Perschon's optimism about the use of multicultural steampunk cannot be completely dismissed, and I agree. Already I mentioned several sites that are actively contributing non-Western perspectives. As steampunk becomes a narrative vehicle used to question and reevaluate the oppressions of the past, standout examples of multicultural steampunk are popping up more frequently. Steampunk stories such as Joyce Chng's "Moon Maiden's Mirror," Maurice Broaddus's "Pimp my Airship," Stephanie Lai's "The Last Rickshaw," Dazjae Zoem's self-published Wonderdark and Jon Munger and Krista Brennan's webcomic Virtuoso are all works that center around non-Western experiences that exists independently of the West. Jha Goh's "Between Islands" tells a tale of politics on the high seas (and high skies) where several actors across several non-Western cultures stop the seed of British imperialism from ever sprouting in their land. Carolina Free State re-imagines a Native American world developing after expelling European colonists from their shores. Moreover, with steampunk subculture's tendency to include non-steampunk artists into the fold, works that subvert European norms in order to create a voice for the subaltern, such as that of Nigerian-Brit Yinka Shonibare MBE and Native artist Kent Monkman, are also considered quite steampunk.

TOMORROW: Conclusion: Why Multiculturalism is Steampunk

1 comment:

Jeannette Ng said...

Brilliant article! I don't want to overthink clothes that I wear and sell, but one vaguely relevant anecdote:
I was hawking the Steampunk Buckle Cheongsam through a series of photos that can loosely be described as drawing on the "Dragon Lady" stereotype (whether I reclaiming or perpetuating, I'll let you decide) on steamfashion and was told with the correct accessories I could pass for a Airship Captain. There you go, a nod to that assimilation in action.