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[personal profile] starlady
These notes are about 75% verbatim. Large ellipses are marked. I can't guarantee accuracy in name spellings, and since I was sitting at the back on the floor I didn't see many of the audience questioners (marked "Q"), so none of them are described. Any questions, feel free to ask! I will do my best to clarify.

The Politics of Steampunk: Power, Privilege & Oppression

Mod: Liz L. Gorinsky. Amal El-Mohtar, Jaymee Goh, Theodora Goss, Piglet, Nisi Shawl.

notes starting approx. 10:30 am

AEM: Gender gets covered well, also issues of social injustice often covered from privileged perspective--white male detective, or whatever. Rec: Shveta Narayan's clockwork India stories. Wd. love to see more stuff done from marginalized perspective, having to write their way in to privileged perspective. Less perceiving, more being, the Other. I love that there's a lesbian steampunk anthology coming out, but we need more of them.

NS: Love the fact that this panel is happening, used to be not much. Steven Barnes' alternate history Zulu Heart, a young black girl invents the submarine. [Audience: Rock!] Also N.K. Jemisin's "The Effluent Engine." These issues are still dealt with outside-in, but they are surfacing. It's getting better.

Piglet: Concern from watching fashion is explosion in [culturally loaded contexts of such things as] the pith helmet, etc--the white explorer walking through the jungle, etc.

JG: How do you interrogate something through steampunk fashion? It's easy to interrogate sexism through steampunk fashion (crossdressing in steampunk fashion, etc), the way you can mix& match fashions to create a gender identity of your own that plays with gender identities of Victorian era. But how do you interrogate issues of race & colonialism through clothing?

LG: Cherie Priest has started talking about steampunk regionalism, she talks about how different regions of the States seem to have different fashion emphases. A lot of the East Coast cons do tend to High Victorian tea party, in San Fran it's very DIY, DragonCon's huge steampunk contingent is heavily Civil War reenactment. Don't know about steampunk outside the U.S. so much.

JG: Internationally there is the Asylum in the UK, based in Lincoln. From what I understand, English steampunks are using it as a way to introduce English history to the next generation as a way to celebrate English history, basically, but at the same time questioning it. Another int'l group is Conselo Steampunk, who are based in Brazil. Ayleen has done an interview with its founders--BV #6. I find that class is addressed through fashion, and a lot of the fiction, partly because that's kind of what the proto-steampunk works would address. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells did a lot of work questioning and looking at class differences. A lot of steampunks don't want to play the high nobles, they want to play the down, dirty mechanics. Sometimes they' don't know what that mens, but they're thinking outside the [??]. Gender too--some women want to be the airship captain and wear their underwear outside [audience laughter]. So wearing corsets outside is one of the way's we're rebelling, you know? I don't see race as much but I'm seeing it more now. webcomic Virtuous (techno-Africa), Girl Genius… There are other artists who don't call themselves steampunk but whose works align with what we're doing. NIgerian artist in London [name?]…what's culture, where's the line between culture and region? That's kind of why it's exciting to be a PoC doing steampunk, because steampunk is happening now, and you can't pin down the now and its culture, those of us who are from colonized nations, children of immigrants, we use steampunk as a way of re-creating our narrative, and placing ourselves.

AEG: So much of Victorian aesthetics are obsessed with the Orient, are Orientalist. Paisley? Chinnoiserie? All these different things, the West is obsessed with the East b/c that's where their empire was, there's all this stuff that's already there that can be reappropriated, but I don't think we play with it enough. If Victorian England already has this stuff that wasn't England, why can't we just use that stuff, and why can't that be steampunk as well?

NS: Anachronaut. He's Asian American, he's wearing Edwardian suits, and his hair is a mishmash of African styles and technology.

TG: I mean, Victorian England was a mishmash of styles and ethnicities. This was the era of immigration into London, London wasn't a white male bastion, you went down to the docks and ate curry. Proto-steampunk writers worked with that too.

LG: Narratives that attempt to be progressive still are very much within a monarchical system--is it possible or realistic to go beyond the British monarchy?

AEG: Whenever the British monarchy comes up, it's very much the figurehead, the jingoistic loyalty, but the Queen doesn't come into except as a deus ex machina figure. Steampunk's rife with societies, secret societies, which is very period, but politics are social. … I find steampunk is a point at which I feel it's possible to completely reimagine the politics of the Middle East, a Middle East that has not been colonized, and to shift that center of imperial power from England and defuse it, to say there are other empires. Steampunk Damascus is go! These are parts of the world that were incredibly technologically advanced well before the rest of the world, and to play with those shifts is really important to me. I want to think of the Middle East as something that hasn't been colonized, that has the opportunity to develop its own technologies. … If you leave a country alone, it will develop its own social justice, do its own thing, and that's just fine if the social justice doesn't look like yours. I'm interested in how empires work. … You can play with incredibly localized politics because that's how empires work. I think fantasy in general has been shifting to city-oriented and I find that very exciting. You've got all this digging into what makes a city, what makes a city's politics, what makes them tick. I'm very excited.

NS: Point to two things: Michael Swanwick's "Sir Plus" stories, which deal with a talking dog--I would say they are steampunk. At one point they deal with what sort of empire there is in Russia (they're scam artists pretending to be Russian). And the thing I'm working on is oppositional forces w/in Victorian era politics. I'm thinking specifically of the Fabian socialists, so I'm writing about a colony that they try to create in the Congo, which of course does not go as they plan, because as you say they're trying to impose their idea of what socialism is on another order.

LG: I wanted to bring up a quote from Cat Valente's "Blowing Up Steam"--it contained the line. "Again, I return to seriousness as a necessary addition to fantasy. … Take it all, make it true, be honest and ruthless with it." Steampunk's progress as serious literature, its culture's possible contribution to the rest of the world?

JG: I think it's true that for a lot of us here the majority of the people we meet are just stupid, I guess? [AUDIENCE LOL] Whatever fandom, whatever country, the masses and things like that, a lot of people just don't want to talk about that. But there's always going to be a conclave of people who do want to talk about it, and I'm focusing on that. If someone wants to do stuff for fun and they're not doing a lot of damage I'm not going to worry about it, but there are people doing it for fun who can do damage, so in my work I want to bring marginalized narratives to center to minimalize damage. There's always going to be ups and downs, and right now I think they're on an uphill. There are people who are clueless and want to stay that way, but there are also people who want to learn. The fact that the great steampunk debate exists in the first place does mark the fact that people are interested in educating themselves--they will if you point them the right way, or they won't.

AEG: Most of the people I meet are really awesome! Whenever I talk about these issues I'm aware that I live in this rarified world of my LJ friends list, which I feel incredibly blessed by. The segment of fandom I've found myself in is full of interested kind curious people who want to do things right or to fail better. I see it getting better at an incredibly fast pace. I barely began to grok how problematic steampunk can be before people began grappling with those problems.

JG: At Steampunk World's Fair only 8 people RSVP'd for cake, we had 50 people, most of whom did not realize there would be cake. I think people coming without cake is a really good sign.

LG: One of the things from the publishing industry is that it's frustrating because we can't react that quickly--manuscripts take a year. But submit!

TG: The sense I've gotten from steampunk is that it hasn't had that level of seriousness. Where do you get seriousness in literature? well, one way is engaging with the culture--this steampunk subgenre hasn't necessarily seemed to do that yet, and maybe we're at the beginning of that. Maybe these are all indications of beginning engagements with real social issues in steampunk.

NS: Serious stuff can be serious fun. It's very much just starting to happen, and that is fun because it's really exciting.

Piglet: It's nice to hear all the optimism on the panel. [AUDIENCE LOL] I was at [???] this year, two dozen vendors were selling steampunk, last year there were three. Steampunk used to be DIY, 2009 steampunk exploded, now you can just go buy it, but do you really know what you're doing? Medievalism became Disney princesses, steampunk--?

LG: I think steampunk is going to be in Hot Topic in a year. But that doesn't [invalidate] DIY, modding, etc. [JG shows off gun, "I made it", applause].

Q: I love fashion, but it drives me crazy. Gaskets--where did the rubber come from? Where did the cotton come from--India? Brass--chemicals mined in the Middle East? Economic exploitation, racial politics of the empire?

JG: [recommends Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air] There are questions of classism and Marxism going on as well, a nice-in-theory philosophy like Marxism gets butchered and twisted into way of exploiting people to the point where they are forcing people to become machines, essentially. That's a bit of a spoiler, but that should make you want to read the book! And I wanted to talk about DIY culture as well--there's a debate: well, if you bought it, it's not as valid, and DIY is really expensive, especially in North America. If you can build your own stuff it's kind of a sign of privilege, but buying it is a sign of privilege too. It's one of those things you can't escape. I met an Eastern European in Crimea who said he didn't understand fascination with DIY, "this is how we live in the Balkans!" It's privilege in North America, it's survival in other places.

LG: In a lot of cities there are hacker spaces that have shared tools, it's an old idea that can be really useful.

Q: The notion of romanticism of steampunk era? Idea of cusp of industrial age, which is somehow for a lot of people where we got it wrong? So here's where we can move forward and maybe get it right? This notion that we're ignoring a whole area where we're still getting it wrong, and that we haven't moved very far in terms of race and culture and cultural appropriation and misunderstanding of sources--how exactly do you get bronze and rubber? This was very helpful.

JG: Cultural appropriation is one of those big things that goes on when we talk about race in steampunk. [holds up gun] This is actually an example of cultural appropriation, the grip is a Balinese flute that was sold to tourists. That's the danger of steampunk, where we take really cool stuff that's been made by other people and say it's my work--yes, it is my work, but you have to remember to give that hat-tip. That's part of pastiche. It's always good to make sure that you give that credit.

AEG: I think it's important to recognize that so much of what we look at is result of cultural appropriation in Victorian period, of looking at another culture as exoticised, and fetishized, and danger of taking that as read without interrogating that, materially and culturally. That's the excite for me, seeing that space to be re-examined. Taking something as simple as perfume, saying where did it come from, who made it, how can we talk about it, who was this person who made it? Every kind of ugliness in steampunk that we recognize I see as an opportunity to do something positive; we can work our own alchemy and take these things and make something else out of them.

Q: Resistance to reading steampunk due to its Eurocentrism, what would you suggest to read to get an idea?

JG: Your history books. [Audience laughter] what Ayleen does is goes to history books and writes up articles and gets other people to write up stuff based on history books they read. Where did we go wrong? Steampunk gives us opportunity to go back and fix that, to see that you have to read history books. BV talks about marginalized communities and their heroes and personalities. Steampunk is still so new, particularly multicultural steampunk, the answer is, we're still building it, please come back later! [note: also Silver Goggles blog]

TG: It's funny we're looking back at 1880s and saying where did we go wrong, because they were saying that in the 1880s. It's funny that that era with its massive social and environmental problems has become the point we're looking back at. The steampunk movement isn't looking back to Victorian era but to Victorian era literature, seeing it through something that is already an interpretation. I think it's important for authors to look back at the era itself. [Audience: primary sources!] Yes, exactly. Going back to actual era itself allows us to look at the interpretation in a new way.

JG: Remember when Disney went steampunk? … And there was an uproar? … Hello consumerist feedback! You kind of have to know where these interpretations come from.

Q: I came to steampunk from SCA, we got tired of costume Nazis, the advantage to steampunk is that we're making it up as we go along. But we are making it up and we want to do it the right way, so if it offends you, speak up! Be honest! I want to know. The SCA people couldn't handle it, but we want to know.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-31 18:46 (UTC)
anthimeria: Comic book panels (Sequential Art)
From: [personal profile] anthimeria
Thanks for doing this! I really wanted to go to this panel but had another one in the same time slot. I'm working on a multicultural steampunk novel myself, so this was really interesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-01 03:20 (UTC)
jhameia: ME! (Default)
From: [personal profile] jhameia
Wow! Thanks for the really detailed transcript! I had a lot of fun at the panel, and am really happy people enjoyed it so much!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-01 04:50 (UTC)
themeletor: close-up of a cupcake in the grass against a blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] themeletor
thank you so much for these incredible notes! i didn't make it to the steampunk panel but had really really wanted to go. some of these discussion points are absolutely brilliant!


Date: 2010-05-31 18:48 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I especially like the part about being trapped by privilege - either you're buying or you're building your steampunk, but the act of being able to self-consciously choose your aesthetic means you're working from a position of privilege. But I think why steampunk resonates with me is that it is the amped-up (stoked-up?) version of the parts of my life that I have no choice about, but feel oddly proud of. The make-shifty parts that involve duct tape, garage sales, lengthy research to keep aging electronics running, mismatched cutlery and furniture from various eras, and being clothed entirely by the good people of southeast asia. Steampunk is the romantic/Victorian extension of attempting functioning at my economic level in the present. I live in the most privileged society in the world, no doubt, but it's a bit over my head and so my 'aesthetic' is to make do with a touch of pride. Sort of more 'junkpunk', but the spiritual connection to the wrenches, gaskets and plucky engineers of steampunk is there.

Thanks for posting the notes for the rest of us out there in the world! Picked you up on a Google-alert for 'Steampunk'.


Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-02 04:02 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"Junkpunk" - I like that word. And I think that sort of sums up one of the things that attract me to steampunk (and also decopunk and dieselpunk): We're living with technology now that's incredibly functional but also incredibly boring aesthetically and also with methods of functioning that are increasingly opaque to the user. (I hate seeing signs on things that say "Do not open - no user serviceable parts inside.") I realize that being concerned about the aesthetics of machines and about whether or not a machine can be repaired by the user is a privileged position, but it's one that I hold, and that I think it's important that people who are privileged enough to consider these issues actually do so.

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-02 06:39 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Decopunk... Thank you for that word. I've had a 20's/Metropolis/Tesla pre-imagining of Galactica bouncing around in my head, and I couldn't find the name for the aesthetic.

I think the most important thing is delving into the detritus, the 2nd-hand level below the shiny surface, and putting something together that works without a corporation holding your hand. Whatever aesthetic you taking a shining to is up to you...

Dong ma?

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-02 22:05 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Reading this comment makes me think that Janelle MonĂ¡e's albums, particularly The ArchAndroid, could totally be read as Decopunk.

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-03 00:58 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Okay, that's weird. I haven't watched late night TV in a decade, but I stayed up late cleaning house last Friday (woo-hoo...), and found out about her on Carson Daly.

More Decofunk, really... but totally.

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-03 01:39 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh... just saw the cover of "Metropolis". I think she's more later era, ala' James Brown (someone drapes a towel/cape over her when she get's overworked on stage), but between ArchAndroid and Metropolis (a central movie for any deco-based future), she's definitely trying to invoke Deco.

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-08 16:12 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Somewhat related to this, I remember my first computer (a Commodore 64). The bulk of the manual was devoted to programming in BASIC, and in the books and magazines it was expected that every user would learn at least a little programming. I was shocked and horrified the first time I owned a computer that didn't come with some sort of programming software built into the OS.

Re: Privilege

Date: 2010-06-09 01:26 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
And Presto! Cyberpunk is recast as a retro-aesthetic...

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-01 20:43 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't have time to fully read or digest this now, but I am SO glad you put it up, and am bookmarking and looking forward to returning.

*still envious of you and all the other Wiscon attendees*

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-01 22:36 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, I wish I'd gotten there at the start, but my need for caffeine was overpowering.

Hope to see you at WisCon someday! It has pretty much been added to my calendar in perpetuity.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-02 03:43 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you so much for this! I was on a panel scheduled at the same time as this one, and really hated to have missed it.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-02 14:29 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for this! Sorry I have no anime notes to compensate you. The webcomic you mention is Virtuoso (, and the prints Jaymee was giving out at the end of the panel were by James Ng ( I have a few notes from earlier in the panel but no time to post them right now -- I'll be sure to respond again once I put mine up.


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