Bringing back the 19th Century (But hold the smallpox, please!)

The New York Times discovered steampunk this week. Their story, however, ran in the Style section. As such it focuses on this new “movement” as if it were an oddball artist’s fashion statement, a stray offshoot from goth, and almost entirely ignores its roots in science fiction.

Oh well. As I’ve discovered, being a journalist is often a thankless task. You’re expected to write the “first draft of history,” as they say in the biz, but then throw you at something like quantum entanglement and tell you to turn a 12-inch story that won’t offend anyone by 4 o’clock. Complaining that journalists sometimes get it wrong is like complaining that sometimes the cat barfs. It happens. Usually at times inconvenient to you. It can cause a stink.

So, while the article devotes one paragraph to the literary genesis of the fashion (and makes it seem as if all these steampunk fashionistas happened across William Gibson and Jules Verne, rather than being inspired by them), it’s actually quite interesting to see this subgenre of a much-maligned corner of literature to explode out into … well, at least into an obscure part of the New York art world.

Fair enough. It’s a legit subject for the Style pages, and one which is an interesting manifestation of the still-esoteric brass-and-silicon set. What seemed most interesting came at the end of the piece, however, when it goes into what steampunk means for those who adopt it as their lifestyle (or at least their wardrobe). It’s “a way to deal with new ethical quandries,” such as cloning and intellectual property rights on the Internet, one source says. Others use words such as “elegant,” “glamour,” and “tea parties.”

Says main subject Giovanni James, an artist, musician and designer who is black (in the non-parenthetical way, in that it actually informs his comment): “I’m so sick of baggy pants hanging off your bottom. … This is more refined. It goes back to a time when people had some dignity.”

Here’s another iteration of this meme, which I found today (through Bookslut, a site I occasionally contribute to) at Delirious Hem: an interview with Arielle Greenberg, who I take it (me knowing nothing about such things) is the designer who created “Gurlesque”:

“There’s an interesting relationship to irony here: My generation (Gen X) was known for being cynical and glib, but I think a lot of what seemed posturing nostalgia—the way riot grrls, for example, carried kiddie lunchboxes—was an actual longing for the (complicated) promise of a 70s childhood, which itself was overshadowed by our parents’ cynicism, Watergate, Vietnam, the recession, etc. I think perhaps the reasons we return to these images from girlhood have to do with a longing for sincerity, for passion.”

There’s that meme again: a desire for some kind of lost authenticity as a way of coping with a difficult world. As a Gen-Xer myself, I can relate. In the time I’ve grown up, from the 1970s to the present day, computers evolved from rooms full of whirring tapes to iPods, war has evolved from army-based to individual-based , and the Internet has become this uncontrollable proto-hive-mind, as some would have us believe.

I know I try to keep up. I own an Xbox 360, an iPod. I’m Net-savvy, for the most part. But I can tell that I’m getting old. I never got into file sharing, for example, even though I side with the accused against a predatory recording industry. I found 9/11 unnerving not so much because violence was visited upon us (I work in the news business, I was aware of what was going down in Afghanistan), but because of the asymmetrical Godzilla-like proportion of the event to just about every other terrorist act that came before. This even though, in retrospect, this was a remarkably low-tech event, the key ingredients being a security apparatus that can’t see the forest for the trees, predictable behavior and a really big bomb. When you look at it this way, it’s a wonder anyone drives in rush hour traffic any more. Planes and buildings were secondary: any large “boom” where enough people are would have the same effect.

How do we come with this radical new world? By embracing the old one. Back to steampunk: A lifestyle that embraces gentility, quality craftsmanship, a predictable world, without having to give up such necessities as the Internet, air-conditioning and the freedom from smallpox (a.k.a. vaccinated time travel). It’s not such an outlandish exercise, really. We as humans always develop some kind of coping mechanism for whatever problem comes our way. Some, like this blog, are rather benign. Some, like psychosis, are not.

I’m a believer that art, whether of the visual, literary, musical or any other type of creative expression (fashion, quilting, basket-weaving, whatever) is our way of making sense of the world. We tell stories so that we don’t forget them, that we know what happened and why. Artists of all stripes have been trying to make sense of 9/11 ever since it happened. Novels, memoir, even television and movies are all homing in on the defining moment of early 21st-century America, trying out different ways of attacking it.

In some ways it’s similar to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The elephant in this room is very large, and trying to approach it head on, to grasp the entire elephant, just won’t work, not in artistic fields. Like the blind men, we need to first grab the trunk, then the tail, then the tusk, illuminate each small facet we encounter, with the understanding that when we later compare notes and put them all together, we’ll have a better sense of the whole.

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