I recently wrote an article about why Steampunk should be defined, and it engendered much discussion. I'm glad it did, because discussion is often the path to both change and understanding. However, I saw a lot of people talking about things that struck me as, if not outright misunderstandings, then at least as thoughts that were outdated.
Sometimes it's easy to forget when talking about Steampunk evolving in the future that Steampunk has already evolved many times over the course of its lengthy life. When it first started in the 1960s, Steampunk was primarily a visual phenomenon.
Then in the 1970s it began to make the transition into text. Soon, text became the dominant form of the genre.
Another major shift occurred in the 1990s when Steampunk merged the two mediums in graphic novel form. Soon it began gaining popularity again and, by the time that the 2000s happened, Steampunk exploded into every available medium.
The biggest shift of all came around 2005, when Steampunk began appearing in the world of costuming. As I said in my recent essay in Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, the leap to costuming was what really made Steampunk take off. Though granted, that explosion of popularity couldn't have happened without a cultural climate that was ready for it.
Ever since the aforementioned leap to costuming, I think that most people have failed to re-evaluate Steampunk as a phenomenon, and thus are operating under a number of assumptions that are simply no longer true.
In my recent podcast with Justin Stanley, I said that when people first started self-identifying as Steampunk, it was because they wore Steampunk clothes or costumes. It would have been correct at that time to say that someone not wearing Steampunk clothes was not a Steampunk, because Steampunk as an ideology didn't exist. While there were Steampunk communities online, there was no real sense of community, or belonging.
Today, however, that has changed. I believe that it is entirely possible for someone not wearing Steampunk clothing to be considered a Steampunk, in much the same way that Goths don't have to wear black all of the time. Goth was also a state of mind, and an appreciation for the darker things in life. Likewise, Steampunk has become indicative of an appreciation for a variety of things associated with the past, including (but not limited to) long-lasting construction, nicer clothing, self-reliance, unique aesthetics, better manners, individual creativity, and more. While there may be variance among any specific group of Steampunks, these are generally the things that attract people to the subculture and foment the feeling of "belonging" among its members.
The fact that a Steampunk subculture even exists is indicative of the fact that Steampunk has progressed beyond a simple, aesthetically-based fashion and into a more nuanced, multi-leveled culture.
Back in the beginning of this post, I mentioned that some people didn't seem to have realized that Steampunk has evolved into a new phenomenon that goes beyond the mere visual, and thus they were worried that belonging to the Steampunk subculture was entirely about looking the part.
In fact, that couldn't be more wrong. Some people participating in Steampunk don't wear costumes at all, such as many photographers, not to mention Dieselpunks and Post-Apocs. And yet they participate in a lot of Steampunk events and contribute to the culture. Are we to tell them that they don't belong, just because they don't look the part?
Of course not.
The community is open to anyone who shares an interest in the things mentioned above, or any of the other myriad, uncatalogable things that bring people to Steampunk. That's why defining the aesthetic won't (or shouldn't) undermine the sense of belonging that people experience in the subculture.
It's possible that Steampunk truly has evolved beyond its roots in a Victorian era aesthetic, and that now Steampunk represents a feeling or an ideology more than anything else, but we won't know unless we talk about it.
Whether you believe in a definition or not, we all need to be open to considering that Steampunk has evolved into something different right under our noses, and that this may not be the same Steampunk it once was.