News: Why Defining Steampunk Is Worthwhile

Why Defining Steampunk Is Worthwhile

Why Defining Steampunk Is Worthwhile

I've tried my hand in the past at defining Steampunk, but as anyone else who has made a similar attempt will tell you, there's a significant backlash from the community against working to create a real definition of what Steampunk is.

That may sound ridiculous to some, but it's a very serious matter to others. With the recent announcement that TeslaCon 4 will be called the Congress of Steam, I think it's appropriate to talk about why all of this stuff is worth it. In this article, I'm going to do my best to explain both sides of the issue, and then to show why definitions are both important and misunderstood.

Definitions Constrain Steampunk

Those who argue against creating definitions feel that having actual boundaries on what Steampunk is will stifle creativity and lead to the stagnation and decay of the aesthetic/genre/subculture/etc.

To them, Steampunk is in many ways the very embodiment of creativity and self-expression, so to have someone else tell them how they can and cannot express themselves is extremely galling. That makes perfect sense—who wants to be told how you can dress, or act, or do anything? Not me, that's for sure.

They believe that Steampunk is about having fun, and shouldn't be taken too seriously. It should be open to everyone, and all should be made to feel welcome.

Definitions Explain Steampunk

Those who argue for definitions believe that the boundaries around Steampunk already exist, whether they're named or not. They believe that a working definition will help people outside of Steampunk become easily familiar with it, and that it will help the aesthetic/genre/subculture/etc. grow by being more accessible to new members.

Image via etsystatic.com

Image from Regretsy

To them, Steampunk is one specific subset of a larger category (either science fiction or alternate history, depending on who you ask) and should be named as such. Without a definition, they argue, the word 'Steampunk' becomes entirely meaningless because it stands for nothing.

Why Define Steampunk?

As you may have noticed, both positions are entirely reasonable, which is exactly the problem. Many controversial issues in the larger world are the same way; not everything has a right/wrong dichotomy.

In this case, however, I believe that the reason why these two positions are at odds with each other is because definitions are fundamentally misunderstood in our society. I don't mean to imply that those who are against definitions are in some way ignorant or at fault; in fact, to the contrary, they're reacting to a larger trend.

That is, the trend throughout history for humans to use any and all means at their disposal to put other humans down. You can ask a psychologist why that happens, but all I can say is that it definitely does happen. One needs go no further than the internet to observe this phenomenon happening en masse, especially in Steampunk.

Image from Wall321

If you haven't heard someone say, "That's too ______ to be Steampunk," or "That's not ______ enough to be Steampunk," then you haven't been to any Steampunk forum on the internet. This is in many ways similar to the current "fake geek girl" syndrome going around, in which both men and women feel the need to "defend" their culture from being usurped by those who haven't "paid their dues", so to speak, or who aren't genuine.

Likewise, with a solid definition in hand, many Steampunks feel that it would lead to a persecution of those who don't fit the ideal Steampunk mold. Given the aforementioned putting-down trend, this is an entirely reasonable fear.

Unfortunately, this fear is often misplaced and is mistakenly taken out on the definitions themselves rather than on those who do the persecution. The people intent on persecuting others will find some way to do this regardless of whether a definition for Steampunk exists or not.

Image of Matt Silva from Geekologie

I suppose you can liken it to gun control, if we're in the market for bad analogies. Guns don't kill people by themselves, but are operated by people intent on killing others. The guns don't go to jail for their complicit role in murdering someone. Likewise, a definition is much like a gun; it isn't harmful by itself, unless used by someone with ill intent. Yeah, I know, I did say that it was a bad analogy. Still, you probably get the idea.

A working definition of Steampunk will not reach across the fandom and deprive someone of fun unless someone else uses it to exclude that person. Personally, I believe that people are too attached to the idea of whether or not they're Steampunk, which speaks to their desire to "fit in". This is almost certainly the result of having been put down in the past, though of course it will vary from person to person. I shouldn't generalize like that.

Still, I've never seen anyone ejected from a Steampunk event for not wearing the proper clothing, and I've seen a lot of odd things at Steampunk events, including non-Steampunk characters from anime, 80's movies, horror films, video games, and even just plain clothes. So considering that all are welcome at Steampunk events and there's no fear of being excluded, why is there such a furor about having a definition?

Frankly, I'm not sure.

However, exclusion is something of a moot point because the role of a definition isn't to constrain, but to explain. Definitions should naturally evolve over time to reflect, not direct. It's much like the rules of grammar to a writer: you should know them, so that you can break them on purpose to create a specific effect. Also, I'm sure I can come up with more rhymes if you give me time.

So, to summarize:

  1. We should have a working definition of Steampunk.
  2. That definition should constantly evolve as Steampunk evolves.
  3. It should not be used to exclude anyone from communities or events.
  4. People should feel free to press the boundaries of that definition.

I think that about covers it!

26 Comments

Who is authorized, how will this be done, and then the million dollar question how then shall we be any different She who precipitated this movement?

We have become that what we proclaimed we have fled.

John, I think you missed the entire point of this article, which is that definitions don't "authorize" anything, they simply catalog. A good definition is more like a journalist, objectively reporting on what other people are doing.

It's when people try to use those definitions as weapons that we need to step in and stop that from happening.

That's why it's our job to be vigilant, and stop people when we see that happening.

Regarding your statement ... "So considering that all are welcome at Steampunk events and there's no fear of being excluded ..."

Perhaps there is no fear of being excluded from public events, but there is a feeling of not being INcluded, in a general, personal sense.

The idea that this movement is friendlier than any other group of people forgets that it is still a social structure, and as such, there are the friendships, the associations and the cliques that develop along with it. It's quite possible to isolate or freeze people out who do not fit the ideals one establishes for steampunk - whether intentional or not.

That's true, and a good point.

Still, Steampunk isn't a hippie commune where everyone is accepted for who they are, regardless of anything else about them. People come to Steampunk because they're interested in the specific things that Steampunk has to offer, and if we allow that to become too diffuse, it will turn away those who might otherwise have been interested in those things.

As I have said before- defining the genre is not now nor will it ever be just "definition". History has blatantly shown us that defining the genre is a power tool. The very statement "we are going to define..." Who the heck is "we"- who told "we" they had the authority to speak for the rest of us? What makes "we" right" and "them" wrong"?

Also the steampunk genre community has a lot of financial investment in place. Every other friggin post is "buy my crap" (I'm actually writing a song for this) and a merchant, craftsmen, musician or anybody else who wants our money struggles to not only ensure their own steampunk branding but more so tries to either rise above the competition in their steampunkyness or block out those who might compete. Worse, they want a definition that pushes the focuse MORE onto what they are pushing and eliminate the "that ain't steampunk" cries from the mob.

Self definition is one thing and I wholly support folks self defining themselves and their works as steampunk. It's the attempt to define it for others, especially the mainstream masses that is just another attempt to solidify their social and commercial authority over the rest of geekdom. Definitions most definitely "authorize" ESPECIALLY in the geek communities. Ask EK, Trekkies vs Trekkers, ...

Buy my crap. :-)

kidding aside, I liked what you said, Brian, about defining steampunk for oneself, but not for everyone. It's the only way I can function in the realm --- I know what works for me and try not to tread on anyone's firmly held beliefs.

Authority, as I hinted at in an above comment, is necessary in small doses. Anarchy is great in theory, but humanity has proven again and again that one way or another, a structure will arise. It happens whether we want it to or not.

Our goal should be to help shape that structure in as benign a direction as possible. And by "we", I mean everyone who self-identifies as Steampunk.

Do you enjoy seeing self-proclaimed experts touting what Steampunk is on national TV, without having even consulted us?

Why do people fight so hard against bringing everyone together to present a solid front?

There is no way to have a definition that is going to change as steampunk does, that will not be used to exclude people, and that people are going to feel free to press the boundaries of. Once a definition is in place, no matter what caveats you have about it being a "working definition" or "not intended to be authoritative," you are going to have people aggressively policing according to that definition. It's the nature of the beast. Humans are tribal creatures and given a way to divide the world unto Us and Them, we will do so. A definition of what makes something steampunk is going to give people that angle. And people who are ignorant or looking for a way to gain clout are going to jump all over that definition as a way to start excluding and drawing lines.

To extend your gun analogy, no, the gun does not kill on it's own. But it makes killing a hell of a lot easier. A definition might not necessarily by exclusionary, but it is going to make it much easier for people who want to exclude, who have been looking to exclude, to do so.

I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever that people will stand up to anyone saying "this has to be like so-and-so because steampunk is so-and-so".

I mean, just look at the comments raised by this post. There are many vocal community members who won't let that happen, and I'm one of them.

The worth of an outfit or a prop or a book or anything is entirely independent from whether it classifies as Steampunk or not.

Damn, I can't decide what to think. Both sides make sense! lol

Phil, you need to make up your own mind. While I feel pretty strongly that we need a definition, I ultimately can't speak for anyone but myself.

How about this:

"Steampunk: The confluence of Industrial, Fantastic, and Victorian aesthetics, philosophies, and themes in order to achieve and explore the ultimate goals of self expression and group expression."

That should be both specific enough yet vague enough to work if you ask me. But then, no one asked me.

I'm okay with that definition! =)

Mr. Sirkin. Perhaps you can explain WHY you believe a definition would be helpful, and to whom? Not trying to start a battle, it's a sincere question. What is the intention? What is the best outcome you can imagine for having a definition of Steampunk?

Sure. I've sort of touched on this in a variety of places, but I haven't really explained it in detail, I think.

A definition will be helpful to a lot of people, and I'll explain why. First and foremost, it will be helpful to anyone who wants to have a meaningful conversation about Steampunk. It will make sure they're on the same page as everyone else, and will create clarity.

Second, it will help people who are unfamiliar with Steampunk to understand it better. This benefits everyone, as I don't know anyone -- Steampunk or otherwise -- who enjoys being misunderstood.

Third, it will help people who want to fit in with other Steampunks by giving them a specific goal to shoot for.

The only people that I see potentially disliking a definition are the few people who may fall outside of it, and so disagree.

The best outcome is that through the defining process, our entire subculture becomes richer, better understood, and more accessible.

Does that answer your question? =)

I remain friendly and optimistic but perplexed.

Perhaps it's because I have so few opportunities to "have a meaningful conversation about steampunk" that I cannot imagine what that would look or sound like, or how defining the topic would enhance discussing it.

I know it seems really important to you, and I am trying to understand, but so far I don't see the benefit. As far as the only people who would dislike it being those who fall outside of it ... hmmm ... I don't know. I think the people who might dislike having a definition would be those who might want to expand on the definition, or who see the target as evolving and therefore difficult or impossible to define.

TRAP!!!!!

This is always one of those issues where you either have to eat the granola ( say the mantra, "Steampunk has no definitions and we are all unique and pretty brass snowflakes.") or be labelled an elitist snob.

I"m going to try the third option....

I'm going to try and make some really cool stuff, all within my definition of Steampunk (and yes I have a very strict definition of what is Steampunk) and then see if anyone has the balls to tell me it's not SP.

Am I being elitist? Gods Balls I hope so!

Lately, I've had to tell some folks rather gently that while I may be a steampunk artist (someone else's definition, not my own), not ALL my work is "steampunk" ... so I applaud your effort to make stuff and see how it gets labeled, as I was surprised that people would accept things as SP that were NO WAY steampunk in my own opinion as the creator.

Don't misunderstand my point Austin ( and others)- if you want to try and form a definition for YOUR version of steampunk and present it to the world...even to find like-minded folks who you can share with....I'm not saying no. But the statement "definition doesn't grant authority" I completely reject and worse, I think it is naive or even a ridiculous state of denial...

Add to that all the creative folks who want us (the steampunk community and mainstreamers) to BUY their crap based on it's steapunkness, and "definitions" become synonymous with marketing. Whether its' "my event is the most steampunk", or "my book is...","my jewelry is" my painted nerfgun is"....whatever...or just the armchair generals who want to sit back become the authorities of the genre...and we all know this has already happened...attempts to "formally" define the concept and culture of steampunk make me nervous.

I thought one comment was interesting- something to the effect that only those on the fringe of steampunk would be threatened by a definition for fear of finding themselves outside it...to me this is a clear indication of the underlying exclusivity that is inherent in ALL geek cultures. again the speaker is assuming that THEY are the standard and those opposing their views are the ones outside.

I've had someone who is recognized as an "authority" in steampunk state that because my work is not PC, multiculturally sensitive ( I think ALL people suck), nor socially utopian that my work isn't steampunk. Not liking my work is fine, but telling me I don't represent a part of the steampunk genre because I don't fit your socio-political views...bite me!

(not aimed at Austin-)

Having participated in the disastrous 'Great Steampunk Debate', and spent to much mental space on this question since, I have finally come to the conclusion that the specific subdivisions are to disparate to fit into a concise definition.

The best definition is this: "Steampunk: Just google it." That's what people do anyway.

Some, subdivisions, such as the literary, cosplayer, neo-vic, con-junky, maker, crafter, punk, gamer, and lifestyler are simply to nuanced and fluid. To describe any in depth doesn't do justice to the others. Other types, like the social reformer and the happy imperialist, are diametrically opposed. Then there are fringers like me (luddite cyberpunk) that only qualify in our own mind.

I can only tell you what my definition of Steampunk is: A loosely defined period of history from about 1867-1919, covering the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Wild West, Post-Apocalyptic and Goth. Feel free to "borrow, adapt, create" (usually all three) from history, art, fiction, etc. Have fun and don't take it too seriously

I think "loosely-defined" is a great term, and is extremely applicable to Steampunk in general. =)

I think we must understand first that Steampunk has many diferent areas. Somitimes it is a genre, other it is an aesthetic, a lifestyle, subculture, etc. But clearly a movement. Now if people define the variety in the genre (as Jack Horner did) maybe JUST maybe could be functional

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