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Category Archives: Geek Culture

Many subcultures come and go, contributing little to the long-term arc of society. (When is the last time you saw a pompadour-sporting greaser outside the touring company of Grease?) Other subcultures pass on elements of their aesthetic or mode of representation to newer forms: the beatniks gave up some of their identity to the hippies, and Punk style has been incorporated into many subsequent movements. And occasionally, styles remain mostly unchanged for prolonged periods. I never thought that Goth would last as long as it has; despite some changes Goth has experienced, it is fundamentally the same subculture today as it was in the early ‘80s.

There is one subculture, or perhaps sub-subculture, that has drawn my attention recently for its durability: Steampunk. Its origins are wide-ranging and contentious, but the coinage of the term (and thus, the start of a definable subculture) dates to the often-cited April 1987 letter K. W. Jeter wrote to Locus magazine where he referred to the small circle of writers working in Victorian retro-futurism as “Steampunks.” But three people does not a subculture make, and soon related writers, artists, designers, and musicians were exploring a Victorian retro-futurist aesthetic.

This puts Steampunk at an official age of twenty-five. That is a long time to exist in sub-cultural terms. Hippie culture was on the wane after the chaos of Altamont and the grisly Tate/LaBianca murders; even a generous estimate would give the Hippies (formally) only a decade. Punk was declared dead as early as 1979, and Post-Punk took over. Punk as a style experienced renaissance and resurgence movements as well as exerting a strong influence on later subcultures, but Punk as a unified subculture didn’t make it past a decade. Kerouac first coined “the Beat generation” in 1948, but by the late ‘50s it had been co-opted and turned into the mass-culture “beatnik,” a term that many of the Beats themselves explicitly rejected. Putting Steampunk up against these other subcultures shows its longevity. Of the major Western post-war subcultures I’ve looked at so far, only Goth has lasted longer than Steampunk: Goth is now thirty years old.

I am not ready to try my hand at final definitive explanations of Steampunk’s longevity. But I think a few things might be worth exploring:

1. Steampunk flew under the radar: For a very long time, Steampunk was a geeky, minority sub-subculture, located simply within SF conventions and role playing games. It existed even before the term was coined, and many Steampunks enjoy finding works that participate in the aesthetic but predate the term itself. But the ‘90s saw a few significant events. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling released The Difference Engine, FOX released the cult television show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and in the late ‘90s Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill released the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Gibson, of course, was a SF writer with mainstream appeal; Brisco County starred Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead semi-fame, bringing semi-celebrity status to the subculture; and graphic novels were riding high the tide of mass-culture respectability. People who might have never picked up a Steampunk novel found an entry point to the aesthetic in a graphic novel by Alan Moore.

But by the time these major works were released and the public was starting to get clued in to Steampunk, it had been gestating in the geek community for a long time. Geeks had been playing games like Space: 1889, reading books like Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, and generally enjoying the aesthetic possibilities Steampunk offered. Mass-culture attention often kills subcultures in their infancy, but Steampunk had been allowed to grow up without mainstream media attention. Even though The Difference Engine was released in 1990, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn’t released until 1999. The ’90s saw a slow build mainstream awareness of Steampunk, and that allowed the subculture to avoid scrutiny during its awkward early years.

2. Steampunk is resistant to co-optation: I neither want to lionize Steampunk as a bastion of “authenticity” (whatever that actually is) nor condemn capitalist culture for the tendency to co-opt subcultures. That is another argument. But the cultural narrative exists: when mass culture co-opts a community and sells it back, it becomes “inauthentic.” (When something goes on sale at Hot Topic, the early adopters that drive “cool” have already moved on to something else.) I am old enough to remember the way Cyberpunk got co-opted. Billy Idol’s atrocious Cyberpunk album is just one example: “cyberpunk” as a label was attached to games, sunglasses, even jeans. By that point, whatever made Cyberpunk what it was had been emptied out and turned into a product.

Steampunk, however, seems to resist that drive to co-opt. In part, that is the nature of the community. For example, many people probably could charge an arm and a leg for the ubiquitous Steampunk fashion item of the brass goggles. But rather than mass produce them and sell them at a profit, most Steampunk fans would rather post their free videos and free blogs about how to make brass goggles yourself at home. Most Steampunks take their home-made costumes as a point of pride. It doesn’t matter if the costume doesn’t look the best as long as it was made by the person wearing it. Steampunks love to share information about how to improve costumes and props, and they do so for free.

But on top of all of that, a community that mixes Victorian aesthetics with a DIY mentality and an off-beat, subversive sense of humor just doesn’t sit well as something that can be mass-produced. The entire aesthetic goal of Steampunk is to resist mass-produced culture. It eludes co-optation by its very nature. (This is not to say that it can never be marketed. But mainstream mass culture has not yet figured out how to do it. Every time mass culture tries to market Steampunk, it fails: does anyone remember Wild Wild West? It made some money, but it was generally disliked by Steampunk fans and movie critics alike. The closest Hollywood has ever gotten to nailing Steampunk was in Sherlock Holmes.)

3. Steampunk is multiple: Unlike many subcultures that are highly unified, at least in some aspects of their aesthetic or ideology, Steampunk is highly varied. There is Steampunk literature, Steampunk music, and Steampunk fashion. There are games, conventions, and manga. But there is really no one “flavor” of Steampunk within any of these: some Steampunk is very faithful to Victorian history and culture with only semi-plausible changes to technology, while other Steampunk is set in a secondary world, involves magic, posits substantial changes to world history, or even entirely different laws of physics (such as the luminiferous aether).

There are Steampunk novels with dwarves and elves, Steampunk with rigorous technological extrapolation, and Steampunk with wizards in London, etc. There is no single, definable Steampunk culture. And, what is more, Steampunks themselves seem very tolerant of those who are not like themselves. While many subcultures strive for orthodoxy and worry about “poseurs,” Steampunk is unusually welcoming.*

Steampunk looks as if it might be poised to be a long-term cultural phenomenon. Of course, it is when people like me make these kinds of pronouncements that cultures seem to suddenly die. I hope to see Steampunk continue to grow and evolve, and look forward to its continued vitality.

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*Steampunk’s ideological and aesthetic cousin, Dieselpunk, is similarly welcoming.

I think a lot about geekdom. And since my previous blog (on music geekery), I’ve had a few people engage me in what “geek” actually means. While I’m not a fan of citing Wikipedia, the “geek” page seems to indicate that one of the elements of geekery is a hyper-focus on detail or a willingness to obsess about things. Lars Konzack of Aalborg University, in his paper “Geek Culture: the 3rd Counter Culture”, doesn’t really answer the question but does suggest that the modern educational system that extends well into adulthood creates a culture of experts with specialized knowledge. CNN Living asked, “Are You a Nerd or a Geek?” The pages seem to suggest that being a geek is all about your way of dealing with the wider world, specifically a fascination with information. If you obsess over details, offer your opinion even when it is not asked for, and willingly engage in lively exchanges and intense friendships with others who share your obsession, then you are probably a geek.

But in today’s world of massive informational access (overload?), aren’t we all geeks now? What is the difference between a person who knows every single detail about, say, The Lord of the Rings and a person who knows the names, point standings, and crew of every single NASCAR driver? If someone can obsessively rattle off the names of every producer that Rush, Steely Dan, or Tom Waits ever worked with, what makes that person less socially valuable than the person who can rattle off the statistics of every player for the Atlanta Braves for the last ten years? And gaming has entered the mainstream: I used to be mocked for my devotion to video games, role-playing games, and simulations. My son, on the other hand, was given an Xbox a few years back because NOT playing video games made him a bit of an outcast. And the people who used to mock DnD players are often now obsessive participants in Fantasy Football leagues.

Part of the modern geek culture, I would argue, comes from the easy access we have to information; this same access wasn’t possible twenty or thirty years ago. In the darkest days of geek-prejudice, we geeks banded together because we knew something. We had areas of expertise. We were unlikely to be popular, we typically weren’t terribly athletic, and most of us… well, my group of friends wasn’t going to be gracing the cover of magazines in our youth. If we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the herd, we needed to find areas of obsessive expertise. I found music and history, some of my friends found physics and math, others found film, comics, SF TV shows, or any number of other areas of knowledge.

But today, the depth of knowledge that geeks had some kind of lock on is available to everyone. The easy access to information that our modern technocratic economy has created has made it possible to have obsessive knowledge about everything: knitting, golf, dog grooming, or zombies, whatever your interest… you can show an obsessive level of expertise simply by pulling out your smart phone and surfing for a few minutes.

Most definitions of geekery also suggest that geeks lack basic social graces. We obsess at the drop of a hat. While this might separate the music-geek from the baseball fan, I think that this wall is coming down as well. In the modern era of Twitter-sharing and Facebook transparency, we all feel as if our opinions are wanted and valued by everyone. Hey, let me tell you what I think about The Phantom Menace for the next five hours… and don’t forget to read my tweet about the tuna sandwich I just ate!

(Note: Just look at the act I am currently engaged in. I am blasting out my opinion to dozens of people, many of whom I either don’t know or only know vaguely. And we reward that kind of opinionated transparency. We friend people, follow Twitter feeds, and feel connected to them based more on the quantity of their posts, tweets, and status updates than the quality of the same. The best and yet worst advice anyone ever gave me about blogging: post regularly, even if you have nothing to say. Doesn’t that remind you of the geeky kid in high school who would engage any passerby in a long harangue about the superiority of Shadowrun over Battletech? It doesn’t matter that people don’t care… he just needed someone to listen. How is blogging, or tweeting for that matter, different? We all want someone to just listen. And most geeks, I suspect, feel as if we aren’t being heard.)

We are all geeks now. We carry around a lot of information in our heads, and we have access to even more through the fifty million screens we interact with every day. Embrace it, and live it. You probably are living it already, even if you don’t know it.

And I promise, if you tweet, I will read it. As long as you read mine. It will probably be about Shadowrun.

I can’t help but get the feeling that kids today have a different relationship to music than I did in High School. This is NOT going to be a “what’s wrong with kids today?” whine-fest. I despise those. I’m not complaining about the difference, but there is a difference. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. The texture of life is different now than it was back then, so the experiences we had in the ‘80s (or ‘70s, ‘60s, and ‘50s, for that matter) are different from what people are having now. And one of the key places I see it is in music.

When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding people whose musical tastes were in line with mine. I dug The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But more than any of them, I loved Joy Division. And in my late-‘80s affluent suburban high school, there weren’t many Joy Division fans. The few kids that I knew who had similar musical obsessions tended to get irritated by the way in which I expressed my own obsessions, so I parted ways with them.

In order to find music that I enjoyed, I had to travel by bus (as I had no car and no license) to get to a hole-in-the-wall record store downtown that always smelled vaguely bad and was the only place where I was ever hit by a genuine wave of claustrophobia. And I had to deal with the classic record store employees: the know-it-all who drips with condescension as he informs you that he doesn’t have the record you are looking for; the slightly disjointed young man who treats every record as if it were sick child, in need of constant care; and, importantly for me, The Sage who was willing to bestow vinyl on just the right acolyte. It was from The Sage that I first received Joy Division’s Warsaw demo (on a crappy tape, not vinyl), and it changed me. I get hit with an almost unbearable nostalgia every time I hear any of the songs on that recording. They aren’t the best. In fact, it’s not really a great set of songs. But it changed the way I look at music.

And that, more than anything, is what has changed. The Warsaw demo wasn’t that great, but I had been let into someone’s inner circle. I had to hunt and pick, proving to The Sage that I “deserved” the demo. I didn’t know much music, but the music I knew was intensely analyzed, scrutinized, and deconstructed. My musical knowledge was a mile deep, but an inch wide. Young people today display the opposite: knowledge that is an inch deep, but a mile wide. I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one has to be better than the other, but they are different experiences. Someone who wants the Warsaw demo now can just go to Amazon and order it. It will get to you in a couple of weeks. No need to cultivate a relationship with the guy who smells vaguely like burning rope, no need to get verbally abused by the weasely guy behind a record store counter. Music is available in ways that have eliminated the hunt and the search. All that you need to do now to get access to entire worlds of music you’ve never heard before is know a web address.

My son is fifteen, and for a long time he was not a huge music lover. He has been forced into very catholic tastes, as he used to listen to psych folk with me, punk and early alternative with his step-mother, polka and big band swing with his grandfather, praise music with his grandmother, and country with his mother. He enjoys music when it is on, and has taken to listening to music in order to fall asleep (something I remember doing all the time, but couldn’t do today). I gave him my fully-loaded mp3 player, and he went from listening to whatever was on to having definite tastes overnight. He didn’t need to pick through old record bins, network with weird guys in a downtown hole-in-the-wall shop, or read fanzines. Whole worlds of music (specialized worlds, but worlds nonetheless) were given to him, fully formed.

One day recently, we were driving somewhere, and my son said, “Dad, I like that Brian Eno stuff, but I’d like something a bit more… I don’t know… rockin’, I guess. Any suggestions?”

I wanted to say, “Nope. Find it yourself.” But that was just an old man being spiteful.

“Look for David Bowie’s Low. I think you’ll like it.” It took me years of searching to run into something as perfect as Low. And after years of searching for something like it, I came to treasure it. And now, with my son asking me just the right question, I had become The Sage. But Low probably isn’t going to change his life, the way Warsaw changed mine. He is going to search the Internet for the album, hopefully not download it illegally, and then move on to something else. But, I guess, that is what kids do. And that is, as they say, what it is.

I can’t map my experience onto his: he has to be allowed to have his own experiences and make his own way, particularly with something as intensely personal as music. Technology has changed how we deal with music. The record store is gone, and maybe that is a good thing. People have easy access to things that they never would have had access to before. Just a few minutes ago I heard Trader Horne, a band I hadn’t heard in years. I heard them on Last.fm, and decided to switch over to the Trader Horne station. In rapid succession, I heard Wooden Horse, Fotheringay, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Fresh Maggots. But since discovering these bands (all since the public availability of the Internet), none of them has made the same impact on me that Joy Division did back then. I found them without the hunt. I stumbled onto them, and that made a difference for the worse.

The Internet has allowed everyone to have The Sage and the Contemptuous Know-It-All in our homes. The hunt isn’t as exciting when it can be done at the same time as cooking a Hot Pocket. But I can’t help feeling a little bit of jealousy every time my son says, “So, Dad… Fairport Convention is pretty awesome, huh?” Yes, they are. And you get to grow up listening to them.

Damnit.