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Steampunk'd

Posted by Christopher Shea  July 23, 2008 01:40 PM

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Steampunk, a do-it-yourself design aesthetic whose touchstones include Victorian-era machinery and doodads, the novels of Jules Verne, and Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil," has proven irresistible to intellectual trend-spotters -- including writers and editors of the Ideas section.

Yesterday, however, on the influential website Design Observer, an L.A.-based designer and writer fired an impassioned broadside against steampunk and its chroniclers. First, argued Randy Nakamura, the author, steampunkers were guilty of bad history: They called for a return to an era of personal handicraft, yet the Victorian period, which they fetishize, represents "the ground zero of mass production, the cultural inflection point from the artisan to the manufactured" -- making it "a strange choice to say the least."

steampunkmotorbike.jpg
The "Whirlygig Emoto," a steampunk motor-scooter

Moreover, steampunk assertions about modern technology are simply false. Its advocates mock supposedly bland and interchangeable cellphones and computers while pining for a time when the function of an object was manifest in its design -- all those pipes, gears, and steam valves. Yet anyone with a creative eye, Nakamura suggested, can see how the function of, for example, a computer chip is reflected in the patterns of circuitry on its face.

It's the pretensions of rebellion, however, that really grates on the critic -- the idea that this is an important movement and not just a few hobbyists with bad taste. "In its essence," he wrote, "Steampunk seems suburban in its attitude: nostalgic for an imagined, non-existent past, politically quietist, and culturally insular" -- its products "carefully styled anachronisms that let in no chaos or ferment."

The reaction* of the steampunk blogging community seems to be: Sure, there's some kitschy steampunk stuff out there, but relax: we mostly just enjoy making things ourselves -- and that's a dying art. And don't blame us if the press likes us.

(Speaking for myself -- a semi-representative of "the press and [its] mindless trend-trolling" -- you don't exactly see steampunk coverage crowding out discussion of the iPhone's design, or of the MacBook Air, or eclipsing discussions of new work by Gehry and Koolhaas.)

laptop.jpg
Steampunk laptop

*UPDATE: How could I have failed to note that the response I linked to is from Littleton resident "Jake von Slatt," who runs The Steampunk Workshop?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
contributors
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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