Steampunk'd, Or Humbug by Design

Steampunk is one of my guilty pleasures… I think of it more of an asthetic than a literary movement, and I own neither a pair of aviator goggles nor a wind-up pocketwatch. Nevertheless, it happens that at this moment in another window I’m rendering a 3D view of an brass-and-glass spaceship ethership that features in the steampunk bedtime stories I’ve been telling my kids ever since I saw the last name “Gearhart” in a student roster.  Randy Nakamura sounds a little mystified by the popularity of the steampunk style, though he does a fair job exposing its sillier excesses.

[A]s Peter Berbergal of the Boston
notes, “In all of the new Steampunk design there is a strong nostalgia for a
time when technology was mysterious and yet had a real mark of the craftsperson
burnished into it.” Never mind the fact that the Victorian era was a time of
demystification: Darwin’s theory of natural selection upset centuries of
received religious knowledge about human origins, and the mechanization of
virtually everything meant you could produce objects, designs and books ten or
twenty times faster and distribute them to the very ends of the earth. As Philip
, commenting on the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has succinctly
put it: “Handicraft almost completely vanished. The unity of design and
production ended.” The world had suddenly become smaller. If Steampunkers are
looking to the past for some sort of inspired return to a prior era, then they
are running in slack parallel with their ancestors. The Victorians were
cultural raiders without peer. Rococo, Tudor, Gothic Revival and the umpteenth
generation of Neo-Neo-Classicism were not enough. They went abroad to bring
back the ill-gotten gains of their imperial aesthetic loot. Moorish ornaments,
Ukiyo-e, Chinese porcelain, hieroglyphics all found their way into Victorian
eclecticism. Form before concept.