"He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." --George Orwell, 1984
If we are to believe what George Orwell has said about living in the present to rule over the past and the future, then the present he speaks of is definitely not the age we are in, one where the current fashion is dominated by styles from at least two decades ago, or where cellphones have applications in the likes of Hipstamatic that digitally modify your photos so that they look faux-vintage, as if they were taken with old polaroids and plastic cameras, or where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a parodic revision of a Victorian classic, can become as popular as the original. So really, who is in control? Are we looting for inspirations in the past or is the past invading the present? These cultural phenomena reflect the postmodern disenchantment with progress and modernity, which is actively and aggressively subverting the linearity of progressive time. In Paul De Man's essay 'Literary History and Literary Modernity', he presents the irony of modernity, when clearly as soon as the people recognize past attempts of creating new concepts of modernity as antiquarian, they are ironically foreshadowing their own imminent demise since modernity is predicated on a linear conception of time (400). To participate in and practice this disenchantment of modernity, it is only natural that countercultures would arise to find new ways to confront the past, causing society to search for para-modern lifestyles that are expressed in art and architecture. A para-modern man, as described by Tilo Schabert in 'Modernity and History', is characterized by a sense of exile and timelessness while living in the present, expressing the para-modern conception of history and time that makes possible the plural histories and temporal transcendence, and even encouraging the individual and the collective society to experience this 'jump' of time in their daily living.
While Schabert's looks for anti-modern/anti-linearity qualities of postmodernism within contemporary living and lifestyle, they can also be found in science fiction, or more particularly, steampunk. Alice R. Bell her essay on the trend of post-nostalgia writings perceives this genre-slip between fantasy and science fiction as the ideal, fertile ground for new temporalities and conceptions of history, since "science fiction looks forward and fantasy looks back; mixing the two will inevitably fuse the futuristic with the nostalgic" (8). But as Rob Latham finds, steampunk fiction and retrofuturism is not always looked upon kindly by critics. Scott Bukatman, whose 1991 essay whose 1991 essay “There’s Always...Tomorrowland' contains a thorough but brutal analysis of "a seemingly inexhaustible period of meganostalgia" (qtd in Latham 343), surmises that retrofuturism is no more than a "regressive cultural impulse", or rather, a form of bad faith, that revives the past to validate our deluding, self-created modern status and identity. On the other hand, Elizabeth Guffey interprets retrofuturism as a subversive and satirical force, undermining and critiquing positivist progressivism and cultural modernity by presenting them as epochal failures through literary irony and defamiliarisation (341).
Regardless of whether retrofuturism is presented as normative or transgressive, what we can certain about is that steampunk is self-consciously complicating its engagement with the past. This tendency of steampunk fiction has been read differently by critics, often producing contradictory interpretations and obscuring the imaginative use of history and temporality. Steffen Hantke supports the return of the repressed theory, arguing that steampunk is part of the widespread phenomenon that sees the past invading the collective sociohistorical consciousness of the people; Shannon Lee Dawdy considers steampunk as an entirely new and novel ant-modernity time experiment; Herbert Sussman believes that the Victorian age is superimposed on the present as our analogue, which Yaszek thinks is the way to estrange ourselves from the Modernists while Bowler and Cox reads it as the way to shed light on our present condition; Gutleben discovers our wish to redeem the past from its injustice as our motive behind retrofuturism; and Onion, the most daring and perhaps most insightful, goes as far as saying that steampunk is simultaneously postmodern/anti-modern/futurist/modernist. At first these claims may seem unrelated to one another, but overall they can be read as either nostalgic, yearning for a return to the past, Neo-Victorian, drawing parallels with the Victorians to show the past is our present, or anti-modernity, arguing that the past is our future.
These impulses can all be found in steampunk in varying degrees. These four different strategies that steampunk employs to represent and thus confront, but not necessarily resolve, the antinomy between the present and the historical past: ruptures of linear time often result in a dialectic interaction between the past and the present, dissolving the barriers that separate the past and the present using anachronism and involuntary memory; another way for the present to confront the past is what critics of Neo-Victorianism have termed, borrowing from Freud's psychoanalytic vocabulary, 'return of the repressed', through which the past invades and haunts the present; and if the past can be transported into the present, then by the same logic we can also return to the past using nostalgia as both an impulse and a device, which is typical of the postmodernist exile who finds home not just in the present but also in the past; and lastly, as I have mentioned previously in my introduction, steampunk is a unique amalgamated genre of fantasy, science-fiction, history and romance, and it is this precisely this chimeric literary quality, drawing on and highlighting the absence and fallibility of historical facts, that undermines historicism's arbitrary periodization and claim to higher truths, compelling us to discover a new definition of the past and the present, time, and history.