Steampunkology: Dolittle, Walter Benjamin, and the Nineteenth-Century Child

Pike, David L. (2011). Buried Pleasure: Doctor Dolittle, Walter Benjamin, and the Nineteenth-Century Child. MODERNISM/modernity, 4, 857-875.


Everyone knows that searching on a keyword will often pull up less-than-applicable results. This article turned up when I hunted on "steampunk" in the academic databases, yet it only mentions the word several times, in one paragraph and a figure at the end. I will cite the passage in full:

The resurgence since the 1970s of subterranean Victoriana within popular culture, especially in the many forms taken by steampunk in film, literature, and material culture, suggests dissatisfaction with the smoothly conceptual perfection of modernism as well as with the certainties of mainstream contemporary Victorianism. There is no space here to examine in detail steampunk’s perverse and playful trawl through the dusty corners and back alleys of the nineteenth century in order to generate alternative pasts and encase cutting-edge gadgets in the patina of outdated technology [Figs. 5 and 6]. Freed of the weight of history that motivated Benjamin, Lofting, and other modernists, the ideological agenda of steampunk is fluid and opaque, driven as much by novelty as by any political or moral imperative. In that, one could argue that it is true to the child’s space of the nineteenth century; however, this also should warn us that, in approaching the meaning of twentieth-century Victoriana either for the nineteenth century or for the present, we should draw truth from it “as warily as the child’s hand retrieves the sock from ‘the pocket,’” for fear of finding nothing there when we are finished. 

(Pike, 2011, p. 873-874).


The figure shows Jake van Slatt’s steampunk keyboard and flat LCD screen and his etched i-Pod.


Why am I bothering to mention the article, if it doesn't have much to say about steampunk? First, because even this brief mention contains several characterizations that I think steampunk scholars (and creators) might want to keep in mind, whether in agreement or disagreement, as they work. And, second, to prevent steampunk scholars performing a similar search from spending too much time on this article unless their interest is specifically related, perhaps, to discussing YA steampunk in relationship to Victorian children's literature.


In this article, Pike says the following about steampunk:


(1)  "Perverse and playful" — suggesting that steampunk is critical and contrary (the -punk I often mention when I write about the genre) but also, perhaps, less than serious in its critique. We have seen this characterization recur in other writings reviewed in this blog, as well.


(2) "generate alternative pasts and encase cutting-edge gadgets in the patina of outdated technology" — we saw the issue of alternative pasts brought up in Margaret's "Extraordinary Pasts" and Sakamoto's "The Transcendent Steam Engine." What hasn't been discussed much in the scholarly literature I've analyzed to date has been the Creator/Maker side of steampunk — the process of translating contemporary technology or insights into a language of Victorian speculative fiction. This seems to me to be a hole in the literature that could stand to be fixed by some enterprising scholar.


(3) "the ideological agenda of steampunk is fluid and opaque, driven as much by novelty as by any political or moral imperative".  Several years ago — I will write a separate essay about this eventually — I'd characterized steampunk as having the ideological project of recycling antiquated or obsolete visions of the future and combining them with contemporary concerns and attitudes to create a present that looks like the benign future imagined by an optimistic past (Pagliassotti, Feb. 13, 2009). I've been rethinking that characterization, which I now believe is too simplistic. Yes, at its simplest, the steampulp/gaslamp aesthetic may be "driven ... by novelty" to create a rather optimistic and benign fantasy, but I think that serious steampunk cannot forget its "political or moral imperative."  "Hard" steampunk, I'd argue, is inevitably informed by those many viewpoints that followed societal disillusionment with the modernist agenda: e.g., deconstructionism, postmodernity, and postcolonialism, and perhaps newer attempts to deal with this post-post-modernist world, such as performatism, pseudomodernism, and metamodernism.


(4) "one could argue that [steampunk] is true to the child’s space of the nineteenth century" — Pike's article addresses children's literature in the Victorian period, paying particular attention to concepts of the subterranean/hidden child's space and to Benjamin's conception of the child in the 1900s as perceiving the previous century as a dreamlike, irrational place only understood through the remnants in which the children lived, such as the leftover Victorian furniture and books in their houses. Steampunk's conception of the Victorian period, he seems to be saying, is similar to that of Benjamin's child — fragmented, filtered, and imperfect. Searching an accurate representation of Victorianism within steampunk would be like a child's seeking the pocket into which a sock is traditionally folded; the act of unfolding the sock makes the pocket disappear.


I'm not certain why Pike decided to mention steampunk in this article. Maybe he likes the genre himself and wanted to include it in some way, or maybe one of the journal's reviewers insisted he include something about it (which happens more often than nonacademics think).  Its mention is perfunctory and not terribly enlightening, but I thought it brought up one or two issues worth mentioning before moving back to the discussion of articles more specifically related to the genre.

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Comment by Lia Keyes on June 14, 2011 at 10:09am
Thank you for this. It is a confusing world, this steampunk definition business. In some ways, the difficulty in describing what steampunk is leaves an inviting space for each to invent their own definition. I'd love to know more about "the Creator side of steampunk — the process of translating contemporary technology or insights into a language of Victorian speculative fiction" when you have time for another post!


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