How I Found Steampunk

I don’t remember when I first heard about steampunk. I feel like it was a couple of years ago, when I was heavily embroiled in historical research for my novel. I was looking for exemplars for book covers, and potential artists to design mine. I stumbled upon a Deviant Art profile, I remember that much for sure. I quite literally geeked out about the clothing the actors wore in the photos, and the wonderful framing. I thought they were reenactors, a là The American Civil War or something similar. But the clothing was incorrect for my assumed time period to explain the photos, so I began to read the descriptions. “Steampunks” it declared. I was hooked.

But even though I was hooked, I didn’t really pursue it. It wasn’t my focus at the time. I was looking for people to provide inspiration for a book cover, nothing more. So I put it aside and continued on my merry way.

The Three Sisters, it seems, had other plans for me.

Weren’t you going to do something with nurses?

This past summer, I began some preliminary research for my capstone. I wanted to do something with nurses and technology… something that bridged the gap so that nurses could spend more time with the patient, and less time fiddling with a beeping computer. The topic was interesting. It was important. It didn’t spark my passion. So I thought perhaps it was about the nurses’ relationship with their technology. Maybe I could help them like the technology they’re forced to use by their administration. But how to do that?

Appropriation. I thought if I could help the nurses appropriate their technology, then maybe that would ease the pain of learning a new system. Reading about appropriation was far more interesting than about nurses, and there were more papers available to read, anyway. I began to wonder what sort of exemplars I could grab to showcase unique appropriations.

From mere exemplars to central focus

It was about this time that Dane wrote a post that sparked my interest. The comments to that post consisted of us joking that we would take over the world using a fleet of zeppelins, with our brass goggles gleaming in the sunlight and our scarves flowing “majestically,” I think was the word I used, as we floated toward triumph. This was the first time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I dressed up as steampunk for Halloween?”

With images of brass and wood machinery, steam and goggles, lace and grommets, all swirling in my head, somehow, in the raging mind storm, the word “appropriation!” burst through. I distinctly remember saying to my laptop, “Oh. Steampunk! Duh.”

Getting serious about having fun

Thus began my hunt. I went to Wikipedia to find a general definition. I searched the web for images of technology and clothing. I found blogs to follow and an independent magazine to buy. I embraced the visual aesthetic and used it to inspire my works for ceramics. In class, people joked about my wearing steampunk for my capstone presentation, and I joked along with them.

But it isn’t a joke anymore. Somewhere along the way, I realized I could pull it off. Not only can I probably pull off a steampunk costume, but I already have most of the components hanging innocently in my closet. I have enough exemplars from searching Flickr groups to know the general look. I have the artistic skills to potentially make a pair of cheap safety goggles look steampunkish. I even have a preliminary sketch (above). I’m really excited. I love art projects, they make me feel creative, and engaged with my materials.

Getting systematic

When I mentioned to Shaowen that I’m planning on going steampunk for Halloween, thinking it would be another way to experience steampunk, she told me that was a valid form of research. This was great, because I thought it was just something fun. Sweet! She mentioned autoethnography, and that it’s like ethnography, but using the self as a participant as a part of the study. Where ethnography tries to bring the viewpoint of the “native” into focus, and represent that experience faithfully, autoethnography assumes that the observer cannot be impartial, and that these partial observations are as valid as the impartial ethnographer’s observations.

Shaowen wants me to be very systematic in how I go about reflecting as an autoethnographer. To be honest, though, I felt uncomfortable jumping in headfirst like that. She wanted me to say what sort of information I’m going to gather, when, and why; what do I hope to learn? I felt like I couldn’t do that without having  a better understanding of autoethnography… so tonight I read two papers* that inspired me so much, that I sketched a page of notes, began to get a feel for the sort of information I want to gather/look for, and began writing this post.

Why do you always write at night?

That is such a good question. It’s plagued me since I was young. Most of my best ideas, for fiction anyway, come at 2 AM. I am both excited for and dreading the moment when that begins for capstone, because I will never get a solid night’s sleep again, and I am already exhausted. I should be asleep… I was in bed two hours ago! Yet here I am at midnight, feverishly writing while my bloodshot eyes manage to stay open.

Anyway, as I continue my (perhaps) more formal research, my next step for the autoethnography is to list out a couple different categories of data I want to collect, why I want to collect them, and what information I hope to learn from them. I’ll begin to formally document my iterations on my Halloween costume, and continue blogging. I’m still looking for my definition of appropriation, with the added question of why is this so important to me.

So much to do, so little time, way too much fun.

* Duncan’s Autoethnography: Critical Appreciation of an Emerging Art, and Spry’s Performing Ethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis

3 thoughts on “How I Found Steampunk

  1. I’m Steve Westwood’s little brother, and I remember reading your novel in sixth grade, when you first got it published.

    Anyway, I’ve been looking through your blog, and I find your research to be pretty interesting. I hadn’t thought of steampunk in the category of ethnicity before, but they really do function in similar ways in terms of defining identity.

    Because I can’t really swallow a new idea without connecting it to ten other things I’ve been working with recently, reading your posts has made me think of a few things you might be interested in looking in to.

    The first is an art exhibit I went to last night about contemporary (and non-traditional) portraiture. All the art is about capturing a sense of true identity, which comes through in all sorts of things other than just the image of the face.

    One of the artists uses autoenthnography in interesting ways.

    Also, you may be interested in my other brother’s autoethnography blog, where he’s tracing stories from our ancestors and from his own life to show how our different cultural traditions interact.

    Like

    1. Hey Mattathias,

      Wow! How great that you remember my high school senior thesis and found my blog.

      I find it interesting that you immediately connected identity with ethnicity. Do you feel identity must always connect with ethnicity? Or is it only through ethnicity that you feel identity can be formed?

      In any case, thank you for sending me those links! They provide some great ideas about how others are looking at identity from different traditions (photography, etc).

      Like

  2. Your connection to autoethnography connected me to the idea of ethnicity. All the autoethnography I know is about ethnicity, but then again all the autoethnography I know is literary autoethnography, rather than research work.

    So it’s my unusual sample which allowed for an interesting connection.

    As soon as the term autoethnography started me thinking in that direction, I began to see parallels in the way ethnicity and a hobby like steampunk function in creating identity. Both are markers of being part of a cultural subgroup, and have fairly strong associated traditions and communities. But steampunk (and things like it) are culture-of-choice, while ethnicity is (to greater or lesser degree) culture-of-birth.

    Which raises some questions: Can one be ethnically American? And are converts ethnically Catholic in the same way Irish Catholics are? And will people eventually eat steampunk food, instead of just wearing steampunk clothes?

    Like

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