Category Archives: Week 6

Zen of Steampunk

Yesterday upon the stair

I saw a man that wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away.xxeez

To some, ‘steampunk’ is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.” Jake von Slatt put this in a way that fit some of my descriptions quite concisely. It is important to me in my evaluation of Steampunk to show what I find and what is there, not to codify and define it; I seek to analyze and evaluate not limit the reality. As Alan Watts Said “The whole point of Zen is to suspend the rules we have superimposed on things and to see the world as it is.” “There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.” – H. P. Lovecraft. I agree with this sentiment and this is more my goal than a definition – to describe and show what I find and see. “The true purpose (of Zen) is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

Individualism is not the first thing you think of when you think of Zen, but much of the teaching revolves around knowing yourself, seeing yourself as you really are, hearing your inner voice, and living in now. Previous essays have discussed the prevalence of an individual spirit and focus in both Steampunk and the age it arises from. For this particular discussion the whys of that direction are not needed, but we will look at them later. Louis XIV said “There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.” This is an important distinction when you are looking at Zen related to Steampunk; Zen is not about giving into to self but knowing self and being in control of self. Act on needs not wants, as one quote says: Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.

In both cases you see an active choice to seek the answer inside rather than from the voice of any governing group such as religion, government, society, or science. G.I. Gurdjieff said “Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” Religion, science, government, and society made drastic changes, leaps, and changed focus based on this and similar concepts, it did not always stick, but the creative leaps possible during that time are impressive themselves. As one Zen quote says “If you do not get it from yourself, where will you go for it?

Machines, automata, and development are critical to Steampunk and were what made the Victorian age what it was. “As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.” – Ernst Fischer. Willingness to take a leap, create something, build something, experiment without knowing what will happen – these are all things that made the development then what it was and that many people feel has been largely lost today. “If you want something you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and the despair, and only if you’re willing to risk failure.” – Philip Pullman, Clockwork.

Look at Zen and the adage telling you not to simply follow the paths of others: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.” – Basho This quest for knowledge is something dear to the heart of some of us. As Zen says “When an ordinary man gains knowledge, he is a sage; when a sage gains understanding, he is an ordinary man.”  Are we in Steampunk seeking an aesthetic or a wishful nostalgia, or are we seeking a possibility, a chance that with risk and a new path, we could see something different. Perhaps it isn’t escapism as much as opening the mind to possibilities, paths, and knowledge.

The place of the mind, reason, and imagination is the place of strength, development, and expansion. You cannot achieve what you cannot conceive anymore than you can succeed without risk. “Therefore the Three Realms are only mind” Ma-tsu Tao-i. In research and scientific advancement, one critical point to true advancement and real science is to not approach a test, experiment, theory, or idea clouded by opinion or expectations. Look again to Zen: “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your opinions.” Science then and now often sought to make life better and to serve humanity but “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery. But the changes are what stabilize society, stagnation kills any society. “Life is change, change is stability.” Change is not final, even when to destruction, another change will follow.

Vast emptiness, nothing holy! Bodhidharma

Previously, we briefly touched the topic of Steampunk embracing the development at all cost attitude of colonialism and imperialism but eschewing the technology that became the dominant development. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” The ethics were not relevant. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
—Rumi. This is somewhat where Steampunk and much fiction lie, as does much science. But this reaching outside society and the restrictions of others to open the mind and imagination is what allows development, creativity, and innovation. “A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.” – Robert Frost

 Texas Road near Monaville

Steampunk Vision and How Steampunk

Today’s painting is of the drawing done a few days ago, one of the eyes.Steampunk Eye

I am not entirely satisfied but tried a couple of new things I want to practice. I am also going to write a bit now about Why and How Steampunk.

My father was here looking at my site the other day. I was explaining why I started this and how mom influenced the project, my art, and what I am thinking about with this, even my choice of subject matter. I had to explain several terms like Steampunk and automaton to him and it got me thinking about the differences in our family and in reading or artistic people in general. Dad is very well read and educated but rarely reads things unrelated to something he is doing and he doesn’t read fiction, never has. Mom did, she introduced me to several of the classic science fiction and Steampunk fathers like Asimov and Jules Verne. But the difference is in how they viewed fiction and writing in general. Fiction, for mother, was not superfluous, it was a way to write about or examine an issue or situation in a somewhat more disconnected and less immediate manner. Fiction authors have always tackled the issues of society from social to religious, scientific to governmental. Science fiction is especially known for this practice. The depth of what-if evaluation in genre such as science fiction, Steampunk, cyberpunk, or alternative history (which can fall into several genres) is often intense if focused on one issue or development. Steampunk reaches many of these topics but focuses on what-if of technology based in steam, gears, and style rather than electronics, efficiency, and computerization. Mother appreciated good writing, science, and educational material in most forms and genres. Dad must be shown the connection first and then is unlikely to connect personally to a fiction writer; it just isn’t how he thinks. My brothers on the other hand all read fiction and many other types of books, but each approaches them differently, as did my sister. I approach everything as an opportunity to learn, grow, enjoy, and experience; books are just a favorite experience for me. I will enjoy reading about a place almost as much as going there if it is well written. On the other hand, a poorly written story, however good the story itself is, will never engage me and will likely irritate me. Steampunk is something only mom and I enjoyed as far as I know, and for her it was because of the quality, the evaluation, the lessons, the imagination, the depth, and the style; it was never a major thing, just something she knew and had a style she liked.

This returns me to a topic from weeks ago and the broad appeal of Steampunk. My mother was to most people the most unlikely candidate to have read or discussed Steampunk. But topics like that gave her connections and relatable points to people she may have not been able to reach otherwise. Individualism and intelligence was important to mom, so what-if scenarios were somewhat of a hobby. She had a project for all of us every time you spoke to her. More often than directly discussing Steampunk, we discussed related concepts and ideas, which is why I have issue with something requiring use of a term. Gears, steam, Difference engines, other ancient types of computing devises, architecture, Victorian or related styles, how things adapt, what things could have changed each aspect or would have simply faded these are all aspects in Steampunk that are of interest and value to people completely unconnected. Historical and cultural evaluations are often enhanced using fiction and what-if scenarios. Artistic and architectural studies are enhanced using fiction or scenarios to understand its place in society and how it was both impacted by and impacted each facet of society. Writing, reading, drawing, or working in a genre like Steampunk helps you understand culture, society, people, technology, materials, art, history, development, government, religions, architecture, and why each of these things develop. A well written Steampunk story will not just keep the same style if it is a what-if future story or even near present. Because it must examine the impact of the change in technology and style on the culture, government, religions, styles, development, population growth, and use of resources and environment. If it simply rote uses technology in an unchanged or shallow cultural development, it is not well written and it misses the what-if part of Steampunk. The depth you go into in that evaluation is different and depends on the story, but the small details are impacted by how much of that detail and depth you have considered. Dune is an example of an author with way more background, development, and depth than are directly written in. It is obviously there, and it makes the story a rich pleasure of immersive fiction and knowledge. This is what I love about what-if stories and the cultural and scientific study inherent in them. Even a simple drawing or piece of art has part of this background. Why the placement, materials, style, why the clothes, colors, lighting, or architecture are used in inherent to the depth of the view and evaluation.

When Steampunk

When Steampunk

Much like every other aspect of Steampunk, when is a challenge to answer accurately. The reason for this is you first need to define what aspect you are defining the beginning of. First use of a term is a common modern designator for the beginning of a genre; personally, this seems inaccurate, though understandable for non-interested parties. In some genre you see a designation from when someone within the genre and someone unconnected used the descriptor term; this is not necessary in Steampunk. First appearance of solidly representative works is another common time factor. Discussing Steampunk in particular, you see disagreement on this one, not based on difficulty placing writers in the genre but of disagreement when the genre began and what it is. Several 19th century authors are pivotal to Steampunk and for many people define the genre, yet most people say they are precursors and not Steampunk. Several works from the 1950’s and 1960’s are undeniably Steampunk and even reached into mainstream production and popularity. Metropolis from 1927 is a major Steampunk work, often considered, as Wikipedia puts it, “the single most important early film to represent Steampunk as an emerging stylistic genre.”

Authors from each period discussed.
Authors from each period discussed.

Given these time references and that representations continue through present, it is interesting that many listings designate Steampunk as having emerged in the 1980’s as a sub-genre of Cyberpunk. First use of the term in a title did not emerge until the 1990’s but that is hardly a key point other than to say it was in common enough use by that point authors were taking advantage of the connections and connotations of the word in a title rather than using the work to show genre. I have trouble with the concept that you need to use a term to fit a genre; it should be obvious on its own. Also, a term usually comes about after a genre is established, simply because there is nothing to describe until it is established. Given this, the genre obviously was in place prior to use of the term, yet even I would be challenged to actually choose a start point for the genre. One point to agree with not beginning the genre in the 19th century is that they were using current and speculative technologies to consider what-if not what many consider outdated or bypassed technologies. Overall, what I see is a distinct and enduring disagreement with no clear answer. If you read my earlier essay about the development of Steampunk and cultures in general, then you will see part of why I find it unlikely a clear and accurate designation of when it began is possible.

on a side note – I missed yesterday due to husband’s birthday and plan an extra project tomorrow to fill, we shall see.