Steampunk Practices: Time, Tactility, and a Racial Politics of Touch
Steampunk has been defined in a multitude of ways. As a humorous riff on cyberpunk, steampunk was a tongue-in-cheek proposition in 1987 by the science fiction author K. W. Jeter as a name for his own literary production (along with James Blaylock and Tim Powers) in the area of Victorian fantasies, retro-futurism and alternate history. It started out as a contemporary science fiction subgenre, with roots back to Victorian science fiction of the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells variety. But it has also come to materialize and proliferate as a 21st century Do-It-Yourself subculture populated by tinkerers, ‘makers’, costumers, fashionistas, role-players, lifestylers, gamers, artists, performers, designers, writers, and activists. Steampunks gather in online communities and at fan conventions, in parlors and performance spaces, dressed in slightly distorted Neo-Victorian gear: top hats that hide or support technological gadgets, crinolines and corsets that leave part of the construction bare. Apart from being an interesting cultural phenomenon, steampunk provides an example of a tendency in contemporary popular culture to increasingly turn toward the past, as evident in various vintage and retro cultures, as well as in alternate history movements at large. In turning toward the past in a present tense, steampunks engage with the material, affective, and tactile dimensions of the late 19th century. In that sense, steampunk offers an intriguing set of configurations of temporality, sensation, tactility, and materiality in the registers of, for example, gender, sexuality, and race.
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