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Tinkering with Victorian History

2013 October 21

By Roger Whitson, Washington State University

Paolo Bacigalupi’s steampunk novel The Wind-Up Girl imagines a world where the loss of fossil fuels and electricity has completely transformed the politics of our planet and brought about a second industrial age.[i] The strange new Victorian-styled machines populating this world rely on human and animal caloric expenditure enhanced by a complicated system of springs to maximize the output. Technology is completely redesigned to function appropriately, with combustion-engines reserved for the extremely rich. Bacigalupi’s novel has many problems, foremost among them is its reliance on orientalist tropes to drive the plot, but the novel also demonstrates how the tinkering and design practices of steampunk can shape a world threatened by global warming and fuel shortages. Yet it also explores how capitalist forms of tinkering culture also depend upon harsh working conditions, racism, child and animal labor, and automation while reinforcing class privilege and social hierarchy. Bacigalupi’s world-building appeals to Victorian tropes as a way of imagining a possible future, one that I feel should challenge Victorian scholars to stop thinking of themselves as simply curators of the past and start envisioning how they may impact the future.

Steampunk fans construct anachronistic objects to apply what Jussi Parikka calls “quirky ideas” to mainstream accounts of Victorian history.[ii] Steampunk narratives run the gamut from alternative histories with advanced technology to futures that integrate Victorian fashion and fantasy worlds featuring Victorian technology. Yet many of them also situate their vision of the Victorian period through things, thereby encouraging their fans to intervene in the fandom by constructing their own objects. The notion of a constructed object performing a critical intervention is supported by the emerging scholarly fields of critical making and digital fabrication, which also encourage the production of objects as a form of communication. Matt Ratto and Robert Ree argue that “[p]hysical space and objects are expressions of their making and are ultimately manifestations of ideologies, so the act of creating alternative or personalized instantiations of those things is to engage with those ideologies, whether conscious or not.”[iii] Cody Wilson of the libertarian group Defense Distributed forcefully underlined this ideological engagement when he used a three-dimensional printer to construct a homemade gun. In an interview with Ratto and Steve Paikin, Wilson called his gun “a competing vision of the future” that illustrated how new manufacturing techniques could challenge existing laws, like background checks and licensing, that depended upon industrial modes of firearm production.[iv]

The made objects produced by steampunk are doubly-interesting because they construct competing visions of Victorian material culture. These objects constitute what I have identified elsewhere as alternative or alt-historicism: the acknowledgement that, in Trevor Owens’s terminology, the past is “contingent” rather than inevitable.[v] The past could have happened in any of a number of different ways, and steampunk invites us to consider what could happen if objects, people, and environments interact in slightly different ways.  For example, Paul St George’s 2009 Telectroscope installation, which was the subject of a recent JVC roundtable, combined Victorian fantasies about technology with webcams to explore how the nineteenth century might have reacted to transatlantic video conferencing. To create the installation, St George constructed two objects “37 feet long by 11 feet tall” that looked like “antique telescope[s]” connected to “huge brass dome[s].”[vi]

Charlotte Gilhooly, “Telectroscope, London.” Flicker (May 22, 2008).

Charlotte Gilhooly, “Telectroscope, London.” Flicker (May 22, 2008). Image is under a Creative Commons Attribution and Share Alike license.

The telectroscope was originally conceived as a prototype by Jan Szczepanik and Ludwig Kleiberg, in which telegraph lines would be used to transmit pictures. Johannes Horowitz, who wrote an article about the device for The New York Times in 1898, calls it “Szczepanik’s Weird Machine” that “is causing a very considerable sensation in the scientific world.”[vii] In fact, Szczepanik anticipates some of the more recent advances in network telecommunications by claiming the device could transmit a facsimile of a Vienna newspaper to Berlin “literally before the printer’s ink was dry.”

Szczepanik never completed anything that would substantiate his claims. St George’s artistic intervention, therefore, materializes a history that never existed in which the telectroscope allowed visual communication between London and New York. He does this by integrating more modern technology, the webcam, into an edifice that remains entrenched in Victorian design. Not only does this resurrect dead or forgotten technologies, what Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka call “Zombie Media,” it also creates an alternate history materialized through the object.[viii] People read about the electroscope in 1898, but now they could also look through it. This kind of tactile interaction with a non-existent history helps to “suspend disbelief about change,” which for steampunk author Bruce Sterling, defines a new genre of object or design fiction.[ix] The object forms a basis for the material diegesis of alternative-history, giving viewers tactile confirmation of the non-existent.

It is also important to uncover just who is participating in the construction of steampunk object narratives. Back in 2010, Charlie Stross accused the steampunk genre for romancing empire and totalitarianism. He argued that we needed more Dickensian steampunk narratives, which would reflect the social challenges of the Victorian period by depicting “the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage.”[x] This dystopian vision is just one suggestion Stross offers, but it underscores for me the importance of steampunk objects situated by the social conditions of Victorian life. Inasmuch as steampunk objects challenge the traditional periodization of Victorian history, Victorian scholars should conversely complicate the often orientalist, sexist, and classicist fantasies of steampunk fans that are embedded in their gadgets with the conditions that Victorians actually faced. Some culturally-minded steampunk fans, like JVC’s own Lisa Hager and Beyond Victoriana’s Diana Pho, have started this project with online and textual scholarship.[xi] Still, we need more politically-informed steampunk interventions into critical making and design fiction by nineteenth-century scholars willing to get their hands dirty and start tinkering with the past.


[i] Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (San Francisco: Night Shade, 2009).

[ii] Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge: UK: Polity, 2012), p. 2.

[iii] Matt Ratto and Robert Ree, “The Materialization of Digital Information and the Digital Economy.” (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, 21 August 2013). p. 13.

[iv] ‘3-D Printing: A Killer App,’ Interview, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, June 16, 2013.

[v] Trevor Owens, “Playing Pastwatch 1: Fracturing the Inevitability of the Past,” playthepast. (2011) < http://www.playthepast.org/?p=1752> [accessed 22 August 2013]

[vi] Paul St George, The Telectroscope – 2009: London, New York, and the World. (2010) < http://www.telectroscope.net/> [accessed 22 August 2013]

[vii] Johannes Horowitz, “That New Telectroscope,” The New York Times, 03 April 1898, p. 22.

[viii] Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Zombie Media,” Leonardo-journal, 45.5 (2012), 424-430.

[ix] Torie Bosch, “Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design Fiction,” Slate (2013) < http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/
2012/03/02/bruce_sterling_on_design_fictions_.html> [accessed 22 August 2013] (para. 3 of 10)

[x] Charlie Stross, “The Hard Edge of Empire,” Charlie’s Diary (2010) < http://www.antipope.org/charlie/
blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html> [accessed 22 August 2013] (para. 7 of 8)

[xi] Lisa Hager, “Steampunk and the Academy; or it really is a clockwork universe, my dear Victorianists,” Journal of Victorian Culture Online (2012) <http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2011/09/12/steampunk-and-the-academy/>;
Lisa Hager, “Queer Cogs: Steampunk, Gender Identity, and Sexuality,” Tor.com (2012) <http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/10/steampunk-gender-sexuality>;
Diana Pho, “Steamfunk and Rococoa: A Black Victorian Fantasy,” Beyond Victoriana (2013) <http://beyondvictoriana.com/2013/05/14/steamfunk-rococoa-a-black-victorian-fantasy/>;
“Dragon*Con Preview: Politics and Fashion with Alt. History Track Guest, Ay-Leen the Peacemaker,” (2012) <http://www.steampunkchronicle.com/ArticleView/tabid/238/ArticleId/310/Dragon-Con-Preview-Politics-and-Fashion-with-Alt-History-Track-Guest-Ay-Leen-the-Peacemaker-Pt-1.aspx>


Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor of English and Digital Technology and Culture at Washington State University. Most recently, he is the author (with Jason Whittaker) of William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge 2012). He is currently working on a book theorizing steampunk within emergent practices of critical making and alt-history. You may find his blog at http://www.rogerwhitson.net, and you can follow him on Twitter @rogerwhitson.

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