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“Steampunk Practices: Time, Tactility, and a Racial Politics of Touch”

Version of Record: Sundén, Jenny (2014). Steampunk practices: Time, tactility, and a racial politics of touch. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.5. doi:10.7264/N3BP0128

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Jenny Sundén
Södertörn University

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Sara met me at the train station. Dressed in black, well-tailored clothing inspired by the turn of the last century. At the house in the Swedish countryside, I got a quick tour. Upstairs a sewing room with mannequins and big closets, a four-poster bed with parts of the latest LARP (live action role-playing) project all spread out. Downstairs the living room with all kinds of flea market finds, among them an old gramophone. The conversation circled around the allure of steampunk. For Sara, it has to do with a passion for alternate history and do-it-yourself practices. “Steampunk is very forgiving”, she said, “there’s not just one way of doing it. You can bend it, make things up, fantasize.” For her husband Pierre, steampunk is a relatively abstract attribute that can be added to other things, but the specific combinations are important, so that “it feels and tastes steampunk.” Steampunk needs to be in touch with the era of steam-powered technologies, they argued, and the materials and fabrics need to have the right “feel”. It is difficult to put brass, cogs and cogwheels next to plastic and rubber and still call it steampunk. This is something I’ve heard repeatedly since; “it needs to have the right feel.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 6 Steampunk has been defined in a multitude of ways, some of which point at the impossible mission of defining that which defies definition, something that is hybrid to the bone (Bowser and Croxall, 2010). 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. If 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, 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.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 Apart from being fascinating to some in and of itself, steampunk has cultural implications that reach beyond its subcultural borders. First of all, it provides an interesting example of how contemporary popular culture is increasingly turned not so much toward the future, but rather toward the past. If aesthetic technological cultures of the 1990s, such as cyberpunk, were all about futurity and worlds to come, this has come to change quite radically. Such temporal shifts are evident in various vintage and retro cultures – such as neo-burlesque, the re-vamped 1950s housewife and her cupcakery, as well as within the femme movement and its queer, vintage femininities. These turns toward the past in a present tense often have an engagement in the material, affective and tactile dimensions of previous eras, in an attempt to restore a sense of originality and magic supposedly lost in the uniformity of contemporary mass production. Secondly, on a more theoretical note, steampunk offers an intriguing set of configurations of temporality, affect, tactility, and materiality through models of both digital and analog technologies in the registers of, for example, gender, sexuality, and race.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 6 This article takes shape around the aesthetic technological practices of steampunk and their theoretical ramifications for feminist knowledge projects. It consists of three parts. First, I discuss anachrony, the Neo-Victorian impulse, and feminist ambivalence in fieldwork. Secondly, building on Laura Marks’ (2002) ‘haptic criticism’ and Elizabeth Freeman’s (2010) notion of ‘erotohistoriography,’ I concentrate on how steampunk offers a tactile, embodied understanding of the past, how playing with time in steampunk might feel. Central to this argument are the haptic qualities of the digital visual cultures of steampunk. Finally, I address the racial politics of touch and tactility, by turning to the significance of touching or being touched by a certain kind of imperialist subjectivity. This discussion includes Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) account of how white witnessing of slavery involves a particular opacity of feeling. What does it mean to touch, to feel, to wear the history of white, Victorian, bourgeois, imperialist femininity (and masculinity)? To whom is this a pleasurable experience? And how does it feel to be out of sync with such history in terms of race, or sexuality?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 5 Steampunk is a decidedly embodied, sensuous phenomenon in offering an understanding of history and imagination that uses the body and the senses as ways of knowing. Central to the importance of the affective value of 19th century materiality, and the insistence on how steampunk garments and technologies need to have the right ‘feel,’ is the sense of touch. As I will argue, steampunk seems to demand a tactile, or ‘haptic’ method. A framework dealing merely with steampunk as visual spectacle, or with the politics of representation, is not enough to capture the love for materials, fabrics, and objects in the movement. By focusing on modalities of touch in steampunk practices as well as in research, the article contributes to discussions of the senses and of sensation in general, and of touch in particular (see, for example, Classen, 2012; Paterson, 2007). Then again, if there is a tendency in cultural theory to think sensation (or affect, for that matter) as something universal and autonomous that short-circuits questions of signification, criticality, and politics, I will side with feminist thinkers who argue that there are certainly politics in sensation, in how things feel (cf. Ahmed, 2004; Manning, 2007; Papenburg and Zarzycka, 2013; Sedgwick, 2003). It seems important from a feminist point of view to look into how specific ways of touching and being touched are available to some and not others, and, importantly, how the sensation itself might change depending on the material specificity of bodies and their enfolding in time.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 5 This article is part of a larger research project entitled “Clockwork, Corsets, and Brass: The Politics and Dreams of Steampunk Cultures,” which through ethnographic fieldwork among makers, costumers and lifestylers explores notions of technology and embodiment in steampunk material culture. In doing so, it uses an understanding of materiality that takes into account not only the obvious physicality of steampunk materials, such as brass, leather, and tweed, but also the materiality of the virtual (cf. Sundén, 2003). Steampunk objects are often viewed and touched by the eyes, and not by the hand, or the skin, completely dependent on digital imaging and circulation of images online within the community. It is a project that follows the many incarnations of technologies and costumes, as the imaged-based and the physical aspects of the culture shuttle between and thereby highlighting the intricate relationships between virtuality and physicality, the digital and the analog in contemporary technological landscapes (cf. Sundén, forthcoming 2014). My work takes as its point of departure local gatherings and online communities of the emerging steampunk scene in Sweden. But given the intrinsic transnational quality of the movement, it also branches out to large conventions in the UK (The Asylum) and the US (SteamCon and the Steampunk World’s Fair), as well as to important cultural nodal points online, such as the ambitious fanzine Steampunk Magazine, as well as anti-racist, postcolonial steampunk blogs like Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana.

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Anachrony and feminist ambivalence

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 The term anachrony was used by Gérard Jenette (1980) to designate a non-chronological narrative order. To Jenette, there are two types of anachrony: analepsis, or flashback, and prolepsis, or flash-forward. In steampunk, anachrony functions as the baseline, through flashbacks as a manner of flashing-forward, a moving backwards through time, analepsis, as a way of entering prolepsis, of moving backwards into the future. A stepping forward based on a few steps back. From a feminist point of view, I cannot help but wonder, what does it mean to look back, or to move backwards, as a way of looking and moving forward? What does it mean to formulate feminist politics through analepsis as a way of thinking differently about the present as well as the future, as a way of entering a feminism of prolepsis?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 It is important to point out that steampunk communities hold plenty of ambivalence – a tension that often plays out between aesthetics and politics, or between romantic nostalgia and darker, more cynical criticism. In other words, it is a tension between ‘steam’ and ‘punk.’ Cory Gross (2007) traces two main differences in steampunk experience between a Vernian kitschy, nostalgic, whimsical Victoriana and a Wellsian, more decidedly political standpoint that does not shy away from a dirty, gritty street perspective. Jess Nevins (2008: 8), in turn, distinguishes between first and second generation steampunk literature, according to which the second generation (after The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in 1990) steampunk authors “changed steampunk from an argument to a style and a pose, even an affectation.” If previously, steampunk was “rebel[ling] against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quite like it)” (p. 10), it has since, according to Nevins, become an affective surface obsession, invested in merely fetishizing the paraphernalia of imaginative Victoriana.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 As a queer, feminist scholar of new media and technologies, my relation to contemporary steampunk cultures is one of deep ambivalence. It is a relation that holds fascination and attraction, but one that also involves plenty of discomfort and skepticism. I am forcefully drawn in, and simultaneously as powerfully provoked, perhaps even repelled. I am seduced by the strikingly beautiful machine aesthetics and the fetishistic laying bare of the under-workings of clockworks and fashion – cogs, cog wheels, hoop crinolines and corset boning. Machines turned inside out, their mechanics on the outside, extending bodies and minds in ways that put a decidedly mechanical spin on contemporary technologies. I am drawn to the playful, imaginative, affective, and tactile ways of relating to technology as well as to time. I am intrigued by the creative, thrifty Do-It-Yourself strategies and ethics. Steampunks have a way of modifying and punking digital technologies with steam, shifting their affective relationality, or of upcycling in junkyards and thrift stores, making use of what is already there, unique and beautiful if yet a bit rough and rusty around the edges. This imaginative play with time in a tactile register sometimes forms the basis of alternative politics in relation to the current technological condition, consisting of a critique of corporate expert cultures and of the plastic monotony of digital technologies through a revival of the mechanical, and the analog.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 At the same time, I am exceedingly disconcerted by the seemingly pervasive Neo-Victorian politeness and mannerism in steampunk costuming practices, by the endless lines of graceful, corseted ladies in extravagant dresses and, equally, the legions of well-mannered, suited gentlemen with pocket watches. On the website of The Victorian Steampunk Society (organizers of The Asylum in the UK, which is the largest steampunk event in Europe) they state: “We value good manners and polite conduct and try to encourage this by setting an example for others”. Victorian etiquette and good manners is a deeply gendered story, and one in which women had little room to maneuver independently of men. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (2000: 5) refers to Victorian manners in terms “psychic corseting” that separates off desire from social life: “These manifestations of Victorian fetishism in etiquette function as a metaphoric ‘chastity belt’, rigidly defining boundaries of social respectability and disciplining the performing self within these boundaries.” What follows is from my fieldnotes from the US convention Steamcon IV in Seattle, outlining an encounter with a man in his twenties invested in live action role-playing:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 We talked about Victorian manners and the (re)creation of gender roles from another era. He said that what you find in steampunk may read as sexism, but that women appear to enjoy it (the special treatment) too. He talked about the mannerism as a game played on front stage, but that all kinds of things may be going on back stage. I found myself feeling rather uncomfortable walking around with him and his gentleman manners. For example, he gestured to me to walk before him while entering the downward escalator. Such gestures always make me feel a distinct kind of feminist discomfort. But this was perhaps even worse, since it was so clearly part of the front stage game and I had little choice but to play along. To feel a little less uncomfortable, I asked him about a possible queer contingency in the community, at which point he said: “This is not about sexual preference, if that is the term, it’s about social manners.” This seemed to imply that things need to appear in certain ways, things such as gender, sexuality and manners, and that these ways display heterosexuality. But then again, the back stage area may perhaps be more fluid, or less well mannered.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 3 Even if there are critical discussions in steampunk around questions of, for example gender, sexuality, and race (which I will return to), these conversations rarely seem to cross those concerned with etiquette and manners, as if such matters could be easily separated. The dominating straightness and whiteness of the movement at fan conventions and other events make and shape the bodies of participants in certain ways, further adding to my unease in relation to the view of manners as something dislocated from, for example, gender and sexuality. With allusions to Victorian aesthetics (probably no matter how creatively altered or twisted or punked) come violent stories of the British Empire, exploration, exploitation, and colonial rule, of devastating inequalities and the dangerous working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. I am disturbed by the particular kind of time play which uses the ‘steam’ era as inspiration, but somehow manages to side-step the deep-seated racism, sexism, and homophobia of this time. It becomes particularly disturbing when playing with this time invests in the aesthetics alone, as if the aesthetics of adventurers, inventors, and explorers could be dislocated from the dirt, the violence, and the darker sides of Victoriana. Feminist ambivalence is certainly not a unique stance, but probably the very foundation of much feminist analysis and feminist critique. Nonetheless, I cannot help but being interested by these mixed affects in the face of a research project that holds as exciting political potentials as it brings political problems.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Jess Nevins’ (2008: 8) distinction between different strands or orientations in steampunk – one being a political argument set at street level, another being a steampunk of ornate surfaces with little or no ‘punk’ – resonates deeply with my own encounters and experiences with steampunk. And perhaps precisely for that reason, I need to ask, what if this distinction is an oversimplification? What if aesthetics and politics are not quite that easily separable? Could perhaps steampunk as style, as pose, and as ‘affectation’ hold important critical potentials? What if there are lessons to learn for oppositional politics in how things are felt? In contrast to Nevins, Bowser and Croxall (2010: 30) argue,

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 The subversive and radical components of steampunk aesthetics, which revise historical gender relationships, imperial relationships, and the relationships between man and machine may seem like a fantastical correction of a conservative period, but the top hats and corsets simultaneously indulge our desires to experience the period.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 The dress-up party, which from one vantage point may appear oppressive, might from a slightly different angle appear to invest in interesting ways of experiencing and sensing history, expressed as a desire to feel the past as it presses up against the body. Steampunk is an invitation of sorts to relate to history in strikingly tactile, material ways, quite different from the “don’t touch” modus of museums as well as from a cooler, more ‘objective’ scientific approach prevalent in much historical scholarship. In trafficking within the domain of alternate history, steampunk contains alternate ways of relating to history with consequences for how tactility can be used as a feminist method and mode of thinking.

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Tactile temporality

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 The material practices of makers and costumers in steampunk are dense with brass, wood, leather, velvet, silk, clockwork mechanisms and watch parts possible to touch, to hold, to wear. As Rebecca Onion (2008: 138-139) notes, “Steampunks seek less to recreate specific technologies of this time than to re-access what they see as the affective value of the material world of the nineteenth century.” In an interview with [Kristin], a costume historian and science fiction fan, she talked about her fascination with steampunk costuming, and in particular the tactile dimension:

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 I think that you can feel incredibly well-dressed in a pseudo-historic garment in a different way from what you do in modern clothes like jeans and t-shirt. The tactile sensation of a trailing dress or of a tailcoat and a top hat. A starched collar, white shirt and cufflinks. To be able to play with masculinity, not in a macho way, but more in a gentleman kind of way, hand-kissing the ladies and such, or to play with femininity but without showing skin. Or to be androgynous. Which becomes apparent if you’re not wearing feminine clothing in a time when men wore pants and women dresses. If you place your steampunk era to that time, that is.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2 There are several things at work in this passage, one of which is a particular feel of the past as it touches and shapes the body and its movements. Steampunk costuming practices are tangible modes of knowing a different time period, which here materialize as the tactile sensation of the trailing dress, or of a fitted tailcoat. This tactile relationship with the past is a form of touch, of feeling certain fabrics against the skin, but one that also incorporates a broader haptic register of kinesthetic dimensions of bodily positioning, weight, movement, as well as proprioception, the sense of bodily boundaries, of where the body ends. In contrast to seeing and hearing, touch has no singular sense organ to which it relates. The tactility of the silk, the lace, the velvet of the trailing dress and its stiff bodice is a matter of touching and being touched differently from the feel of loose-fitted cotton and tighter denim, it shifts how the body feels, and also how it moves. It appears to give the step of the dresser a certain swag (if nothing else, there is a lot of swagging at steampunk gatherings), and it highlights how the sense of touch is a manner of simultaneously touching and being touched which renders unclear the boundaries between subjects and objects.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 If steampunk has a decidedly haptic component in offering an understanding of history that uses the body and forms of embodiment as ways of knowing, this would then be one of the methodological keys for research on the material culture of steampunk. In other words, it seems to demand a haptic method, or, with Laura Marks (2000: xiii) terminology, a ‘haptic criticism’. Marks writes about haptic criticism in terms of writing that does not master its object, but brushes it, or almost touches it:

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 I try to move along the surface of the object, rather than attempting to penetrate or ‘interpret’ it, as criticism is usually supposed to do. […] [The point is] to maintain a robust flow between sensuous closeness and symbolic distance […] In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s thermostatic understanding of cultural distance, I offer haptic criticism as a way to ‘warm up’ our cultural tendency to take a distance.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 Drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Marks’ haptic criticism operates largely in the area of what she calls ‘haptic visuality.’ In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari (1980/1988) turn to art historian Alois Riegl and his distinction between optic and tactile forms of perception, contrasting long-distance vision (the optic) with close-range tactile vision (the haptic). They prefer the term haptic over tactile, since it does not create a contrary relation between two sensory modes, “but rather invites the assumption that the eye itself may fulfill this nonoptical function” (p. 492). In other words, there are tactile qualities in vision that involves a sense of touching with the eye. In his writing on the painter Francis Bacon, Deleuze (1981/2003) elaborates further on the notion of haptic and optic vision, and in particular as a relation between the hand and the eye. With Deleuze, the haptic is largely formulated in terms of closeness, but it also involves the action of the hand of the artist, the act of moving the brush across the canvas. Importantly, the haptic is not in opposition with the optic, but rather acknowledges sensory interdependence, marking a moment of variation or transition between hand and eye, modes of touching and modes of seeing.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 Marks (2002) draws on this terminology in her discussion of haptic images and ways of looking. Haptic images are images that viewers encounter simultaneously through the eyes and through the skin; they draw the viewer close and turn the eye into an organ of touch. If optical images call for distance and visual mastery, haptic images invite a caressing, stroking gaze that surrenders every attempt at control. Similar to the Deleuzian notion of transition and of locating in vision itself a sense of touch, Marks underlines that in most acts of looking both haptic and optic visuality are involved, consisting of a sliding scale, or a constant movement between the two. Steampunk culture can partly be understood as an aesthetic, and exist in its current form due to the possibility of creating and circulating images online. Some would define steampunk as nothing but an aesthetic, a look, or a style (Perschon, 2012). Touch in steampunk practices has a lot to do with concrete, physical materiality, with haptic perception. But the digital visual cultures of steampunk, consisting of an intense circulation of images in online communities, are rather about touching with the eyes, or haptic visuality. These images range from depictions of Neo-Victorian modifications of digital technologies – such as laptops retrofitted with copper keyboard, leather wrist pads, and glimmering brass accents – to the smoother qualities of steampunk costumes and fabrics, if yet starkly contrasted by the metal shapes of goggles and other gadgets.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 To Marks, haptic orientations in photography and film operate through proximity, intimacy, grain, texture, and close-ups in ways that make the eye touch, or brush the image. The digital visual cultures of steampunk appear to be the opposite of Marks’ haptic visuality in that they rather offer a kind of controlled and penetrating distance touching and viewing through high-resolution images with a clear investment in details. But rather than merely being images that invite optical vision, as Marks would have it, I suggest that the sharpness of these images, the level of details that make up their surfaces, invite a different kind of haptic pictorial relationship. Rather than having the poetic graininess and suggestive characters of Marks’ haptic images, tempting the viewer to almost brush her bodily surface up against the surface of the images, the haptic quality of digital steampunk images are rather connected to how Deleuze discusses the manual and the action of the hand.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 4 These are objects – technologies, costumes, art – that are often made by hand, which leaves traces of manual work and manipulation of materials. The handmade (and the hand-altered or modified) is the very foundation of Do-It-Yourself movements like steampunk, often used as a critique of mass production by mechanical hands. Even if these images are characterized by visual distance in a domain of optic visuality, which according to Marks “is being refitted as a virtual epistemology for the digital age”, the objects displayed convey a manual closeness of sorts. If the artificiality of mass production of objects and images characteristic of the late industrial, digital age inserts distance between subject and object, viewer and image, digital image practices in steampunk may present something of a counterpoint to this tendency through its engagement with unique objects and by imaging objects of manual production. The quality, circulation and use of steampunk images and imagery thus call for a reconsideration of the digital as something that might invite haptic relationality in the midst of optic vision. In other words, images that invite controlled distance looking may not necessarily discriminate against or exclude a sensuous feel for what these images depict.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 3 A different, yet intimately related haptic method can be found in Elizabeth Freeman’s (2010: 93) way of writing about queer historiography as an embodied way of knowing history, “a tactile relationship to a collective past, one not simply performative or citational but physical and even erotic”. She terms this tactile, temporal relationality ‘erotohistoriography’. Freeman shows how erotohistoriography is a method with a history of its own – referencing the late 18th century discussion of historical method through the male capacity for sensibility – which figures as a repressed constituent of historical scholarship itself. As such, erotohistoriography offers a counterhistory of sorts, a mode of accessing and sensing history through the body which recuperates a historical relationality which in interesting ways predates the turn to a colder, more distanced and objective scientific stance in the Victorian era. She says:

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Erotohistoriography is distinct from the desire for a fully present past, a restoration of bygone times. Erotohistoriography does not write the lost object into the present so much as encounter it already in the present, by treating the present itself as hybrid. And it uses the body as a tool to effect, figure, or perform that encounter. Erotohistoriography admits that contact with historical materials can be precipitated by particular bodily dispositions, and that these connections may elicit bodily responses, even pleasurable ones, that are themselves a form of understanding. It sees the body as a method, and historical consciousness as something intimately involved with historical sensations. (Freeman, 2010: 95-96).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 3 As opposed to the contemporary practice of historical re-enactment and its involvement in notions of authenticity and accuracy (“the desire for a fully present past, a restoration of bygone times”), steampunks are rather historical re-imaginators with a more playful attitude to the technologies and materialities of late 19th century, interested in creating a particular feel of ‘the could have been’ of this era. Freeman’s erotohistoriography speaks to the impulse in steampunk of desiring the past as a manner of approaching the instability and hybridity of the present, as well as of taking pleasure in bodily encounters with history. In using the body as method, erotohistorigraphy is not so much a moving backwards through time in an attempt to leave the present behind, but rather of embodying an encounter between different and overlapping temporalities, something that is at the very core of steampunk costuming practices.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 4 The tactility of the past is, in the above quote from [Kristin], also intimately entangled with a play with gender through time, alluding to what Freeman terms ‘temporal drag’. Temporal drag is an embodied performance or experience of anachrony, a visceral, tangible pull of the past that puts pressure on and questions the seeming radicality of the present and the future. If queer theory has had a tendency to be oriented toward the future as that which holds the most promise, even while turning to the past in an attempt at rescuing queer subjects (as Heather Love (2007) has it in Feeling Backward), this is an attempt to explore the excess of historical signification,of for example camp, or butch-femme, or male impersonation, and drag as something primarily temporal, as something that shuttles through time. The androgynous gentleman drag with its tailcoat, top hat, and white starched collar is both cross-dressing within a Victorian framework of sorts, but also and perhaps primarily a crossing through time that plays a certain kind of Victorian masculinity up against a female body in the present, creating a particular kind of temporal queerness. It brings to mind acts of male impersonation in the Victorian music hall context, as well as Neo-Victorian adaptations of such performances (like in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet). To wear trousers as a woman within the bounds of time play with an era when this was highly unusual has a radical edge to it, but one that becomes considerably softened when read in and with the present.

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A racial politics of touch

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 Steampunk costumes are time-travelling devices in so far as they provide a feeling of, for example, femininity out of sync, through a syncopated interplay between bodies and temporal orders. Then again, this begs anew the questions: What does it mean to touch, to feel, to wear the history of white, Victorian, bourgeois, imperialist femininity? For whom is this a pleasurable experience? And how does it feel to be out of sync with such history in terms of race, or class, or sexuality? If erotohistoriography recognizes that contact with historical materials can be triggered by “particular bodily dispositions”, what would it mean to be dis-positioned in a certain way – and not another? Whose late 19th century is available for steampunky time play? And what about other modes of embodying history, such as pain, grief, loss, trauma, or melancholia? Or, as Freeman (2010: 129-130) puts it, “Is claiming pleasure for historiography a queer act that nevertheless recapitulates the […] erasure of a specifically black social time, or repeats its disavowal of the founding violence so often enacted upon people of color in the name of white pleasures?”

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 This is from the blogger Tiffany at the blog “Truly Sophisticat”, self-presenting as half Cambodian, half Chinese:

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 But of course, any sort of fashion that glorifies colonialism is going to have some disrespectful and racist portrayals. Don’t get me wrong I love the aesthetic. Beautiful, well crafted items that are useful is totally what steampunk is about. But I don’t want to completely ignore my heritage and history. I feel like a traitor every time I put on a corset, or wear lace gloves. Do I really want to put on a costume that represents the people that have completely exploited and fetishized my ancestors?

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 3 Steampunk practices craft bodies through a range of mechanical industrial technologies that completely build on the bodies of workers and the bodies of slaves – the slave trade being the very foundation of British capitalism, the driving force of the machines of industrialization. Touching the other in steampunk is not touching the skin of the other as much as touching that which the other has touched. This is a form of touch that operates within a machinery of Victorian materiality, of something that with Anne McClintock (1995: 15) could be discussed in terms of neocolonial nostalgia (for an era when white, European women found freedom in empire) and imperialist fetishism. McClintock puts forth how the Victorian middle-class had an especially intense investment in a ritualistic and fetishistic upholding of boundaries. She looks in particular at soap, cleaning rituals, and the white clothes of the colonials, which is an argument that quite easily extends itself to the abundance of gloves, parasols, and hats that dress many women in steampunk, thick with allusions to practices of keeping white skin white and the dirt out. “I feel like a traitor every time I put on a corset, or wear lace gloves.”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 3 In her analysis of 1950s vintage and queer femininity within the femme movement, Ulrika Dahl (2013) performs a similar argument. Dahl focuses on ways of embodying historical feeling through garments and proposes intimate links between the feeling of vintage, whiteness and imperialist nostalgia. She argues that the feeling of vintage as nostalgia is tied to a particular white, bourgeois imaginary of the past, a longing for a past with ‘better’ values in ways that overshadow the racist and heterosexist orders on which they build. The white-gloved raised fist is a contested symbol of femme union, and while “it can point to the strength of femininity, it also serves as a reminder of a second skin, the preciousness of whiteness and colonialist and racialized order” (15). Even if the femme movement is an explicitly queer phenomenon in ways that steampunk movements are not (even if steampunk houses plenty of queer, feminist potentials, as well as gathering non-straight steampunks in subcultures within the subculture), this argument has a lot of resonance with the love of historic fashion in steampunk. This is a love for sustainable garments with “the right feel”, a longing for a past in which technologies and clothes were meant to last which often sidesteps the political dimensions of embodying history.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 1 Thinking touch also means thinking the skin as a social, cultural, and political boundary. There is an important doubleness in the notion of ‘being touched’, which in and through the same gesture holds sensation as much as it does cultural implication and complication. Touch is a sensory mode, a medium, or a form of communication, travelling between nerve endings oriented toward temperature, pressure, pleasure, and pain. At the same time, in being a mode of communication, touch holds receptivity, expression, sometimes empathy. It can bring people and objects close, into proximity, but it can also push them apart. Within steampunk cultures, it seems possible for most participants to stay with sensation, to not ask questions of what it means to touch and be touched in certain ways, and how the sensation itself might shift, depending on the specificity of bodies, fabrics, and histories. Drawing on Terry Eagleton’s (1990) understanding of the aesthetic as an intricate ideological term with the potential to press upon bodies and relationships in coercive, hegemonic or emancipatory ways respectively, Jennifer Fischer (1997: 167-168) uses these modalities of power to approach the politics of touch:

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 There is a politics inherent in how touch is enacted and perceived. Coercive deployments of touch typically rely on the pain end of the pleasure-pain continuum – e.g., the incontrovertible effects of force or torture. In turn, tactile hegemony would pertain to how we ought to touch – social conventions of touching or not touching – whether firmly shaking hands or refraining from touching one’s genitals in public. And finally, emancipatory touch encompass a range of touch-generated epistemological ‘shocks’ that, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, fracture habits of rationality to enable other kinds of knowledge: those becomings of touch such as the coup de feu kiss or the spontaneous healing.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 2 In thinking about the politics of touch in steampunk practices, it is clear that these encompass coercive and hegemonic modalities, but also potentially more emancipatory modes. First, coercive deployments of touch in steampunk are symbolically linked to slavery, pain, and torture. In her powerful book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman (1997) explores the complicated and slippery feelings of empathy, a particular ‘opacity of feeling’ in attempts of white subjects to feel for, or with, or even as, the captive body of the slave other. Hartman discusses the philosopher Ian Rankin, who describes the evil of slavery in a letter to his slave-holding brother. In an effort to bring slavery close, to facilitate identification in ways that would convert his brother, Rankin narrates a scenario in which himself, his wife and child are enslaved, which enables him “to speak not only for, but literally in the place of the enslaved” (p.18). He does so in ways that make him start feeling for himself rather than for those he intended to reach. Hartman asks,

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Can the white witness of the spectacle of suffering affirm black sentience only by feeling for himself? […] Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make suffering visible and intelligible.” (p. 19).

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 3 Hartman attributes the illusive quality of black suffering to a racist optics “in which black flesh itself is identified as the source of opacity” (p. 20). Such opacity of feeling seems to be operating quite intensely in steampunk by obliterating the black bodies underpinning the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, or by letting these bodies function merely as a sentimental resource. I often encounter the notion among white steampunks that the Industrial Revolution in general – and the Victorian era in particular – was “pretty great”. There is certainly an awareness of “difficult issues”, and simultaneously a conscious move away from these to instead “focus on the nice bits, the fantasy version.” If the pain of slave others is what lies beneath the steampunk fantasy, this is omitted from view if the feelings and questions of race and racism can neither be reached, nor touched. In Hartman’s line of reasoning, this racist optics make a haptic relationship to race and racism impossible from the point of view of white subjectivity, since its object, the suffering of black bodies, is unreachable and ultimately slips away. The only haptic relationship the white body can create is by turning around on and feel for itself.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 4 Secondly, in a return to Fischer’s reading of Eagleton, in terms of tactile hegemony and social conventions of touching or not touching, there is of course a lot to say within a (Neo)Victorian framework of etiquette characterized by tactile restraint. In Victorian etiquette manuals, too much touch is seen as suspicious (Gagné, 2011). But within the context of knowledge production, the question of social conventions of touch in steampunk cultures may perhaps also be thought of in terms of how one, as a participatory researcher, ought to be touched. There is pressure to feel pleasure in steampunk, and one might also be pressed to please. It is a coming together of a community around the mutual love for the materiality, tactility, and pleasurable sensation of a reimagined past. What if the researcher herself does not feel it, or feel it quite differently? Steampunk holds some obvious, if yet subtle, queer potentials (think ruffle shirts and Oscar Wilde, or female explorers and aviators á la Amelia Earhart, even if she is early 20th century). And yet, I often find myself at conventions and other gatherings feeling very much out of place, a bodily discomfort that partly has to do with a sense of having one’s own queerness lost in translation. But it is also a temporal discomfort, a pull of the past, of the trailing dress that to me holds little liberation, but rather is something that wears me down and weighs me down. Ultimately I end up feeling more trapped than anything else by the technological trappings of Victorian femininity. In fact, it seems that it is precisely when I move close and let the materialities of steampunk touch and shape me that sets off a feminist criticism that operates in a register of optical, or visual distance. Contrary to the understanding of touch as something that creates proximity, there seems to be instances in which touch itself creates distance, and in this case, feminist ambivalence.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 4 Finally, I would like to turn to Fischer’s emancipatory touch and possible tactile becomings. If a re-colonial politics of touch in steampunk is primarily a form of touch that incorporate violation against multiple others within the movement, what would an emancipatory politics of touch look or feel like? Or as the US-based postcolonial steampunk blogger Jaymee Goh puts it, “How do we take the trappings of the enemy and use it against them without simply assimilating into the imperialist’s culture?” If steampunk is tactile to the core, and if it has enough punk attitude of taking control over the means of technological production, would it then not be possible to craft other bodies and other modes of touching and getting in touch with history, other histories and ways of connecting in and with the past? In emphasizing steampunk stories and performances outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework, the postcolonial steampunk blogs Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana are certainly evidence in this direction. The voices of Jaymee Goh and Ayleen the Pacemaker (Diana Pho) in these blogs keep insisting on alternate alternate history, that are as much part of the ‘steam’ era as the dominant narratives that in a celebratory mode circle around Victorian England. To bring other stories to the table is to show what was there all along, not by anew forgetting how slavery is underpinning Victorian fantasy, but rather by moving through the heart of its presence, and in doing so crafting other bodies, facilitating other kinds of touch. One stroke of genius in this genre is the creative work that takes shape under the term ‘steamfunk’, which brilliantly shifts the engagement from the whiteness and straightness (in terms of rhythms and perhaps also otherwise) of ‘punk’, to the blackness and syncopated rhythms of funk. Balogun Ojetade’s blog “Chronicles of Harriet: Steamfunk, Steampunk, Sword and Soul” takes shape in the intersection of African and African American culture and steampunk philosophy and fiction as an expression of blackness within the movement. Steamfunk is about changing the pace of steampunk, making room for and creating black bodies as not merely a rhythmic supplement, but as being part of the baseline in fundamental ways.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0  

Touch as method

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 1 This article has been concerned with contemporary steampunk cultures, tactile time play and the political implications of such temporal tactility in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. I have explored the feminist potentials in ‘thinking with’ steampunk practices and objects, and in particular as a manner of outlining a method of touch. This method involved tactile, or haptic perception, but also aspects of haptic visuality in taking into account the tactile qualities of steampunk images in digital venues. Touch is intrinsically relational, and as such builds on models of inter-embodiment. To touch is also a matter of being touched in ways that make and shape subjects and objects in and through their in-betweenness and inter-relatedness. Even if touch is usually understood in terms of proximity (as with Marks’ haptic visuality), in bringing subjects and objects close, I have also discussed how touch as a medium and a mode of communication can as easily create distance. Touch is clearly not always about gently brushing, or stroking. It can be violent, it can inflict pain well beyond every pleasure principle, but it can also move along a more subtle scale of discomfort and awkwardness.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 2 Departing from the tactile dimensions of steampunk practices, I suggested that there might be something useful for oppositional politics in how things are felt. If there is a dividing line in steampunk cultures between those who emphasize aesthetics and the affective qualities of Victorian materiality, and those who rather focus on the political potentials in thinking the present through a re-imagined past, I explored how touch may operate as something that mediates between aesthetics and politics. In other words, the feel of an object, such as a garment, does not reside in the object itself, but in the relation between bodies, surfaces, and materials. Claudia Castañeda (2001) suggests that touch can be understood as a form of encounter between bodies that do not necessarily take human form. If the technologies of Victorian femininity – such as hoop skirts and corsets – are thought of as part of such an inter-corporeal encounter, then how it feels to be touched and shaped by such technologies depends on the specificity and differentiation of the bodies involved. What is at stake is a coming together of technologies, fabrics, and bodies of the past as these are pressed up against bodies in the present. To be pressed against a particular past will play out quite differently depending on the type of bodies that this past presses upon.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 This is not to say that the ways in which bodies are differentiated by gender, sexuality, or race precede the encounter in any simple way. Difference is not in and of the body, but comes into play quite concretely in encounters that, for example, produce particular modes of touch. “I feel like a traitor every time I put on a corset, or wear lace gloves.” To feel like a traitor, in this particular quote, referred to a betrayal in temporal, colonial terms, to an act of wearing the clothes of the colonizer that in and through the feel of deceit marked the body as colonized. “I feel like a traitor every time I put on a corset” could as easily refer to my own ethnographic experiences of queer, feminist ambivalence in fieldwork. With Freeman’s queer, temporal drag, the supposedly radical nature of the present is questioned through embodied experiences of anachrony. The pull of the past has, as Freeman has it, a potential of putting pressure on the present. On the other hand, if that pull drags you backward through time in ways that seem to erase generations of feminist work, rather than questioning the present, the sensation shifts.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 In their introduction to Thinking Through the Skin, Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey (2001: 1) similarly call for “a skin-tight politics” with both phenomenological and political sensibilities. They suggest a manner of thinking through closeness or nearness of others, “but a nearness that involves distanciation and difference.” To think through the skin then is “a thinking that attends not only to the sensuality of being-with-others, but also to the ethical implications of the impossibility of inhabiting the other’s skin” (p. 7). The method of touch outlined in this article plays out in the midst of a related logic. It is a method that explores the affective and temporal dimensions of closeness to materials, fabrics, and images (through the notions of ‘haptic criticism’ and ‘erotohistoriography’). At the same time, it is a method that investigates the political and ethical implications of such closeness, bringing into the discussion the politics of sensation and “the impossibility of inhabiting the other’s skin.” For what does it mean to wear the ‘skin’ of the Victorians? Or more importantly, how does it feel? As such, it is a method that does not primarily shuttle between closeness and distance (as is often the case with methods), but which rather shows how closeness itself may hold distance through bodily difference and differentiation.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0  

Bibliography

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52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Ahmed, S. and Stacey, J. (eds.) (2001) ‘Introduction: Dermographies’, in Ahmed, S. and Stacey, J. (eds.) Thinking Through the Skin, London: Routledge, pp. 1-18.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Bowser, R. and Croxall, B. (2010) ‘Introduction: Industrial Evolution’, Neo-Victorian Studies, 3:1, pp. 1-45.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Castañeda, C. (2001) ‘The Future of Touch’, in Ahmed, S. and Stacey, J. (eds.) Thinking Through the Skin, London: Routledge, pp. 223-236.

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56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Dahl, U. (2013) ‘White Gloves, Feminist Fists: Race, Nation, and The Feeling of ‘Vintage’ in Femme Movements’, Gender, Place & Culture, published online: July 3, 2013. DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2013.810598.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1980/1988) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translation by Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press.

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59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Eagleton, T. (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Blackwell.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Fischer, J. (1997) ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetics’, Parachute 87 (Summer), pp. 4-11.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Foster, G. A. (2000) Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Freeman, E. (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Gagné, A. M. (2011) Touching Bodies/Bodies Touching: The Ethics of Touch in Victorian Literature (1860-1900), Ph.D. thesis, School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: The University of Western Ontario.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 Gross, C. (2007) ‘Varieties of Steampunk Experience’, Steampunk Magazine 1, pp. 60-63.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Hartman, S. (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Gérard J. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Love, H. (2007) Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 Manning, E. (2007) Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Marks, L. (2002) Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 McClintock, A. (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, London: Routledge.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Nevins, J. (2008) ‘Introduction: The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk’, In VanderMeer, A and VanderMeer, J. (eds.) Steampunk, San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Publications.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 Onion, R. (2008) ‘Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice’, Neo-Victorian Studies, 1:1, pp. 138–163.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 Paasonen, S. (2011) Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Papenburg, B. and Zarzycka, M. (eds.) (2013) Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics, London: I.B. Tauris.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 Paterson, M. (2007) The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies, Oxford: Berg.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Perschon, M. (2012) The Steampunk Aesthetic: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture, Ph.D. thesis, Office of Interdisciplinary Studies: University of Alberta.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Sedgwick, E. K. (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 Sundén, J. (2003) Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment, New York: Peter Lang.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Sundén, J. (forthcoming, 2014) ‘Technologies of Feeling: Affect between the Analog and the Digital’ in Hillis, K., Paasonen, S. and Petit, M. (eds.) Networked Affect, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Source: http://adareview.fembotcollective.org/ada-issue-5-queer-feminist-media-praxis/steampunk-practices-time-tactility-and-a-racial-politics-of-touch/