Thursday, June 26, 2008


Could this be the new counterculture? Someone born before 1970, help me out, here. I'm too young to have known the last one.

They call it steampunk, an aesthetic and a subculture "that simultaneously embraces burlap and iPhones." Whatever it is, I kind of like it.

This more-than-retro computer keyboard first caught my eye.

Then this video showing the artist who created it making a companion flatscreen in similar Victorian fashion. Call me crazy, but that's artistry. That's craftsmanship. That's a $300 Dell monitor with brass fittings and a marble stand!

Maybe this is just the new Creative Anachronism, a twist on something we've seen before. Folks who just like being different, camping out in every sense of the phrase.

We like different. No real complaints there.

But where the medieval times and civil war reenactors typically chose to stay "in character," at least for scheduled events, these steampunk folks seem to pick and choose what they like from both current and their preferred eras, blending them into a full time style of life.

There looks to be some selective rejection of the trappings of consumer culture here, a positive trend. Some effort to exert a little control over the forms. There is some nostalgia here, too, although none of these people can be old enough to have real memories of mechanical typewriters or telegraph machines. So is the nostalgia more basic, a yearning for an analog, push button, personal touch technology that has somehow been buried in decades of molded plastic?

I find this an appealing aesthetic in the way the movies Dune and the more recent Golden Compass married the steam-engine and digital worldviews. It adds a sense of solidity to everyday items we've come to see as disposable. In this sense, I think it reflects a similar impulse to the one driving the "slow movement" of organic farming and sustainable living.

Although my interests in falconry, coursing, cooking, writing, gardening, acoustic music, etc., predate my recognition of these activities as possibly "nostalgic," I can now see that as part of their satisfaction. But they are all also contemporary and living forms of art; they are not merely affectations.

Like this steampunk aesthetic, if I read it right, these hobbies and pursuits are manifestations of an appreciation for real life, tactile and lasting, wherever you find it.


Dan & Margaret said...

Whoever they are, they owe a debt to Terry Gilliam's Brazil... and his set designer, Nancy Haigh and the art department. I've seen that keyboard before- several months ago- maybe on Eolake Stobblehouse's blog. I thought it was going to be a production item..?

Steve Bodio said...

Check out Brass Googles blog for excellent Steampunk stuff including actual objects like jewelry.

Steve Bodio said...

Uhh.. that's GOGGLES :-)

Matt Mullenix said...

Well, hell. I'm always the last to know about these things...

dr. hypercube said...

Matt - many thoughts on the topic, but I think we're well past the point of anything that can even be represented as a single counterculture (the 60's/70's version was a million different things too, but was sold to the mainstream as the DFHs). Too many people pursuing their own muse - and talking to each other about it w/ unprecedented ease - a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

Hare-Brain Expressers - Datamancer is producing keyboards a la Von Slatt.

All - my favorite, for sheer imagination/wackiness/beauty is the RSS telegraph sounder - it'll clack newsfeeds to you. Halfway through Steampunk - it's added new authors to my watch list.

Matt Mullenix said...

Truly I must be riding the culture caboose.

Doc H., PLEASE expound, either here or at MNH.

Nightmare said...

I was a goth. (FWIW, scary is part of the appeal of goth culture, it was always entertaining to see if people would bother to penetrate the 'scary' or if they'd just write you off immediately.) I don't think it's so much nostalgia as an aesthetic appeal, it's ornate and handmade, not sterile and perfectly manufactured like so many things now, it's not plastic and shiny. It also defies simple definition, it's adaptable, there is no definite list of Stuff You Like if you're into steampunk. Goth works the same way, despite the impression of the straights; I was far more likely to listen to Metallica than the Cure, for instance, but that was okay. Pretty much all 'counter culture' works that way. Unfortunately the straights always have to define any sort of group or movement, they like lists and simple definitions. Easy definitions make things shallow and superficial. I live completely off-grid and that immediately makes me either an aging hippy treehugger or a religious right survivalist to many people, the ones who want to be able to tell what kind of person you are without having to think about it.

A $1500 keyboard is a bit spendy for me though I REALLY like the one with the hex keys, very cool.

Matt Mullenix said...

Nightmare, many thanks for your note. I didn't make the steampunk/goth connection but I see there could be some similar aspects.

You think we're straights here? :-)

Nightmare said...

I don't read no straight blogs ;) Well, not many, anyways.