Class In Session

Good morning, mesdames et messieurs. I do hope that this night finds you well and, at this time, likely asleep.

An interesting thought that has been bouncing around within my skull of late has been one of classism: then and now. Everyone acknowledges the Victorian period one in which classism was rampant, strong, the way of life. There are occasional comments that in this modern world classism has nearly been defeated or destroyed or some-such but I find that this is not so, and others agree very loudly. With this in mind let us take a comparative look, shall we?

Yes indeed, the Victorian period was one of societal and economic classes. There were the lower, the middle and the upper classes. Additionally one could be in a ‘class’ based on employment particularly if it was familial/generational in nature. The rules were rigid but were also fairly well defined and this is an advantage that we do not currently enjoy. I did indeed say ‘enjoy’ and if you read the rest of this examination then you may see the sense of it, or I may just be misguided and in need of further education.

To get this particular burr out of the way being a woman was nearly as much a class as it was a gender. The Victorian period still saw women as person within the family unit who ran the home, raised the children and handled many of the social and economic responsibilities of the family. Within the upper class the role of women was somewhat broader. During this period more women were accepted into the working population but only in certain areas of employ.

Within nearly every class most jobs were almost perceived as hereditary. If your father was a clerk or a smith, a merchant or a machinist, a carriage painter or a mason it was oft expected that the son [usually the firstborn but often more than one] would enter the same or a related field. Apprenticeship, sometimes within the family, was often a way of life and on the passing of one’s father the son could and often did inherit the family business. The expectation was to have a life slightly better, slightly more comfortable than one’s parents. A member of the lower class would expect to remain in that class, working as a chimney sweep or a household servant as did his father before him. There was some movement among employments but there was nearly as much progression in a generational manner.

There were two or three easy ways to shift to a couple of positions that were both within the class system and outside of it: the military, the priesthood or through higher education.

Within the military there were two classes: those with commissions [the officers, usually drawn from the gentry] and the non-commissioned [your fighting man or soldier, and certain low levels of officers]. The allure of the military, particularly for the lower classes, was that it offered consistent access to food and a roof of some sort over one’s head as well as a possible pension if one lived out his term.

The priesthood did not have a recognizable class structure but advancement and access to perks was based as much on politics and social connections as the movement within any other class. During the Victorian period, however, it was not the sole source of education.

Universities grew remarkably during this time period and were taken advantage of by certain peoples which both created new members of the middle and upper classes as well as allowing people who knew how the system worked to shift their own position upwards; one very excellent example is the explosion of Scottish engineers during the Victorian age.

And knowing the system? Ah, here we come to the advantage. When there is a set of established and acknowledged rules then there are those who can find the little ways and means to skip around the system using these very rules and the loop holes that they do not completely cover or hide. There are many stories from the Victorian period of those of both genders who rose up in the ranks through fame or fortune, through the military or through education, or by learning the ‘rules’ and utilizing them. Of course it took risk and intelligence to even try and thus many did not, accepting their futures as their parents had before them.

And while everything I have said so far is true of periods preceding the Victorian it was during this particular age that the greatest movement happened, though even that was more an exception than a rule.

The Steampunk world truly takes this system and its advantages and spreads it wider and larger, introducing women adventurers and mechanics, spies and pilots and quite a number of ‘folk of humble means’ who became heroes.

Now let us examine the modern age. The classes still exist though in most parts of the world and very truly in North America the middle class has been nibbled away at until it is a slender portion of the population with a greater segment being defined as the upper class, to one extent or another, and a very large group now firmly ensconced in the lower class. Movement among the classes does still happen but it is more risky, more chaotic and a single person can rise and fall several times in their own life in a fairly easy manner, particularly in the falling.

The problem as I see it, and this is merely this writer’s own opinion, is that during the Victorian period each of the classes had their own rules, knew the rules of the other classes, and even if they were not written out [though in some cases some small publications did address these rules] they were there, they were accepted, and they were rather rigid. In our modern world it is really only the upper class that accepts that there are rules with the middle and lower classes rebelling through ignorance or denial. The rules are amorphous and poorly defined, subject to change usually at the whim of the upper class, and difficult to understand. Thus one can climb and claw upwards only to find that the cliff face has suddenly changed to a treacherous sheet of ice mid-scramble. It has become more of who you know and less of who you are, which is extremely evident when one compares the relative proportion of written contracts versus verbal/hand-shake agreements during the two periods and the pervasiveness of those employed in the legal fields in our current age versus those in Victorian times. Acceptance and trust have both lessened greatly though it’s a big of a ‘chicken and egg’ issue as to which came first, honestly. I think they’ve fed off each the other.

Like many other socio-political/economic topics that are focused on by various people and groups in the Steampunk community, such as gender roles [which I will touch on another day when my skin is thicker as I will no doubt be shouted loudly at], colonialism, imperialism, industrial advancements and other hot-button topics it must be noted that people do like to focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive and I feel, myself and personally, that while the opportunities of the Victorian class system were not often nor well used there were some very strong advantages over the class system of today.

That and, given the nature of man, a truly classless system is a utopian ideal which will never work nor occur. But that is a topic which is part of a greater discussion and best left for another time.

H.A. Higgins-Keith


The Politics of the Thing

Good evening, my dear readers.

And again I find that I must apologize for weeks between my scribblings. My life out in the world of weather and people keeps me far too busy but do know I think of you few frequently and wonder what shall I write of next. Today’s topic comes from a discussion I have watched avidly on Facebook, and one that I have seen dance through conversations often in the last few years.

It began with this video: Abney Park’s new “Steampunk Revolution”
And a question about a “Steampunk Revolution.” Does politics belong in the Steampunk culture? Do we need focus on the socio-political or economic?

Let us begin by looking initially at the history of political involvement of some related subcultures as mentioned by some folk in the Facebook discussion thread.

Very few “movements” or groups have focused on political discussion, change and action particularly through music while becoming an acknowledged and lasting self-identified subculture until the 20th century. Previous to this political movements did indeed begin small scale but they peaked swiftly and after the change was effected they generally disappeared into the new mainstream culture.

The first and most obvious was the Hippie movement of the 1960s. With an identifiable message, a fashion and aesthetic and even involving and heavily focused on music as the world changed so too did the members of the hippie culture until now, in our current ‘age’, many Hippies are now working for ‘the man’ if not having become ‘the man’ themselves. While the music [and you will notice I return to this particular area often] did receive some airplay it was primarily presented through live shows and concerts and never made it into the clubs of that period.

A more aggressive movement was the Punk scene of the 1970s which Steampunk is often compared to because of the misfortune of the label, even though both groups do share some similarities: primarily the DIY nature of the scenes, the individuality of the fashion aesthetic and the rejection of the modern world and romanticizing of an alternate way of living. Punk music did indeed make it into the clubs though at that time it was, again, primarily through live shows. Punk has changed with the metamorphosis of the socio-political world and what is Punk now is not what was Punk then. Punks main focus for change was extremely anarchistic and an anarchy-based system will not work in the real world.

Closer to Steampunk and somewhat of a gap-bridge between that and Punk is the Goth movement. Goth began in the 80s from a literary origin [something I find that many do not remember or know] in a small group setting reminiscent of the salons of the Victorian/Edwardian periods [and before] and moved slowly as a snowball rolling downhill gathering speed and size. While never PRIMARILY a socio-political movement there always has been a large amount of discussion about current world events and situations, though in the last decade that has dropped off in favour of dressing appropriately and clubbing relentlessly. The music of the Goth subculture has indeed moved into the clubs as well as, in some instances, mainstream radio, television and film, and it has become more a part of the mainstream culture than any similar preceding group.

There are, however, differences in the four I am looking at in this bit of writing. The Hippie and Punk movements WERE movements more so than any other form of social grouping with a strong political message and an expiry date. Goth has become a subculture with all the facets and factions this involves. Steampunk is an aesthetic, primarily, and while there are subcultural elements it has yet to reach that stage. Also remember that Steampunk, as a building force, is relatively young compared to those social groups that have come before.

Now, to approach this from another angle: that of the Victorian age itself. Many wonder why Steampunk is focused on Great Britain during this period. First, may I remind people, that the entire age WAS named after the Queen of this small island country. And while England was not alone in the empire building game, she was joined by Germany, Holland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia which are all countries primarily populated by Caucasians. Many forget about the expansion and empire building that was happening in Asia during this period but we in North America and Western Europe aren’t taught much of this during our history lessons in school. It is only natural, after all, that countries focus on their own demesne during the schooling of their young denizens. There was also a lot of change in all areas of life during the Victorian period: industry, politics, gender relations, race relations, religions, science, medicine, quality of life and on and on and on. And this change mostly revolved around Great Britain and Western Europe. The British Empire was the dominating force of the time, about where the United States of today is trying to be. Remember that the “Sun never set on the British Empire” and her influence spanned the entire globe.

For people of this area of the world, at this time, everything else WAS strange and exotic. Africa and South America still had unexplored vastness hidden in their core. The Asians had separated themselves from the non-Asians for centuries save small trade contact and thus they too were mysterious. Archaeology really gained steam during the Victorian era and so digging back into the past, exploring the unknown of the Middle East was also exotic and enticing. Ways of thought and lifestyle, approach to the world, this was all different from the Europeans and thus amazing and mystifying. And it still is today: most Asian cultures nurture an extremely different mindset and approach than does the Caucasian cultures. So why is this not still exotic now? Familiarity. During the 19th Century news traveled slowly and people even more so while in the present thanks to modern media and the internet information, ideas, pictures and huge chunks of life can flash around the world in parts of a second.

Socio-political discussion and movement, such as it is, has been tacked on to Steampunk by those who want it. Again, Steampunk is an aesthetic: it is an appearance, a feeling, a way of looking and creating. Yes, it can include a set of manners and mannerisms appropriate to the time period being romanticized. Indeed, it can involve a modern awareness of one’s personal approach to Steampunk. Surely, it can and does require a long and ongoing discussion as to what IS Steampunk which encompasses all the parts of our world including music and art, transportation and media, fashion and appearance and yes, also socio-political and economic discussion.

Does it need to? No more and likely less so than did Hippie and Punk and Goth. The wonder of Steampunk is that you can bring to it what you wish and take from it what you desire and if that includes discussion of a past and now gone social movement or similarities with today’s political milieu or how little our economic environment has changed then that is your bailiwick.

Personally, I read and enjoy the stories both historic and modern, I wear the clothing and admire the makers, I enjoy the toys and the entertainments but I have the mind and the approach of a modern gentleman, thank you, and wish for everyone to dance on a level dancefloor [and in my own small ways do what I am able to, to level out that dancefloor a tiny bit at a time]. Yes, I shall continue to point out parts of history that others seem to enjoy ignoring or glossing over and I do enjoy a rousing discussion but my only advice is this: find in Steampunk what you enjoy and enjoy it and if it’s not for you then do find a hobby or movement that stirs your passions.

Is there a Steampunk revolution? Do we need one? Well, all I can say is that I am grabbing my tophat and off to sit with friends over a drink and see where the discussion goes [which is ALWAYS to interesting lands no matter what the topic].

And as a little addendum I must note that I have known of very, very few non-Caucasian members of the Punk or Goth subcultures in North America. There are a few, but they are in a very tiny minority.

H.A. Higgins-Keith