Today we welcome Ay-leen the Peacemaker, aka Diana M. Pho.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Diana M. Pho) is a fandom scholar, activist, blogger, and general rabble-rouser. She edits the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana. In May 2012, she earned her MA in Performance Studies from New York University and works for Tor Books & Tor.com. You can also find her on Academia.edu and Twitter.
What Do You Do with an MA in Steampunk?
by Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Diana M. Pho)
After four years of college, with plenty of knowledge in what a well-known musical has termed a “useless” degree (though, technically, more than in English – I double-majored with Russian), I arrived at the classic Quarter-Life Crisis. I’d been in the Real World, yet was second-guessing myself. Was my career path where I wanted it to be? Was this where I envisioned myself when I left my alma mater? Compared to my peers, after the economy died, I was lucky: working in publishing at a secure job with solid prospects. But something since undergrad came into my life that had reminded me how much I missed academia. Steampunk.
Last year, then, I embarked on my own intellectual pursuits and enrolled in the Master’s Performance Studies Program at New York University (but what is performance studies, you may ask? Read this for your best answer, trust me.) What I conducted was cultural analysis behind steampunk performances – from steamsonas & cosplay to musical albums to plays to Maker objects and art pieces. I was known as the “Steampunk Expert” by my cohort mates, which wasn’t an unusual moniker to have considering that my colleagues included stage actors, dance company directors, a practicing shaman, several Occupiers, and an African princess.
I’m not the only academic into steam, either. Mike Perschon’s steampunk pursuit of a Ph.D in Literature was one of the inspirations for my return to school. Jaymee Goh, my intellectual comrade-in-arms, was already in an MA program before me, and she’s now in a Ph.D program at UC Riverside. Dr. Dru Pagliassotti and Cory Gross’s early analysis about steampunk helped me focus my own ideas, and others like Dr. Catherine Siemann, Martha Swetzoff, James Carrott, and Austin Sirkin have all served as sounding boards and mentors. According to Academia.edu, there is a growing interest in steampunk scholarship.
Most importantly, though, academic presses are seeking steampunk too. The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies has also done articles on steampunk and dedicated a special issue on it; the guest editors for that issue, Dr. Brian Croxall, and Dr. Rachel Bower just closed a call for papers for a proposed anthology. Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style and Steaming into a Victorian Future are two anthologies that have graciously accepted my work; in a “publish or perish” realm of the academy, this is pretty good for a fresh MA grad.
But why steampunk and why now?
Please indulge my little theory. Renown theorist and anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted in 1980 what he termed “the reconfiguration of social thought.” Namely, he thought that instead of analyzing the world as a series of “texts” (The book! The website! The film! The “details” of a particular incident existing solely by itself) or as a series of “social dramas” (The event! The ritual! The “bigger situation” that a text may be found in), scholarly analysis is breaking down to mingle both methods. Geertz argues that scholars are looking at more than texts, but the context of that text. In other words, “a division between those who study individual texts (historians, editors, critics–who like to call themselves humanists), and those who study the activity of creating texts in general (linguists, psychologists, ethnographers–who like to call themselves scientists),”[i] does not exist anymore. Thus, basically, humanists, scientists, and artists are gleefully playing in the same sandbox.
Geertz’s observations were made more than 30 years ago, and yes, academic thinking has evolved to become more interdisciplinary. Steampunk, which covers everything in the Academy plus the kitchen sink, fits in with this development in philology.
Steampunk enables “brainy” factions to co-exist in harmony, sitting together like the lunchtime cafeteria table you wished you had in high school. The hard sciences in physics, engineering, and robotics beside colleagues in the literature and history without resorting to fisticuffs. The musicians, artists, fashion designers, and indie filmmakers flit between the tables, and the other two groups are inspired by them instead of waving them off as being the shallow or impractical fields. Then there’s the occasional anthropologist or media studies professor or sociology documentarian hovering around the borders of the room, shooting their latest series of talking heads for their own cultural analysis. Steampunk represents so much to so many, because it acts as an umbrella for so many other intellectual pursuits.
In addition, the breakdown of the any sort of dominant “master narrative” – whether it be in pop culture, media technology, or social thought – is one of the pillars of post-modernism today. Fredric Jameson once critiqued post-modernism as being a mish-mash of empty gestures that do not parody, satire, or do anything beyond shallow entertainment: borrowing for the sake of borrowing without any deeper meaning.[ii]
Instead of casting off the cultural trends as being meaningless, however, I believe today’s blending of signs and symbols is a philosophical – and materialistic – bending of our place in time. Our mish-mash has meaning. Time itself is a human invention, and unilateral time is a modern Western concept. Despite the popularity of heritage brands, past scientific techniques and inventions – even the cut of our clothes and a renewed appreciation of our localized histories – we are not simply “going back to the past.” Instead, we are letting the past resurface, filtering through the glory and the debris through out actions and our creations. We are twisting time to suit our needs. We are re-materializing bits of our pasts, piece-meal, through the cultural objects we create and the ideas we can revitalize.
Critics occasionally accuse scholars of over-intellectualing frivolous notions or ephemeral cultural trends. I don’t think it is overanalyzing, though, when I say that steampunk scholars are interpreting the signposts. The idea of genre-blurring is becoming more prevalent now than ever before; moreover, however, in today’s world, this blurring is part of an inevitable transition away from the old structural formations within modern society. Steampunk may be casually summed up as “retrofuturistic science fiction” but the ability to fantasize is necessary to create ideas about the future. As cultural theorist Lauren Berlant summed up in her recent work Cruel Optimism: “…the energy that generates this sustaining commitment to the world of undoing a world while making one requires fantasy….”[iii]
Scholars contribute just as much as any other person involved in the steampunk community, but more than just acting as thinkers. The steampunk scholar has to be a doer.
Steampunk is a verb now, (or, rather, has always been), and I stand by that to emphasize that an academic in steampunk is typically more than just an academic stuck in the ivory tower. They are also on the ground, interacting: socially, creatively, emotionally, and physically, as well as intellectually.
But the practical (for steampunk and the real world is partially rooted in the utilitarian) question remains: what do you do with an MA in steampunk?
Anything you can imagine, I suppose.
~Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Diana M. Pho)Founding Editor of BeyondVictoriana.com A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk
[i] Clifford Geertz. “Blurring genre: on reconfiguring social thought,” HyperGeertz. http://hypergeertz.jku.at/GeertzTexts/Blurred_Genres.htm. Accessed: October 21, 2012.
[ii] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992),17.
[iii] Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 263.