Steampunk Shamanism & Cultural Appropriation

It’s come to my attention that my recent post on the magic and mysticism of steampunk is causing some controversy on Facebook and Tumblr, and a few people have stopped by to share their thoughts and ask questions (albeit pretty sarcastic, rhetorical questions) that I’ve tried my best to answer in the comment thread.

I wanted to take some time to highlight that now, and to share my own thoughts about cultural (mis)appropriation and syncretism, particularly as it pertains to steampunk.

To begin with, I feel like I’ve stepped on a hornets nest of controversy that was there before I even arrived on the scene, and now I’m getting stung. In retrospect, though, this is no excuse — the ground is just the kind that might shelter a hornets nest, and I should have been watching my steps more closely to make sure I wasn’t treading thoughtlessly and causing harm. So I want to begin with an apology to anyone who has felt personally offended or hurt by my post. Please know that it wasn’t intentional.

From what I can gather, the steampunk aesthetic already has a reputation among some for being appropriative of other cultures. I am, admittedly, not actually very big on the steampunk scene, and so I wasn’t aware of this reputation. But like I said, that’s no excuse for insensitivity — I’m thankful for this opportunity to learn and think more deeply about this particular aesthetic and all its many implications. I hope that those of you who have arrived here angry or offended will have some patience with me as I explore where I was coming from when I wrote my original post, and where my thoughts have led me since.

When I wrote “The Gears of Chance,” I was thinking of steampunk primarily as a way of reclaiming an imagined future-past in which many of the mistakes of the industrial revolution and the Western addiction to oil (including not only the ecological and environmental damage, but also the imperialism and colonialism that the industrial revolution helped to make possible) were mitigated and circumvented, and creative alternatives like steam and wind power were captured by the inventive genius of skilled explorers and intellectuals. That, to me, was the “steam” part of steampunk — an ecological response of imaginative and sacred ambivalence to modern industrial culture, in which we acknowledge the advances we’ve made while still regretting (and, through fantasy and invention, try to explore alternatives to) the damages those advances have caused.

The “punk” part of steampunk was, for me, a concern for social justice that subverted the rigid social norms of class and gender found in the Victorian and Edwardian eras of European history. Modern steampunk’s creative blending and combination of historically “upper class” and “working class” clothing and style subverted the strict class distinctions that were enforced at the time. A similar approach to stereotypically male and female styles to create deliberately ambiguous or transgendered aesthetics in modern steampunk was a form of ritual “deep play” (in the postmodern sense), exploring the fluidity and complexity of gender and subverting the strict polarity that separated men and women in Europe for hundreds of years. (The Victorian era, especially, is known for its prudish sexual repression, particularly directed at women.) By playing with and intentionally subverting the social norms of the past regarding class and gender, I saw steampunk as deeply concerned with social justice in the same way it was concerned with ecological responsibility and sustainability.

But that’s not to say that steampunk doesn’t embody a certain ambivalence of its own. This is best captured in my favorite modern steampunk novel, Lev AC Rosen’s All Men of Genius, in which an upper-class girl dresses up as a man in order to trick her way into a renowned scientific academy. Rosen’s novel deals deftly with all of the social conflict and ambivalence of the Victorian and Edwardian historical periods that steampunk draws on for its aesthetic, and challenges the assumption of man’s control over nature even while celebrating the creativity and inventiveness of scientific study and technological innovation.

It was in this spirit, as a Pagan and animist who holds deep reverence for the natural world and appreciates the ambiguous role of science that gives us both appreciative insight into and destructive power-over that world, that I wrote about the “steampunk shaman.” Shamans and trance-workers in many cultures around the world and throughout history have occupied a liminal place in their communities, challenging social norms through their spiritual work. In many cultures, the shaman was one who suffered a particular illness or deformity, and that sickness was a sign of the shaman’s power and the place they occupied, a manifestation that they were already partly attuned to the spirit world. Shamans, ecstatics and mystics in many religious traditions have sometimes dressed in clothing of the opposite gender (or gone partially or fully unclothed), undermining community expectations about the rigidity of gender and sexuality. Shamans all over the world communicate with the spirits of plants, animals, landscapes and the elements through ritual, trance-work and other forms of ecstasy (including sometimes the use of entheogens), for the benefit of their community. In the steampunk aesthetic and its emphasis on skilled invention and creative genius, I saw a similar appreciation for the techniques of working with the material world and its living spirits in ways that could transform society, but which remained respectful of the natural world and its raw elemental power. The use of fetishes (objects of power that connect us to the natural world and the artifacts of our own culture) is a natural extension of a religious perspective that sees the physical world as imbued with spirit.

None of this, to me, is cultural misappropriation. Shamanism has arisen in many diverse forms all over the world even among cultures that have had no direct contact with one another. My theory is that steampunk is one such example of a new, emergent form of shamanism indigenous to modern Western culture, which is uniquely adapted to handle the ambiguities and uncertainties of a modern, industrialized society seeking a reconnection with the natural world. Although the word “shaman” can be controversial, most people no longer use it to mean only the traditions of ancient Siberia, but instead to refer to any similar role or function in the many different cultural contexts all over the world and throughout history. In this case, the role I wanted to explore and articulate was best described with the word “shaman.” (I considered using “priestess” or “mage,” but neither of those words capture the specific role of the shaman or trance-healer as a liminal presence in the community who mitigates between this world and the spirit world.)

I want to make myself very clear: Although I appreciate the vital role of respect and appreciation for cultural context, I do not believe that any one culture “owns” shamanism, any more than I think any one culture “owns” religion, or science, or soccer. I do not support the belief that white people should be prevented from exploring and developing their own culturally-appropriate and contextualized form of shamanism simply because they are white.

That said, the question of cultural misappropriation is still a very big deal in the steampunk aesthetic, for one very obvious reason that I overlooked in my last article. And that is: it draws on eras of European history that were themselves deeply colonial and appropriative. Some of the defining features of the Victorian and Edwardian aesthetic were their incorporation of cultural artifacts from the indigenous peoples they conquered and colonized. Compounded by inventions that allowed for greater communication, globalization and technological progress, they were times when social justice often took a backseat to exploitation and consumerism (much like today, in fact) — and this included the “consumption” of aesthetically appealing aspects of other cultures without respect or regard for their meaning or context.

As Jaymee Goh pointed out on Twitter:

To recognize the heinous colonialism of the VIctorian era within steampunk requires respect for indigenous peoples. Steampunk is not rooted in European history, but in alternate history. Hence we expect greater sensitivity of such issues.

Jaymee (who writes a blog devoted to deconstructing narratives of colonialism and imperialism within steampunk) is absolutely right and calls attention to the very important fact that steampunk is alternative history, not history itself. Yet by drawing on these historical eras, steampunk evokes the ghost of colonialism and cultural insensitivity that are still very active in haunting us today, and we have to be very clear in dealing with those ghosts if we are to move forward with mutual respect and understanding. Jaymee probably assumes, because I am a white Westerner, that I am insensitive to the issues of continued cultural misappropriation and oppression directed against indigenous peoples — and she has no reason, based on reading only a single post of mine, to think otherwise. I don’t fault her for that. If anything, it goes to show just how important cultural context is, and how we can have misunderstandings and disagreements even among people who are all working for the same cause of social justice.

I think that steampunk — as a punk-aesthetic that deliberately seeks to confront and undermine social injustices — can handle (and work to redress) the inheritance of European colonialism in a healthy and respectful way. But it can only do so if people like me, who talk and write about the steampunk aesthetic, are careful to acknowledge the harm that has been done in the past by white European colonialism and cultural misappropriation. I failed to do that in my last article, which was a mystic-mythopoetic exploration rather than a cultural analysis of the steampunk trend. For that, I deeply apologize, and I hope that some of what I’ve written here helps to clarify my position.

Steampunk isn’t going away any time soon. It speaks to a deep ambivalence that many of us hold about the modern, industrialized cultures that we live in — societies in which computer technology seems each year to get more obscure and esoteric, in which skill and creativity are treated as less important than fame and wealth, in which ecological damage and environmental destruction persist despite our vast scientific knowledge about how the ecosystems of the world work and our own role in that destruction, and in which strict gender and class norms are often subtly (or not so subtly) reinforced even in the same breath as we congratulate ourselves on our diversity and tolerance. Steampunk looks back to the historical roots of modern culture in the generations before the first world war, picking at old scars and still open wounds, exploring what went wrong and what we might have done differently. It is absolutely vital that we engage in that process, even in the face of ghosts we would rather leave undisturbed.

The shaman, in all cultures, is the person who stands on that threshold of time and space, who enters the world of spirits and strange creatures, who has dealings with the ghosts of the restless dead, who seeks after the soul-shards that have been torn off and left behind through past trauma — and he or she does that work in order to restore the community to health and wholeness. I think that steampunk can open the door to this kind of sacred work. If we are careful, and respectful, and undertake that work with love.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

1 Comment

  1. Tori
    Nov 13, 2015

    loved this page, im into wicca and other spiritual paths as well as steampunk so to stumble upon your page by chance was a miracle ty Tori Treadaway please check out my page on Facebook […]

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