by Dr. Kathe Hicks Albrecht, PhD ’17
Steampunk art finds itself at the intersection of nineteenth-century aesthetics and the technology of an imagined and distant future. How did I find this fascinating genre and end up writing about it for my doctoral dissertation? Soon after enrolling at IDSVA, I encountered Steampunk at the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge gathering of comic book fans, technology geeks, and entertainment industry insiders. Making my way across a crowded trade floor full of vendors, conference-goers, costumed characters from Marvel and other comic book publishers, anime, and the movies, I spotted a stalwart group of men and women striding confidently across the floor. Dressed in Victorian garb—the women in long velvet skirts, the men in waistcoats and top hats, the individuals were equipped with odd items such as butterfly nets, strange air guns, bottles of potions, and magnifying glasses hanging from their belts. The costumed individuals formed a phalanx as they strode through the crowds, pausing frequently for a photograph with eager fans. “Who ARE these people,” I wondered. I was told they were ‘steampunk’ and that they were into all things Victorian, that they felt that the nineteenth century had important connections with an imagined future. Steampunk proponents have a particular interest in time travel and a romanticized view of the potentialities of technology and the future. I was hooked! I wanted to understand why such an unlikely combination of tendencies held such broad appeal.
When I started to write about steampunk I found a drive toward individual subjectivity, a challenge to contemporary philosophical theories, and an odd tension between the technology-driven systems seen today and the basic human need for individual expression and autonomy. Steampunk quickly became the focus of my dissertation project, and subsequently the subject of my book, The Machine Anxieties of Steampunk: Contemporary Philosophy, Victorian Aesthetics, and the Future. Examining a triad of contemporary thought: postmodernism, posthumanism, and transhumanism, I weighed steampunk’s efforts against each and came to important conclusions about steampunk’s unique contributions to contemporary philosophical dialog. In steampunk’s anxieties about technology, I found connections to Jean-Francois Lyotard and his concerns about human software (our brains) and the possible need to find new and more permanent hardware (our bodies) in the future. I looked to postmodernism and the dissolution of individual subjectivity as forwarded by Fredric Jameson, and explored Martin Heidegger’s concerns about technology and its potential addictions. N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and many others added to the conversation brought to light by steampunk as we ask the question: what does it mean to be human today?
Studying at IDSVA places you in an environment of support for creative thinking, for searching out new avenues of inquiry. My lifelong interest in the nineteenth century, its art, its revolutionary scientific developments, its incredible literature, informed my work on steampunk art as I developed my thinking through the IDSVA curriculum. After the completion of my dissertation, I used connections I had from colleagues at American University and approached potential publishers. I did that with some confidence as my dissertation director felt strongly that I should publish the project. My first and most direct contact was with Bloomsbury Academic Press, and that proved successful. Although the process was adversely impacted by staff changes at the publisher, then Covid-19, and finally the global supply chain issues, I persevered and saw the book project through to publication in November 2021, proving that ‘it can be done!’ Best of luck to all our IDSVA authors. May your dissertations develop into books!