Newsletter Spring 2017

From Kant to Steampunk: A Recent Graduate Reflects upon Her IDSVA Journey

Dr. Kathe Hicks Albrecht
Cohort ’11

We gathered together in New York City on January 14, 2017, a vibrant assortment of individuals, a mix of intellectually curious artists and philosophers. With graduates and faculty in academic robes and guests in celebratory finery, the JP Morgan Library’s Gilder Lehrman Hall served as an impressive backdrop. I had been to that jewel-box of an auditorium just a few times before, as a new and uncertain IDSVA student attending earlier graduation ceremonies. And now, how wonderful to be in that moment in time as a Massumian concrescence of events placed me on the stage, addressing an audience of fellow students, family members, and members of the New York arts community. I found myself, successful dissertation in hand, being ‘hooded’ by George Smith, applauded by all, and awarded the Ted Coons Dissertation Prize for outstanding dissertation.

I have always been interested in the intersection between art and popular culture: low art versus high art, craft versus fine art. The distinction often seems arbitrary and artificial. Several years ago, I spotted my first roving band of steampunk artists while strolling with my son Alex through the trade floor at the San Diego Comic-Con. I was struck by their confidence as they strutted through the crowds, greeting passersby, posing for an occasional photograph. The do-it-yourself features of their creative personas (a low art aspect), the echoes of the Victorian (corsets and top hats), and their obvious interest in science and technology (ray-guns, cameras, and butterfly catchers as part of their elaborate costuming), all piqued my interest immediately.

Two members of the performance group Acrojou in the ‘wheelhouse.’ The performances express steampunk’s dual interest in Victorian aesthetics and retro-futurism. Photo by Kathe Albrecht

Two members of the performance group Acrojou in the ‘wheelhouse.’ The performances express steampunk’s dual interest in Victorian aesthetics and retro-futurism. Photo by Kathe Albrecht

That day marked the beginning of my exploration of steampunk as a fascinating marker of the contemporary world. My dissertation, The Machine Anxieties of Steampunk: Contemporary Philosophy, Neo-Victorian Aesthetics, and Futurism, examines the movement as a significant contemporary expression of the human condition. I find that steampunk evokes a conflicted sensibility of optimism and trepidation for the future and that it challenges the space between low and high art, art and popular culture. Although its aesthetic inspiration comes from the Victorian past, steampunk’s underlying interest is in a speculative view of the future as this historic inspiration is re-tooled, re-imagined, and re-energized for the twenty-first century. As such the steampunk movement participates in, and contributes to, an important ongoing philosophical and aesthetic dialog concerning the contemporary individual’s struggle to retain autonomy in a de-centered, de-territorialized world

Molly Friedrich's Mechanical Womb with Clockwork Fetus expresses steampunk’s conflicted sensibility— trepidation about the future of humankind countered by optimism about its possibilities. Photo by Kathe Albrecht

Molly Friedrich's Mechanical Womb with Clockwork Fetus expresses steampunk’s conflicted sensibility— trepidation about the future of humankind countered by optimism about its possibilities. Photo by Kathe Albrecht

That philosophical dialog thrives at IDSVA. In fact, it is unique in crafting and nurturing an environment for such conversation among students and faculty. We labor over Kant’s careful considerations of freedom and the will of Man, and Hegel’s concept of the Master/Slave dialectic. We discuss at great length Neitzsche’s declaration that God is Dead and explore Foucault’s fascinating analysis of ordering systems or epistemes—from prison wards to the State. Heidegger’s Dasein, Levinas’ expression of the ethical foundation of our relationship with the other (‘ethics as the first philosophy’), and so many other significant concepts and ideas challenge and inspire us. IDSVA’s academically rigorous curriculum covers 2,500 years of philosophical thought and enables us to contribute to that discussion, first through the dissertation and then through our own work in the larger community. We learn to keep our minds open to new viewpoints and ideas from our colleagues and teachers while striving to think differently about the world around us in order to broaden the scope of discussion. By trusting the core curriculum, as daunting as it sometimes feels, and leaning on our fellow travelers by nurturing vibrant study groups within our student cohort, we establish a significant platform for philosophical discussion throughout the program. IDSVA’s encouraging and egalitarian space for learning is ours, but we must make it work for us as we earn our spot at the philosophers’ table.

As we each take our turn on the stage, and graduate with a newly-minted doctorate in hand, we become IDSVA’s best asset. When we move into the larger cultural, academic, and commercial arenas, we will attest to the vibrancy of the program through our own contributions to the philosophical and aesthetic conversation. Now that I have taken my walk across the stage, I look forward to continuing my intellectual journey and to learning about my fellow students’ individual paths across that stage and beyond.