Steampunk Ruskin

By Sara L. Maurer

William Morris Mask
William Morris inspired mask

Any calls for reflection on Ruskin and the contemporary moment are for me routed through Bruce Sterling, the science fiction writer and design theorist most well-known to Victorianists for having co-authored with William Gibson the neo-Victorian counterfactual steampunk romp, The Difference Engine in 1990.  In a first-year seminar I teach on Victorian steampunk literature, we read an abridgement of Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic” alongside a brief speech by Bruce Sterling entitled “The User’s Guide to Steampunk.” His brief characterization of Ruskin in that speech grows more vivid to me with every reading.

For Sterling, Ruskin, whose antiquarianism launched the Arts and Crafts movement’s renaissance of design, is a direct analog for the steampunk movement, with its preoccupation with the aesthetics of the obsolete.  Cogs and gears and steam pistons are to Sterling’s steampunk audience, he suggests, what vegetative cathedral carvings and Venetian glass once were to Ruskin. Sterling directs his audience that On the Nature of the Gothic is a “manifesto” to be read “with great care,” but “everything Ruskin says in that essay is wrong.”  Sterling argues that Ruskin errs by insisting on a clear binary between the handmade and the industrially produced that simply can’t be maintained in a digital age.  The technologies steampunk cosplayers use to participate in their craft take them far from the hand-wrought realm of Ruskin’s imagined cathedral workmen.  The liberty of the steampunk is the liberty not of the lowly Gothic sculptor, Sterling argues, but of the art historical Ruskin himself.  What steampunks share with Ruskin is that both live in a “technological society. When we trifle in our sly Gothic, grave-robbing fashion with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech.”

To read Ruskin, for Sterling, is to prepare for the inevitability of obsolescence. It is simultaneously the entrepreneurial canniness of the Business School, vigilantly searching out the next big thing, and the fundamental metaphysical truth of the Divinity School, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  A clockwork ray-gun hand-made for Comic Con and an architectural essay by Ruskin together teach us that:

Stretching your self-definition will help you when, in later life, you are forced to become something your parents could not even imagine. This is a likely fate for you. Your parents were born in the 20th century. Soon their 20th century world will seem even deader, weirder and more remote than the 19th. The 19th-century world was crude, limited and clanky, but the 20th-century world is calamitously unsustainable. I would advise you to get used to thinking of all your tools, toys and possessions as weird oddities destined for the recycle bin. Imagine starting all over with radically different material surroundings. Get used to that idea.

It is ludicrous and genuinely painful to arrive at the logical conclusion of this comparison in a year of pandemic.  I must look at my surroundings with the seriousness of Ruskin’s historicizing eye and the curiosity of a speculative writer trying to world build out of the minimum number of concrete details that can give a solidity to science fiction. The mask I hold in my hand is both already a piece of evidence for a history textbook someone will write sixty years hence, and a good prop for a Dr. Who-style plot set on a strange planet called the early 21st century.

I think of the tables of snack trays and napkins and coffee urns characteristic of in-person conferences. I think of my rust-belt town’s summer art festivals and outdoor performances that we didn’t have this year and the way the local politicians shake your hands at the St. Patrick’s Day parade but did not this year. I think of the surreal and neatly tiled zoom department meetings I’ve attended this year, the cheerful and ominous green arrows now stuck on the floors of campus buildings, reminding us which way is the safest to walk. I read the signage on the drugstore’s front door declaring that as of July 20, 2020, all customers are required to wear masks in order to enter. Every time I open that door I remember July 20, 2020 was the day an indispensable member of my own family died of COVID-19.

In past years I have read Sterling’s essay as future-oriented, a good reading for reminding the students that a vocationally oriented education isn’t the only one they need, because the future will change what vocations even mean. But this year I also read in his essay the painfulness of that same truth. We do not get to choose our paths because everything that makes up that path is subject to change. The steampunk crafting a costume for an occasion that doesn’t exist outside of their own fiction is the steampunk denied a deep sense of connection to a world of permanence. I find comfort in Bruce Sterling’s sense of playfulness, his optimism that just because we have to make it all up in a world, as he puts it, “ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses,” doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun trying to survive. But on this 202nd birthday of John Ruskin I also find myself honoring with deep understanding the pessimism and melancholia that underpinned Ruskin’s drive to hold on to the past.