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  • The Arts and Crafts Movement, Steampunk, and Community
  • Martin Danahay (bio)

A comparison of the Arts and Crafts movement and steampunk,1 aesthetic movements that are separated by history but that have much in common, highlights the limitations of the term community as defined solely in terms of physical proximity. Both the Arts and Crafts movement and steampunk comprise networks that link participants at a distance. Steampunk groups in particular are almost completely virtual and would at first seem to have little in common with utopian communities inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. However, applying the term discourse community2 to both groups brings into focus the continuities and differences between these two movements, both of which are based on handcrafted objects as a means of protesting contemporary modes of mass production and envision a return to an earlier time. Indeed, the medieval period was a touchstone for the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Victorian era is an inspiration for steampunk.3

The Arts and Crafts movement, influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, rejected industrialized manufacturing and emphasized a return to small-scale production of handcrafted objects.4 The most influential of [End Page 40] Ruskin’s works was The Stones of Venice (1851–53), with the chapter on “The Nature of Gothic” being the most widely read (and now anthologized) chapter.5 Ruskin assailed industrialized production that in his view turned men’s bodies into extensions of machines:

Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves.


The workman’s body in Ruskin’s account was literally sacrificed to the machine so that the working classes were “sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them [was] given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line” (163). Following Ruskin, members of the Arts and Crafts movement saw their promotion of handcrafted objects as both the rejection of industrialized mass production and the promotion of humane conditions of labour.

Similarly, many practitioners and theorists of steampunk reject contemporary industrial production. In his “Steampunk Manifesto,” Professor Calamity articulates (with a few spelling errors) a similar rejection of contemporary technology:

First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology…. It revels in the reality of technology, its very beingness as oppossed [sic] the over analytical abstractness of cybernetics. Steam technology is the difference between the nerd and the mad scientist. Steampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of alogorythmic [sic] mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind. The progedy [sic] of sweat, blood, tears and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural, it moves, lives, ages and even dies.

Superficially, this statement seems to assert human values as opposed to the “analytical abstractness” of computer technology in the same way that Ruskin previously rejected industrial production. However, whereas Ruskin rejected the turning of workers into machines, this statement humanizes steam power and makes it into a “breathing, coughing” animate technology. In an instance of historical irony, this statement of steampunk principles romanticizes the very cogs that Ruskin rejected and opposes them to the sleek, minimalist surfaces of contemporary cybernetic technology Rebecca Onion has discussed this “fetishization” of “cogs, springs, sprockets and wheels” in steampunk: adorning contemporary technology with cogs and wheels is [End Page 41] one of the signature modifications of contemporary technology in steam-punk (139). Where Ruskin saw cogs as dehumanizing, Professor Calamity celebrates them as signs of a more humane and accessible technology.

Steampunk adherents emphasize a “do-it-yourself” (diy) ethos and fashion their own objects, just as members of the Arts and Crafts movement promoted handicraft. Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall argue that steampunk is characterized by modifications of technology by committed practitioners who refashion...


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pp. 40-46
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