How a 19th-Century French author sparked an exhilarating subculture which is still catching steam.
“Science, my lad, has been built upon many errors; but they are errors which it was good to fall into, for they led to the truth.” ― Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
Technology destroys. It purges houses and trees to make room for factories, highways, and skyscrapers. It replaces human communication with texts, images, ones and zeros, bits and bytes. Such narratives are certainly commonplaces to us. But can something so violent, so hyper-masculine, something that reconstructs the human environment as we know it — can something like technology be beautiful?
Jules Verne, a groundbreaking French author of the 19th century, said yes. Criticized during his time for not being a writer of “real literary merit,” spat upon for churning out cheap, popular fictio; Verne is considered as a pivotal figure in the science fiction genre. Amid rapid industrialization across Europe, Verne somehow didn’t despise technology. He embraced its boundless possibilities, seeing a spark in technological innovation which most artists of his time denied.
“Serious” Literature Versus Literature of the People
As a writer, Verne would find his legs singly mounted over a nationwide chasm: On one side were fellow writers, who produced art within the “official” French literary canon. They believed that art should go against the bourgeoisie and everything that they endorsed, including: industrialization. As anti-scientists, they saw all progression in science and technology as a threat to human values. Writers and artists were the saviors, the only living people who still knew what life’s true value was after the masses had been blindly sucked into urban life. On the other side of the chasm, of course, stood the very masses themselves.
“I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.” ― Émile Zola, a notable French writer and critic of Jules Verne
Throughout his career, Verne desperately sought critical attention and acceptance. His endeavor was “doomed from the start,” however, because he did not conform to the tradition of French literature. “Proper” literature should not have sold to the masses with cheap themes, lowly plots, and urban settings; rather, it emphasized form over content — it was beauty itself, not a mere work of beauty. “l’Art pour l’Art” was the mantra — art for the sake of art. Without the endorsement by these anti-scientist critics, Verne’s works would never be taught in schools and would never remain in bookshops after their popularity died out.
And because the rest of the public was regarded as Positivists — those who were optimistic about technology and conformed to a technological life — a work of art which spoke to the public was inherently one that warranted rejection from the masters of French literature. Verne’s works, the most famous of those being 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth were tales of human exploration that utilized the most groundbreaking forms of imaginary technology, and they sold extremely well to the French public. As such, they were never taken seriously by literary critics and fellow writers.
Verne was only gradually accepted into the realm of “serious” French literature. His works followed a bottom-up canonization process, which started with their immense popularity among the public, their successes within the publishing industry, as well as with the formalization of a “Jules Verne cult” – a group of emerging writers who passionately promoted Verne’s literature. Only in 1978, more than seventy years after his death, was Verne first taught in a French university.
The Philosophy of Steampunk
Verne wasn’t just a popular author of his time. He was one of the first who planted the seeds of the steampunk subculture. Steampunk is what spawned from the pessimism that pervaded an ever-industrializing Europe: it was a counter-balancing optimism which bridged technology with humanity. Technology need not be the destruction of all that humans know and love — it could just as well be an extension of it.
“…eople’s relationships with technology are changing. People want something different, they expect more from the devices that have become such a part of our daily lives. Steampunk showed us that people want their technology to have a sense of humor, a sense of history, and finally a sense of humanity.” — Brian David Johnson
Specifically, steampunk is a literary and artistic sub-genre of science fiction. Its most recognizable characteristic is its incorporation of steam technology, with personal touches that may include: goggles, watches, gears, hats, and boots. But regardless of what one designs, his or her defining belief as a steampunk artist is the embracement of technological innovation and the simultaneous rejection of inaccessible, mass-produced, and depersonalized technological devices.
In modern times, it’s hard to imagine a technological product that isn’t mass-produced. All iPhones, laptops, spaceships, and submarines more or less come in the same form. Sleek, minimalistic, stripped of all ornamental components until one retains only its function, mainstream technology has no space for character. There’s only so far you can go with your cutesy, plastic iPhone case or your glow-in-the-dark extension keyboard that you’ve ordered from Amazon. There’s no working around what Apple has already dictated into your device.
But steampunk visionaries, in their realm of art, tinker and design their devices to their satisfaction. Form and function diminish under the dominating personality of the owner. “Useless” attachments and sentimental ornaments override the device until it’s no longer an embodiment of threatening industrial force, but a personal statement, like jewelry. Machinery, then, enjoys the same status that nature does. A machine is beautiful in the same way that a mountain or a lake is beautiful; useless, perhaps, except in all the ways that it is necessary for humanity.
“Nature’s creative power is far beyond man’s instinct of destruction.”― Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne’s biggest legacy, therefore, may not have been his vision of technology, but his novels themselves. The boundless hope and imagination of his art did not lead to the actual invention of a Verne-esque submarine, but it did ignite passion within each reader.
Steampunk has only recently risen in popularity. With the society-wide infiltration of technological devices — phones, computers, headphones distributed down to the individual consumer’s level — there’s almost no space to see outside of the LCD screen, no space to listen unviolated by the beep of the play button. When technology has consumed so much of us, where’s the real us?
Creativity and imagination — that’s steampunk’s answer. Art is where people’s most outrageous, eccentric inventions come to life. In a world where capitalism and global tech giants monopolize the very trajectories of technology, steampunk is perhaps fueled more by longing and nostalgia than by pure optimism. Even so, who says art itself isn’t a world of possibilities?