Steam Age

Yesterday morning I sat down in my pajamas with a freshly brewed latte and started reading Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller. Yes. In my pajamas. For, lo! we now have an espresso machine.

Isn’t she beautiful?

Now look over to my little blog blurb, scratch your head, and think “how is she going to pull off tying a book on anthropological theories of materiality and a new espresso machine to the themes of the blog?” Just. You. Watch. Me.

I’m still fine tuning my coffee pulling and milk foaming process. In the beginning there was lot of fiddling around with coffee grinder settings, waiting for the machine to warm up, trying to perfect the manual lever mechanism, wondering why the espresso shot came out wonky, scalding milk, and then throwing the whole lot out and starting over after The Engineer declared the effort to be “pants.”

Despite the fact that its pretty time consuming, its deeply satisfying to make lattes using this beast. And not just because the residents of Santa Monica tend to give one the side eye when one runs down to the local cafe in one’s pajamas. Having had a fun discussion over skype earlier in the week with E.B. about thing theory and people’s relationships with commodities, I got to thinking about the appeal of the machine, and the appeal of steampunk as an aesthetic. (This is what graduate school does to you, kids, it makes you apply critical theory to household appliances. Tragic.)

I happily put my hand up to a little urban homesteading and getting excited about making things from scratch, and that’s an interesting sociological phenomenon in and of itself. If I put on my Marxist hat I could argue that my coffee machine allows me to be less alienated from my coffee. You see, prior to this, I would go down to a cafe and purchase coffee with money earned by performing labor/being a member of the intelligentia. This act would alienate the barista from the product of his labor, which I was now drinking. Which may have explained the huge amount attitude he exuded. And then he would take the money that he earned by alienating himself from the coffee and enact commodity fetishism by purchasing skinny jeans and t-shirts screen printed with ironic mustaches. So maybe the pleasure comes from owning the means of producing coffee.

But why this particular coffee machine? With its levers, and gauges and dials and general steampunkery? It was the aesthetics of the coffee machine clinched the deal for us, when choosing among a range of equally temperamental manual machines. And aesthetics are something frequently overlooked by straight Marxist critiques of people’s relationships with their things.

This brings me to steampunk as an aesthetic movement. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, steampunk started out as a sub-genre of science fiction, usually set in the Victorian period or some alternate history version thereof and featuring steam age gadgets and machines. provides a good introduction to the subject.

I’m less enamored of its literary manifestations, though it can be good fun when its done well, and doesn’t simply involve an anachronistic smattering of flying machines and mentions of aether. One of the things I find irritating about the pulpier end of steampunk is that it tends to be entirely aesthetic-driven and less about exploring the possibilities of industrial revolution technology and alternative histories. It looks like speculative fiction but it often doesn’t do a whole lot of actual speculation.

Steampunk as a movement and an aesthetic is something that interests me, from the perspective of commodity theory. Inspired by the contraptions in steampunk literature, fans started adopting neo-Victorian fashion and creating steampunk devices in a kind of mash-up of Victorian aesthetics and contemporary technology.

(If anyone has a cool five grand lying around I’d really like one of these puppies for Christmas!)

 The language that steampunk artisans use to describe their work reminds me of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. A driving force behind steampunk as a movement is a rejection of mass production and throw-away culture. Like William Morris, there is a desire to restore the principles of craftsmanship and an interest in creating a design sensibility that draws from the past. The Victorian steam-age aesthetic, distilled down to the iconic cogs and gears and polished brass of steampunk, symbolizes an age that valued lasting products, artisanship and an equal attention to form and function.

Its ironic that the very same industrial processes that Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement condemned for destroying traditional crafts, is the source of inspiration for a new movement that levels the same criticisms against contemporary industrial design and mass production. But the visual language of Victorian and Art Deco design, percolated through steampunk literature, has come to stand for a golden age of craftsmanship that never existed except in an imagined alternate history. And so we have consumer goods, that disguise themselves aesthetically as something else. They evoke the feeling of an age free from the alienating processes of the industrial revolution, a feeling that can be purchased in the form of a commodity item.

Isn’t commodity fetishism fun!


~ by medievalness on July 29, 2011.

3 Responses to “Steam Age”

  1. Oh, Ness, you are so right about the tragic consequences of being in graduate school for too long. I caught myself theorizing suburban farmers’ markets this morning..why can’t I just purchase a damn “homegrown” tomato and be done with it!

    I love this’s smart, funny, and spot on. I would further point out, in agreement with your point that Marxist theory can only go so far in thinking about your espresso machine, that even if you are no longer alienated from the final production of your latte, you’re still alienated from the growing and harvesting process of your coffee. When I hear people argue that they just feel so “in tune” with their coffee when they own an espresso machine I often need to fight off the urge to dump my coffee over their hipster heads…they experiment with coffee, beer brewing, sewing, etc., not because they want to be more in tune with the process of production but because they’re trying to develop–or fit into–a particular aesthetic. Enough said.

    • I think what interests me about the aesthetic angle is that particular commodity items and consumerist movements (locavore, urban homesteading, the whole etsy phenomenon) manage to deploy particular aesthetics to give people the sense that they are engaging in something “authentic,” or, in Benjaminian terms, the aesthetic imparts an aura on objects that, in Benjamin’s framework, don’t have one. Its sort of false consciousness, but on the consumer end of capitalism, not the production end. A certain aesthetic or a certain practice that is still completely embedded in Western capitalism but allows people to think that they have subverted it. Although, the whole thing gets even more tangled when you throw in the ironic, self-awareness angle. A simultaneous striving for the authentic and acknowledgement of the futility of the exercise turned into an aesthetic.

      I need to stop now. This is getting silly.

  2. […] Talking about the fetishization of past fashions and technologies he captures in two lines what I flailed about trying to say for an entire blog post when he […]

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