William Morris versus Steampunk, Steampunk versus William Morris?


Steampunk is the intersection of technology and romance. www.steampunkworkshop.com

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Top hats, corsets, chugging steam engines and adventurous gentlemen merrily exploring yet undiscovered secrets of the ever expanding Empire – all that William Morris hated with a passion. Yes, contemporary steampunks have built their dream world on glorifying the very same lifestyle and aesthetics that William Morris despised and spent his life revolting against. Does this mean, however, that there is no connection whatsoever between the two?

Could there be some bond between Morris’s interest in the Middle Ages and Steampunk enthusiasm for the Victorian era? Is it ironic perhaps, that with a time gap of almost one and a half century and all the disparities, there still seems to exist an enemy common for them both – ever-accelerating progress? Further connections might start springing to mind.

There is much in common between Morris’s nostalgia for genuine medieval workmanship and Steampunk longing for ‘the days before machines were build to build other machines’ (as Ele Carpenter comments in the current JMC issue, p 148). In both cases, their romanticization of a historic period is tied to a desire to opt out of the dreary reality.

Steampunk has been accused of glorifying the past. Fictional author Paul Jessup criticizes Steampunk as ‘escapism that tells us Empire is grand.  (Indeed one could say with Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) that ‘the one of the charms of the past is that it is the past.’ Escapism and its troubled relationship to utopianism would surely make a fascinating topic for a discussion. Let’s try to approach this from a different angle for the moment.

The portrait of William Morris by Czech artist Daniel Krejbich reproduced here hints that there is more to Morris than the black and white picture we’re often presented with tells. As Edward Palmer Thompson brilliantly noted, Morris was “absorbed in a world of “romance””, however, “the world of “romance” was not incompatible with the closest observation and study wherever his interests directed him…” (E. P. Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary Merlin Press, London 1977, p 17).

It has often been suggested that Morris was a Luddite. This is quite true after all. Morris, just as Luddites, was revolting against replacement of human power and creativity by machinery. Positively, though, this didn’t mean he wanted to ‘go back to some rose tinted vision of Middle Ages’ – to borrow words from Robin Wood’s comment to the previous post on Craft and Utopianism. Morris’s position is quite clear from his lecture Art and Its Producers:

I do not mean…that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery which are now done by hand, and other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us.

In short, what he despised was not machines, but the human drive to move forward at all costs without any forethought for consequences. Similarly, today’s Steampunk does not object against technology. Let the Steampunk computers, Steampunk ipod cases or Steampunk electric guitars speak for themselves. However, their retro style gadgets have their own way of suggesting, that although time flies, it doesn’t necessarily need to fly as quickly as our obsession with all things new makes us believe.

Here then, unfolds the connection between Morris’s medieval and Steampunk Victorian nostalgia. Neither Morris nor steampunks want to stop the clock. Yet, if implicitly, they’re asking what it is that is driving us forward this fast? And, more importantly still, do we want to be driven there?

In his Social change with respect to culture and original nature (1922), William Fielding Ogborn coined the term “cultural lag” to describe the common phenomenon when the changes in material culture (technology especially) often outpace the changes in the non-material culture (ideas, beliefs, symbols etc). Adaptation to new technology thus becomes difficult, as one part of culture virtually lags behind another. Although the term “lag” may suggest so, this doesn’t mean there is no choice and we should simply adapt to and be constantly dragged by technological innovation. The possible misreading of Ogborn’s concept was thus addressed in Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future shock (Random House, New York 1970), where Toffler makes clear that rapid change is not inevitably beneficial and that it might be for our own good to slow down “the future” and adapt to innovation at our own pace. He writes: “… we need neither blind acceptance nor blind resistance, but an array of creative strategies for shaping, deflecting, accelerating, or decelerating change selectively” (p 331).

Perhaps Morris and steampunks are doing just this.

4 thoughts on “William Morris versus Steampunk, Steampunk versus William Morris?

  1. This comment by Slavoj Zizek on westheavens.net seems relevant:

    You know, Badiou taught me this lesson: when something new is emerging, the dialectical paradox of history, the only way to get it, is to try to be faithful to the old, and then you get what it is that is new… For example, Pascal did that with early modernity. There were all these stupid liberals who had just embraced the Enlightenment. Nobody reads them today. But Pascal. Ah, he is different. Pascal’s problem was how to remain Christian in modernity. We still read him more today because he saw much more.

    This rings true, even though it’s hard to think of William Morris as embracing the new.

  2. Thank you, Kevin, for a brilliant point. Yes, I also agree with you in that it seems quite hard to think of William Morris as embracing the new. Could this have to do with the black and white picture of Morris I mentioned above again though? William Morris could hardly have done what he had without making the most of the technologies available. This started perhaps with the publishing of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, was then accentuated in the years of his political campaigning and involved even the experiments in the Kelmscott Press. The chapter ‘Virtual Morris’ in Philippa Bennett and Rosie Miles, eds William Morris in the Twenty-First Century (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2010) touches upon this in an interesting way.

  3. Another thought provoking piece of writing Mila thanks. I often wonder if there should be some wise council of elders that look over new innovations in science, industry and technology and decide whether this will enhance our lives or not. I know the Amish have something along those lines. We do have some sort of regulation of scientific experimentation (eg limits on experimentation with human cloning) It’s not the scientists job to say we can do this but maybe we shouldn’t but I am not sure who’s job it should be. Our job should not be to fight all new development but to question what makes a good, healthy, fulfilling life and resist things which hinder that, I think this is what Morris was doing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.