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.

Journal of Modern Craft 4.1

The first issue of 2011 is now out, with writerly reflections on the nature of utopianism in craft.


Editorial introduction

Sustainable Socialism: William Morris on Waste by Elizabeth C. Miller

The Craft of Industrial Patternmaking by Sarah Fayen Scarlett

Speculative Artisanry: The Expanding Scale of Craft within Architecture by Joshua G. Stein

Statement of Practice

Interview with A.S. Byatt including Tanya Harrod and Glenn Adamson (PDF)

Commentary by Glenn Adamson

“The Artisan,” from The Mirror of Production by Jean Baudrillard

Exhibition Reviews

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 reviewed by Bibiana Obler

Japanese Sashiko Textiles reviewed by Moira Vincentelli

Book Reviews

Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era reviewed by Ellen Paul Denker

KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave reviewed by Sue Green

At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 1

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

“The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world” (Anderson 1). With these words Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine joins Makerbot and RepRap creators and countless breathless bloggers in heralding the dawn of a technology that promises to bring to bear the same force that upturned media industries to manufacturing industries. This technology is at-home desktop 3D printing which uses 3D object files created with computer-aided design (CAD) software to build up a physical object through the deposition of layers of raw material. It works on the same principles as a desktop paper printer, though instead of ink it prints plastic, ceramic slip, and other tactile materials. It is made accessible by the effect of open-source parts, plans and tutorials and priced low enough ($500-$1500) to make at-home factories a possibility for the avid hacker. Object files are shared the way music and other “old media” forms are now shared: as digital information. Given that the object data is easily exchanged, edited and endlessly vast, the potential for revolution seems only logical. The manufacturing industry is destabilized and individuals regain an agency lost since the first industrial revolution.

At this point it would be well to remember that we have heard these claims many times before. An especially interesting corollary can be found in the utopian project of craft-idealist William Morris. A connection between historical utopian-minded maker cultures offers a natural entry point given the language of DIY and craft that often surrounds discussions of at-home prototyping. By looking at this “next industrial revolution” through the lens of historic appeals for a utopian craft we can examine the critical potential of this technology at the outset. It turns out we have a lot to learn from the results of past calls for a new industrial revolution.

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

In “Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that with the rise of decentralized modes of production “Everybody’s garage is a potential high tech factory” (Anderson 8). For Bre Pettis, the face of Makerbot Industries which fabricates open source 3D printers for purchase, the possibility of toppling paternalistic systems of manufacture with hacker pluck and ingenuity is key. “Its absurd that we need a revolution to bring personally fabricated objects to the marketplace. We are humans with hands…. Somehow the first industrial revolution took that away from us” (Pettis 1). Adrian Bowyer who leads the team that developed RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer has an equally idealistic end-point in mind for RepRap. He proposes RepRap as “Darwinian Marxism”. “Darwinian” because RepRap is made to self-replicate and rapidly evolve in the open source habitat, “Marxism” because the maker/worker will gain control of the means of production, as Bowyer says, “without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff” (Bowyer 8). William Morris likewise called for this type of gentleman’s revolution. A prominent Marxist, he posited the “Revival of Handicraft” as the path to the liberation of the worker from dehumanizing divisions of labor in industrial work. He sees the revival of handicraft as a “token of the change which is transforming civilization into socialism” (ed. Adamson 150). This focus on makers shaping culture is no less than what many proponents envision as open source hardware follows the route of open source software. Past maker revolutions relied on state control and violent revolution, but the most profound check to industry now may be open source and decentralized manufacture.

What we have learned from past calls for utopian design should give us pause. Perhaps one of the most instructive lessons of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement is how easily the force of capitalism subsumed any vestige of revolutionary power. Tanya Harrod, in her article “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century”, describes the irony between Morris as a business man, selling elite handmade goods through his company Morris & Co. and the anti-capitalist rhetoric one finds in his writing. As Harrod describes, “Morris as a sound businessman, kept practice and philosophy separate apparently believing that only after a full-blooded revolution would it be possible for a new art to develop” (Harrod 7). This focus on commodity production before idealistic models has only increased since Morris. Indeed as Harrod points out, “The practitioners of the crafts have gradually shed their utopian ambitions as they have come to occupy a small but acknowledged niche in the world of goods” (Harrod 23). This might be seen to correlate with the subsumption of today’s revolutionary-minded DIY movement into the world of the market via sites like etsy.com. While this decentralization of the marketplace may itself be seen as revolutionary it must be remembered that early proponents of the current DIY ethos saw it as a critique of the capitalist system of which etsy.com plays a part. While the success of Morris & Co. is often cited as evidence of the ultimate failure of Morris’ utopian vision, might it be possible to negotiate a better balance between the force of the market and the force of idealism?

In part 2 of “At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft UtopiaI’ll consider some ethical and ecological hurdles this technology must navigate in its path to revolution.

Designguide.tv interview from Unfold on Vimeo.

Works Cited

Adamson, Glenn ed. The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2010

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

Harrod, Tanya. “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century.” William Morris Revisited. Ed. Jennifer Harris. London: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1996. 6-32.

Pettis, Bre. “Industrial Revolution 2.” Bre Pettis Blog 24 Sept. 2009. 20 May 2010. <http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/9/24/industrial-revolution-2.html>