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Shades of Sepia: Examining Eurocentrism and Whiteness in Relation to Multiculturalism in Steampunk Iconography, Fandom, and Culture Industry

  • Author(s): Goh, Sook Yi
  • Advisor(s): Lam, Mariam B.
  • et al.
Abstract

Steampunk is an aesthetic that combines accelerated technology, retrofuturism, and alternate history. “Multicultural steampunk” is used to describe steampunk separate from the common understanding of steampunk that hinges on neo-Victorianism and imaginings of the British Empire. It often refers to cultural production in which the steampunk aesthetic is applied to or combined with some region, space, or item that is designated non-white in current perceptions of race. Since steampunk’s rise as a trend in 2008, communities and industries have coalesced about the aesthetic, often reproduced through a Eurocentric lens, raising anxieties about whiteness. In this dissertation, Eurocentrism is defined as a mode of thought which enshrines Europe as a site and source of linear progress for the rest of the world to follow, while whiteness is defined as a location of structural advantage and racial privilege as well as a standpoint from which white people look at themselves and the world. These are mutually-reinforcing mechanisms, expressed in popular discourse and media. I argue that whiteness informs the Eurocentric narratives associated with the popular iconography of steampunk. Moreover, discourse in steampunk fandom spaces contributed to an approach to multicultural steampunk that centers whiteness, rendering multiculturalism as a commercial aesthetic mode separate from historical context. Thus, despite attempts to diversify the aesthetic through multicultural steampunk, steampunk cultural productions, particularly literature and costuming, maintain a perspective to multiculturalism and steampunk that nonetheless centers mainstream Eurocentric sensibilities, instead of offering more challenging radical alternate histories. Steampunk informed by a more radical multiculturalist purpose, in which the perspectives and production of the historically marginalized are prioritized, have the potential to create alternate histories that center the experiences of the historically-colonized in ways that resist the mainstream narratives of history.

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