Meandering Through Spokane’s Home Grown
Wally Lee Parker
(all rights to this material retained by author)
… “steampunk is an explicability drawn from the axiom that form follows function” …
The first thing we wanted to do at the convention was attend a panel discussion titled “Urban Fantasy vs. Urban Myth”, but after we’d checked into the hotel, then waded through SpoCon’s pre-registration line, the time set aside for the conversation with urban fantasy writers Patricia Briggs and Lilith Saintcrow (a.k.a. Anna Beguine), and romantic science fiction writer Frances Pauli, was past.
At a loss, we wandered around the hotel’s main ballroom for a while. Floor to ceiling semi-ridged, accordion folding plastic curtains — much larger versions of those futuristic closet-closers from the mid-1950s — had been pulled to divide the ballroom into a series of smaller spaces. At the back of the area designated as the “vendor’s room” was the art gallery. Among the objects on display were artist Dan Dos Santos’s original paintings for the dustcovers of Patricia Briggs’s last several “Mercy Thomson” novels. (Briggs later told the group she was in negotiations to purchase one of the originals.) Local artists were also on display, including one I will be watching going forward.
James Mulvania is a Spokane native currently living in the Deer Park area. On his business card he defines himself as a “fine artist and new media designer.” You can get an impression of what all that means with a quick visit to his Facebook page, “James Mulvania’s Immersive Media Arts,” or to his webpage at http://www.jamesmulvania.com. What I can say is that viewing low-resolution images of his artwork on a computer screen fails to convey the true impact of seeing them as large-format, giclée quality prints.
Pronounced zhee-clay, the term denotes the two-dimensional images produced on special, large format ink-jet printers. These printers are capable of such detail that the dots used to produce the pictures have the potential of being unresolvable by the naked eye. These computer driven copiers use multiple ink cartridges to generate an extremely wide range of colors, resulting in a remarkable degree of fidelity to the original artwork. And to insure longevity, giclée images are usually printed on acid-free paper with a spray of fade resistant inks.
Of the artwork Mulvania chose to display at SpoCon, what particularly struck my eye was a set of three pictures — numbers 2, 3, and 4 — of a grouping collectively titled “Neither Here Nor There.” James says he’s working on two more pictures intended to bracket the above grouping — eventually making five panels in the set. Each panel is constructed to be able to stand alone as an individual piece — though once the eye makes the connection between the panels, displaying any of them without their companions would be a crime.
This is very much computer art. But the one thing that needs to be understood with Mulvania’s work is that the computer is only a stand-in for his pencil and brush. It doesn’t actually create the image.
What Mulvania appears to be doing with “Neither Here Nor There” is build a series of layered images into a surreal composition. My assumption is that he begins by creating recognizable images, tears those down to their basal components, then reengineers them upward again as gossamer suggestions of the original forms. As a result you see a set of images that hint, that tug, toward a recognition that won’t quite solidify. In this case that mental “tip-of-the-tongue” isn’t irritating. It’s narcotizing. It generates a wistful addiction to uncovering the mystery held within the images. It draws you in — just as any piece of fine art should.
As per usual, my wife was the first to notice “Neither Here Nor There.” We look at art whenever we can, but for some reason, while I’m looking at the images, she seems to be the first one to ‘see’ the art. It’s actually quite annoying, and may be the reason I married her.
From there we were off to find some supper and kill some time until SpoCon’s official fashion show, the “Steampunk Spectacular Spectacular,” was due to begin.
And now to attempt something unlikely — define the term steampunk. Like most any such attempt, much is going to be left out and much not left out will be debatable. Regardless, putting anything down is likely to initiate the flack-burst commonly seen when dealing with terms like cyberpunk and steampunk. So my theory is to get in and back out of the subject as cleanly as possible, and then hide from all the lethal fragments of spent ordinance falling from the sky — though avoiding consequences never seems to work. So why should I try?
People often invest so much emotionally into things like steampunk, Star Trek, or whatever that they lose their grip on the unreality of it all and become absolutely hostile at any seeming rebuff of the fictional tenants of what should be a fun hobby. The fundamental fabric of the fan universe is based on speculative fiction — with the basal word in that phrase being “fiction.” And though it does have parallels to the real world, it isn’t the real world. But I’m sometimes amazed to find people reacting as if these little fictions were real. And in that there’s something unhealthy.
As Alfred Korzybski, author of ‘Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics”, noted, “We all copy animals in our nervous processes, and that practically all human difficulties, mental ills … have this … component.”
In other words, the crux of much human misery is related to the fact that the gift of human intelligence overlays a still primitive nervous system. Since the human intellect lives in a semantic universe — a universe of created signs and symbols such as words and images that represent something else — we often find our animal selves emotionally reacting as positively or negatively to the signs and symbols as we would to the thing itself. What this little defect in human evolution does is open up the opportunity to draw emotional reactions through the calculated and potentially deceptive manipulation of signs and symbols.
And that reminds me of a story.
Many years ago I took an evening class at Spokane Falls Community College — introduction to astronomy as I recall. And the professor, talking about stellar fusion, got off on the subject of atomic weapons. It seemed his pet peeve was Hiroshima and Nagasaki — or at least the variable meanings that have been appendaged to those two words over the years. During his little tirade, he kept asking over and over, “How does it feel to be the only nation that has actually used such a terrible weapon (nuclear bombs) on living people?”
Just as and aside, I wouldn’t be so sure of that purported “only nation” truism since other governments have probably carried out experiments similar to the U. S. Army’s placement of “volunteers” so close to test explosions that the subjects reported some fairly bazaar psycho-physiological reactions. Less “enlightened” governments with more aggressive “volunteer” programs may have done even more invasive and probably lethal human testing.
Anyway, concurrent with that particular dip into the college environ, I was seeing a marriage counselor (first marriage) by the name of Flynn. Though Jim Flynn did general counseling for an assortment of problems, including marital issues, his actual specialty was treating war veterans for delayed stress. His tendency to use the kind of working-class language men in general appreciate struck me as a plus. And since I knew Jim was a WWII veteran himself, I asked him about the professor’s comments.
“In an odd kind of way,” Jim said, “It was the bomb that prompted me to get into psychiatric counseling.”
He went on to explain that the bomb was just part of a larger revelation about the odd associations we can create when it comes to things like feelings, beliefs, outlooks, tendency, reactions to stimulus — all that psychological stuff.
Jim was with the navy in the South Pacific during the latter part of the war — meaning he was there for the worst of the Kamikaze attacks.
“One of my jobs was piloting landing craft — those barge-like boats hauling troops and equipment from the ships to the beaches. So I knew at some point I was gonna get shot at. But what I hadn’t expected — being part of the most massive naval force the world had ever seen — was how personal being shot at could be, even when you were just one little speck hidden in a mass of other potential targets.
“We were part of the big operation against Okinawa. We had so many ships spread across the horizon that the majority were over the edge and out of sight. When the Kamikazes came in, we’d start throwing everything we had at them. Hell, even the marines would be on deck popping away with their M-1s. And all the crap going up was falling back. So you would see a ship three miles one way, a few more a couple of miles another way, and all the water between would just be frothing — the surface would just be dancing.
“I was usually topside working damage-control during attacks. We wore helmets since that spent ordinance coming back down was like a metal rain trying to pound us to pieces. That rattle, added to the guns hammering, was enough to drive you insane.
“If I slipped on something while running across the deck, I learned pretty quickly not to look down. I didn’t want to know who I was slipping in.
“Anyway, I’d see the Jap planes come over. It’s when they stopped moving across the sky — when they just seemed to hang there — that’s when we’d all get really excited. It meant they were coming straight at us — or from my perspective, straight at me.
“There was no doubt about that. No other ships were close. Here I was on a splinter of steel maybe half-a-hundred feet wide and four-hundred feet long with no place to run. And that plane would just keep getting bigger and bigger. Out of all those square miles of ocean, out of all those other ships, that son-of-a-bitch up there has somehow picked me to kill. Not the guys on the bridge. Not the guys at the guns. I just knew he was aiming at the one little idiot running across the deck with a hose. He was aiming at me. Now that’s personal. And that’s one of the things that pisses me off about some idiot professor making comments about something he obviously doesn’t understand. For him it’s just academic semantics. But for me that war was personal.
“We all knew what was coming after we’d finished the Okinawan invasion — and that would be mainland Japan. It’d been so bad around Okinawa that most of us figured we’d die taking the homeland. So when we heard the bombs had dropped, it didn’t mean we were glad we’d finally got the bastards back for Pearl Harbor. For most of us it wasn’t a sense of revenge or satisfaction. It just meant we had a better chance of staying alive long enough to go home. So from our perspective, we felt pretty damn good about it.
“After the surrender we were told which Japanese beaches had been picked for our landing. Once we were allowed ashore, I got a look at the beach defenses. All the guns had been removed, but the positioning of the bunkers made it easy to estimate how much of our approach to the beach would have been under fire. And standing there, I couldn’t imagine how a damn one of us would have made it.
“If your professor doesn’t feel we were justified in being happy with the way things turned out, with the fact that we were still alive, my suspicion is he’s just one of those know-it-all revisionist assholes. And if you ever see him again, you can tell him that’s my professional diagnosis.
“Psychology is all about the personal. And I think the war was what shaped my understanding of how the things we endure can change everything that comes after. Sometimes the changes are for the better. A lot of times they’re not. And that’s why we have psychologist.”
As for Flynn’s techniques, I suspect like most competent psychologist he had a pretty good grounding on everyone’s problems by the end of the first or second private session. But when people have spent years respond to their ongoing problems with what Flynn called “learned helplessness”, even a willingness to accept the essentially harsh criticism of a correct diagnosis doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do anything constructive with that knowledge. The idea that understanding a problem will magically make it go away is just bullshit.
And then there were those moment in Flynn’s group therapy when things would go silent. Flynn would look around, wait for a bit, and then ask, “So what do you want to talk about now?” If no one spoke, he’d say, “I guess that means I’ll have to pick the subject.”
Our group sessions were mixed. We had Viet Nam veterans trying to cope with what Flynn called “battered men syndrome.” We had people (no couples though) on the verge of divorce. We had battered women — one of whom was still trying to physically as well as mentally recover from twenty-plus slashes her boyfriend had inflicted with a butcher knife.
As another aside, a year after the attack and several of the wounds on the underside of this lady’s breasts still refused to close. Some of the group hypothesized that her body’s refusal to heal was a reaction to the positive feelings she still carried for her attacker — a kind of toxicity that prevented the mending process. Though that kind of thing sounds dramatically insightful, it’s probably more akin to saying “I think you drove into a tree because your car was trying to commit suicide.” From a medical point of view, the type of tissue involved, combined with severe obesity, was more likely the reason closure was inhibited.
Anyway, when keeping group therapy’s conversation going fell to Flynn, he would always come up with the same suggestion. With an evil grin, Flynn would always suggest we talk about buggering — though the phrase he used was a hyphenated, street-level description of the specific form of sodomy involved. In the mixed group this would always draw a few nervous giggles, and someone would quickly invent an alternative subject.
Science fiction is all about alternatives. And science fiction is largely an invention of Victorian era writers. Even mainstream Victorian writers practiced something the C.I.A. would call “plausible deniability.” That’s to say — if you look beneath the words you’ll find what is written on the surface isn’t necessarily what is being said — thusly the writer is free to deny what the reader is finding beneath the surface story if the reader if finding something unseemly to Victorian sensibilities. And the Victorians were all about sensibilities.
Jim Flynn’s favorite stratagem for a lively group session was, “When you can’t think of anything to say, say something you’re afraid to say.” In a room of people looking for hidden meanings in everything said, saying anything at all was always scary.
The above noted Alfred Korzybski was all about words — his most famous line (somewhat modified here) being, “The word is not the thing (itself).” But people often react as if words are the things themselves. And another philosopher of sorts, the late George Carlen, likewise did a number of monologs demonstrating that words strike many like ballistic bricks — the perceived intent behind their use being what matters.
In many ways group therapy was a highly condensed microcosm of what Victorian era writers phrased “social intercourse.” And since we’re ostensibly talking steampunk, most everything Victorian is relevant. Finding the phrase social intercourse in George Eliot’s (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans) novel Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, our freshman (or maybe sophomore) high school English class repeatedly snicker — probably because the word intercourse, like the word sex, was still a bit dirty back then. But snickering aside, the phrase social intercourse is actually quite descriptive of what takes place when people interact socially.
At the age of 14 or so, reading a book written in 1861 was just another chore. Since our entire class of teenagers already knew everything important about life, some stiffly written tome about an old guy hiding gold didn’t say much. Admitting that being a teenager generally denotes a lack of appreciation for most everything, I suspect there was a lot more to the story than I was seeing. If the teacher had been allowed to explain what the writer was writing between the lines — like the instructors tend to do in college — the entire class would probably have paid more attention. But this was either the last year of the ‘50s or first of the ‘60s — the conclusion of America’s golden decade. Back then, teaching the unvarnished truth was not something high schools were big on.
A few decades later, as part of an adult evening class at Spokane Falls Community College, I found myself confronting “Of Human Bondage” — which I assumed to be just another crusty old dullard despite the fact that it was published fifty-plus years after Mary Ann Evans’ enduring thesis on Silas’s misery and redemption. The first thing I learned was that W. Somerset Maugham wasn’t a crusty writer. He was in fact quite readable. The next thing I discovered was — despite being raised during the waning years of the Victorian era — he was willing to explore the realities of being alive with an unusual degree of directness. And when it came to the mental debilitation brought on by romantic fixation — the “Bondage” in the title of his book — it was quite apparent Somerset was writing from personal experience. In later life I came to recognized the symptoms.
But what about good old Silas? Thievery, blackmail, alcoholism, child abandonment — and that’s just touching the surface of your typical Victorian novel. I don’t know if I’ll ever read Silas Marner again, but one does have to admit that the Victorian’s had a talent for writing between the lines. After all, if the Victorians were about anything at all, they were about keeping up appearances through adaptive denial.
The problem with reading between the lines is that people become so intrigued by their own participation in the creative process they stretch their inventive interpretations far beyond anything intended by the author. I expect Victorian readers did a lot of “creative reinterpretation” just to add some fun to the era’s otherwise squeaky clean essays on manners.
Perhaps the deductive reasoning needed for hypothesizing alternative intents in literature gave rise to another of the Victorian era’s late bloomers, Sigmund Freud. Sigmund based his entire theory of human sexuality on what he found wedged between the lines of everyday life. He refined his observations to such a degree that there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t associate with the hatred that bloomed when he realized his own father was having sex with his own mother — his mother apparently being the object of Sigmund’s own desires.
Via Sigmund, it could be argued that classical psychotherapy is firmly rooted in treating the pathologies rising from the Victorian era’s insistence that properly structured social intercourse is an all-encompassing antidote for the horrendous and literally unspeakable pustulence that existed just below that society’s surface. And that — much more than Sigmund’s otherwise crackpot theories — is why we should revere Sigmund Freud. Although his balls technically belonged to his mother, he put them on the line to challenge the hypocrisy he’d grown up with — as did Mary Ann Evans, as did W. Somerset Maugham, as did Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and a host of other Victorian and post-Victorian writers, artists, scientist, and intellectuals.
As I observed in Jim Flynn’s group therapy, most social dysfunction is somehow related to the human habit of transmogrifying what is said or done into something we’d prefer to hear said or prefer to see done. Since ignoring reality usually results in one sort of disaster or another, at some point we’re forced — either by circumstance, happenstance, or by the interdiction of others — to look a bitter fact in the eye and get a grip on its slippery lapels. The first downside to reality is that we might just discover whether our addiction to creative reinterpretation is a symptom of some corrosive mental disease or just another garden-variety neurosis. The second downside, such self-discovery takes time and not an insubstantial amount of therapeutic money.
But again, dealing with reality is not an easy choice. A lot of people read or see what they want because it’s less painful or seemingly more advantageous to them personally than reading or seeing what’s clearly written. If that was not so, Jim Flynn wouldn’t have made such a comfortable living picking up the pieces left after a series of bad choices had bleached all the joy out of someone’s life.
For example, a husband chooses to slash his wife twenty-plus times with a butcher knife. And since we can’t find a sane reason for him doing so, we classify his action as nothing more than a diseased and misplaced criticism of his wife. As long as the people in Flynn’s group only suggest the husband’s criticism wasn’t justified, all is fine. But when the group goes on to suggest the wife’s continuing love for the gentleman isn’t healthy, the wife angrily responds that we’re just incapable of seeing the loving person hidden just beneath her husband’s vicious surface. We of course must stand corrected. If we don’t stand corrected, she will storm out of the group.
Considerations of profit aside, the ethical reason psychologists seldom give their patients a clinical judgment early on is that the patients’ most likely reaction will be intense anger — followed by slamming the door on any further therapy. If we’d insisted our battered wife accept our criticism of her, she’d have left the group and most probably gone back to her husband once he got out of prison. If that doesn’t make any sense to you — her willingly returning to a man any sane person would recognize as a murderous bastard — then you’re well on your way to understanding why the wife was in therapy in the first place. And why Alfred Korzybski felt the needed to invent something called general semantics in order to blueprint a system for thinking in a ration manner as opposed to emotionally sabotaging your own best interest.
The human desire to read between the lines of life and find something more to the moment’s liking is very much a part of the structures we impose on social intercourse — as the artifice of Victorian society prominently displayed. If humans were able to adjudicate the actual messages written between life’s lines with sufficient accuracy, scammers and con-artists would soon starve to death, bullies and brutalizers would be beaten to death by group consent, and the pretenses of social intercourse would dissolve into something without implied subtext or embedded intent.
We tend to believe crafting our words and actions to other people expectations will lend positive shape to how other see us — a form of playacting and wishful thinking most any skillful politician or other form of social pestilence can use to their own enrichment. We are willing to manipulate, to reconstruct ourselves to gain access to others — to socially con others, but our perception tends to falter when it comes to recognizing others doing the same to us. Most scammers use our own greedy gullibility as bait, and most victims sense the presence of a hook long before the hook is set. Victims simply seem incapable of swimming away before the scammer yanks the line. Scammers succeed because we often fail to emotionally differentiate between the word for a thing and the thing itself, even when common sense tells us better.
Words and symbols have an emotional solidity they seldom deserve. Such illusional solidity allows for the deliberate creation of emotional associations between subjects. The entire advertising industry is based on that one singular aspect of human psychology. For example, by constantly bombarding us with otherwise disparate associations, they can convince us to think about a cigarette every time we think about sex (and vice versa). That works because the human mind tends to imbue the symbols we use to identify objects, concepts — whatever — with the same emotional quantum possessed by the object itself.
As Alfred Korzybski might say, the map becomes the territory and the word becomes the thing itself.
As and aside, that reminds me of a classic sci-fi/horror comic using that very premise. The protagonist came into possession of a magic map. Whatever was done to the map would happen to the real territory. Pour melted wax on the map, and the actual country represented by that portion of the map would drown beneath lava. Water — floods. A bellows squeezed over the map’s surface — hurricanes. And ripping the map initiated a ground shattering earthquake. (Ripping was the final act in the story because the rip accidentally advanced to where the map holder was standing.)
If the natural human thought process automatically disassociated the map from the territory represented, that story wouldn’t have worked. The creepy feeling the story was able to evoke was likely an echo of the magic thinking humans supposedly leave behind in early childhood. But everything from advertising to politics to religion suggests that magical thinking never really goes away. And that childhood vestige can be a very useful tool when it comes to deluding people for profit.
So — people are inherently neurotic as a by-product of being human. Craziness is in our nature. That may seem a little harsh, but I am most certainly not the only one (Shakespeare, for example) to have made such an observation. People as a mass tend to prefer the lazy comfort of ignorance and stupidity to the discomfort of having to deal with reality (Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears).
The primary difference between fandom and insanity is that the majority of sci-fi and fantasy’s practitioners claim to be cognitive of the difference between their benign blend of fantasy and the harshness of reality — and claim to be able to bounce between the two as necessary.
And the general subject of humanity’s ability to differentiate fantasy from reality brings us to a few observation made by the venerated or vilified (take your pick) science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt.
At about the same time I was struggling with Silas Marner, I became acquainted with van Vogt’s classic The World of Null-A. This 1948 novel — a revision of the story’s serialized version which first appeared in 1945’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine — introduced me to the concept of non-Aristotelianism — the “Null-A” in the book’s title. I assumed the idea was just a literary device created by van Vogt to add a sense of authenticity to his story. Perhaps ten years later I picked up a copy of Basel Davenport’s classic 1955 essay, Inquiry into Science Fiction, and was amazed to discover that “Null-A” was in fact a legitimate field of study, and that it’s fictional creator, Alfred Korzybski, was not fictional at all.
Since I tend to fall asleep reading anything even remotely philosophical, I’ve avoided Korzybski’s original material. I have however read a reasonable amount of expository essays and criticism of his ideas. Essentially he attempted to design a system to differentiate between the generalities of the symbols we use to identify objects and ideas from the realities that underlie those symbols. In other words, people who embark on non-Aristotelian systems of thought are attempting to apply a scientific process to the art of comprehension and thereby avoid responding emotionally to the symbols we use to identify objects and ideas as if those symbols were the things themselves.
That’s not terribly close to a correct definition, but it’s heading in the right direction. For something of a better introduction you might look at http://benhauck.com/offthemap/about/ and related postings.
It should be noted that much of classic science fiction’s background is embedded in whatever the accepted modernism of that particular age might have been. For example, the futuristic game machine in van Vogt’s above noted novel was essentially a self-aware computer of massive physical proportion. The computer used literally millions of vacuum tubes quite simply because transistors and the resultant solid state circuitry would not be invented until 1947/48. And too, some of the psychological paradigms embedded in the book as predictive fact have long since been relegated to quant annotations in the history of psychotherapy’s “more lunacy than lucidity” bin. Still, quite a few works of classic science fiction retain their power to entertain if you’re willing to remain cognitive of the fact that the various story elements that appear to be incorrect are not mistakes. Rather they’re simply artifacts of their time’s speculative edge. In my opinion The Worlds of Null-A fits within that category.
For comparison, I’m currently reading a novel in Mike Shepherd’s “Kris Longknife” series in which the heroine is wearing a self-organizing liquid metal computer that jacks itself directly into her brain via a port implanted at the base of the heroine’s skull. Though van Vogt’s game machine is described as covering square miles, and Longknife’s personal computer is described as weighing mere kilograms, both have roughly the same capabilities — reflecting each particular era’s understanding of the machine volume necessary to support self-awareness. And though van Vogt’s game machine seems quaint to modern readers, it’s possible that in another sixty-five years Kris Longknife’s liquid metal computer will seem equally old fashion.
What I get from van Vogt is that non-Aristotelian thought comes down to a blending of Zen and the scientific method. Rather than taking someone else’s opinion for things, you should stay calm, gather all the facts from verifiably original sources, come to your own conclusions, and then test those conclusions.
When you come right down to it, most emotional problems are somehow rooted in choices we have made while in a leap-before-we-look mode — that mode often constructed from what others, for reasons of their own, have told us. And in this context, the “others” speaking to us may be ourselves — or at least the primitive, animal desires each of us should admit is functioning somewhere beneath our brain’s thin outer membrane of rationality.
Take the fairly recent lunacy of satanic suburban cults. Of the literally hundreds of people whose lives were ruined by allegations that they were using children for sexual and sacrificial witchcraft rites, the convictions that have withstood scientific challenge are very close to zero. And all of this occult stupidity was based on two incredibly insane hypotheses. The first was the alleged ability among certain psychologist to recover, without contamination, repressed memory — especially in children as young as four or five. And the second nutty proposition — well, a juror outlined it best.
Talking to one of the jurors responsible for casting a “guilty” verdict in one of these notorious and later proven to be totally fabricated cases, a reporter asked about one of the specific accusations the attending “psychologist” claimed had been made by a six year old “victim.” The claim was that the child had been threatened by the alleged abuser’s pet shark. The child reportedly said the abuser had taken the entire daycare class to the boat docks. At that point the abuser “whistled” for his pet shark. When the large carnivorous fish rose to the surface, the abuser threatened to sic the shark on the children if they tattled about the sexual abuse happening in the daycare. The reporter specifically asked the juror if the story didn’t seem a bit preposterous. The juror replied that it did seem farfetched, but then everybody knew little children don’t lie.
Since very young children are seldom subject to cross examination, one wonders how such a conclusion regarding children’s truthfulness — which any parent can tell you is total crap — could be substantiated.
What element allowed the entire legal system to implode into witch-hunt hysteria? In part it was the visceral joy a good part of the population takes in thinking the worst of their neighbors. Another was a craving for the abundant publicity available to prosecutors and defenders in these high-profile cases — publicity likely to enhance any future efforts to obtain elected office (and access to the public coffers). And then there was the willful disregard for the checks and balances found in the scientific approach to evidence collection as clarified by inductive reasoning. Since the idiots drawing these bazaar stories out of the kids were lettered psychological and/or legal professionals, the assumption was they were knowledgeable, ethical, and honest — as opposed to hacks, criminals, and fit to be inmates themselves.
So how did they do it? How did the mental health profession invent satanic cults? One of the simplest methods was by using dolls. Say you want to accuse a male and female couple working in a daycare of having sex in front of the children. You hold up a Ken doll and, with proper prompting, ask the children if this is the male employee. When you have the answer you want from the kids, you hold up the Barbie doll and ask if this is the female employee. When you have the identities you want embedded in the minds of the pre-schoolers, hold both dolls horizontally, with the Barbie face-up under the face-down Ken, and ask once again which doll is which. When the children have correctly named the dolls as previously prompted, the psychologist makes the claim that the children are demonstrating a suppressed memory of having observed the male employee lying on top of the female in the coital position. All it took was being clever enough to implant the seeds of a false memory, and then phrase the questions in such a way that the kids would answer correctly — thereby supplying substantiation to the counselors’ accusations that one or more sex acts had taken place in front of the kids. And ultimately resulting in enough evidence of witness contamination to assure most all convictions obtained on this type of evidence would be overturned on appeal.
As for why this kind of manipulation worked long enough to create mass hysteria among parents having to leave their children in the care of others — the mental health profession protected the children allegedly making the accusations from cross examination by stating that it would be too traumatic to subject such young kids to the courtroom. The only people the juries heard testifying as to what the children saw were the same professionals responsible for implanting those false memories in the children. Said health care professionals successfully circumnavigated the right of the accused to face their accusers, and in doing so perpetrated one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice in recent history.
As a result of this media fed pseudo-psychological nuttiness — most of said nuttiness initiated by cult-like associations of college educated, state certified, psycho-babble artists — we now have a whole new set of laws requiring that all interviews of very young children be video-recorded when such is part of a criminal investigation. Such tapes can then be reviewed in any resultant criminal procedures to determine if the details coming forward truly originate with the children as opposed to being implanted by the interviewers.
As soon as the judicial system was forced to look as closely at the investigators as it was supposedly looking at the accused, the number of prosecutable satanic cult and mass child abuse cases dropped to literally zero — and this rash of late twentieth century witch-hunting faded away.
And as to why alleged professionals would instill false memories in kids — a brutal form of child abuse in itself — it could be a manifestation of that unique form of mental illness that prompts individuals with severe problems to themselves enter the mental health profession as practitioners. Most everyone knows at least one nutty person who insists that living with their own unique form of insanity has somehow qualified them to help others in dealing with theirs.
It reminds me of one marriage counselor we were interviewing who, when asked about her qualifications, told us she had been married and divorced four times, and was currently in another “serious relationship” — intimating by that track record that she understood how difficult marriage could be. This young lady — quite nice looking and a “flirty” dresser — was probably in her mid-30s.
And then there’s the fact that the circus atmosphere of the witchcraft trials provided the participants that elusive 15 minutes of fame — which, as most any mass murder can verify, is always a good reason to destroy other people’s lives.
Can this kind of thing — these shades of Salem, Massachusetts — happen again? Since the witch-hunts have, in different forms, happened so many times in the past, extrapolating from historical records suggests that you can count on it.
Would a jury of individuals educated and practiced in Korzybski’s non-Aristotelian system of reasoning have found for the defendants in these witch-hunt cases — found for the defendants on the basis that not enough rational substantiation had been provided to verify the prosecutor’s claims? Since anyone on a jury having common sense would be a pox to either the prosecutor or defense — and in most cases a pox to both — one or the other of the court’s official combatants would likely insist that any null-a’ers be thrown off the jury. So the answer is … probably not.
But as far as the lies our culture loves to tell us — especially when it comes to ferreting out the roots of steampunk — there have been few lies as effective as our own self-induced deception as to what the Victorian era was really like. In fact, for the most part said assumptions are about as substantial as the repressed memories freely fabricated by your friendly neighborhood pre-school counselor.
When referencing the real moral and social values of the Victorian era, one of the most uniquely uncensored records can be found in the pages of a book by Steven Marcus titled “The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England.” This book was published in 1964. My volume is a 1966 reprint, and my penned notation on the book’s front flyleaf states, “This book is from the Salvation Army store and was added to my collection on Saturday, August 6, 1971.”
I annotated that little blurb because the Salvation Army, like most such organizations, routinely trashes any issues of Playboy or other morally questionable literature that finds its way into the Army’s drop-boxes. Apparently deceived by the gold stamping on the spine of the book’s red cloth binding — a stamping which noted that the volume was part of Indiana University’s Institute for Sex Research’s Studies in Sex and Society (but only in very small letters) and otherwise reproduced (in very large letters) only that part of the book’s title stating The Other Victorians — this volume was allowed to survive. If the Salvation Army’s moral screeners had only cracked the covers and read a few verbatim quotes taken from some of the Victorian era’s most raunchy smut, the book’s fate would have doubtless been the fires of perdition. Which suggest the Army’s moral screeners assumed anything with “Victorian” in the title just had to be as bland as Silas Marner — and therefore appropriate for “Salvation” sensibilities.
Much of the Victorian era’s pornography (like most of today’s hardcore pornography) was delusional — meaning it tended toward the typical male fantasy of a society simmering with such barely suppressed sexuality that it tended to erupt into orgies with little or no provocation, and usually at the most unreasonable times and places. (Which oddly echoes the prosecutorial assumptions placed before juries in the above noted sex-cult cases.) And like most pornography, the material quickly becomes an endless repetition of page after page attempting to find a new way to say the same thing.
Conversely, some classic pornography is written with a light, innovative touch — perhaps the most readable and potentially endearing example of such being John Cleland’s novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (a.k.a. Fanny Hill). True enough, Fanny Hill, having been first published in 1748, was from the Georgian era rather than Victorian. However, its underground popularity carried it across the entire Victorian period. Perhaps Fanny Hill’s saving grace is its tongue-in-cheek attitude, its lack of “vulgar language”, and the fact that it tends to demean its male characters more than its female characters.
If you’re curious, the book is in the public domain and you can download it for free at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25305/25305-h/25305-h.htm.
For examples of true Victorian era pornography, of particular interest is an eleven volume one-million plus word opus titled My Secret Life — a portion of which can also be downloaded from the Gutenberg Project. Reportedly first published in consecutive editions between 1888 and 1894, this book is an incredibly revealing though unintentional exposé of the brutal attitude of entitlement among English society’s wealthy 1% as related to the lower social classes. Especially notable is the usury entitlement the men of that era were free to openly express in both their social and sexual relationships with lower class women, girls, and young boys.
My Secret Life was extensively quoted in Marcus’s The Other Victorians as an extremely assessable shortcut to the real Victorian era — and by “real” I mean the horrendous social and economic disparity that all that highly regarded chivalrous pretense was meant to hide.
As for the narrative contrast between Fanny Hill and My Secret Life, perhaps the dichotomy can best be explained by examining the personal lives of authors believed responsible. These were two very different men.
It’s believed John Cleland wrote Fanny Hill while in an English debtor’s prison. His family was quite wealthy — meaning he grew up rich and well educated. But he was cut-off from the family money early on, so tried to earn a living writing — as well as engaging in various other schemes such as the one that landed him in debtor’s prison. Fanny Hill was his only true success. And even then, since it was adjudicated pornography and therefore illegal to openly publish, he profited little from the underground printings of the book. That is to say, he was hardly in a position to take the matter to court.
There have been speculative assertions that Cleland, writing as a female having intercourse primarily with males, was himself a homosexual. This strange juxtaposition of sensitivities, along with Cleland’s attempt to avoid vulgar language while otherwise writing quite explicitly, may be the reason the book continues to be popular — especially among women.
Though the harsh My Secret Life was anonymous in authorship, the assumed writer was an extremely wealthy English businessman named Henry Spencer Ashbee. Among Ashbee’s other accomplishments was the accumulation of what was believed to be the largest single collection of pornography in the world — much of which still resides within the catacombs of the British Museum. It’s believed the inspiration for his multivolume novel was drawn from his extensive pornography collection, from his own erotic adventures, and from his discussions with his wealth gentlemen peers — among those male friends the very glazing on the crust of Victorian British and European society.
As for whether Ashbee’s attitude of entitlement to sexually abuse extended only to women and children of the lower classes, he eventually became so conservative in his social and political outlooks that he separated from his pro-suffragette wife and became estranged from his socialist, and worse yet, homosexual son.
As an interesting aside, that estranged son, Charles Robert Ashbee, became one of the leading designers of and motivators for the English Arts and Crafts movement — characterized as an artistic and literary rebellion against the overt ornamentation and pretention of the Victorian era. In America that rebellion eventually resulted in the Craftsman style — an architectural design classification common among Spokane’s more notable historical homes.
And that draws us back around to steampunk.
Steampunk is all about style. And it’s all about science fiction and fantasy stories plotted as revisionist histories occurring in alternate realities. The essential premise of steampunk design rests upon a question. What if the design elements of the Victorian era — as well as some of the assumed social customs and mannerisms — were drawn forward as the dominant characteristic of the current era and beyond? What would the technology, esthetics, and social intercourse within such a world be like?
And we call the resultant vision steampunk in part because steampunk is an explicability drawn from the axiom that form follows function.
American architect Louis Sullivan — often referred to as the father of the modern skyscraper and also known to be the primary mentor of the idolized architect Frank Lloyd Wright (See “Falling Waters”) — coined the often quoted phrase “form (ever) follows function” when, in his article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (published in the March, 1896, issue of Lippincott’s Magazine), he wrote, “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. That is the law.”
In college I was habitually in trouble with one of my English teachers for using just that kind of “old fashion Victorian” phrasing in my writing. But then again, Sullivan was educated in an era when poetry was considered a valuable part of a person’s education. Said poetic education was often exposed when composing letters, essays, and prose in general; often expressed as a consideration for the mystical tonality — the music — found within the words being written.
The pretenses of the Victorian era were a superficiality laid over the ugly flowering of the industrial age; the ugly riptide induced by the waning of the ancient agrarian epoch and the inflow of the dehumanizing industrial age; the creation of a class of super-wealthy industrialist within a world conditioned to associate wealth with the social privileges of royalty; the rise of a sub-class of industrial surfs drawn from the associated masses of displaced agricultural workers.
This was very much a world looking for a new economic system that could address the festering economic disparity that was threatening world-wide revolution. This was a world ripe for new economic theories. What came to address that hunger was the semi-philosophical musings of Karl Marks and associates. And that inflamed the upper-class’s revulsion toward all things egalitarian.
The world we think of as Victorian was essentially a repressive lid cinched tight over the social pressure cooker of the new class of industrial surfs.
This was also a world that drew its esthetic sensibilities from the strictures imposed on design by mass production; from a design reaction to the esthetic limitations imposed by said mass production; and from the mechanizations and technologies that made that mass production possible.
The art of steampunk conceptualizes worlds of the past, present, and future in which elements of the Victorian era continued to evolve while still retaining their traditional flavor.
Prior to the late nineteenth century’s advent of arc and acetylene welding, the only way to join large plates of metal was by riveting, bolting, or processes similar to the hand forge-welding practiced by blacksmiths. Though Victorian industry could produce large pieces of plate steel, those pieces could only be joined into an essentially monolithic unit by riveting. If an ironwork manufacture needed to create a massive singular block of complex three-dimensional metal — a mounting base for a large, stationary steam engine for example — the only viable way was to cast it in one pour — or in several pours that could then be bolted rigidly together. Since the sharp, angular surfaces of welded plate metal seen on modern industrial machinery are artifacts of the materials and joinery technologies used, the beauty of the rounded, flowing, and far more esthetically pleasing forms of Victorian era’s machines are similarly artifact of the metal casting techniques used to create them. Though form does follow function, in most cases the potentials of those functions and forms also follow the limitations of the materials available.
Due to the simple economics of size, Victorian era machines were often quite massive. Instead of small engines placed at the point of use within a factory, massive central engines were used and the power distributed throughout the area by power shafts and takeoff pulleys.
Two of the elements often seen in modern steampunk design are the flowing lines of objects likely casted, and the rivet-heads indicating the manner of joining those various objects.
Another element is the visibility of internal parts. Exposing gears and cogs — something that would drive modern consumer safety advocates into hissy fits — were common on machines and devices of the Victorian era. The internal workings were often designed to be seen — as mechanical ingenuity itself became a stylistic element.
The assumption may have been that the purchaser of internally exposed machinery would have enough sense to not stick body parts into the workings (though the actual reason for leaving so much exposed was likely more a matter of avoiding the extra expense involved in providing an otherwise non-functional covering). And then, there’s the possibility that the low probability of a successful product safety lawsuit calculated against the extra profit gained by creating an unsafe product made such considerations as consumer safety of little economic importance — about as important as worker’s safety in general during the Victorian era. The legal and political systems of the Victorian era were quite literally owned by the rich. Consumers and workers — especially lower class consumers and workers — were by-in-large on their own.
Steampunk also envisions a world in which Thomas Edison was only a minor figure. Rather the science of the time reflected a fruition of the theories and inventions of Nikola Tesla — including wireless power transmission and electromagnetic flying machines in the shape of cigars and saucers.
Steampunk envisions a world in which steam is still the primary motive force of industry. Perhaps it’s envisioned as a world in which coal is abundant and petroleum limited. Or perhaps some other premise is used to justify altering our known reality. Whichever, it requires no greater suspension of disbelief to accept a steampunk world than that required for a world where vampires, witchcraft, or dragons are real.
As for fashion, plush fabrics are often combined with leather and feathers to produce an homage to the styles of the Victorian era — though seldom is the manner of women’s dress in steampunk a full reflection of the Victorian era’s haute couture. Most often what’s seen is a combination of visual cues that suggest something more like modern Hollywood’s version of a Victorian era prostitute.
Could the actual working girls of that era have afforded to dress in such shoddy opulence? As for those women euphemistically designated as “kept”, one might reasonably assume both they and their keepers would normally prefer to draw less — not more — attention to the couple through the manner of her dress. Then too, steampunk tends to add a strong fetish element — for example, the shortening or lifting and clipping of the traditional floor length hems in order to expose booted feet and silk stockings. Or wearing a corset or bustier as outerwear with décolletage naturally emphasized. None of this is without president since fetishes tend to over-ripen during times of severe sexual suppression — as did the many other fairly novel sexual practices reflected in Victorian era pornography.
So though steampunk has adopted variations on many of the signature design elements of the Victorian era, it’s most certainly not your great, great, great grandmother’s Victoriana. There’s no language of flowers or stifling social conventions. And women are most certainly not property or sexual confections to be used and then ignored. Steampunk is more like Laura Croft with a bustle — and a brass-plated blunderbuss aimed right between your eyes.
The women of steampunk are liberated in ways that Victorians would consider absolutely scandalous. As for the men’s fashion, it’s about their same dull and doddering usual — though the jacket lengths, lapels, and organic materials are as always nice.
I’ve read very little of what’s classified as steampunk literature. What draws me into the subculture is the design and artwork. As for the latter, perhaps the most startling and compelling is represented by Aspen Comics’ Lady Mechanika. There having been a number of problems with the start-up, this comic book has only managed three issues so far. But the fan-base is increasing rapidly as more people discover this unique take on the steampunk world. The cover art is readily available online through any number of sources — probably the most complete being Aspen’s homepage.
The purpose of all the above rambling is to thread toward an understanding of the world of steampunk as expressed at SpoCon’s Steampunk Spectacular Spectacular fashion show. So now back to that — with just one more small detour.
The term “punk” goes back quite a few years. Act 2, Scene 2, of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor — possibly written as early as 1597 — contains one of the first known iterations of that word. The character Pistol, referencing his amorous pursuit of Mistress Quickly, says, “This punk is one of Cupid’s carriers: Clap on more sails; pursue; up with your fights: Give fire; she is my prize, or ocean whelm them all!”
This doesn’t seem to make all that much sense until you understand that in Shakespeare’s time the term “punk” indicated a harlot — in essence a prostitute. And just as an aside, the term “fights” indicated shields or barriers placed along a ship’s deck for the crew to hide behind during a battle at sea.
Since that era the word has carried any number of meanings — the sexual meaning having changed from heterosexual to homosexual in context, the latter context indicating a receptive partner during prison sex. And by the James Dean era of the mid-twentieth century it had evolved to indicate any juvenile or young-adult, though usually male, of the delinquent persuasion. It’s asserted that the term “punk rock” was coined in the early 1970s as an open celebration of the delinquent behavior within rock and roll’s sub-culture. As for the sexuality of punk rock, this appears to have a certain affirmative action quality (see Joan Jett).
In 1983 the term cyberpunk — a literary plotting device that tends to explore the consequences of blending high-tech cybernetics with moral and ethical delinquency — surfaced in science fiction literature. Said delinquency was sometimes plotted with individual who incorporated cybernetic augmentations into their bodies. Another common thematic element is a story laid in a world owned and corrupted by various mega-corporations — which seems to carry a certain moral resonance to current events.
Literary devices aside, it’s interesting to note that the thematic and stylistic embellishments of the cyberpunk genera are quite rational as far as the likely outcome of interfacing complex technology with human psychology is concerned — especially when the derived theme mixes in the insatiable and more-often-than-not socially disruptive greed generated within consumer driven markets when such markets are politically manipulated by mega-corporations through their wholly owned political proxies.
Since existent mega-corporations have no real national identity — despite the constantly droning Orwellian doublespeak from their public relations machines — the fate of any given political structure within the world is of little importance as long as the corporations are free to follow the wealth wherever it leads, and stash their loot wherever it seems most secure.
Consider how much the United States as a whole seems to be moving toward the Los Angeles depicted in 1982’s Blade Runner. Although that movie was filmed before the term cyberpunk was coined, the social deterioration of the United States into a highly stratified society was clearly suggested. That, and the cyber and bio-technology the movie depicted, has earned the movie the general accolade of “classic cyberpunk”. And possibly made it highly predictive of what’s actually to come.
This brings us to another aspect of steampunk, the incorporation of cybernetics into the style. For a clearer understanding of that I suggest you reference the above noted comic book, Lady Mechanika.
I thought SpoCon’s Steampunk Spectacular Spectacular fashion show was quite good. Or maybe, since I was raised in a rural community, I'm just too easy to please. When we had our Old Settlers' Day parade, the "floats" were hay wagons pulled by tractors. The decorations on the floats were made of cardboard and crepe paper. But no one worried about that because the thing really being celebrated was our sense of shared community.
Since I’m not looking with a trained fashionista eye, I’ve no idea how professional the designs cat-walked at SpoCon were. Still, most anyone paying attention to the avant-garde fashion shows put on by world renowned designers will doubtless note that most real women wouldn't be caught dead wearing some of the stuff said professionals create. True enough, the more radical creations of haute couture are usually intended as nothing more than photograph-and-toss publicity confections in which practical matters such as breathing, walking, sitting, or managing to squeeze into and out of without impaling oneself on some pointy bit of architectural bric-a-brac are apparently considered unimportant. Since none of the young ladies and men modeling SpoCon designs seemed to be in pain, turning blue, or in a state of kinesis impairment, I'll assume our local designers at least understood how to put together a wearable garment.
In other words, if you're going to design something to be worn for extended periods of time, you'd better have enough ingenuity to come up with something for people having all the usual biological weaknesses — like having to pee on occasion; or needing to evaporate enough cooling sweat to avoid hyperthermia despite being poured into the haute couture equivalent of a latex condom.
And also, while I would have dearly loved to have seen someone do an homage to Aspen's Lady Mechanika despite the architectural difficulties (and yes there are architectural, engineering and materials science considerations in proper garment design), I do understand that there are some very real financial limitations involved when it comes to building a world class garment — especially one requiring the extensive leatherwork and cast metal, fiberglass, or resin accouterments one would expect of Lady Mechanika or the like.
Even though the fashion show was amateur in nature, neither I nor any of the other observers seemed disappointed. We were at liberty to sit close to the action, and then freely mingle among the models afterward — neither of which I'd have expected at one of the large, nationally recognized fan venues.
As for the photos accompanying this article, I should note that I'm not a trained photographer — nor is my camera particularly high-tech. Many of my photos came out motion-blurred due to the long shutter speeds required in the low light conditions of the show. As a result, I don't have useable photos of some of the more inventive costumes.
And lastly, the designers and models seemed to be having fun — as was the audience. I’ve always assumed that to be the essence of fandom.