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Re-assembling the Victorians: Steampunk, Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Industry

Ré-assembler les Victoriens : steampunk, cyborgs et éthique de l’industrie
Helena Esser


Si le discours victorien postule une opposition binaire entre l’organique et le mécanique pour redéfinir l’humain dans le contexte en pleine mutation de l’industrialisation, le steampunk reprend en la reconfigurant cette distinction à seule fin de remettre en question sa légitimité à l’ère du numérique. Esthétique populaire qui fait retour au dix-neuvième siècle à travers le néo-victorianisme, la « technofantasy » et le rétrofuturisme, le steampunk s’applique à différents médias artistiques. Il a généré une sous-culture florissante, dont les adeptes reprennent l’engouement supposé des Victoriens pour la technologie afin d’impulser leurs propres explorations anachroniques. La philosophie qui sous-tend cette contre-culture se fonde sur la nostalgie d’une technologie ré-humanisée mettant en avant la praticabilité, la vulnérabilité et la singularité, selon le précepte : « Aime la machine, exècre l’usine ». Tandis que les machines sont célébrées comme « des éléments animés qui toussent, halètent et grondent, et sont dotées d’une vie bien réelle », les humains pour leur part se mécanisent ou se fondent avec la technologie devenant des cyborgs à vapeur. Qu’elle apparaisse comme une transgression éthique ou comme la promesse du remède au trauma physique, la figure ambivalente du cyborg à vapeur peut s’appuyer sur les espérances et les anxiétés associées à l’époque victorienne pour retranscrire nos inquiétudes actuelles concernant la définition de l’humain à l’âge du numérique, en ébauchant de nouvelles alternatives plus flexibles. Dans cet article, je propose de montrer comment le cyborg steampunk opère comme métaphore culturelle dans la littérature, le cinéma et les jeux de rôles. En m’appuyant sur les théories post-humaines et différents manifestes steampunk, je suggère que le cyborg renégocie l’identité, l’agentivité et la création à travers l’esthétique néo victorienne du design.

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1‘What then, is steampunk?’ asked the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective in SteamPunk Magazine’s first issue in 2007. Since then, the answers have been manifold and vividly discussed, but many have agreed that its core philosophy might be the following: ‘Love the machine, hate the factory’.

2More comprehensively, steampunk is understood as a popular retro-speculative aesthetic which has its origins in 1980s cyberpunk, but has experienced a new, internet-fuelled popularity and reach since around 2007. It views the nineteenth century through the lenses of Neo-Victorianism, technofantasy and retrofuturism (see Perschon 2012) and may be applied to literature, sculpture, music or cosplay, its tone ranging from nostalgic to revolutionary. Steampunk is neo-Victorian insofar as it assembles Victorian architecture, fashion, music or literature into an inter-textual, hyper-Victorian collage and infuses it with anachronistic, implausible or fantastical technologies (Perschon 2012, 64). It draws on the broad and multifaceted fictional legacy of the nineteenth century, for example Dickens’s social criticism, the urban Gothic of Wilde, Stevenson, or Stoker, or the fantastic speculations of Verne and Wells. Therefore its re-stagings are often infused with romance and adventure, but may also focus on the downsides of industrial or colonial practices. Whereas the element of technofantasy may lead to the creation of airships, proto-computers or automata, steampunk’s retro-futurist element imagines the alternative futures of a past that never was from the socio-cultural vantage point of the twenty-first century.

3For those who understand it as an ‘aesthetic technological movement’ (Catastrophone Orchestra 5), a re-imagined Victorian design aesthetic provides a resonant, retro-speculative shorthand that can be fruitfully mobilized to make statements about the present—for example, our relationship to technology, or our sense of humanity. As Bruce Sterling claims in The Steampunk Bible,

Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable. . . . Once they’re gone, they’ll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks, and paper-scrolled player pianos. (Sterling 13)

4Whereas Sterling’s notion of steampunk is one of ‘funeral theatre’ (Sterling 13), others cultivate a sense of optimism, if not reverence or nostalgia for the Victorian design aesthetic—after all, they ‘love the machine’—but the fact remains that for many participants and practitioners, steampunk is intrinsically connected to discourses about humanity, technology, and agency.

5In this article, I want to interrogate in which way steampunk re-purposes and re-imagines the cyborg as a cultural metaphor for human-machine relationships, thereby re-projecting recent concerns about our relationship with a rapidly evolving technology into a pre-digital, but no less pivotal age. Presupposing that steampunk recognises and actualises a widely-felt kinship with the nineteenth century as an age of accelerated technological development, I hope to show in which way the cyborg as a human-machine fusion may resonate productively with an age with which it appears to be quite incongruous at first glance. My intention is to trace the defining characteristics of the cyborg figure as they appear in 1980s cyberpunk, a popular subgenre of science fiction in which steampunk is also rooted, and then examine its newer incarnation, the steam-cyborg, more closely in order to determine how it diverges from its predecessors and in what way it may enhance our understanding of what has recently emerged as the ‘posthuman’ and our relationship with the Victorians.

Power Struggles: Victorian Human-Machine Relationships

6Human and machine have long been understood as dualist categories that oppose or presuppose one another. Descartes famously theorized the inner workings of the human body in mechanical terms, but this way of thinking can actually be traced back to ancient Greece (Maisano 66–70). If this hints at a longer tradition of framing the human body as an assortment of mechanical parts and functions in Western cultural history, the advent of the Industrial Revolution prompted a re-framing and reversal of this relationship in order to make sense of industrial manufacture and early capitalism. At this point, the human body itself became a component in the larger system of the factory.

7In the 1830s, Andrew Zimmerman claims, Charles Babbage and Andrew Ure re-defined the term ‘factory’ and transformed ‘political economy by centring it on a factory understood not as a centre for the circulation of grain but rather a centre for the mechanized production of commodities’ (Zimmerman 7). The mechanical thus became a productive ‘political-ontological category’, because it provided an image of the machine as a ‘means of disciplining [human] labour, and the factory an assemblage of such machines’ (Zimmerman 78). Ure presupposed that mechanics and anatomy were ontologically similar or at least had a common denominator. Based on this understanding, he conducted his own ‘galvanic experiments’ on cadavers in the winter after Shelley’s Frankenstein was published, believing ‘there [was] a probability that life might have been restored’ (Ure 1819, 292). In describing a mechanized mill in his Philosophy of Manufactures for example, he characterized its ‘main-shafting, and wheel-gearing’ as ‘the grand nerves and arteries which transmit vitality and volition . . . to the automatic organs’ (Ure 1835, 32). For Babbage, the mathematician who conceptualized the Analytical Engine and is recognized today as a pioneer in computing (and a popular figure in steampunk fiction), humans and machines were equally calculable entities in an inherently rule-governed universe, and the mechanized factory constituted a step towards optimizing the process of production (Zimmerman 15). Both perspectives suggest an imagined internal and external affiliation between the organic human body and the mechanical machine that can be utilized to articulate complex economic relationships in the outside world. Considering that N. Katherine Hayles, a pioneering posthuman scholar, claims ‘the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines’ (Hayles 3), they may also provide an indicator as to why steampunk finds productive intersections here: on a metaphoric level, human and machine become intertwined as they are used to ‘articulate’ each other. Neither Ure’s nor Babbage’s view however, account for the steampunk motto ‘love the machine, hate the factory’, as both machine and factory are configured as coequal components of a system whose purpose is production.

8Karl Marx defined the factory as ‘machinery organised into a system’ and beyond that understood it as a facilitator of capitalism that contributed to the alienation of the workman from his labour:

In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage (Marx 260–61).

9Contrary to Babbage and Ure, Marx ascribes serious political and economic implications to the re-organization of human labour into a mechanized system, namely the loss of agency and dignity as a direct consequence of the reversal of power hierarchies and of the shift from human dominance over the machine to servitude. For Marx, the workman is transformed into ‘a part of a detail-machine’. He is appropriated as a less significant mechanism by the larger machine which in turn is organized into an exploitative system, the factory, which ‘exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, [and] does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity’ (Marx 260–61). Not only does the industrial factory devalue human skill by assimilating the labourer to an interchangeable prosthesis of the larger mechanism, but in doing so it drains away what makes the worker human: physical ability, agency, intellect. Here, the affiliations between human and machine are exploited for profit, while valuable human qualities are discarded as superfluous. The working body itself becomes a site of uncertainty and is, as Tamara Ketabgian concludes, ‘distorted, depleted, dismembered, and otherwise violently transformed’ (Ketabgian 22). In her study, The Lives of Machines, Ketabgian outlines numerous ways in which Victorian discourse represented human-machine interactions, and many of these can be recognized as modes of what has emerged in recent years as the ‘posthuman’. Recent scholarship on the nineteenth century further suggests that, contrary to first impressions, posthumanism might be traced back, albeit in a much more metaphoric way, beyond the Turing test—perhaps to Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Marx’s Capital, where human and machine seem engaged in a class struggle of their own.

Love the Machine, Hate the Factory

10In the same spirit as Marx, steampunk, temporally detached from the immediate concerns and consequences of Marx’s critique of the Industrial Revolution, intervenes and re-frames the discourse on human-machine relationships from a postmodern perspective. What the ‘factory’ steampunk conjures up and then condemns is a potent memory figure. In his introduction to seminal steampunk novel The Difference Engine, author and steampunk spokesperson Cory Doctorow echoes Marx’s vivid descriptions:

The factory might have given us the millionfold productivity increases that yielded the Industrial Revolution, but it achieved those gains by chaining us to machines, deskilling the artisan and turning him into a cog in the factory, stripped of judgment and dignity and disconnected from the rhythms of his spirit and the world around him. (Doctorow ix)

11The implications of his statement, however, differ slightly from Marx’s approach: ‘At its root, steampunk venerates the artisan, celebrates an abundance of technology and still damns the factory that destroyed the former’s livelihood to create the latter. . . . Steampunk subculture inhabits a contrafactual world in which these contradictions are resolved’ (Doctorow ix). Much like the Arts and Crafts movement, steampunk recognizes manufacture and craftsmanship as domains of human agency and dignity, and utilizes a historical aesthetic to resist ‘the factory’, here contemporary consumer culture and the mass market: ‘We stand with the traitors of the past as we hatch impossible treasons against our present’ proclaims the Catastrophone Orchestra, understanding the Victorian past as a productive cypher that helps express resistance and counter-culture in the present.

12Where Ruskin reverted to organic Gothic and Medieval aesthetics to oppose the inelegance of steam technology, steampunk aficionados revive the Victorian design aesthetic with its heavy, tangible materials and its ornamentation in order to ‘[r]ediscover the inherent dignity of created objects’ (Calamity 25) in contrast with the increasingly invisible devices of the digital age. The tangible, seemingly accessible Victorian machine is re-encoded as an opportunity to imbue streamlined, purely functional devices with a sense of ‘humor, history and humanity’, according to James Carrot (Carrot 337). The machine is imbued with human qualities which render possible a re-discovered kinship between user and device. Steampunk machines may even be perceived as alive. As the Catastrophone Orchestra declares:

First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. . . .  It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics. [S]teampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages and even dies. (Catastrophone Orchestra 4)

13Steampunk, much like the Victorian predecessors it re-imagines, operates on a presumed affiliation between human and machine. While most steampunk buffs may not be entirely aware of how closely their own discourse echoes Ure’s or Marx’s thinking, they utilize a perceived Victorian technophilia, broadly transmitted through a variety of popular texts, in order to re-discover a certain enthusiasm about technology. It is this intertextuality, whether consciously or unwittingly mobilized, that makes the Victorian design aesthetic specifically resonant and valuable for the steampunk devotees’ agenda. Considering that steampunk ‘revels in the concrete reality’, in the acutely physical ‘breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling’ of a machine that can be experienced through the senses—touched, heard, and witnessed—I would argue that this imagined affiliation between the operation of a physically tangible machine and that of the human body cannot in the same way be ascribed to digital technology. Digital devices are abstract, they are ‘airy intellectual fairies’ exiled to the realm of the fantastic. They are ‘soulless’ and seek ‘a Nirvana of emptiness’ (Calamity 25). Steampunk machines, on the other hand, retain an element of unpredictability, even precariousness, which makes them emotionally relatable. The design aesthetic, with its gears, boilers, compressors and levers, unstable electrical currents, and made-up energies invites associations of experiment, tinkering, discovery, and even failure. There is a sense of adventure, humour, enthusiasm, and nostalgia here which can, as Rebecca Onion has suggested, be read as an attempt to re-connect with the devices we rely on daily: ‘Through the recovery of the everyday danger of interacting with volatile objects, steampunk practitioners desire to re-engage with the physical world, subverting the sterile and safe relationships they perceive to exist between people and objects in contemporary society’ (Onion 151).

14In this way, steampunk practitioners instil a sense of humanity and aliveness into their devices, which helps construct the human-machine affiliations which they, the minimalist, streamlined objects of the internet age, lack. Today’s technology is recognized as powerful, but fragile. Alienated by today’s seamless design aesthetic, steampunk devotees reject the smooth, impersonal surfaces of digital technology. A steampunk machine, ideally, offers at least the promise of accessibility: whether faithful, functional, or entirely fantastic. Like a steam-powered cyborg, steampunk machines often reflect their inner potential on the exterior surface. The Catastrophone Orchestra phrases this as follows:

The machine must be liberated from efficiency and designed by desire and dreams. The sleekness of optimal engineering is to be replaced with the necessary ornamentation of true function. Imperfection, chaos, chance and obsolescence are not to be seen as faults, but as ways of allowing spontaneous liberation from predictability of perfection. (Catastrophone Orchestra 5)

15In this quest to re-inject a sense of individuality and spontaneity into the machine, which involves ‘imperfection’ and ‘chaos’, steampunk responds to Marx’s claim that the industrial factory drains human skill and intellect from the worker, and Ruskin’s call for the return to manufacture. In accordance with this, steampunk partisans also reject the de-humanizing homogenization of technology and the consumer culture, in which only an elite of experts can operate, beneath the impermeable surfaces of digital devices, and where the user is denied access to and understanding of his or her computer, smartphone, navigation system, etc. In this way, steampunk makers mobilize a re-imagined Victorian aesthetic to resist ‘the factory’ as a symbol of the dominant capitalistic culture at production level and re-craft their identities as users with more agency. Much like Marx or Ruskin, steampunk buffs seek to be less alienated from the technology they use and produce. The figure of the cyborg seems to be a plausible metaphor through which to explore and re-assemble these human-technology relationships. However, the cyborg figure is embedded in its own cultural history, which has to be considered before attempting to understand in which way steampunk re-purposes it.

Ghosts in the Machine: Cyborg Evolution

16As we have seen, both Victorian discourse and steampunk philosophy call into question the boundaries between human and machine, recognizing and subverting perceived affiliations in a metaphoric way to comment on human identity in an age of rapid economic and technological change. While the Victorians provided a complex metaphorical framework of ‘proto-posthuman’ ideas, the cyborg has traditionally been recognized as a fictional archetype of the twentieth century. Considering that steampunk is a postmodern, retrofuturist phenomenon which originates in the late twentieth century, an understanding of the steam-cyborg figure can only be gained against the backdrop of the ‘traditional’ cyborg that informs it.

17The term itself was coined by medical researchers Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 as a compound of ‘cybernetic organism’, which ‘deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new organisms’ (Clynes & Kline 31). Later acceptations both take up on and simplify this medical definition, establishing what we now commonly understand to be a cyborg, namely a ‘coupling between human being and an electronic mechanical apparatus’, a hybrid creature that is ‘neither wholly technological nor completely organic’ (Balsamo 11). However, as Carl Silvio notes, the cyborg is but one concept within the larger and more abstract category of the posthuman, ‘an entirely new way of thinking human beings and the widespread cultural embrace of an emergent set of paradigms and philosophical assumptions about our very existence itself’ (Silvio 2006, 115). N. Katherine Hayles, in her seminal cultural history of How We Became Posthuman, traces this way of thinking back to the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics to the 1940s and 1950s, the age of Alan Turing and Norbert Wiener (Hayles 85). It is since then that the cyborg has become both a ‘technological artifact and a cultural icon’ (Hayles 3) or, as Donna Haraway states, ‘a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (Haraway 291). Thus, the cyborg certainly fulfils an important cultural function as a ‘metaphor for our collective anxieties, hopes, and expectations concerning the posthuman condition’ (Silvio 2006, 117).

18Hayles understands the posthuman subject as ‘an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction’ (Hayles 3). She shows that developments in cybernetics, information technology and biology have led to the creation of what she views as a misguided fantasy of de-embodiment and the possibility to unite the human with intelligent machines as a gateway into the ‘purer’ realm of bodiless information based on an erroneous binary opposition between body and mind, consciousness and physicality. She posits that ‘a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates’ (Hayles 1), and that ‘information as a (disembodied) entity’ is presupposed to be able to ‘flow between carbon-based organic components and silicon-based electronic components to make silicon and protein operate as a single system’ (Hayles 2). The ontological similarity between human and machine is re-imagined in the context of the digital age. Where Victorian discourse focused on the machine-like operation of the body and the circulation of energies as similarities, the twentieth century re-conceptualized humans as information-processing machines: ‘When information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy, for the materiality in which the thinking mind is instantiated appears incidental to its essential nature’ (Hayles 2).

19Unsurprisingly, the dangers and possibilities associated with this concept of the information circuit that both connects and transcends humans and machines are key concepts in cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction and a companion genre to steampunk. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, established the cyberpunk aesthetic as a ‘tech-noir’ that coupled technological advances with social decay in futuristic hyper-cities and created a new paradigm in science fiction. Scott’s cyberpunk takes up on the creator-creature relationships and the ambiguous ontological status of the artificial being first outlined in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in an age of genetic engineering. Blade Runner casts ‘replicants’ as self-sufficient, intelligent and rational machines that can pass as human, and whose presence calls into question human-android boundaries and the validity of a biological ontology as basis for personhood: ‘Too bad she won’t live’, predicts Gaff about female android Rachael, ‘But then again, who does?’ (Blade Runner 1:44:52) At its core, Blade Runner relies on the presupposition that ‘silicon and protein operate as a single system’ (Hayles 2).

20William Gibson develops this idea in his award-winning 1984 novel Neuromancer, which has been credited with establishing the notion of ‘cyberspace’, a ‘consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, . . .  A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system’ (Gibson 1984, 59). Before the internet became thinkable, Gibson created a consistent metaphor that could be mobilized to articulate new human-machine relationships. In the Neuromancer trilogy, humans form neural links with the vast nonmaterial cyberspace through electrodes or implanted sockets. ‘Cowboys’ like Neuromancer’s main character Case move freely through fields of data and conceive of their bodies as customizable shells that house their consciousness until they next enter cyberspace: ‘The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh’ (Gibson 1984, 6). Other characters enhance their bodies for aesthetic or practical purposes. Molly, a ‘street samurai’ has ‘ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades’ implanted beneath her fingernails (Gibson 1984, 30) and mirrored lenses that tap into her sensory nerves surgically implanted in front of her eyes, allowing her to enhance her vision with additional data. The trilogy exemplifies how posthumanism imagines the body as ‘the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate’ (Hayles 3), as becomes evident in the manner in which we are introduced to the mercenary Turner:

[H]e was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat. It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysac-charides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green. (Gibson 1986, 1)

21The subject Turner does not seem to be reliant on any stable physical housing. After he is mutilated in an explosion, ‘most of him’ is stored away until it can be evacuated and re-built with synthetic body parts that resemble his former self closely, but not accurately. Many of his new body parts are foreign, yet ‘Turner’ is always unquestionably present in some shape or other, which suggests that here, body and mind do not presuppose or determine each other. In fact, during the re-assembling of his body, Turner’s consciousness is temporarily transferred into a constructed virtual reality: ‘He spent most of those three months in a ROM-generated simstim construct of an idealized New England boyhood of the previous century’ (Gibson 1986, 1). In Gibson’s genre-defining vision, consciousness and subjectivity can be articulated through abstract data and do not rely on embodiment. In turn, the physical world becomes a manifestation of bodiless information, ‘data made flesh’ (Gibson 1984, 19). As Hayles puts it: ‘If flesh is data incarnate, why not go back to the source and leave the perils of physicality behind?’ (Hayles 37). Some of Gibson’s characters do indeed merge or migrate into cyberspace. There is Dixie Flatline, a hacker who physically died when a security measure in the matrix reacted through his neural link and flattened his EEG, and who lives as a personality construct on a storage device. There is also Josef Virek, an aging billionaire who seeks immortality by translating himself into cyberspace, but fails. In the trilogy’s third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, the characters Bobby and Angie succeed in this endeavour: Bobby slowly transfers himself onto the ‘aleph’, an expensive bio chip with large storage capacity, where Angie joins him, having been endowed with neural enhancements that allow her to access the matrix without a physical link. Here, on the underlying presumption that they share ontological qualities as information-processing entities, bodies and selves are translated into data, yearning for disembodiment in the matrix while physical environments become ‘data made flesh’ and bodies become customizable shells.

22Consciousness meanwhile remains the seat of the self. It is here that the trilogy makes evident in which way ‘the erasure of embodiment is a feature common to both the liberal humanist subject and the cybernetic posthuman’, as Hayles suggests (Hayles 4, original emphasis). She explains further: ‘Identified with the rational mind, the liberal subject possessed a body but was not usually represented as being a body. Only because the body is not identified with the self is it possible to claim for the liberal subject its notorious universality, a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily difference, including sex, race, and ethnicity’ (4–5, original emphasis). Contrary to this, posthuman theory usually claims to undermine exactly this ideology of the humanist liberal self: Donna Haraway outlines the cyborg as a figure which, due to its unstable hybridity, can elude and resist the persistent ‘troubling dualisms’ of Western thought, such as ‘self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female’ (Haraway 313). However, as Hayles proposes, the posthuman and the liberal humanist ideologies also share common ground: ‘To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it’ (Hayles 5).

23It is certainly no coincidence, then, that the work of fiction canonised among cyberpunk classics, which interrogates body-mind de-couplings more deeply, should be Japanese, and as such less influenced by the liberal humanist philosophies of Western Enlightenment. Ghost in the Shell, a series of manga and anime adaptations during the 1990s and early 2000s, indeed examines the ethical and philosophical implications of disembodiment and consequent deconstructions of identities. The 1995 film, for example, tells the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg with human brain or a ‘ghost’ in a mechanized cybernetic body. She undergoes a humanist crisis of identity, seeing that her body ‘does not exist as an ontologically stable presence that guarantees her identity, but as an ensemble of parts owned by the corporation that built her’ (Silvio 1999, 60). As a hybrid of a replaceable, customizable body and a mind that contains individual memories and can access cyberspace, she is aware that her identity is ‘no longer defined by an ontology of essence’ but rather becomes ‘a signifier within a postmodern information system, its meaning determined not by a self-adhering presence but by its position within the overall pattern’ (Silvio 1999, 5960). In Ghost in the Shell, minds can merge with AI or be downloaded into different bodies, but also be hacked and manipulated.

24In these canonical cyberpunk works, the cyborg acts as a cypher that encodes collective hopes and anxieties about the (post)human condition. Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Ghost in the Shell envisioned and explored disembodiment as a result of our foray into digital technology in an age when these possibilities were only just beginning to appear on the imaginative horizon. Since then, the imaginative and theoretical possibilities offered by the figure of the cyborg have been multiplied. Today, were we to widen the definition of the cyborg to include ‘humans who extensively use or rely heavily on advanced technology, despite the fact that this technology may not actually be integrated into their corporal form’ (Silvio 2006, 115), we would have to acknowledge that we have been cyborgs for at least a decade, being ‘compelled daily to face the breakdown of the distinction between the mechanic/technological and the organic/biotic’ (Orbaugh 436). Social media, navigation systems, intelligent cars, drone technology and 3D-printing are only a few examples of recent developments that can illustrate why mainstream culture has taken up tropes once shelved in the remoter regions of science fiction, and is now re-staging them in what seems to be a second wave of cyberpunk. For instance, 2016 saw the success of HBO’s Westworld and 2017 alone has seen the re-publication of Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy in a new edition by Gollancz, together with the live action film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and the long-anticipated sequel to Blade Runner.

25While this second wave of cyberpunk is certainly more commercial and less radically abstract, it is also more accessible to young viewers. Even though these works explore similar topics as their predecessors, their topics have become far less abstract and more mundane. The 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell, while clearly indebted to the aesthetic of the 1980s and Blade Runner, features ultra-contemporary special effects, such as a life-sized model of Major Kusanagi’s cybernetic body. This prop was built by New Zealand effects institution Weta Workshop out of more than 1,400 individual, 3D-printed parts of titanium and gel flesh which would have been technically impossible even two years ago (Cohen 64–73). This technological feat makes eerily realistic the fictional premise of HBO’s successful TV series Westworld. There, a futuristic amusement park re-enacts the American Wild West for tourists (‘guests’) and is populated by so-called ‘hosts’, re-programmable and 3D-printed androids who believe themselves to be organically human. Outlining Westworld as a capitalist endeavour, the series sets into motion Hayles’s claim that the body, when ‘constituted as information . . .  can be not only sold but fundamentally reconstituted in response to market pressure’ (Hayles 42). Here, the hosts’ subjectivities are literally determined by information systems and customer demands; traumatic experiences are eradicated from their memories or their memory is re-coded to fit new narratives with the swipe of a finger on a tablet.

26These examples illustrate the fact that rapid technological developments in the last few years have fuelled the demand for cultural negotiation—a phenomenon that has moved into mainstream media. However, while the cyberpunk cyborg can be a helpful cypher to negotiate the contemporary implications of disembodiment, steampunk, too, is a cultural phenomenon which is largely concerned with and a reaction to the same developments; it attempts to re-imagine our relationship with technology in a more tangible and more emotional way, using a re-imagined Victorian industrial society as background. Which additional implications then, are created by re-projecting the figure of the cyborg into the Victorian age?

Posthuman Victorians? Steampunk Cyborgs

27In my outline of the steampunk aesthetic, I have established that steampunk re-enacts an alternative nineteenth century from a perspective that is deliberately located in the twenty-first century, so that it can explore the tensions arising between past and present dimensions. As a retrofuturistic aesthetic, steampunk re-traces evolved categories, ideas and metaphors—here, that of the cyborg as a human-machine hybrid—back to its perceived roots in a re-imagined Victorian past, perhaps in an attempt to disentangle the many layers of meaning said category has acquired throughout its development, and challenge or even re-build the meaning attached to it. At first glance, the steampunk cyborg seems to be a wholly anachronistic figure in a neo-Victorian setting, imaginable only because a perceived Victorian technophilia in an age of rapid technological development is mobilized to speculate about alternative histories. However, as we have seen, nineteenth-century discourse offers productive intersections for debates about human-machine relationships. In addition to the politically-minded debates engaged in by Ruskin and Marx and the fantastic inventions out of Jules Verne’s and H. G. Wells’s literature, it is the enduring influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, now again unencumbered by the realistic implications of biological engineering, and Charles Babbage’s pioneer work in computing that makes the nineteenth century a plausible era in which to re-enact and re-stage concerns about human-machine relationships. The Victorian age offers a fertile soil for steampunk’s alternative speculations because it provides cultural connections with the present, but certainly also because it is so far in the past. Whereas cyberpunk tends to interrogate the cyborg as a future possibility, the steam-cyborg is entirely counterfactual and fantastical, and can therefore be approached with humour, irony, even horror—or all three.

28One of steampunk’s earliest cyborgs is the villain Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) in the 1999 movie Wild Wild West. A rare example of U.S-centric steampunk, this action-adventure comedy tells the story of a U.S. Army Captain James West (Will Smith) and a U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) who have to team up to foil the plans of ex-Confederate war criminal Loveless to destroy the United States. A crippled survivor of the Civil War, Loveless seeks revenge for the loss of ‘a lung, a spleen, a bladder, two legs, thirty-five feet of small intestine, and our ability to reproduce—all in the name of the South!’ (Wild Wild West, 0:30:20) Having lost his body below the waist, he is directly fitted into a steam-powered wheelchair which conceals a number of other functions, but also ostentatiously distorts his shape as no longer fully human. Remarkably, Loveless bears similarities with a character from Victorian sensation fiction, namely Miserrimus Dexter from Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875). Dexter is an eccentric, bizarre creature presented as feminized and increasingly insane, a ‘fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one—the new Centaur, half man, half chair’ (Collins 206). He is a monstrous ‘Other’ who arouses both sympathy, embarrassment and horror, less capable of ‘normal’ human behaviour because of his distorted body. In a similar vein, Loveless is presented as a grotesque, irascible parody of manhood whose morals are as marred as his body and who, considering the film’s setting and its colourful hero, embodies the bigoted values of the defeated South that should not by right have survived the Civil War. He may also represent a fractured post-War American identity as both a literal half-man and amputee veteran. The state of his human body determines Loveless’s sanity and status, as there is no other dimension such as cyberspace into which he can retreat. His body is not a customizable shell—it is certainly not ‘data made flesh’ (Gibson 19)—but in fact his only vessel and chance at survival, so that corporeality attains a special significance in this steampunk setting. In addition, social markers such as ‘able’, ‘natural’, or ‘masculine’ can no longer be easily ascribed to his changed form.

29This becomes further evident in George Mann’s popular detective series about ‘Newbury & Hobbes’. Here, Queen Victoria herself has her life prolonged artificially with the help of an external steam-powered respirator, and a secret agent is suspended in a monstrous state between life and death by artificial means:

Ashford was less than half the man he had once been; less than half the human being he had once been. His body had been ravaged, reassembled from a shocking assortment of flesh and brass, . . .  a nightmare marriage of metal and blood. What flesh there still was, clinging to his brass exoskeleton, was rotting, decaying, sloughing away in great hunks. . . .  The exposed skin of his chest was puckered and pustulant around a large glass porthole that filled the space where his ribcage had once resided. In the murky depths it revealed, Newbury could see the grey muscle of the man’s heart, beating in time with a flickering electrical charge that shocked it repeatedly at intervals, like the precise ticking of a clock. Fluid burbled and bubbled along four clear pipes that sprouted, like giant follicles, from his shoulders, curling around the back of his head and disappearing into the depths of his skull. (Mann 217–18)

30Through vivid descriptions such as this, the steam-cyborg Ashford is presented as a Frankensteinian freak, abandoned by its creator and disfigured by an invasive technology that wounds and desecrates his human flesh by exposing its inner workings. As with Loveless, ideas of humanity, self, and dignity are closely tied to the body here: ‘It was a form of waking torture, that every minute his intellect should be housed in this wreckage of a frame, this parody of a human body’ (Mann 218). For Loveless and Ashford, the body is not a customizable shell. Its state determines which social meaning is imposed onto it. While for some characters in Mann’s universe, small technological enhancements prove practical, cyborg Ashford has been completely appropriated by the parasitic machine, yielding his flesh and his agency to it. The liberal humanist subject, according to Hayles, understands the body as ‘an object for control and mastery rather than an intrinsic part of the self’ (Hayles 5). In accordance with this notion, Mann, who reproduces classical human-machine boundaries, does not allow Ashford to form a hybrid identity, but exiles him to the realm of the monstrous. Here, human and machine intersect, but do not fuse: instead, one entity overpowers and absorbs the other one, along with the body’s ability to function as a self-determined agent in society. This is certainly an echo of Marx’s Capital, especially the passages I have quoted above.

31With this in mind, it is especially interesting to consider female steam-cyborgs: in Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine’s ‘Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences’ series (2010–present), the main character’s maid Alice is a working-class girl who has lost her legs in an industrial accident. She can fulfil a respectable, class-appropriate position thanks to hydraulic, metal prosthetics, which also hide a firearm. Similarly, in Lavie Tidhar’s Camera Obscura, Milady deWinter is a woman of colour who, after having been disfigured by the male villain, is being equipped with a metal leg and a firearm instead of a hand. Thus, as the novel repeatedly states, she is made ‘into a gun’, but also into an object that others desire to possess or a killer they fear. Both characters accept their altered state much more readily than Ashford or Loveless. When Milady deWinter examines herself in the mirror, her arm arouses ‘strange feelings’ in her, her leg ‘fascinate[s]’ her, but she concludes: ‘[S]he was still herself, for all that. She was Milady deWinter, and she was still alive. And she was armed.’ (Tidhar 266). Neither Alice nor Milady are outlined as monstrous. Apart from the fact that their enhancements quite literally ‘weaponize’ their bodies and promise (female) agency in a predatory environment, perhaps this ready acceptance is owed to the fact that women’s bodies are always already an ‘Other’—after all, Donna Haraway chooses the cyborg as an ‘ironic political myth’ that can re-stage feminist identities by resisting dualist Western myths of coherence and wholeness: ‘There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as “being” female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices’ (Haraway 295).

32M. Norton Wise observed that automata in the nineteenth century were mostly female, or ‘other sorts of uncanny or exotic creatures: talented children, blacks, acrobats, monkeys, magicians’ (Wise 163). He also examined how this gendering corresponds with Victorian conceptions of both gender and technological evolution, where the engine (active, energetic, dynamic) was aligned with the male and the purely mechanic machine (passive, repetitive, kinematic) with the female (Wise 175). Evidently, a sentient cyborg is more complex a figure to place in this scheme than an automaton, but if Victorian gender ideas indeed align with a tendency to portray mechanized bodies as ‘Othered’ and as female, that lends plausibility to Haraway’s perceived kinship with the cyborg, and may explain why Alice and Milady deWinter feel more comfortable with their enhanced bodies. Ashford and Loveless have to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer identify with the ideal of the liberal humanist (white male) subject, characterized by a unified, coherent identity, rationality, autonomy and its ‘notorious universality, a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily difference, including sex, race, and ethnicity’ (Hayles 4-5). The social meaning imposed on their hybrid bodies changes, as certain bodily markers that constitute the liberal subject (whole, masculine, natural) can no longer be attached to them. Perhaps for the female cyborgs, the transition is less radical, as they already know that ‘to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial.’ (Haraway 313).

33As we have seen, the cyborg, in Haraway’s vision, holds the potential to re-encode ‘territories of production, reproduction, and imagination’ (Haraway 292), to elude and resist hegemonic social or cultural definitions as ‘monstrous and illegitimate’ (Haraway 295). However, in keeping with cyberpunk literature, she imagines this to be partly owed to the fact that cyborgs are ‘ether, quintessence’, ‘machines made of sunshine; . . .  nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves’ and as such ‘as hard to see politically as materially’ (Haraway 294). Haraway’s cyborgs are, in short, disembodied. Steampunk moves in a different direction. Instead of discussing current anxieties about technology through what the Catastrophone Orchestra terms ‘the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics’, steampunk seeks to translate its mechanized hybrids back into tangible, externalized ‘manifestations of muscle and mind’ (Catastrophone Orchestra 4). Steampunk cyborgs, instead of merging with cyberspace like Case or Major Kusanagi, do very much fall back into the prison of their own (albeit enhanced) flesh: they are, so to say, ‘re-embodied’. This means they are not only physically encased but also socially and psychologically defined by their altered human form. Whereas cyberpunk interrogates human-machine hybrids for real future possibilities, steampunk re-projects the concerns surrounding such figures into a different direction: a counterfactual Victorian past, where it imagines the implications of cyborgism for the tangible body as a social unit. It can do so because it can productively mobilize a set of cultural debates different from the one that cyberpunk relies on, but no less fruitful. An example of this is S. M. Peters’s 2008 novel Whitechapel Gods.

34In Peters’s imaginative universe, London’s Victorian Whitechapel has become a hyper-industrial dystopia dominated by the two gods Father Clock and Mama Engine. The first, with Orwellian powers of surveillance and followers that let themselves be willingly crafted into super-human cyborgs, represents a mechanized order that seeks to eliminate human elements. They are re-made of ‘brass bones and copper nerves’ (Peters 223), or described thus: ‘Brass plates covered half his face, and his right eye had been replaced by an oversized orb of porcelain’ (Peters 33). Mama Engine, whose minions morph into spider-like automata, represents the chaotic, destructive force of steam technology: ‘The red glow of their own heart-furnaces leaked through burns and holes in their heavy clothes; some even had mechanical limbs, which held to no human shape’ (Peters 33): and a ‘black cloak scuttled by, moving on all fours like a spider, emitting an audible mechanical grinding as she moved’ (Peters 61). While these followers yield their seemingly fallible human form up to transformation, embracing alienation to gain power, the ordinary, disenfranchised workers of Whitechapel are disfigured by a mysterious virus called ‘the clacks’, which causes strange, semi-organic metallic growths such as brass bubbles, iron spikes, and gears beneath the skin:

The patient writhed and struggled in the bed, fighting a pain that distorted his features into something less than human. He was a comrade named Tor Kyrre, though Bailey could barely recognise him. Spikes of iron had sprouted from his bald pate and his bare chest was riddled with gears and bulbs of all types of metals, the tips of much larger growths festering beneath the skin. As the doctor made his second cut, lateral and shallow, across the base of the rib cage, black oil welled up, slipping down Tor’s flanks and staining the sheets and blankets. (Peters 78)

35Patients are literally consumed by a parasitic machinery from inside, and this directly corresponds to their social status. Considering that these East End workers live and work in an oppressive system dominated by the gods of industrial technology and efficiency, a setting that is productively encoded in Victorian aesthetics, the ‘clacks’ can easily be read as a symptom of these literally de-humanizing conditions:

Below, dockworkers struggled to unload the goods descending by crane from two zeppelins tethered to the Aldgate spire. No single class seemed as afflicted with the mechanical growths as the dockworkers. They shambled around like parodies of men, covered in gleaming iron pustules, hobbling on malformed brass legs, and picking at ropes and crates with hooked hands and fingerless steel stubs. (Peters 109)

36The metallic growths become displaced external signifiers of their lack of agency, and the conditions of industrial labour Marx discussed in abstract terms come to directly impact the body in explicit, invasive ways. In Whitechapel Gods, in which the oppressed finally revolt in an appropriately ‘punk’, that is rebellious, manner, bodies are violently appropriated and literally consumed by the machine, invaded, disfigured, dismembered, destroyed and deconstructed until nothing but consciousness remains as the last refuge of humanity and its final triumph. The novel utilizes fantasy and body horror to play out Marxist ideas about labour and agency and Cory Doctorow’s statements about ‘hating the factory’ through the cyborg bodies of East End citizens.


37Steampunk re-stages our relationship with technology at its perceived roots in a re-imagined Victorian past. It re-projects the cyborg, a cultural metaphor that encodes hopes and anxieties about the development of this relationship, into a past where it is necessarily disentangled from digital technologies and notions of disembodiment and instead infused with and connected to a set of different intertexts, such as Marx, Ruskin, Shelley, Verne, Wells, or Babbage. These in turn, as a sort of ‘proto-posthumanism’, allow the steam cyborg to (re-)enact debates about self-hood, agency, and economy. Ashford, overpowered by the machinery that invades his body, is quite literally an embodiment of Marxist theory, and like the workers and minions in Whitechapel Gods, runs the risk of becoming a ‘living appendage’ (Marx 261). As with cyberpunk cyborgs, ideas about a coherent, self-determined liberal humanist subject are destabilized, since the cyborg symbolises Haraway’s claim that ‘bodies are maps of power and identity’ (Haraway 315). Contrary to cyberpunk cyborgs, however, the steam-cyborg in its neo-Victorian environment may comment more explicitly on the way in which class or gender demark or define our bodies, as it centres on corporeality, not disembodiment. It incarnates into more tangible, ‘coughing, struggling, rumbling’ manifestations in which the implications of technological enhancements for the social body are more immediate and more explicit.

38Moreover, whereas the ‘it’ mobilizes its status as hybrid, as well as chimera to elude hegemonic binary definitions, the steam-cyborg, like its cyberpunk cousin, is doubly elusive. It is as Haraway’s ‘ironic myth’, that is never fully defined and as a steampunk creature, an imagination-experiment that is blatantly counterfactual and as such eludes prevalent ideas about history or reality. Like Haraway’s cyborgs, steampunk may also contain ‘contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes’ and hold ‘incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true’ (Haraway 291), such as fact and counter-fact, history and (techno)fantasy.

39Steampunk uses a techno-fantastical, anachronistic, neo-Victorian design aesthetic. The implications about labour, technology and dignity, such a choice entails, constitutes a culturally and socially-charged shorthand, through which to negotiate our relationship with the technology upon which we now depend in new ways.

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1 Doctorow, Cory: ‘The Difference Engine: A Generation Later’. Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. 2nd. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

2 Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, the. ‘What then, is Steampunk? Colonizing the Past So We Can Dream The Future’. Steampunk Magazine. 1. (2006): 4–5. Web. 12 October 2016.

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Helena Esser, « Re-assembling the Victorians: Steampunk, Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Industry »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Helena Esser

Helena Esser is a Research Assistant at Birkbeck College, where she researches steampunk cityscapes. She has also investigated steampunk femininities for her Bachelor thesis, blogged about the steampunk aesthetic for the BAVS researcher blog, and given papers on steampunk London, the anti-consumerism philosophy, and steam-cyborgs. Helena is also interested in Victorian sensation fiction and adventure novels, female authors, and memoirs of the First World War. She likes encountering steampunk ‘in the field’ and has published on steampunk London in the London Literary Journal.
Helena Esser est assistante de recherche à Birkbeck College à Londres, où elle se spécialise dans les paysages urbains du steampunk. Elle s’est également intéressée aux féminités steampunk pour son mémoire de Master. Elle poste des blogs sur l’esthétique steampunk pour la British Association of Victorian Studies et a communiqué sur le steampunk londonien, la philosophie anti-consumériste et les cyborgs à vapeur. Helena s’intéresse aussi à la littérature à sensation de l’époque victorienne, aux romans d’aventures, aux auteurs femmes et aux témoignages de la première guerre mondiale. Elle aime l’expérience directe du steampunk en dehors de la médiation de l’écriture et a publié dans le London Literary Journal sur le steampunk à Londres.

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