Full Steam(punk) Ahead

Steampunk CohanMark Cohan fully embraces the Steampunk culture as a scholar-researcher.

Assistant Professor Mark Cohan focuses research on unique subculture

Written by Maura Beth Pagano, '12| Photography by Mike Kane
Although Mark Cohan is an accomplished scholar of the Steampunk subculture, he admits, “Steampunk is, in reality, difficult to define.”

According to Cohan, an assistant professor of sociology, the simplest explanation of Steampunk is that it emerges from an interest in Victorian-era science fiction.

“Steampunk is about imagining the future from the past,” says Cohan. In practice, this takes many forms. “It is a multitude of things: a subculture, an arts movement, an identity, a literary genre, an aesthetic.”

Cohan is the author of the paper, “The Problem of Gears and Goggles: Managing Membership Boundaries and Identities in the Steampunk Subculture,” which he presented at a 2012 meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association in San Diego.

His interest in Steampunk subculture started as a personal curiosity and, at first, he didn’t pursue it on an academic or professional level. But when he found himself “between projects,” he decided to seize the opportunity to take a more in-depth look at Steampunk. Cohan has cultivated an impressive knowledge of the subject, but as he shares, the idiosyncratic nature of Steampunk means his study isn’t finished just yet.

Cohan’s work on Steampunk took the form of an ethnography, a kind of research aimed at understanding a group or community by participating in it. Cohan says, “I had to dwell among them. You know, do their thing.”

For starters, this meant attending SteamCon. This annual convention takes place in the Seattle area, which is home to a sizable Steampunk community. Cohan says he was among only a handful of the 1,800 attendees who wasn’t in costume. That’s the thing about Steampunk community members— they’re a dedicated breed.

For Steampunk enthusiasts, “in costume” means donning the apparel most of us would associate with Victorian England or the early 20th century Ameri- can Wild West. But it doesn’t stop there. A Steampunk look also incorporates an element of sci-fi or technology. For example, a gentleman sporting a top hat and waistcoat might complete his look with a bionic arm. Cohan says that for both men and women, goggles have become essential in a Steampunk wardrobe.

The Steampunk approach to fashion says a lot of about how members of the culture value the notion of DIY. Many
of the accessories, gadgets and various accouterments associated with Steampunk are handmade. In fact, prefabricated embellishments might even be considered taboo.

Within the community, this appreciation of DIY reaches beyond fashion. “These people are making a cultural statement and a political statement,” says Cohan. Their celebration of handcrafted goods and rebuff of mass-manufactured products is an intentional rejection of modern corporations.

Not only is the community inclusive when it comes to sharing resources, but also in terms of accepting its members for who they are. And that’s a good thing, because as Cohan notes, Steampunks come from all walks of life. One’s day job, socioeconmic status or sexual orientation are inconsequential to Steampunks. In fact, cross-gender costuming is a common occurrence within the community.

Cohan likens Steampunk to an “identity creation machine.” Because the community is so supportive, and so uniquely contrasted with mainstream culture, the opportunities for creative expression are endless.

“Steampunk gives people the freedom to create their own identity,” says Cohan.


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