The New World of Steampunk

Steampunk is a world where everything is possible. From fantastical technology to elves, goblins and talking dinosaurs, everything can happen in a steampunk universe. Whether it reinvents a 19th century far away from the dreariness and oppression of the actual historical era, or imagines a future so far away that technology has mutated into zeppelins and giant moving cities, it is a genre that is surprisingly unconstrained in spite of its apparently specific definition (science fiction meets Victoriana).

Some scholars have argued that by definition, steampunk is revolutionary, counter-hegemonic and resistant. This could explain why is occasionally seems to resist its very own definition. My hypothesis is slightly different: as far as I’m concerned, steampunk is not so much a revolutionary genre, but rather a fundamentally anarchist one. That is, not in the sense of its politics, but in the sense of its construction. There is no real ‘government’ in steampunk, in the sense that no one gets to decide what steampunk is. There are steampunk authors, of course, but no one so far has reached a position where they could be considered as the ultimate steampunk-maker. Therefore, what steampunk is and will become is entirely up to anyone who can create a bit of steampunk: that is, the entire steampunk community.

Before having a look at the steampunk community in general (which promises to be a handful, between conventions, DIY, writing, gaming… even steampunk knitting might be enough for a whole article), we’ve decided to have a look at steampunk in  virtual world. Specifically, what does steampunk look like when people are entirely free to build their own zeppelins, brass bacta tanks and mechanical brains? The results have been released this week in Computers in Human Behavior. Interestingly enough, steampunk in the virtual world of Second Life seems to have closer ties to science fiction than to actual Victorian re-enactments. But remarkably for such a diverse community, Second Life steampunk remains highly consistent and recognisable. Head over here to read more about it! The article will be publicly accessible until December 27th.

Recent publications: What do steampunk and zombie apocalypses have in common?

After a busy couple of months, two of our articles have found a home! They’re both available in open access, from Advances in Anthropology and PLOS ONE. Between the two of them, they represent quite a good sample of the variety of our current research interests. “The Steampunk Doctor” mostly focuses on literary works, and gives a comprehensive description of the figure of the medical doctor in steampunk works, insisting on how it might be tied to contemporary concerns about medical progress and bioethics. “Surviving at any cost“, on the other hand, focuses on the massively multiplayer online game DayZ, and investigates the reactions of players to situations they encountered while embodying their avatar in the game.

This may seem, at first glance, like a rather broad range of research interests. But contemporary literature and virtual spaces have more in common than it may seem. The keyword here is “community”. Indeed, steampunk is not solely a literary genre: there is an entire steampunk community, engaging in a variety of activities such as cosplaying, DIY, get-togethers, and yes, producing literature or other art forms. Communities of fans tend to use the Internet as a privileged way to not only make communication easier, but to conduct other types of activities, such as gaming, role-playing or fan fiction writing. Some artistic genre which are highly associated with a given community (such as steampunk, science fiction, or comic books) and the workings of an online community thus represent two facets of the same coin. Moreover, the same mechanisms tend to underlie the production and consumption of fiction and the constitution and enjoyment of an online community in a virtual world. Both require a degree of identification and immersion: identification with an avatar or a fictional character, and in many cases, identification with a community, which is achieved through the recognition of its specific common cultural baggage (tropes, for instance, or local knowledge); immersion in a fictional world, or in an even more marked way, through the embodiment of an avatar that will take an active part in the fictional action. There is also a degree of creativity involved, either through interactive agency in a game world, or through the many ways fans can recreate a fictional world: cosplaying, fan fiction, modding, etc. And let’s not forget the reliance on recognisable aesthetics, which make individual and collective identification easier.

This is precisely why I am grateful for my literary background when studying virtual worlds. Interdisciplinary research may be challenging, but it holds promise for a variety of fields.

News, With Some Thoughts on Aca-Fandom

Some exciting news has come up in the past few weeks. First, our article on the steampunk doctor has been accepted by Advances in Anthropology, a relatively new, but extremely thought-provoking journal with a broad outlook on the various facets of anthropology, from biological to cultural. We are also revising an article on the expression of guilt in a zombie survival game at the request of a journal, hopefully with news of publication forthcoming as well. It’s really thrilling to see so many projects coming to a close!

In other news, Matthieu J. Guitton and I recently attended the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association conference in Chicago. It was a new opportunity to interact with the people from the Fan Studies area, and to come back with a wealth of new perspectives and ideas. I brought my small contribution to the fascinating discussions that took place in the form of a presentation on the virtual steampunk community of Second Life: more precisely, I discussed how its artefacts can be used to identify it using both visual and lexical aspects, and how it relates to other communities. I was very happy to be able to contribute to this event.

One of the points that were debated at length was the position and role of the aca-fan in studying various fandoms. Obviously, this question is among the most important for fan studies, where most people straddle the line between academia and fandom, and indeed, where fan-turned-academics tend to be the rule rather than the exception. How do you adopt an academic perspective on fandom when you are a fan yourself? Is it possible to reconcile a necessarily subjective fannish perspective with scholarly rigour? Are you speaking to other fans, or to academics? How do you legitimise your position? Is a aca-fan merely a fan putting a varnish of academic theory on fannish activities, a scholar trying to disguise academic activities as a contribution to the fandom, or is it a truly new, hybrid position?

From the discussions that took place at the conference, a few important points emerged. The question of subjectivity was heavily debated. Someone used a pertinent metaphor: you can only approach the unicorn if you’re a virgin. In other words, you can only attain perfect objectivity on a subject if you have nothing to do with it, and can embrace it all from a purely external perspective. But the other side of the metaphor is even more interesting: the unicorn is a legend. You can remain a virgin forever in hope that you might get to touch it one day, but such a goal is illusory. Instead, you might as well ‘live a little’ (i.e. embrace subjectivity) and see what perspectives (imperfect as they will be) this will open to you.

The question of positioning was also debated. Who comes first: the academic or the fan? The participants came from various backgrounds, in which both cases were represented. Some were primarily fans, who had started studying their own fandom from an academic standpoint after a while. Others were primarily academics, who had become fans after having to infiltrate a community in order to study it. One thing was made clear: obviously, you cannot gain the trust of the people you hope to study if you have no knowledge of and interest for the very thing that brought them together. In other words, you cannot hope that fans will let you in on their favourite activities if you observe them from a distance as if they were lab animals. Gaining people’s trust implies showing a basic willingness to learn about their fandom by yourself before you can ask them to help you go further with your studies. It means that you need to be able to at least play the part of a fan for the duration of your observation.

This is particularly interesting, because on some level, it means that if you want to study a community, you first have to contribute to it. Being a fan is not simply being an observer: fans are essentially people who bring something to their community. The contribution can be as minimal as being part of a crowd at a concert (thus turning yourself into a living statement of the artist’s popularity), or as extensive as organising conventions. It can be monetary (buying works or related material), creative (producing fan fiction, fan art, fan vids, etc.), social (interacting with other fans, online or in real life), encyclopaedic (answering questions, creating wikis, managing news sites)… Even in its most basic forms, fandom is seldom an act of pure observation, but is contribution and exchange. Contributing to fandom when one wants to study it might therefore be a matter of ethics: being a simple observer would amount to taking without contributing, in a community where membership is defined by contribution. Becoming part of the fandom one wants to study would then not simply be a matter of convenience, but also an ethical gesture.

Finally, the question of aca-fandom ties into the question of who is addressed, and what language is used. As was mentioned during one panel, an aca-fan (a scholar who also is a fan) is not the same as a fan scholar (a fan who uses academic concepts to write about fandom). Exact terminology still appears to be a matter of debate, but this dichotomy stresses an important point: who you address changes your discourse to a certain extent. Addressing the academic world in scholarly publications implies using a certain language, a number of concepts and references that will ground your discourse in the literature of the discipline. Such constraints do not exist when writing for the fandom, but they are replaced by others: the necessity to be readable, for instance, or the reliance on different references in the form of shared allusions or jokes that will appeal to a collective sense of identity. But the question is more complex: for instance, what of aca-fans writing in academic publications, but who know fully well that they will be read by other aca-fans who may therefore appreciate inside references to the fandom? What of people writing in both kinds of venues? Legitimacy is also a concern: identifying yourself as part of a community (either the scholarly community or a given fandom) is essential to establish your discourse as legitimate. Given that many communities define themselves in part through the exclusion of what is not them (e.g. the academia as opposed to lay discourses), keeping one foot in each community is a difficult exercise. To establish oneself as a legitimate aca-fan, one must posit that fannish discourse is relevant to academia, and that academic discourse is relevant to fandom, an operation that, in some cases, might run contrary to the very identification of each of those two worlds.

Lots of food for thought…

Do we believe in fiction?

This is not the right question to ask. Of course we do: how could we upset about the death of a favourite character if we did not, on some level, believe that this character was real? The right question might be: What, in fiction, do we find believable, and how do we believe it?

One of our recent projects involved working on some aspects of that issue. I will give more details after its publication, but it appeared to us that when emotional reactions are involved, people who play a character in an immersive virtual world tend to react in a very similar way to what could be expected in real life. Even when controlling an avatar in a blatantly fictional world, they acted according to a complex set of motivations, involving emotional impulses, utilitarian reasoning and moral concerns, rather than the purely tactical moves of, say, a chess player. While they never expressed confusion about the unreality of their virtual world experiences, their reactions still matched what would be expected in a real-world situation. In other words, even people who are perfectly aware that they are having a fictional experience will emotionally react to it as if it was real.

Should we say, then, that violent movies, role-playing and video games are a danger to young people, who will start to treat reality like another shooting game?

A tentative answer might be: quite probably not, but it would be equally inexact to state that fiction has no impact on us. We do believe in fiction. The only thing is, that belief is not always literal, and different people may believe in different aspects of the fictions they engage with. Sometimes belief may be so insidious it takes a considerable amount of reflection to recognise it. One aspect of this phenomenon is the perceived authority of the text: we do not think that the events displayed in a piece of fiction are real, but we believe that the context mirrors the real world. Most of us have heard the sentence, ‘It’s true, they said it on TV’, or, ‘This is how things work in America/India/the ancient Roman world, I read it in so-and-so’s (fictional) book’. Depending on the generation or social class, a different level of authority will be attributed to different media; the phenomenon, however, remains essentially the same. Television, the internet or famous novelists will be assumed to know what they are talking about, even when they are blatantly inventing facts.

Philosopher Paul Grice stated that cooperation is the basis of human communication. When we talk to each other, our default setting is helpfulness: we try to help our interlocutor understand what we mean, and in normal communication, we tend to assume that the person we talk with is giving us relevant and truthful information, explicitly or implicitly. The notion of cooperative communication might explain why people tend to take for granted that information they find in fiction is truthful and relevant to the real world: the author should know (they are in a position of authority), and therefore, they have no reason to withhold the information they know about from their audience.

Indeed, the number of situations when people seek to derive a form of knowledge from what they know to be fiction is very large. When a man gets down on his knee to propose because he wants to be romantic ‘like in the movies’, he’s deriving a form of emotional knowledge from fiction. When someone states that American universities are driven crazy by political correctness because what Philip Roth describes in The Stain (a professor sacked for unwittingly using a racial slur), they are seeking to derive factual knowledge from invented events (even though, Philip Roth being a conservative white man, his perception of political correctness might not be entirely neutral). When writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states that as a child, she would write tales about white children playing in the snow, eating apples and drinking ginger beer, despite having never been outside Nigeria, she refers to a deeper level of belief, the belief that some realities (like a white or male protagonist, or a Western setting) are more representative, normal, or ‘universal’, than others (for instance, a female protagonist in an action narrative will still be considered as a political statement in many respect, regardless of the frequent reality of women serving as soldiers or police officers).

All those are very different forms of belief. It is not the same to believe that a fictional fact is real, to believe that human nature as portrayed in fiction is real, or to assign different levels of normalcy, otherness and relevance to groups or events based on fictions. It might therefore be extremely difficult to predict how influential or ‘dangerous’ a given work of fiction might be, or to assume how people will react to it. While outright behaviour modelling cannot be ruled out (examples can be found throughout history, after all, from the most innocuous fashion trends to more disturbing cases like the wave of suicides following the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther), the reality could often be more subtle. Playing Call of Duty might not make teenagers dangerously aggressive. It is possible, however, that it encourages many of them to believe in a world where all conflicts boils down to a binary opposition between good and bad guys, or where facing or avoiding physical violence are the only solutions available. Watching movies in which the black member of the hero’s team invariably dies before the end may not make audiences aggressively racist, but it could reinforce the belief that black people exist only in the background and can never come to positions of prominence.

Difficult as it is to predict how individuals engage with works of fiction, our default attitude is not one of perfect, lucid distance. Understanding more about it should be a fascinating pursuit.

Initiating my research blog

Having been working in research (first as a PhD student, now as a post-doctoral fellow) since September 2009, it is high time I should start getting an online slot to talk about my work. More is coming about this, including links to my online articles and PDF versions when copyright allows.

Let me start this blog by talking about my current projects a little. I’ve been fascinated by imaginary worlds for a long time. World-building is an extremely important part of the work of contemporary speculative fiction writers. M. John Harrison has famously lashed out at this trend, attributing it to a tendency of the geek community to focus all their attention on meaningless details while forgetting the more important meanings of literature. Needless to say, I respectfully disagree with this view.

Even a critic with a traditional conception of literature as a top-down process (the author creates, the audience passively receives) can find arguments in favour of world-building. A competent author does not have to conveive their world as an accumulation of encyclopaedic minutiae. Instead, details can be meaningful, and add their own symbolic charge to a story or novel. Easier said than done, of course, but couldn’t the same be said of all writing?

But this is not the only reason why imaginary universes interest me. The other is that, more than the construction of one mind, they are a great playground where whole communities can appear and evolve. From fandoms to the communities of immersive virtual spaces (be they guilds or factions in MMORPGs, or roleplay communities on Second Life and other immersive platforms), they dilute the traditional conception of authorship into a network of collaborative constructions. Communities do not simply inhabit worlds; they build them as well.

And this is fascinating, not only for aesthetic reasons (although I do enjoy a bit of virtual tourism in some of the most beautiful cities of Second Life), but because of what can happen in those shared universes. Our relationship to fiction is incredibly complicated. The questions of immersion, enjoyment and belief reach much farther than the traditional question, ‘Is this well-written or not?’ Understanding those phenomena is a powerful goal in itself; but investigating their possible applications is just as compelling. Therapeutic applications have already been outlined; I’m also extremely interested in the potential of virtual worlds for simulating hypothetical real-life situations without the constraints of a lab, or for finding new ways to teach and learn (obviously, it’s hard to forget my other identity as a teacher; one of the things I’d love to do is find out what people can learn from virtual worlds, and how to help them do it). To realise those ambitions, however, virtual universes and communities have to be better understood first.

Hopefully I will find a little time to write more about all of this!