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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Steampunk Freemasonry

Are Traditional Observance Lodges a “Steampunk” response to modern Freemasonry?

The title, on fist glance, may seem like a slight, but it certainly is not intended as one. What occurred to me is that, perhaps tangentially, the resurrection of the Victorian ideal of Masonic Traditional Observance Lodges seems to mirror the Neo-Victorian idea of the Steampunk movement. For those unfamiliar with what Steampunk is, the best definition comes from Wikipedia which defines it as:
Steampunk is a sub genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles or analog computers; these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or a presumption of functionality.
How this cultural phenomenon is explored today is often a manifested in dressing the past by stylizing ephemera such as watches, computers, phones, cloths, and other gadgets as well as role playing and fan gathering. At its essence is a true hearkening back o a bygone era similar to what we see in Civil War Reenactments or Renaissance Pleasure Faire acting, both of which are popular within their circles.

The use of the term genre is difficult as it’s less a commercial genre as it is a fan genre coming primarily out of fiction literature gradually expanding into the cinema. What makes this interesting is its take of the “path not taken” as the modus of its activity. It is from this fictionalized idea of the past that is celebrated and explored in the present.

As Masons you may be familiar with this genre as it was very much the setting for the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” from 2003, which wove into its story a quasi-Masonic flavor of the Victorian secret societies that has been a common theme of the steampunk narratives. Other films with a steampunk flavor include the remake of “Wild Wild West” with Will Smith and the later Anime film "Steamboy".

All of this made me consider it against the Masonic idea of the Traditional Observance Lodge movement in North America with their intent in reconnecting to the pseudo-Utopian idea of Victorian Freemasonry. This sense of pseudo shouldn’t be taken as a negative, but rather a hybridization of the Victorian motifs with a modern sensibility, which is the idea behind the steampunk movement. The modern society is hearkening back to a previous era when the occult, proto psychology, and industrialization were just beginning to be widely explored and a deep curiosity of these and other topics existed in men of letters. It was, to me, the era in which men could still speculate and explore the ideas of their late Renaissance fore bearers with an open mind and with out the baggage of the 20th century on their shoulders. Now, within the genre and within groups and clubs (societies even?) there can exist this romantic era inquisitiveness with a postmodern spirit.

It will be interesting to see how this genre unfolds and becomes a wider trend of merging a fictional past of wild inventiveness with mechanization and ritual to produce a new take on an old idea. Taken further, imagine a lodge dedicated to this Steampunk approach as alchemical solutions giving way to mechanical ones. Why not approach the fraternity in the period when Pike was in his glory and the A.E. Waites and Levi’s of the world were starting to take shape? I’d imagine it would be a lot of fun to see a Steampunk lodge turning its gears on steampower.

More on steampunk at the workshop.

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