A few weeks ago, I woke up to a text from a friend: a link, and the words “This needs to end.” A bit later, a text from someone else: same link, and “I’m struggling with this.” That afternoon, another one: same link, and “Honestly lol.” All three of these friends can be reliably counted upon to send me things they imagine I will hate. Sometimes they get it wrong, but hardly ever.
The link was to a crowdfunding page. A coffee shop close to where I live in Cape Town, South Africa, was trying to raise an extraordinary amount of money — just over half a million rand, or about $36,000 — to build a special and new kind of bar. It’s too easy to quote disparagingly from the crowdfunding page, but I do want to establish here that the shop’s stated aim was “to build something joyfully extraordinary,” and that the joyfully extraordinary structure they had in mind would allow guests to experience the following: “You will step through a gate, onto a private platform, with your own personal barista and party, the gate will shut behind you and the entire brew bar will levitate, taking you and your friends/family into a private space, overlooking our cafe, but providing a distinctly private experience.”
It’s all already enough to make someone feel very mad. I can’t even take any joy from the fact that have hit just over one percent of their target, with two days to go. But here is the bit that truly wipes me out: “We don't want to give too much away, but here are some key words. Think pneumatics, hydraulics, levitation, aeronautics and of course, steampunk."
Of course. There it is. Mercilessly, steampunk. Consistently, steampunk. For Christ’s sake, steampunk. Livia Soprano wishing the Lord would take her now: steampunk.
For reasons which no one will ever explain to my satisfaction, this coffee shop, called Truth Coffee, is “steampunk themed.” It doesn’t have to be. The coffee is good enough that it could have been any theme it wanted, even just the simple concept of “a soothing place to have coffee — some plants here and there. People are pretty tired first thing in the morning.” But no. It is a steampunk shop. Don’t understand? Me neither! Want to find out more? Me neither! Well, tough. We will try to learn together, along with all the reviewers online who are gamely trying to grasp what is going on: “the team came up with steampunk as the appropriate conceptual reference, as both coffee roasters and espresso machines display romantic, steam powered technology.” Ok. For another steampunk restaurant, in Johannesburg: “Adorned in Victorian splendour, with accents of red and copper, the restaurant boasts bespoke furniture, a giant golden clock complete with cogs, and a mysterious birdcage-like contraption.” The food at these places seems to be mostly burgers with a lot of stuff on them, and overwrought pizzas. There is something at Truth Coffee called a “Steampunk Benedict,” which is just a normal eggs benedict. Steampunk food is whatever you say it is, because steampunk, obviously, has nothing to do with food. It has to do with steam.
Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a literary and aesthetic movement that gained prominence in the early ‘90s and is based around answering the question: “what if the internal combustion engine had never been invented and all future technological advancement was powered by the mighty force of steam?” Well? The are steampunk festivals, such as the recent one in England, where everyone dresses up in fashions that seek to answer the question, “What if we wore Victorian clothes such as waistcoats and corsets and tiny little top hats, but in a futuristic way?” Everyone is very excited about airships, and analogue computers. There are many twirly moustaches. I read a description of steampunk clothing which described it as pulling together “the ‘best’ looks of the Victorian era — explorers, soldiers, countesses, lords and prostitutes — to today’s most relevant street styles: goth, burlesque, the fetishism of the Suicide Girls, the lace and leather of pirates, and the frills and capes of vampires.”
Hmm. Sometimes the best way to understand something is to understand its opposite. According to a steampunk forum called “Brass Goggles,” the opposite of steampunk is “consumerism,” “ice hipster,” “something devoid of style, romanticism, anachronism, and steam-powered machinery,” and “gangsta rap. We aim to be gentlemen, they aim to be thugs.” The overarching premise seems really to be “The Victorian era: I miss it.”
While Truth Coffee is ferociously committed to what we must call the steampunk lifestyle, there are other places near me where people can gather to participate in the vibe. In September last year, a steampunk restaurant opened bearing the name TRE STEAMPUNK RESTAURANT (I’m not screaming, the restaurant’s name is in fact in all caps). The food (lots of tall burgers) was apparently great, but there were clocks and cogs all over the place, and a huge picture of Sherlock Holmes with the inside of his skull exposed, smoking a pipe. Other key inspirations, according to an earnest early review, were Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. The décor was described as a “whimsical Monty Pythonesque approach to the theme.” You can’t eat in an environment like that.
TRE STEAMPUNK RESTAURANT is closed now — it was on a dead corner, one of those blighted spaces which sees a new restaurant open about once a year. A new steampunk restaurant will open to fill the void that it left. I know that it will, because I see steampunk everywhere now, and it’s only getting worse. Even when a restaurant does not explicitly announce itself as steampunk-affiliated, it will include enough steampunkish stuff to make me feel triggered. Bars made from repurposed pressed-tin ceilings. Too much copper cladding, the continuing use of Withnail and I-ish terms to describe alcoholic drinks (“libations” and “elixirs” and “potions,” ugh), and an overall aesthetic that forces you to think of monocles and flying machines and gentlemen inventors getting up to mischief.
There are so many steampunk-themed parties here now that a popular costume-rental shop advertises the availability of steampunk clothes in a whole separate category from other kinds of costumes: FANCY DRESS, PROP RENTAL, STEAMPUNK ATTIRE. Every year before Afrikaburn (the South African version of Burning Man), there are pleas made on social media for spare steampunk goggles, or anything else cool like that. I have never and will never go to Afrikaburn, but I know that the annual presence of a burlesque bar called Steampunk Saloon is considered to be one of the highlights of the festival. “Does anyone have a fob watch I can borrow for the weekend” is now a sentence I am used to reading. “Anyone got a tiny top hat or interested in splitting a ride with someone who loves the idea of Victorian time travel.” It’s everywhere, and getting worse.
I would find all of the above embarrassing no matter where I lived. But I live in South Africa, and so all this is just a footnote to the bigger embarrassment of nostalgia for the Victorian era in a country still devastated by the effects of Victorian-era imperialism.
I am not above coming up with a high-minded reason to justify my prior decision that something is shitty or ugly, but I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to suggest that Cape Town’s affection for steampunk is ideologically bad, a way for white people to be misty-eyed about the past without copping to it. In Truth Coffee Steampunk HQ, for instance, there is a large poster on the wall advertising 1652 Blend — 1652 being the year the Dutch East India Company arrived in Cape Town, paving the way for colonization.
Truth Coffee’s flagship location is in one of the most expensive parts of the city. It is not overtly steampunk-themed, but it has enough decorative touches to put a person in mind of the Victorian era: images featuring complicated and arcane machinery, a typewriter here, an old Singer sewing machine there. Missing from these references to the past is a direct acknowledgment of the fact that the coffee shop is situated at the entrance of the Prestwich Building, a slave memorial site. Underneath the Prestwich Building is an ossuary containing the bones of hundreds of slaves executed by the Dutch colonial authorities in the 17th and 18th centuries. I went there the other day, and the people I saw drinking coffee and swearing loudly into their phones did not seem overly troubled by the fact that underneath their feet, there were thousands of boxes of human remains.
I’m trying to see all this as an outsider would. It’s not working very well, because trying to see it like that means trying to see it as someone who hasn’t hated steampunk from the moment they learned of its existence (I trace this to when I saw a poster for the 2011 Martin Scorsese movie Hugo, which shows a small boy hanging off a big stupid brass clock, but my friend Simon assures me that it was earlier: “We walked past this steampunk exhibition once in London, and you were not at all impressed.”) There are so many things that distress me personally about it, not least of which is that even objecting to it feels lame. But steampunk is like Afrikaburn in that even though you can never mock it enough, you have to keep trying.
I am not the first person to point out that there might be something wrong here. But wider online arguments about whether or not steampunk is racist were at their peak in about 2012, a.k.a the last time the rest of the world gave a shit about steampunk, when Prada introduced a “steampunk-influenced” menswear line, and America’s Next Top Model did a steampunk photoshoot featuring a train and a live owl. In Cape Town, however, it is still powering along, and the rot has spread to Johannesburg as well. There are three different steampunk restaurants in that city now, and no reason to suggest there aren’t more coming. It needs to end.