Down with Geeks!

(Author note. I published this elsewhere once. Might as well republish it here.)

For several years, now, lefty cultural critic and man about the webs Freddie de Boer has been—how should I put this?—lamenting the laments of geek culture. His beef is that geeks are reflexively self-pitying. Anyone can see that nerdy interests are now ascendant in popular media, so why do nerds still insist on seeing themselves as cultural untouchables?

De Boer gave the neatest version of his argument in this 2012 post on Parabasis:

The major genres and media once consigned to the realm of geek or nerd culture, such as science fiction, high fantasy, comic books, and video games now dominate both in terms of commercial success and popular attention. They are simply unavoidable …

Yet despite this dominance, there remains a remarkable sensitivity towards perceived slights among these genres’ most dedicated fans.

By “remarkable sensitivity,” he means things like railing at critics who pan Batman movies. Jocks may be the archetypal enemies of high-school dweebs, but jocks aren’t known for writing snooty film reviews. The true bete-noire of geek culture has always been the snob: the mainstream critic who thinks Truffaut’s better than Tolkien, praises Lorrie Moore over George R. R. Martin.

And yet the real cultural outcasts, de Boer writes, are now the snobs themselves:

As dissatisfied as fans of comic books and sci-fi may remain at the perceived value of their cultural commitments, surely they can recognize that it’s better than nonexistence. And this is the stark reality for much traditional high art, like ballet, theater, opera, and orchestral music: what is threatened is not just their place in some nebulous hierarchy of tastes but their continued survival.

He’s right, obviously. I’d add three points.

First, geek culture may be king, but geek behavior still isn’t cool and never will be. Being a geek means loving something way, way more than most other people love it, and that kind of devotion always runs counter to the studied disaffection of the cool kids, or even the bland uniformity of the popular kids. So it’s fine nowadays to go see, say, The Avengers, even to love it. But if you start spouting off about inconsistencies with the Hulk comics, or the intricate mythology of the Thor universe, you’ll bore other people and embarrass yourself.

This doesn’t refute de Boer’s thesis, of course, just refines it. The geek who rambles on about Star Wars mythology at a dinner party comes across as a goofy, overgrown kid. But the geek who rambles on about ancient Greek mythology seems like an insufferable showoff. “What is this, a college lecture? Who’re you trying to impress?”

A related point is that the rise of geek culture has been something of a devil’s bargain. In the course of becoming popular, the cultural properties now crowding our TV screens have lost a lot of their deeper geekiness. The lore, linguistics, and poetry of Tolkien’s books have given way to glitzy effects and acrobatic action. The stupefyingly intricate plots of long-running comics have simmered down into simple narrative arcs that get recycled every few years. (Movie 1: the hero rises. Movie 2: the hero falters. Movie 3: the hero returns. Reboot and repeat.) The high concepts of classic science fiction have been hammered flat under sacks of corporate coin. In the video-game world, triple-A cashfests like GTA V and numbing addiction engines like Candy Crush suck up all the mainstream attention, while artsy indie games remain the province of enthusiasts. I could go on to talk about novels, but there’s no point, because no one would care unless those novels had been made into movies. We do sometimes get a flick like Spike Jonze’s Her to remind us that big money can still bed down with big ideas. But the countercultural SF that I grew up on survives at the fringe (albeit with two notable and worthy exceptions: Ursula Le Guin and PKD. I’m still waiting for Samuel Delany to go mainstream.)

All of which goes to say, part of the reason geek fanboys can seem so thuggish is that Hollywood and TV have elevated the most thuggish elements of geek culture. Even SF’s long streak of feminist writing has made it to the screen mostly in the form of leggy women kicking ass.

Which brings me to my last point. I’ve been arguing that certain elements of geek culture—idea-based fiction, experimental writing, indie video games—are worthier than others, and that most of what’s made it big—action blockbusters, paranormal romance, twitch-based gaming—isn’t very worthy at all. In other words, it’s perfectly possible to be a geek and feel that the old Star Trek is better than the new, or that George MacDonald is better than George R. R. Martin, or that novels are more interesting than comic books, or that most video games are garbage. So here we are, solidly within the borders of Nerdland, far from the strains of Wagner and the strokes of Picasso, and the old snob-vs-fan dynamic has popped up again. And in my experience, it provokes the same screeches of incredulous rage.
It seems that whether you’re talking about Shakespeare and Stephanie Meyer, Pollack and Rockwell, Gray’s Anatomy and the Wire, or Rush and Rolling Stone, that argument always plays out along the same lines. “Isn’t it all a matter of taste?” the populist says, and then proceeds to argue, in the most stringently moral terms, that having a certain kind of taste makes you a good person—an enthusiast, a passionate fan, a sharer of joy and delight—while having a different kind of taste makes you a bad person—an elitist, a snob, a spoiler of innocent fun.

The truth is that whether we’re talking about geek culture, high culture, low culture, foreign culture, or any kind of culture, what’s in retreat is any form of criticism on aesthetic terms.

But that’s a topic for another day.

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