You're not a geek just because you like science fiction, I know that much, and you're not a geek just because you saw The Lord of the Rings (each movie three times, in the theaters, including the midnight rerelease?)...maybe that makes you a geek.
You're definitely a geek if you go to a lot of conventions (like to WonderCon, WITHOUT ME, he said without a hint of resentment), and you're definitely a geek if you dress up in a costume. If you write fan fiction. Probably if you draw fan art. Definitely if you wear a tophat.
We all know what geeks are…wait, that's not true. I'm not sure I know what geeks are. I know they don't bite the heads off of chickens anymore (well, I'm sure that some do). I'm pretty sure that I'm one. I feel like most people could say that geekery is like pornography, in the sense that most people know it when they see it.
Patton Oswalt has declared that it's time for geek culture to die, and in a way I think he's right (but in a way I think he's wrong). Being a geek (or, as they say in certain foreign climes, "otaku") meant actively and avidly pursuing an interest outside of the mainstream; back in the 80s, you couldn't just like something weird, because weird things weren't readily available. You had to go out and find it and it's the finding, the going out and looking, that made you otaku, not what you happened to have when you got there. That's something about we early geeks that was deserving of a little envy.
An envy that we never received, of course, because for some time, geek culture was practically defined by mainstream culture's derogatory view of it. And why? I think primarily because of our shameless enthusiasm for the strange; partly I think for a kind of audacity in thinking that other people might or ought to be interested in what we love; and partly because of a very strange, possibly even unique, sense among geeks that we have a right to participate.
Geek culture isn't mainstream culture because you don't have to go looking for mainstream culture; the very definition of its mainstream-ness is that it comes right to you, processed like a Kraft cheese single (the squarest and most-nearly-cheese-flavored of all cheese-related dairy-based petroleum products) to have include the most universally-accepted elements of entertainment, scientifically engineered to be exactly as appealing as it has to be in order that it's worth just more than it costs. Mainstream culture is easily available, but mostly interchangeable.
Which is why it's so weird that geek culture provokes such impassioned debates. Arguments about Superman and the Flash will persist indefinitely; arguments about Lost (despite its acceptance into the mainstream) have largely fallen away. Because who cares? Mainstream culture is interchangeable, identical, fungible. What we talked about around the watercooler yesterday will be replaced by something else tomorrow, and there's something a little off-putting about you if you think any of it matters, right? It's just a TV show, just entertainment, a kind of noise kicked up by a society with too much time on its hands and a vague interest in escaping the relentless mundanity of every day life.
Which is why it's so weird that geeks so often feel that they have a right to participate. It's not enough for us to just watch a TV show or read a book or enjoy a movie. We want to be a part of it; to live in the fictional world, to add to that world, to see it have a life beyond the limits of our entertainment. In a way we want to be it, and that's just starting to get a little weird, isn't it?
(This is absolutely serious, and I am not ashamed to admit it: I read Steven Brust's Jhereg when I was 14, and that's why I wear long black coats and know how to fence; I tried knife-throwing, too, but never quite had the knack.)
All of this makes it sound like I'm suggesting that there's something unique about geek culture – that there's something more to it, something special about it, so let me reiterate:
I'm not saying that "Geek Culture" is a legitimate form of American Culture.
I'm not saying that, but I am saying something that might seem outlandish, and so in order to get to it I have to digress, slightly. To borrow a bit from Edward Albee – a favorite author of cultured people in America, I should point out – sometimes you have to go a very long distance the wrong way in order to come a very short distance the right way.
So, what is culture?
In my anthropology class they told us that there were a lot of different definitions for culture, and that as anthropologists and archaeologists who were going to spend years and years studying the growth of human civilization, and the breadth of human experience in its myriad modes and forms, we were going to be forced to the inevitable conclusion that "culture" is basically "everything." Anything that human beings make or do or write or say or sing or think is "culture."
As a category, this is cumbersome; as a tool for inquiry, it's worse than useless.
Maybe we can narrow it down. Let's pretend for a minute that we give a rat's ass about Foucault, and indulge in the idea that modern society consists in large part of an array of "technologies of the self": that is to say, tools that we use to constitute who we are. That is to say: a system of experiences that we use to define both individual and group identities. If we called these technologies "culture", we'd see that we haven't made any progress; the category is still fairly broad, being comprised, as it is, of all of human experience.
Except. Except that we can see two things that start to pare away at this great honking lump of an idea. The first is that technologies of self aren't just elements of experience – the raw materials of you and I out of which we're built. It is actually the practice of finding, of obtaining, of refining and remixing those experiences into self. This is actually culture as "remix," and the idea of the remix has a fairly long pedigree. (As a reminder to the cultured: Shakespeare fairly disdained original plots.)
The second is that we can now begin to evaluate "culture." We can't say that one culture is better than another, because we're multiculturalists (at least, I'm a multiculturalist, and since I'm a better person than you, you ought to at least consider it). But we can start evaluating culture in terms of its scope and its intensity.
We can say, then, that "culture" isn't just everything that's around us, all media, all technology, all everything that anyone has ever thought of. Culture is the practice of using those things around us to forge distinct individual identities, and close-knit social groups.
Which sounds like I'm talking about geeks, and so let me reiterate: I am NOT saying that "Geek Culture" is a legitimate form of American culture.
Or English culture, or any culture for that matter. Look at these guys (image via Amatoc):
Is that culture? I ask you. No, don't answer that; I'm not really asking, I'm in the process of pontificating, bear with me.
In this context, there's little about mainstream culture that's interesting. Anyway, mainstream movies and books. Sports is its own thing, that's for sure; it's a thing that humans do, it's an identity marker, it's pervasive and extensive. Is it culture? It's not Culture culture, culture with a capital C culture, the kind of culture you'd claim if you called yourself cultured.
I want to digress again. I want to look briefly at a fellow named Harold Bloom. Harold Bloom is a famous reader of words, a famous studier of ideas, and a famous sayer of sayings; and he writes a lot of books that are very popular, and there is absolutely no question that the guy just loves the HECK out of Shakespeare. And what's not to love? Harold Bloom argues that it's the experience of Shakespeare that makes us human (raising the question as to what we were before Shakespeare, and as to what, exactly, the Chinese are – but those are questions for a different day, to be addressed by a different person). Western Civilization itself – or, at least, the last four hundred or so years of it, anyway – rests on the back of William Shakespeare.
What Harold Bloom does NOT do is go to Shakespeare conventions dressed as Hamlet and ask people if they want to fondle his skull; nor does he, to my knowledge, go to Ned Alleyn-themed bars in Brooklyn. He doesn't do Merry Wives of Windsor cosplay. (Maybe he does; maybe Ned Alleyn-themed bars exist. If they do, please e-mail me with their locations.)
There are a lot of folks out there who are fans of things that we think of as "Culture." Proust, for instance, is obviously culture, because if you read Proust, you're plainly cultured. Here is what people wear to Proust conventions:
Wait, hang on. I can't find any pictures.
I am…not sure there are Proust conventions. I mean, I'm sure there must be, but…
Let's try Melville. Aha! The Melville Society.
Their pictures aren't very extensive, and none of its members appear to sport magnificent beards in the style of Herman Melville. I'll admit to being a little disappointed.
You know what else there isn't anything of? Proust fan fiction. Why is that? Well, probably because not a lot of people read Proust. Maybe more people read Melville, or Dickens, or Mark Twain, but I can't find any Melville fan fiction anywhere, either. (I know there's Shakespeare fan fiction, because I wrote some when I was young, and no one will ever see it; maybe that's where the Melville fan fiction is.) Classic literature – classic culture, even, because I suspect this applies fairly broadly, is locked up. It is not something that you or I or Harold Bloom has the right to participate in; we can experience it, observe it, analyze it, absorb it. But it's not ours.
Even modern culture – and Culture culture, I mean here – doesn't let you in. Why, if I tried to show anyone my Jonathan Franzen fan fiction, they'd laugh at me! The way that they do when I go to literary conventions in Tom Wolfe cosplay.
Here is what I think is interesting: Bonnie Burton likes Star Wars so much that she made a book about how to knit R2-D2, and I can't even find ONE picture about a Herman Melville beard contest. Shakespeare is the literature that makes us human and his biggest public advocate won't even wear a ruff, and I mean, come on. Of course, identity is made up of all kinds of things: we build it out of everything, after all, and its manufacture is sourced in all manner of weird dribs and drabs that we found lying by the side of the proverbial road here.
But why is it that when we've got to crane a person's neck to read Shakespeare, but Star Wars is so forceful an idea that it causes a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm, and we call the former culture, but dismiss the latter as that same cultural detritus?
Well, not we, obviously. You do it, but, as I mentioned, I'm a better person than you.
I want to throw out one last idea here, before I get back to my point (which, again: I'm not saying that "Geek Culture" is a legitimate form of American culture), and that is this:
Culture is generative.
It comes from the Latin word "cultura", which means to…duh…"cultivate." To cause to grow. What "culture" is when you study it as an archaeologist is a dead thing: not even culture itself – not the lives and identities of the people who produced it – but a collection of artifacts, built by those people for the purpose of understanding THEIR world, not for illuminating ours. And the best elements – by which I mean, the most cultivating – of those cultures are already still with us, because what makes them best is the fact that they were generative, and they grew into the culture that we're faced with now. They were the foundation stones for the architecture of the souls of those generations before us, and what those cultures produced were the foundations for our own.
(The Velvet Underground and Nico never made it past #171 on the charts, but so? Everyone who heard the album started a band.)
(As someone else much idolized by the Cultured once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past.")
(Peculiarly, though many people are fans of William Faulkner, few are daring enough to wear his rad moustache.)
Culture isn't culture when it's sitting back, a passive object dug up out of some hoary old library. It's only culture when it is a living and vibrant thing, moving through us constantly, defining how we see the world, providing the inspiration for what we do now, providing, most of all, the material and the practices for how we define who we are.
So, back to my point. Geek culture isn't a legitimate form of American culture.
Geek culture is the ONLY legitimate form of American culture.
Why? Because Geek culture is generative. Geek culture is where that generation is happening, and the reason that it's happening is because a culture only becomes generative when it starts producing geeks.
You see these guys? We don't need to, and shouldn't, be embarrassed by them. We should be proud of them. Why? They aren't mindlessly mimicking something on TV that they thought was good; what they are doing is deciding who they want to be, and then making themselves into it. And they are doing it with an audacity and a commitment that the rest of us should envy. I am dead serious; you know that we all wish we had the stones to go around town dressed as Batman all the time.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that Shakespeare counts as culture, too, and sure, it does, but only when we use it. It doesn't count as culture the way that you learn it in school, because how do you learn about Shakespeare in school? As a dead thing. Inert, lifeless, an archaic and unlikely way for you to learn anything about yourself. An artifact of a long-gone past. It's only culture when you pick it up and use it for something: when you read Hamlet and decide that you're going to go to the Burger King and soliloquize about your hamburger, when you listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico and decide to invent Glam Rock, when you watch Star Trek and decide not just that the idea of a Starfleet Officer is something that you like, but that a Starfleet Officer is something that you want to be.
What makes Geek culture unique is not that it provokes such passion, not that it's so pervasive for an individual, not even that it's specific. You could say the same thing about sports, and there's still a clear difference: Geek culture is constantly being rebuilt by geeks themselves. Because every one of us has the right to participate in the things that we like, to improve and remix and reconstitute those things. Geek culture is the culture that gives us permission.
And the thing that makes us geeks is the same thing that makes our culture Culture: not the constitution, not the things that it's made of – but the process of making them. Of taking what society has given us and remaking it into something that belongs to us.
In that respect, everything, EVERYTHING is fair game. As long as you use it, it's yours, and that's what culture is. You look at those Steampunk cats up there, and maybe you'll deride them: maybe you'll say that they've got too much time on their hands; that they're just engaged in idle day-dreaming to escape the harsh realities of the same boring, pointless, Jersey-Shore-saturated existence that the rest of us live in; that there's no PURPOSE to all of those GEARS. Well you know what? First of all, what purpose does fashion ever have? What, do neckties have a purpose? Do sequins have a purpose? Yes, the purpose is that they look cool, and that is the purpose of gears.
But secondly: too much time on your hands? Trying to escape reality by reinventing? Welcome to culture.
Science Fiction is the literature of the future, and that makes it legitimate because all meaningful literature is the literature of the future. Fantasy is the literature of the imagination, and that makes it legitimate because all meaningful literature is the literature of the imagination. These are the stories that by their nature describe more than we are, and so demand that we become more in order to accommodate them. They cultivate us, rather than stifle us, and that is why people will create entire conventions about wearing top hats and building robots that run on steam, but no one will even TRY to wear Herman Melville's magnificent beard.
And now you're thinking that surely there ARE fans of Shakespeare who go to Shakespeare conventions and wear pantaloons and ruffs and those weird poof shirts and it's TRUE – and they are the exception that at long last proves the rule: because wouldn't you call those people geeks?
Whether or not geek culture has been absorbed into the mainstream is a topic of much debate, and it's plain from this argument that Patton Oswalt is right: when we don't have to work for it, it stops being culture and starts being Transformers 2. But he's also wrong, because the people who are making that culture haven't gone away. The things we used to make it have been absorbed by that Homogeny, but it doesn't matter; being a geek isn't what you like, it's what you decide to do with it.
For many years we were all convinced that we needed mainstream acceptance; that the mainstream, or that Culture, was the real culture, and that we were just an interesting sideline; a passing interest for a few people, an oddly-shaped eddy in the river of history. But it's really the other way around: Posterity isn't going to remember the vast, amorphous mound of tasteless, cheese-shaped Entertainment Product, the interchangeable and homogenous lumps of popular entertainment.
It's going to remember us.
Chris Braak is a novelist, playwright, and general yammerer, as well as being intemperate, immodest, and improbably handsome. You can experience more Chris Braak at his website, The Chris Braak Website Experience, a thing engineered for just such a purpose.