Originally posted 12/28/2010
The title of this note refers to Patton Oswalt’s piece in Wired Magazine advocating for the death of current Geek Culture/Pop-Culture, so that a new form may rise from its ashes, one whose badge of individuality isn’t so easily photocopied.
That article is here: http://bit.ly/hlPlR7
Oswalt describes the imminent death of Pop-Culture as needful, and details very succinctly how we got to this place. He even tries to redefine what we’ve come to recognize as “geek” with the phrase “American Otaku.” It’s a slick redefinition, and it fits wonderfully.
My problem is this – every point, every detail, seems soaked in classic Old-Grampa cliches. But instead of complaining to kids about walking barefoot in the snow, up Mount Bearscratch, to the 3-walled lean-to where they scratched a stick into a dead animal to do figures and learn the arithmetics, Oswalt is complaining about how the availability of all manner of geeky nooks and crannies of pop-culture have made pursuing your own personal American Otaku lifestyle cheap, and how the art that will come from these Otaku will be as cheap, because nothing worth having ever came easy.
The sentiment at the end of that sentence is often true. But how “cheapened” is the act of becoming a nerd, really? The article ends up making the point that geekiness is the practice of consuming things, using those purchases to define who you are as a person. In essence, you buy things people don’t buy as much, and you like those things more than other people do because of it. Geeks buy weirder shit, and are more inspired by the things they buy.
The article quickly becomes an argument for rebalancing the consumerist heirarchy, and nothing more than that. It CAN be reduced to “This band was cool before I found out other people liked em,” but that’s unfair to both Oswalt and the article.
What separates Geeks from the more mainstreamed American Otaku, according to Oswalt? The effort geeks put into being geeky. For example – Oswalt didn’t just go to his iPad and download Watchmen in 12 issues. He read Swamp Thing, and so he knew Watchmen was going to be something special, and waited month to month to get those issues. He watched Star Wars on VHS, and didn’t have volume upon volume of Expanded Universe novels to explain to him what happened behind the secenes, between the scenes, and after the credits rolled.
But the Expanded Universe is merchandising. It’s just more product. And going to the comic store every month to pick up a book you want to read isn’t really making an effort. It’s just waiting for product to be released to you so you can consume it. You could make the argument, as a friend of mine did, that out of that geeky fervor, because of the focused interest, demand for the product is created, but MARKETING DEPARTMENTS create demand. Geeks use product to affirm their self-worth.
It would be a different thing if Oswalt paid more attention to the social ineptitude of some nerds, the ostracizing (self-imposed or otherwise) that went along with being classified as a geek in his (and my) day. But that aspect is dismissed really quickly, and largely ignored for the rest of the article. No – what makes being a geek a geek is merely putting effort into choosing which consumer product you are going to build a personality around. This is not a very strong foundation.
If THAT was why he wanted Pop-Culture to die, I’d get that. But instead, it reads as if he wishes death because people aren’t putting that “effort” in anymore. Liking a bunch of nerdy things is more accepted, but instead of looking at this growing phenomenon as something akin to a victory, an affirmation that having interests outside of sports and women is worthwhile, this mainstreaming of American Otaku is dressed as an encroaching threat on geeky individuality – an individuality that is solely defined by Oswalt as a growing collection of blister packaged, bagged-and-boarded product you can buy in monthly installments of your childhood. Based on that definition, trying to rebuild that culture in its original image seems not so heroic an endeavor.
His other, more compelling argument for the death of pop-culture is the mitigation of the American Otaku’s effect on art. If it dies now, we won’t be subjected to easy, cheap artistic endeavors, created by minds who came by their inspiration too easily, thanks to the mainstreaming of geek. And it sounds like a great argument on the face of it. “If pop-culture continues on this path, art will soon become nothing but a moebius strip of remixed mashups, written by wikipedia.” But this romanticizes the art created before the rise of the American Otaku, art created much in the same way, to the same effect, and purchased by classic-era geeks to help create and supplement their nerdy personalities. The only difference is the speed in which these nerderies are metabolized and made into new product for other people to buy.
I get the sense Oswalt is writing from a place in which he considers himself a nerdy Robert Neville, raging against the onslaught of cultural vampires come to drain him of his previous life, so wrapped up in protecting what made him who he is, that he’s missing the evolution that’s happened. Geek has, (as was inevitable, considering who we’re talking about here) MUTATED. Maybe it’s outgrown the negative label that many had to fashion into a badge or a crown in an act of stubborn reclamation. It’s become something else. Maybe that something else is American Otaku.
It seems as if Oswalt is framing this activation of the X-gene as a bad thing. That it somehow negates all that previous “effort.” But when the simple act of purchasing product becomes a key factor in what defines your personality, the definition of “effort” gets called into question. It ignores real efforts – the attempts to bridge awkward social gaps, the attempts to understand and appreciate different things, the increasing self-education being undertaken by these Otaku to look at things they otherwise wouldn’t have looked at before, had the social stigma of “geek” maintained it’s late 80’s, early 90’s stink.
Evolution is, essentially, burning off the shit you don’t need and strengthening the things which make you better. And if the mainstreaming of geek culture means that all the negatives of being a nerd melt away, and all the joys of indulging your geeky interests are shared more widely – I guess I don’t get why we have to wish such a future dies before it truly enjoys its day in the sun.