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Is geek culture dead?


Comedian/actor/sometime comics writer Patton Oswalt expresses clearly the vague feeling we’ve often haphazardly batted about here: as Geek Culture becomes the norm, it is itself dying. Oswalt pegs the phenomenon of “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever” as part of the problem, as the instantaneous availability of once-arcane knowledge devalues the feeling of achievement from attaining that same knowledge:

Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

The coming decades—the 21st-century’s ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—have the potential to be one long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background.

But Harry Knowles, himself the Hannibal of the Geek Invasion, says it is not so, in a rambling essay that proves definitively that Patton Oswalt is a better writer than Harry Knowles. Basically, Knowles says geek culture is fine because Ray Bradbury was a geek and now Knowles can name check anything he likes on the internet all day:

Pop Culture has always had it’s success and failures.   That’s one of the reasons I love AMADEUS so much…   F. Murray’s Salieri is such an awesome Mozart geek.   It is very much about the feelings of critics versus the popularity of a genius ahead of his time.   You know…   just like everyone that recognizes the genius of Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD.    We’ll be proven correct in time.   Of this I have zero doubt.  
GEEK CULTURE is fine, I say this because the same folks that didn’t love TRON for the past 28 years – are the leaders of the minority vocal opinion on the film.   I know this to be the case because we bitch at each other till the wee hours of the night about it.   We call each other names and we feign hating each other for each others’ estimation of the film, and then we laugh about the argument and just how crazy we get about it.    This is as it should be.  

In other words, Oswalt is absolutely right and we’re all going to turn into Harry Knowles. In the grip of ETEWAF, we become gluttons for the things we like, diving into them like a seal, swimming around in them like a dolphin and throwing them into the air and letting them hit us on the head. And we’ll die happy and sated, our ashes encased in a replica of the Slave I autographed by Daniel Logan.

Photos; Top: Forrest J. Ackerman, who was to the Nerd Life what Hugh Hefner was to breasts.

Below: a photo from the 1974 San Diego Comic-Con.

BTW: Oswalt does have a solution to the problem, but you may not like it.

  1. i can see where Patton is coming from. But I think it’s kinda of a good thing that geeks are becoming mainstream. Mash-up recut youtube vids won’t overshadow new content from new creators.

    Eh, I guess i should be eloquent in this response, but ultimately I’m saying why take such a negative view of the rest of the world accepting geeks/geek life. why do we have to be society’s outcasts forever. I want comics/movies/games/etc. to be conversation topics along with sports and politics, when I hang out with my “normal” friends, and more and more it’s happening.

    So what, if everybody can now get my star wars ref. or superhero ref joke.

    It’s just disheartnening to constantly read about how comics and or geek culture is dead, dying, almost over, time and time again. when there’s a ton of evidence to show that it’s just evolving into something else.

    The “geek” is becoming the equal (another option) to the “jock” who is no longer the oppressor he/she must overcome.

  2. Hmmmm… Mr. Oswalt has raised the bar for writing about the Death of Geek Culture. Let me offer a counter observation.

    It’s not that Geek Culture is dying. It’s that our Geek Culture is getting old. We are now like the old timers we looked askance at in our youth when they discussed the connections between the Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger.

    Don’t believe me?
    Go to NYCC or SDCC.
    See those kids in their brightly colored clothes, making references to Hetalia and the Glen Murakami Teen Titans show?
    That’s the new generation. They don’t care about whether Han really shot first or how to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets in Klingon. They’ll carry the Geek Banner proudly forward, but they’ll do it with their own artifacts and references.

  3. Patton Oswalt sounds like a music snob, pissed off that his favorite indie bands finally started selling and became mainstream. That Radiohead sucks because they sell too many albums now. I mean he attacks the Lord of the Ring’s movies for winning Oscars?!? He’s not talking about the quality of the movie, it’s just that it’s too popular and that geek culture is no longer a small club.

    I like the fact that a huge multimillion dollar Lord of the Rings movie was made and made enough money to make the Hobbit or that a sequel to Tron got made. Or that the Harry Potter movies get made all the way until the end, rather than stop after a few movies because of lack of box office. I like that the Walking Dead was such a huge success that a second series is happening without a fan campaign trying to pressure AMC into giving the series a chance to find an audience like too many other great geek shows.

    I would rather have Scott Pilgrim movie make over $100 million so that studios give Edgar Wright the budget he wants to create great movies, rather than it try to find a profit on DVD & Blu-Ray.

    He tries to make an argument that no more artists will appear because people are too busy making remixes is very week one at that. There’s too much great content coming out right now so that his argument seems to really be about how he misses the small club of geeks.

  4. I don’t find Oswalt’s argument particularly convincing. It seems to be a mixture of a general dislike of postmodern sample-culture; a complaint that information overload detracts from the “waiting between issues” experience (the one point where I kind of agree with him); and a curious belief that access to information is the same as internalising it.

    “In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend,” he says – but nothing’s changed there, unless your idea of “getting up to speed” is rather superficial.

  5. What’s this? Pop culture is… *gasp* popular? As some guy said, like, 3000 years ago, there is nothing new under the sun. I think Andy Warhol established that there was a post-war, post-industrial “army of sated consumers” almost 50 years ago. I think the “mash-up” can be credited to the Dadaists of nearly a century ago. Many an art movement emerged as a rebellion against just the kind of apathy and cultural regurgitation that Oswalt is railing against.

    To my mind a nerd/geek is someone obsessed with the minute details of certain obscure slice of culture. As Sphinx points out, Golden Age comics, sci-fi novels, Star Wars/Trek and Dungeons and Dragons are the particular obsession of Patton Oswalt’s generation. Now that generation has grown up, and whaddya know, those shy yet creative and clever Gen X nerds now control the media and the message so we get “Blister in the Sun” cropping up in an ad for Mars Bars.

    As well we have the strange (to the older generation) phenomenon of the younger generation “discovering” the decades that went before them. I know now how my parents must have felt when poodle skirts, leather biker jackets, jelly rolls and sweater sets were the rage for a brief while in the eighties (and by no coincidence, “Back to the Future”–the nerdy nostalgia of Robert Zemeckis).

    No way is the true depth of geek culture mainstream. Only a superficial, stereotypical strata of it is transmitted through consumable media like film adaptations and t-shirt jokes. The majority of the consumers of those media are not also consuming the original novel, or the original game, or even the wikis that Oswalt is pointing to as creating these “weak otakus”. Millions of people have seen Star Wars, but only a select few will still pride themselves on being able to name that one busted robot two to the left from C3PO inside the Jawa sandcrawler in Episode IV: A New Hope.

    But who cares about “weak otakus”? Oh, right, actual NERDS. So even though Oswalt declares himself not a nerd, he most definitely is just for writing the article.

    Actually being a nerd isn’t ever going to be mainstream. Just ask any high school nerd. Even an über-nerd like Harry Knowles–no wait… especially an über-nerd like Harry Knowles–risks getting an über-swirlie if he ever tries to be genuinely accepted by the mainstream.

    As long as there are teenage politics and hierarchies there will be nerds and geeks, new Dadaists, quietly toiling away, making not some shallow mash-up, but a labour-intensive, stunning film, story, game, work of art, etc that shakes up the status quo and becomes the new seed of inspiration and obsession for a new generation of nerds and geeks… who then grow up to chew on their nostalgia and complain that there is nothing new.

  6. It seems as though geek culture has changed and, like most geeks, Oswalt can’t bear the thought that yet another golden age has ended. He’s certainly right though, about the constant churn and rechurn of our past favorites, the recycling of our cultural obsessions and the revived kitsch it produces.

    But this is the golden age of nerdom itself and old habits–sulking alone with a handful of friends who truly understand the stuff your crave–die hard. And besides if the rise of the geek class has shown anything, its that pop/nerd/geek culture is already “self-aware” and claiming new legacies all the time.

  7. I don’t find Oswalt convincing either. He describes the Japanese otaku culture as applying to any obsessive marshalling of cultural information, and then says it’s mostly applied to manga and anime. One could say the same thing about the term “geek” in our culture: the high school jock who can recite the starting line-up of every Yankees team dating back to 1923 simply has a more socially-acceptable form of geekdom than the junior scientist who can detail and date every change in Spider-Man’s costume. The jock’s form of geekdom is so socially acceptable, in fact, that it’s not even recognized AS geekdom.

    What Oswalt seems to be bemoaning is the mainstreaming of HIS form of geekdom. I loved comics growing up, but not the way he did. I loved Star Wars from the moment it came out (and bought my share of memorabilia), but not the way he did. What I did know, though, to the exclusion of anyone I ever met for about 20 years, with the exception of my sister, was every book Edward Gorey ever created. And all the stars, directors, costume designers, make-up men, and art directors of pre-Code Hollywood.

    That kind of obsessive knowledge hasn’t changed. The internet allows us to find each other and form communities. The internet disseminates the riffs on our obsessions that amuse people who have a glancing familiarity with them–it allows them to become geek literate. But it doesn’t make them knowledgeable to the extent that we are. I can hang out over at the Self-Styled Siren’s site and talk with my fellow commenters about the effect of the Hays Office on Dorothy Mackaill’s career and maybe some people in the general culture will even have heard of her, but they can’t talk about her the way we can. Our particular corner of geek culture remains our own.

    And that isn’t going to change. I get that he had a corner that he could clutch to his chest and love as his and his alone, and now a whole bunch of people know enough about it to talk about it with relative familiarity. Tough break. They still won’t know it as well as he will. But why should he even care if they do? How does that diminish his own experience? This isn’t a zero-sum game.

    Here’s another one. I went to see Serenity the night it opened, and when Captain Mal walks into the Maidenhead Bar and looks around, he says, “What a fine bunch of reubens.” I SQUEALED. Because that is a line from a song by George M Cohan (“45 Minutes from Broadway”), and I have seen Jimmy Cagney sing that song in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” about 40 jillion times. I have asked everyone I know if they got that. I have asked in online forums. No one I’ve met yet–not even my sister, who’s seen “Yankee Doodle Dandy” about 1/10 as many times as I have, which is still a lot–has put those two things together. But I know that Joss Whedon really loves old movie musicals, and I believe this was intentional.

    That makes me a geek. What on earth could take that away from me?

  8. Karen: I agree absolutely. The sports fan mentality is actually very similar to the comics fan mentality (even down to sticking with the team/book through long stretches of being no good), it’s just that the subject matter is seen differently.

  9. Patton’s essay is amusing. And it is possible that the mainstream had fragmented enough to where “everyone may be an otaku about something,” and there is no mainstream in the old sense of Nielsen ratings.

    But just remember the saying, “We’re all equal, but some of us are equal-er!” (Was it a comic book character who said it?) By the same token there will always be Trivia that’s got a big following and trivia that doesn’t.

    My sister loves Ishtar. (the film, not the goddess) Ishtar is never going to have more that a trivial trivia-following.

    And as long as there are people who don’t know what the hell to say about the minority appeal of Ishtar or Devil Dinosaur or the science ficiton of Mark Clifton–

    Then otakus will continue to grow strong on the blood of that which does not kill them–

    And the lantern of nerdosity will burn on, forever and ever, amen.

  10. I see where Patton’s coming from, definitely. I’ve talked about similar issues with friends before, and what I think it boils down to is that nostalgia no longer seems to exist, at least not like it did for previous generations.

    Remember when you’d enjoy something for a time, then it would go away for ten or twenty years before anyone gave it a passing thought again? Every toy line that ever existed has enthusiasts online archiving every aspect of it, every cartoon’s available on DVD, every TV show has a chat room and fan fiction, and Pokemon and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles get re-invented every three years for a new generation of kids.

    That’s cool, in a way, but it’s at least a little bit weird that if you vaguely remember a movie from your childhood, you can download it onto your phone after a 15-second search, and never risk forgetting anything that you’ve ever experienced, ever. Try having a discussion with your friends where you’re trying to recall the name of some obscure movie and see how long it is before an iPhone comes out and you get more information than you could have ever wanted on the film. Nostalgia and trivia are on the endangered species list.

  11. I get what Oswalt is saying, but I don’t really see why it’s a problem. People will enjoy what they enjoy in the way they enjoy it. It’s always been thus.

    Basically, who cares?

  12. So people who paste things together, things created by others aren’t creating anything themselves? I’m sure Picasso and Georges Braque would disagree, because they coined the word “collage” and they’re regarded as some pretty creative MFers.

    I saw Patton Oswalt perform at the Count Basie Theater here in Red Bank NJ last year. Aside from a few funny observations, he seemed to be an extremely unhappy person who at one point told a story of being so depressed he’d given up dressing each day and wandered his neighborhood in his bathrobe and underwear for two solid weeks. So, I’m pretty sure I’m not concerned with his take on my culture. He’s no Bill Cosby.

    But what I don’t get is this word “nerd”. What’s so nerdy about liking Star Wars or Star Trek? Growing up, my friends and I all were into sci-fi, collected records, AND played ice hockey, basketball, and had girlfriends. I’m just not clear on how it has become nerdy to like certain things. Is it when one becomes an annoying douche bag about it? But to blanket everyone with the term nerd because they enjoy a particular genre of entertainment is a serious mistake. I’ve never called someone a nerd or geek because they had a particular interest. I’ve called them nerd or geek for their nose-picking, butt-scratching, taped glasses, or high-water pants. But never because they read comics or were good at math.

  13. The whole idea of ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ is pretty recent and very american. In the old days someone who knew a lot and studied hard was called ‘learned’ or ‘well read’ they often ended up in Monasteries or Convents because that’s where the books were.
    Change is scary, but usually it’s just the labels that get updated.

  14. The obsessive mindset of pinnacle people in science, sports or geek culture that Oswalt and Karen are talking about is the real key here. What the obsession is, the subject of the our attraction whether it be STAR TREK, Golden Age radio programs or plush toys, isn’t germane to understanding the mindset.

    Determining that you have an attraction to a certain very specific field of study or a sub-genre of fiction or a musical style can create a sense of identity. We follow this interest into research on the thing which interested us and identify ourselves as “fans”. When you openly admit that you’re a fan of a certain thing your identification with it becomes not just a part of your self-identity but a big part of your social identity as well. In high school we knew who was worth talking to because of the rock bands on their t-shirts. In this way the social identity of the fan can lead to new social contacts. That is supported even more these days as the internet allows us to stratify our interests and our social contacts much more deeply than ever before.

    But to be a fan of something to the point of detailed research into areas that other people would see as trivial, to willingly go from “fan” to “geek”, takes a different level of involvement. Karen’s use of the word obsessive hits that perfectly. You don’t just like the thing you’re interested in; you can’t stop thinking about it. That obsession has you doing the research.

    This is still often a part of our social identification with the subject. As we meet other fans we want to show off how much we know. If too much of our self-identity is wrapped up in that social one this will often go from obsession to compulsion; we need to keep researching and going deeper or we risk losing our social/self identity as an “expert”.

    What Oswalt’s noticing here with his “ETEWAF” observation is that doing the research to sound like you’re more than a fan and perhaps an expert has become much easier. That’s certainly true. If you were a Pulp magazine fan in the early 1970’s you were, by default, working harder to follow the subject of your obsession than anyone would have to today. You were actively going from town to town and dealing with mail order businesses and flea markets to find lost gems from a generation or two prior to your own. You subscribed to fanzines, for chrissakes. Now of course, through the internet, all those old issues can be found in torrents and archives and this generation’s fans employ a different skill for hunting down the things they love. Oswalt is implying that they have it easier, which sounds true but may be a bit short-sighted. It implies that a new generation of fans is looking for the same kind of things in fandom that we were looking for. Personally I prefer not to make judgements in middle-age about what young people will do or be interested in, convinced as I am that I would be as wrong about them as my father was about me.

    But the mindset that it takes to have been a serious fan in the tradition of Ackerman may have left us for good. As Karen suggests, these kind of geeks were seriously smart people whose uniqueness, their identity, showed through their obsession and their obvious compulsion to hunt down every minutiae of what they loved. Without the difficulty and thrill of hunting the arcane, will those same kind of seriously smart people bother to become geeks? If anyone could do it, why the hell bother?

  15. Tom Spurgeon said:

    “That Patton Oswalt stand-up review may be my favorite thing to appear on this site, ever.”

    I thought when I semi-read the piece, “I bet Spurgeon wishes he wrote this.”

  16. CitizenCliff said:

    “But what I don’t get is this word “nerd”. What’s so nerdy about liking Star Wars or Star Trek?”

    There is no logical reason, Citizen. Current nerds are an embarassment to former nerds (as Patton admits he is) who are now trying to distance themselves from their earlier enthusiasms in the belief that this anile behavior will give them a cachet of coolness.

  17. There are pockets of geekdom that haven’t changed all that much in 40 years (I won’t name the ones I know of, because, if they are truly an endangered species, they need to be protected from the outside world).

    Will they eventually fade away? Perhaps. But I hope not. There’s something about ubergeek culture that helps put everything else into perspective.

    By the way… Patton hosted a DC panel at L.A.’s Hammer Museum auditorium on Dec. 14, and he was funny as hell. The panel loosely revolved around Paul Levitz’s newest book, “75 Years of DC Comics: The art of Modern Mythmaking,” and featured Levitz, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns.

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