because cool kids are boring

It’s the culture, stupid!

with 6 comments

For those who haven’t been playing along at home, the below is a response, to a response, to a response.

It all begins here, with a post from Jason. I then responded here. Jason then fired back with some very insightful things here. If you haven’t already, I suggest giving the whole thing a read through.

Before I get into my response, I’d like to point out that some will undoubtedly notice a shift in my argument. In the past several days, I’ve picked up a copy of Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture and have begun reading through it. The book, in conjunction with Jason’s last post, has caused me to reevaluate how I am perceiving geek culture in this discussion. Specifically, it has caused me to stop looking at the surface things and instead focus more on the underlying reasons that I see geek culture as a separate and distinct entity from either mainstream or underground cultures. Hopefully, my shift in perception will lead to a more interesting discussion. One that has more substance that can transposed onto other areas of discussion.

To begin my response, I’d like to take a little detour. Trust me, it will make sense once I get to where I’m going.

There is a belief among some geeks that we are currently entering the mythic age that most of us have dreamed about at one point or another, where the geek mindset will infect the other cultures and mutate them into our culture. That period where we are vindicated for our eccentricities and find ourselves held up as an exemplar of what people should be like. In short, we are entering into an era, that when finished, will finally allow us to sit at the cool kids table and lead to us no longer being persecuted for being different.

As evidence that we have now entered this mythic age, its proponents hold up examples such as the popularization of the internet and the success of franchises like Star Wars, Halo, and Harry Potter.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I am not a believer. As my own evidence, I ask four simple questions:

1) Does using the internet make someone a computer geek?

2) Does enjoying Star Wars make someone a sci-fi geek?

3) Does enjoying the Potter series make someone a fantasy geek?

4) Does playing Halo make someone a gamer?

I respond to all four questions with a ‘no’. I do not deny that these cultural touchstones are shared across various cultures, but how we react to and interact with these touchstones is vastly, and fundamentally, different. It is these differences that make us geeks. And it is because of these differences that we continue to sit at the edges of the cultural lunch room, even while we exert a surprising amount of influence over the directions in which other cultures grow.

The crucial point in all of this is to understand that in our hands something like Harry Potter is geeky. We write fan fic and create vids and go off to start things like Wizard Rock. In their hand’s though, the geeky elements are devalued to such a level that they do not even need to be explained away. For them, they are books which tell an entertaining story. They may discuss these stories with friends and family and coworkers, but they are just stories.

For anything; be it a medium, a genre, or whatever, to make the move from being perceived as geeky, to being accepted and validated by other cultures, it must first allow the individual from those other cultures a mechanism by which they can do away with the geeky elements. For Potter, this was accomplished by the fact that the series was originally cast as a children’s book. For Star Wars, the story was told in the medium of film, where audience members were already used to seeing fantastical stories told.

We are already seeing elements of this reach into the comic book market. The stories, at least in the indie market, have already shifted from the stereotyped geeky stories of super heros, into more traditional styles of stories. The indie market has also been moving away from the old serialized format and has made wider and wider use of the graphic novel format. Distribution channels have also started to shift with more and more book stores carrying these indie graphic novels. Most importantly, the indie market has cultivated a healthy distain for its geeky older brother, super hero comics. Some latitude is occasionally given to older comics, but the indie market is usually quick to join in in bashing the current super hero books.

While one might still run into resistance with comics with in mainstream culture, the medium is well on its way to full acceptance with in the underground. And history tells us that once full acceptance has been accomplished in the underground, it will only be a matter of time before the mainstream follows suit. As long as it continues to distance itself from its geeky past.

The title of Jason’s post, which started this whole discussion, was the question, “Will [insert geeky medium] ever grow up?” My response now is to say yes, when it successfully learns how to properly devalue those elements of itself that cause people to see it as geeky.

In Jason’s second post he put out there three different reasons why someone would want to see medium X gain a certain sense of legitimacy. The final reason was one that I found interesting,

And the personal reason (just to throw out one more term) is that people don’t want to have to feel embarrassed about admitting to liking things they really care about.

Now I can fully identify with this sentiment. I think most geeks, especially adult geeks, have found themselves in this situation on at least one occasion.

I do think though that this feeling, and even more so addressing this feeling in this manner, is counter productive. I’ve argued above that geeky things can not achieve acceptance outside of geek culture unless they learn to distance themselves from that which makes them geeky. Even once indie comics have achieved a full state of acceptance, there will still be a stigma with buying super hero comics. The success of the Harry Potter series did not dissuade a book store clerk from automatically thinking that I was a teacher when I bought a different YA novel. Nor did it lessen the look of surprise on his face when I admitted that no, I was in fact buying the book for myself so that I could enjoy it.

Acceptance will only be granted to those things that are deemed acceptable. We can not assume to leverage the success of a small fraction of franchises that have made the difficult journey to being accepted in multiple cultures, to bring our entire culture into acceptance.

We instead are better served by focusing our attention on our culture in and of itself and helping to instill a sense of geek pride in ourselves. Paradoxically, it is this geek pride, that offers us the greatest chance at acceptance.

The relationship between geek culture and other cultures, where by acceptance is only granted when geekiness can be distanced, is not something that is unique to geek culture. A similar relationship exists between the mainstream and the underground. Elements of underground culture are only able to gain acceptance with in the mainstream when those things that make it intrinsically underground, are devalued. Similarly, for something to move from the mainstream into the underground, it must first see a decline in popularity, which allows this thing to be distanced from what made it intrinsically a mainstream thing.

The difference is that the underground has cultivated a certain degree of acceptance of this relationship. They do not seek validation from the mainstream. Because of this, they have achieved a relationship with the mainstream that allows them to be a viable alternative. Those members of mainstream culture who do not fit in or are simply bored with the mainstream, view the underground as another space for them to occupy. Either another possible place to gain acceptance, or simply a place to find adventure.

By begging for validation though, we rob ourselves of this relationship. We create a situation where we are subservient to other cultures. By, accepting our relationship with the other cultures and instead focusing on developing pride in who and what we are, we free ourselves from this subservient relationship. We also increase the possibility that we will eventually achieve the same relationship with the mainstream and the underground that the mainstream and underground currently share. And through this relationship, we will be in a better situation to achieve the goals that Jason outlines in his post.

The above should not be construed as me promoting some kind of cultural isolationism though. Nor should it be seen as an argument against the promotion tactics that Jason mentions in his post. I am all in favor of spreading the gospel far in wide. The message should be spread though with pride, instead of a desperate attempt at acceptance. There is no reason for us to beg for scraps.

Written by Matt

March 30th, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Posted in Thoughts