because cool kids are boring

Questions answered

without comments

I had intended to spend this weekend, the first non-working weekend I’ve had since January, writing up a big music/culture post, but then Jason posted a couple of questions to clarify my thoughts on my response to his post and they were such cool questions that I couldn’t help by respond right away.

The questions are as follows,

1. If I read this correctly, the implication here is that geek culture can also represent a viable alternative as long as we don’t embarrass ourselves by trying to look too desperate for mainstream approval. Would this make geek culture part of the overarching group of “underground cultures”? If not, what sets it apart?

2. You write that if geek culture can orient itself such that it represents another viable alternative to mainstream culture, “we will be in a better situation to achieve the goals that Jason outlines in his post.” So, just to consider some hypothetical examples…

a) What might we consider the road to this? Should we reject media producers’ marketing efforts like the “graphic novel”? Or is this just a matter of being aware of how we think about these sorts of things?

b) What’s the practical upshot? In other words, how does whatever gets suggested in response to (a) above translate into being in “a better position”?

Let’s take them in order.

1) I’ve actually been chewing on this question for awhile. There are several loose threads here that I’m still trying to tie up. In short, though, I see geek culture as a “third way”.

Wow, I just did a quick search on that phrase and realized how widely it has been used. I guess I’ll have to be a little more verbose in my response.

Let’s back up a bit. American culture, at the very least, has largely been defined, in modern times, by a yin yang type relationship between various cultures which can be lumped into one of two larger cultures, the mainstream and the underground. The two cultures can be looked at as two points connected by a line. Things are defined by where on that line they exist. The closer something is to one point, the more likely it is to be associated with that culture. Similarly, as things move on the line, they move farther from one pole at the same time that they move closer to the other pole. In layman’s terms, the more associated something becomes with the mainstream, the less likely it is to be associated with the underground.

This example has become some what muddled over the last 10 years or so, but not quite as bad as some would believe. We are now seeing the underground associate with elements of popular mainstream culture, but it is usually done so in a way that is different then the way these things are associated with the mainstream proper. Hipsters, as much as they can still be associated with the underground, may associate themselves with something in an ironic manner or with a post-modern sense of self awareness (liking pop music, but viewing it in a way that is fully cognizant of its marketing angle, for instance).

As an example, over the past couple of years, my friend Courtney, a member of the indiepop underground, has begun to rekindle her teenage love for the New Kids On The Block. She’s related to me on a couple of occasions her frustration when people automatically assume that she is doing this in some kind of ironic way. That there is no way that her appreciation of the group is something that she is serious about.

I see this as a significant departure with the way that geeks tend to relate to mainstream culture. One would be unlikely to find underground equivalents to Jason’s story of handing out “comics you should read” fliers at his college. One of the main factors that defines underground culture is that it is not mainstream culture. Geek culture does not have this limitation and actually tends to synthesize elements from both the mainstream and the underground. Given this tendency to freely associate with elements of both cultures, I do not see how one can associate the geek culture with the underground exclusively. There are, and will continue to be, overlaps between the two cultures, but I don’t see these as requiring geek culture to identify with the underground. Especially since these overlaps do, and will continue to, exist with the mainstream.

I realize that there are significant issues with this theory, as I said, it is still something that I’m working on, but I feel that the issues will likely be dealt with through a refining of my definitions, and not lead to a rejection of the concept.

2) To be honest, the real answer to this questions is *shurg*. I threw that out there as a carrot to try and entice people to stop playing that game (the only way to win the game, is to not play). I do see validity in the statement though. So, I’ll try to respond to your hypothetical examples.

a) Personally, I’m of the opinion that any plans that involve the phrase “don’t do this” are best avoided on principle alone. I would like to see a focus on developing our own mechanisms to support our culture. The best example of this would be the systems that the underground have developed to support themselves. Independent labels, publishers, promoters, media, etc. A lot of this work has been done, and even more of it is currently going on, but there can always be room for healthy growth and refinement. My basic idea though is to focus on developing a system that will allow artists to create art as they see fit. Remove the argument that an artist can not support themselves if they do not cater to either the mainstream or underground cultures. Once that argument is removed (note that I said support themselves, I did not say make a shit load of money) then the choice is best left up to the individual artist.

I think once we are able to support our artists we will be likely to see more of our artists catering to us. You can see an example of this in the indie comic book scene. In the past comics were dominated by super hero books because it was only through super hero books that you could pay your rent. Aspiring comic book artists and writers either had to work with super hero titles, or had to find jobs doing something else. As the indie comic book market has expanded it has been better able to allow aspiring comic book artists and writers to pay their rent telling the types of stories that they want to tell. Because of this the breadth of the medium has expanded and the medium has grown in acceptance outside of just the geek world. If we can support other geek artists in a similar manner, then I believe we will see a similar growth in the breadth of the types of art that are created. Geeks are a diverse bunch and it only stands to reason that if given the chance, we will create diverse types of art (we already do).

b) The central issue here is the diversity with in the actual geek culture, as opposed to the perceived geek culture.

Geeks are largely perceived by both the underground and the mainstream to be social misfits who are unable to properly interact with either of the two dominant cultures. We both know that this is in fact a false statement. The issue here is not that we are all social misfits who are unable to interact with other cultures, but instead that those of us who are able to interact with other cultures either do not have any cultural signifiers to identify ourselves as geeks or are unwilling to allow ourselves to be identified as geeks, lest we be assumed to be social misfits who are unable to interact with other cultures.

By creating a self sustaining culture of our own we are better able to address these two issues. First, by providing the cultural signifiers that we need to identify ourselves (this is already happening). And second by demonstrating the diversity among geeks. In this second situation, focus moves to those artists (because cultures tend to be defined by the art that it creates) who exist on the fringes between geek culture and the other two cultures. These artists are capable to creating art (literature, music, painting, video games, whatever) which explains the geek mindset in a manner that can be understood by other cultures, while not becoming separated from the geek mindset that they are trying to capture. In other words, these artists become the ambassadors of geek culture.

Geek culture is not something that needs to be created. It is something that already exists. It does need to be nurtured though. Allowing it to be nurtured in an environment where it is allowed to grow organically into something that properly reflects us, will allow us an opportunity to better express ourselves and communicate who and what we are. Trying to force it though into a place that is currently acceptable by either of the dominant cultures, will stunt it and will leave us with something that neither properly represents who and what we are, nor something that allows us to explain who and what we are to the other cultures. To organically create a culture that properly expresses who and what we are, we must first accept who and what we are.

Hopefully, all of this better explains what I’m getting at. Jason, or anyone else for that matter, should feel free to ask for any other explanations that they need.

Written by Matt

April 4th, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Thoughts