Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal

Jase Short wrote, and Jacobin published, a rebuttal to my piece “On Geek Culture”. I think it’s a well-thought out piece and I appreciate the respectful tone. The fact that this happened, by the way, is one of the reasons why I like Jacobin so much. It’s not monolithic, just as the left isn’t monolithic. The editorial staff are willing to get dissent within the ranks even when it’s stuff that they obviously approve of enough to publish. That’s really cool.

That said, I do want to rebut the rebuttal, but here in my own space. I feel as though Mr. Short has misunderstood a bit of what I wrote, not least of which is the notion that I’m defining being a geek as passive consumption of culture. Since that kind of underpins the rebuttal, I think it’s important for me to respond.

Some of this misunderstanding is really about how the piece was written. I was a bit of a victim of my word count, an eminently understandable situation. This forced me to truncate bits of my argument. Some of it is that this is an evolving thesis and, really, two pieces in one. The first piece is trying to shift what we mean when we say geek. If I’m frank, this is the argument that I’m most interested in of the two; I firmly, categorically think that geekdom has nothing to do with what you like but how you like it.

The second piece is how that passion is harnessed by corporations. I think I do a decent job of showing how this happens in the video game industry workplace in my prospective next Jacobin piece without making the argument an outright follow-up. I’ll avoid long spoilers for now, but the tradeoff in the industry is “you work insane hours, you get to do what your subculture considers awesome”.

But let’s zero in on the first piece of that combo. As near as I can tell, Mr. Short and I are in total agreement: the geek is defined by the depth of passion toward the admired object. It seems strange that the rebuttal should center on the “passivity” of the geek when I really argue no such thing.

In fact, I argue something quite the opposite. The passion of the geek toward the object or activity, whether that’s Star Trek or a sports team or record collection, is so great, the interaction so rewarding, that it can and does supplant ties of race, gender, and class solidarity. It’s not enough to both be dock workers; if one is a traditional sports-hating geek and the other is a rabid anime-hating Giants fan, odds are that the casual bonds of commonality which might, say, let them work in opposition to management much more naturally don’t form.

Mostly my piece was well-received, but one of the common counters (and Mr. Short touches on it in his) is that this is really just human nature. That of course you make everyday social bonds around common interests.

Which is absolutely true. The problem, of course, is one which is much broader and that is corporate intrusion and ownership of what those common interests are. And, again, we return to the passion/passivity argument. By exalting those common interests to such a degree, the geek (and, again, I remind readers that I’m using this to mean people very different than the commonly used term) is essentially exalting a corporate brand as identity. It is not passivity which is the problem; it’s the passion and what it does.

But what of reclaiming the properties? What about cosplay and fanfiction? These are, indeed, active forms of engagement with the object. My counter is: reclaim them from what? If a property is created by a corporation, owned by a corporation, there is no way to reclaim it. Its essential nature is corporate. There is no separating out Iron Man from Marvel. Mr. Short brings up Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney; left unsaid is that Lucas was hardly a non-corporate entity. I daresay he’s the poster child for Boomer monetization of intellectual property and that Disney may be kinder to the intersection between capitalism and fandom than he was, though that’s a bit of a side argument.

There seems to be an air that I am dumping on geek culture as low brow or worthless. That is absolutely not the case. I love low brow stuff. I watch almost exclusively terrible movies. I love stupid games with no real higher message. I eat junk food and watch NFL football while obsessively watching my fantasy football scores. I own two Arsenal jerseys. So it is most certainly not that I have a disdain for mass culture.

What I am asking for is merely awareness of where the beloved media in question comes from, coupled with (and I could have done a better job putting this to the fore) a sincere attempt to liberate creators on the part of fans. On the creator front, I have seen so many geeks claim love for creators, whether that’s a running back or a comic artist. When push comes to shove, when those creators are sincerely, unequivocally abused by the corporations which employ them, geeks are largely silent. Not all of them, as Mr. Short is quick to point out, and that’s true, but the majority are conspicuously on the side of the ownership class, not the creator. It is galling, even as a non-comic reader, to see calls for boycotts by bloggers met with “creators will really starve if we join in”. That is passivity and helplessness, a perversion of the usual passion which is deliberately and consciously harnessed by the ownership class in these media industries for poor ends.

One final note on Mr. Short’s piece, one which I think reinforces my premise that geek culture ends up supplanting traditional cultural bonds. Toward the end he writes:

“For many, the act of “owning up” to a label once imposed by oppressive social forces, most often in middle school and high school, is analogous to the re-appropriation of labels by oppressed groups.”

I cannot get on board with this. Being a geek growing up and reclaiming the word is not the same thing as owning up to racial, gender, or sexual preference slurs. He immediately says that it’s not the same scale or type, but by putting it out there at all the equation exists. I admit that I’m taking the least charitable reading, but I see this time and time again with those who have grown up being teased: no, it’s not like being called the N-word, but we were made fun of and we’re taking the word back, so it’s sort of like that in a small way.

I don’t ever want to question the severity of bullying or tell people to get over it, but there are some bounds here which must forcefully be called out when crossed. Being a geek is not something you’re born into. There is nothing set in stone which says that you must wear that media allegiance on your t-shirt or on your mug. Nobody should ever be tormented for those things, but it is not remotely in the same league as racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia.

I sincerely doubt that Mr. Short (who seems like a very sharp, well-meaning fellow) meant to equate these things. Perhaps we need a new language for this sort of thing. Or, perhaps, we should be wary of exalting media consumption and the passion it sometimes engenders to a place where such analogies exist at all, which is really the core of my argument.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's been an age, hasn't it?

I've left this blog fallow for quite a long time. I think my last post was in June and even it wasn't very long. Status updates, though, are good for the people who found out about Before Iron and ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD through here.

Before Iron: This is still in limbo, despite my having been told that I could talk about it a year and a half ago. It is, I am assured, still a priority. I've received some good news on the Before Iron front from Stewart, but it's not the sort of thing I can share publicly.

It'll be out when it's out. I don't know when that is, but it's probably best to not think of it until I post firm news.

ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD: Always in caps. Always.

As far as I'm concerned, AMW is feature complete for testing. Not feature complete for release, of course, but for testing, absolutely. You can find the latest playtest docs here:


The only reason I haven't been playtesting the hell out of this online (we've done some locally and it's gone swimmingly) is because Apocalypse World derived games are really tough to do properly without playbook pdfs to consult. There's something deliciously tactile about the *W experience, so doing it without those pdfs is both incomplete and lacks a certain ease of use.

The pdfs are slowly, ever so slowly, coming together. Work on them has been turned over to my brother and co-author on Before Iron. But he's started a new job at a new school, which slows things down, and I've started school again, been busy with other projects, and my daughter started preschool, which slows things down even further. Rest assured that our mutual breaks in the action are devoted to things like the playbook and script pdfs. I suspect testing will come in hardcore once the holidays roll around and everyone has some time off. I also suspect it might be ready for release by the end of Summer 14, though that is optimistic.

Release is already more or less settled. My brother and our friend (that's +Peter Williams and +John Cocking, respectively) have a company called Flatland Games which publishes a very nifty and well-regarded OSR titled Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. AMW will be released there when it comes out.

Will there be a Kickstarter? That's unsure. Frankly, signing on with Flatland means that it's not strictly necessary; the infrastructure for printing on demand and having an awesome pdf are already there. That doesn't mean it won't happen, however; I like Kickstarter as a way of helping with lump sum payments to talent and getting the word out.

If we do go Kickstarter (and this is probably a topic for another post), it will be handled quite differently from many others. For one, it won't go to KS unless and until it's fully written. Since it's not necessary to have the operating capital a KS could offer to get it out in some form, I see no need to kickstart it and then write it over the next however many months. This is not least because I'm rotten at time management and I want precisely zero risk that it goes over my time allotment.

We also won't have any stretch goals as they've come to be thought of. It'll be very simple: more money means better art. Maybe there's a hardcover version. Maybe it's in color. The initial goal would be very modest, as well. I prefer things simple and streamlined as much as possible.

Geeky & Genki: I'm proud to be doing some entertainment writing over at Geeky & Genki. It's a bunch of cool folks I respect the hell out of doing podcasts and writing on all sorts of things. If anything's suffered because of my busy Fall, it's really G&G; I hope to write some more for them very soon (I already have my In the Heat of the Night cultural criticism magnum opus written in my head for Fall break).

Jacobin: Being a more or less lifelong socialist of one stripe or another, I've been very excited to be able to write for Jacobin (and by extension Salon) on geek culture. Jacobin is a magazine I really and truly respect, young as it is, and to have my name next to people like Eileen Jones, Bhaskar Sunkara, Connor Kilpatrick, Corey Robin, etc truly, sincerely blows my mind and humbles me.

If all goes well with the draft, I'll have a long read on the political economy of the video game industry in the next print issue. It should hilariously torpedo any hopes I may have had of returning to the video game industry (spoiler: I actually have no desire to return), but I hope it proves a thought-provoking read.

Anyway, keep an eye on here and follow me on G+ for updates. My next focus is AMW, AMW, AMW, at least once midterms are done.