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.