Roundtable on Geek Culture

Theodora Goss

I’m not really sure what to add to this, because I saw Avengers and it seemed to have almost nothing to do with the geek world I live in. That world seems to be occupied by people who saw Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, can quote from Monty Python movies, and actually played D&D in high school. When I was in high school, Marvel Comics was mainstream. Elfquest was the fringe, and then later Watchmen. I’ve never thought of Avengers as a geek phenomenon.

Yes, in a sense we’re all geeks now because we all use communicators, and the news media reports on human-Neanderthal interbreeding and spooky motion at a distance. We’re living in speculative fiction. Perhaps what’s happening is that the more popular edge of geekdom (comics, Star Trek, epic fantasy) is being absorbed into the popular culture. I’m not sure how that affects my own work–I suspect it doesn’t. That stuff didn’t even feel edgy when I was growing up . . .

Siobhan Carroll

A variant on this observation. Geeks love media objects and try to form communities based around their love for these objects. But, to quote another part of Nick Mamatas’ post, “Not everyone who likes the same TV show as you is a member of your ‘family.'” This becomes painfully obvious when everyone likes the same TV show you like. When the jock who beat you up in high school is also a Game of Thrones fan, it’s going to be harder for you to take social refuge in your GoT fan club.

Russell Letson

When I was growing up, a geek was still someone who did unpleasant things to chickens, but I was probably as close to being a geek in the current sense as you could be in 1958, and we knew that we weren’t cool. Cool was for those Other Guys who did sports or fixed cars or wore Madras shirts or drove Cushman scooters or whose families had ski boats. We were not only uncool, we denied and defied cool. (Though we could not transcend our adolescent desire to attract girls, which resulted in a certain ambivalence about the utility of cool and sometimes attempts to redefine it.*)

The geekdom-fantastika nexus is a relatively new addition to the constellation of permanent-out-group traits–when I was in high school, my attachment to SF was only a small and rather exotic part of my social identity, which was much more strongly marked by my general bookishness and my rejection of jock culture (though we couldn’t say “jock” in mixed company back then)–and even the bookishness was ambiguous, since I belong to the first generation of tracked students, which means that my entire sub-cohort was already marked as “accelerated,” AKA “the brains,” and many of the leading varsity athletes and frat/sorority cool kids came from my group. I suspect that there has been extensive transvaluation since those days.

As the Pauls and Gary have indicated, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff about the marketing of subcultural identity, which I track back to the economic clout of various comics readerships–I can offer anecdotes about what happens to a subculture when the comics fanboys annex it or even settle an adjacent territory. Don’t get me started about toy collecting.

But the power behind this Triumph of the Geeks is part demographic and part cultural, Demographic: a big chunk of our population grew up reading comics (and watching a finally-semirespectable Star Trek and its cousins) and playing video games. Cultural: they have not accepted the notion that adulthood means putting away childish things. As a result, there are millions of thirty- and forty-somethings who can enjoy the pop-culture entertainments they enjoyed when they were kids– and a pop-culture industry happy to supply this huge market with whatever it likes. When we saw The Avengers last Friday, we were surrounded by people (mostly men in their 20s and 30s) for whom the images on the screen were part of an unbroken chain of familiarity and fun–it was not the same as the reaction I notice in a non-branded special-effects-blow-em-up movie. And these guys were not geeks. They were fanboys in adult bodies who, I suspect, would have happily delivered a wedgie to a real geek when they were in high school.

* Yes, this is a gendered view. We had gender back then, and what we now call geeks were guys. Girls had their own set of social-inclusion rules and styles which even fifty years later I have trouble parsing. I’m sure my sister could explain them to me.

Karen Burnham

One thing that’s struck me as I’ve gone back and read some of the classic epics over the years is how much they have in common with today’s action movies. I’ve always pictured some young Hellenic child crying: “Tell it again, grandpa! Tell it again how Ajax hit that guy so hard his eyes flew out of his head and landed on the sand!” or some young Norse child demanding another round of Beowulf tearing the monster’s arm out and beating it over the head with it.

It’s a little painful to think that Michael Bay may have tapped into a more classic vein of human storytelling than Michael Chabon, but I think that over-the-top spectacle has always appealed.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I’m old enough to remember that the movies Jason and the Golden Fleece and Jason and the Argonauts were special effects spectacles (thank you, Ray Harryhausen!) in their time.

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