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Some Ruminations on “Geek Culture” in Response to Chris Braak’s Post

Over on io9, Chris Braak put up a thought-provoking rant where he seems to compare the culture of genre fandom (including fan fiction, cosplay, conventions, etc.) with mainstream literary culture, and the culture of broader mainstream (read: non-genre) America.

There’s a lot of hyperbole in the post, but he seems to make two key points – each of which I have to disagree with.

When Chris can’t find examples of Shakespeare cosplay or fanfic, he concludes that Shakespeare, Melville, Proust, Faulkner, Tom Wolfe, etc. are all dead and contribute nothing to our cultural growth. As a consequence, he claims that Geek Culture is the “ONLY legitimate form of American culture” (the caps are his). I suspect that part of this is hyperbole for rhetorical effect, but I see a basic problem in the logic: it conflates community behavior with culture itself, and that’s simply incorrect.

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings, via Wikipedia

Consider the Kayan Lahwi, a people indigenous to Burma. The Kayan women are famous for wearing brass neck rings which over time reshape there clavicles and compress their rib cages, giving them the appearance of elongated necks. Most people in the United States don’t wear neck rings. Does that mean that US-residents don’t have culture? Or that the Kayans don’t?

Of course not. All it means is that each of these two communities expresses its culture in different ways. Fashion, visual arts, writing, dance, and behavior in group encounters are all expressions of culture. In “Geek Culture” we may dress as super-heroes or anime characters, but is that in any way “more cultured” than a Maasai tribal dance?

Cosplay, fan fiction, conventions, etc. are all ways for us to identify ourselves as part of a community with whom we share common interests, perhaps values, etc. We participate in that community to have fun. Other communities have different ways of doing the exact same thing. That does not mean that genre fandom’s methods of expression are “more legitimate” than those of Melville fans. The fact that Melville fans don’t grow massive beards, or Shakespeare readers don’t wear ruffs, or Van Gogh lovers don’t slice off their ears tells us absolutely nothing about the cultural value or currency of these artists. The only conclusion we can draw is that the Melville/Shakespeare/Van Gogh communities express themselves differently than genre fandom. And the closest thing to a credo I’ve found in genre fandom is that different does not necessarily mean bad.

As individuals, and as a society, we are vast and contain multitudes. I don’t need to wear a ruff to be influenced by Shakespeare in my own writing. I don’t need to slice off my ear to paint a beautiful painting (although, considering my utter lack of painting skills it probably couldn’t hurt). Shakespeare and Melville aren’t “dead” because their influence continues to percolate through every contemporary creative endeavor. Why do we still read Shakespeare? Because they tell us to in school? That’s a major over-simplification. Shakespeare still provides us with new and interesting insight into ourselves and our society. We don’t need to write Shakespearean fanfic to benefit from that. Genre creators who haven’t been influenced by past masters are thin on the ground. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Chris goes on to say that contemporary genre works will stand the test of time better than contemporary mainstream literary works (which are also a genre, BTW). None of us has a (functional) crystal ball, and so that prediction may even be correct. In all honesty, I actually agree with that prediction. But that’s because I believe that a greater proportion of SF/F/H works have relevant things to say about the human condition. That’s a result of the quality of the creative products: it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the community behavior of its creators.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well that’s just silly, saying they’re dead. Um, is he not aware of the 24-hr Moby Dick reads that take place? If that isn’t geeky fandom, what is?

    Shakespeare? Hello, Ren Faires. Get your fill of ruffs and corsets and sword play.

    Van Gogh? Inspired a pop song (“Vincent” by Don McLean)

    I’m sure we could go on. Point is, Braak’s just plain wrong.

    Not everyone acts out their personal fantasies, however.

    April 5, 2011
  2. Oh man! I never knew about the 24-hour Moby-Dick readings. I’m not that big a fan of Melville, but those do sound like fun!

    And you’re absolutely right on everything else, too. I think he might have been driving at “sf/f/h/anime is good, anything that isn’t is bad” but his argument kind of falls apart when you look at the logic. And let’s not forget how all those “traditional” writers/artists influence the genre!

    April 5, 2011
  3. I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I almost signed on for the reading at Powells this year. I thought it might be an interesting way to take it in. I found out a little too late, though, and ultimately couldn’t make it. Those were the only two I know about, but there must be others.

    Shakespeare alone was a huge influence on genre works. One really fine example: “Forbidden Planet” is “The Tempest” in space. God I love that movie.

    April 5, 2011
  4. You’re right, but I think it’s more basic than that. Our culture is What We Do–consequently most of our culture is invisible to us. Football/baseball season, popcorn at the movies, jeans and printed t-shirts, billboard adds, prime-time TV, and our two-day weekends. Sub-cultures like fandom only show up by contrast to the background culture. As for the future of sci-fi/fantasy literature, I do agree that these stories often have more staying power, but only because most sci-fi/fantasy writers are trying to tell entertaining stories first, make a point second (if at all). Shakespeare’s plays were certainly not “high art” in his day–in fact you could define a lot of his humor as mid to low-brow.

    April 5, 2011
    • I think you’re exactly right: any subculture (like fandom) defines itself in comparison to its broader surroundings. We geeks need to accept that the characteristics that traditionally indicated membership in the “Geek (sub) Culture” now have become so popular as to lose utility as differentiators. Victims of our passions’ own successes and all that.

      April 5, 2011

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