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Standing Athwart Nerd Cultural History, Yelling ‘Stop’

Nobody in show business has stronger nerd credentials than Patton Oswalt. I mean, this is a guy who regularly played D&D with the proprietor of this very website. So when Patton writes a column for Wired saying that geek culture has to die to be saved, it’s worth noting. “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die” is what it’s called; it’s about how what was once the culture of cults of nerds is now part of the mainstream, and how he’s not happy about that. It’s the complaint of those who are angry that the things they felt were theirs — known to only the chosen few, beloved by the cognoscenti while the masses embraced Madonna and sitcoms — are now popular. That, he feels, means that the obsessiveness of the real fans, and the creativity that it engenders, is in danger of being washed away in a sea of disposable spoof mashups.

“Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells,” Oswalt writes. “The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show…. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.”

The column proposes Oswalt’s solution, accelerating the arrival of what he calls “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was —- Available Forever,” leading to a total wipeout and reboot of popular culture. The village, he says in effect, has to be destroyed to save it.

It’s an interesting take, and while I’ll leave the analysis to you in the comments here and at Wired, I’ll just say that the feeling of betrayal when something you caught onto first goes mainstream is hardly new. Yet I understand that feeling and the emptiness that accompanies the rapid deployment of memes to the point where it seems like there’s nothing you can call your own, and nothing that makes you want to go out and create your own magic.

Go read the whole thing, willya?

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  1. DefconDan says:

    First of all, excellent article, worth that month’s entire magazine. Actually gonna see if he could sign it when I see him play next weekend.

    Second, I’m completely with him that this new Wikipedia, Internet-soaked world does take away a lot from the nerd scene in terms of obtaining “cred/info”. I can’t say I completely agree with him. I mean at the beginning when the internet barely had a txt-based web and everything was rec.somethingyouliked newsgroups, I came into more information about my favorite anime or role-playing games than ever before. My mind was blown when I found out what Battle of the Planets was based on, and fuck, JMS’ early outlines and talks about what his Babylon 5 show was gonna be like was so awesome, got my all psyched up. All early ‘Net.

    But he’s still got a good point that’s its almost too easy to become fully nerded on a subject. Think about how long it took you to read all those D&D books and supplementals and stuff. Now some kid can scan it all in some Wikia and dismiss it just as quickly!

    Well done Patton, and as a side note it just hit me… given his talent wouldn’t Patton have given an awesome portrayal of the Dwarf from George RR Martin’s books?!

  2. nutbastard says:

    I think it’s better for the jocks and douches to assimilate into geek culture (at least superficially) than it is for geeks to assimilate with douche culture. And you can always go one level deeper than the people who aren’t actually passionate – I sport a Jayne Cobb hat, for example. Only the initiated know what it is, or why it’s cool.

  3. Stacy says:

    This is a comment from EricS on the Wired site. I suggest you search for it and read the whole thing, because I couldn’t have said this better myself.

    “It isn’t that the author is wrong about his title argument. It is indeed time for the death of geek culture as we knew it. It has aged out, as have its practitioners. But the author forgets that his time of rebellion was itself a reaction to the mass consciousness of ubiquitous broadcast television and playlist radio.”

  4. Derek says:

    Meh. I like the things I like because I like them. I don’t give a flying fuck what culture they are from. I like them, because I like them.

  5. Mal says:

    Good article, though I can’t relate to a pre-Internet nerd culture. It’s a glib suggestion, but it is possible to ignore the mainstream and the crappier parts of the Internet and still create an “otaku thought-palace”. It’s not quite the purely underground experience that Oswalt had in the 80s, but it can be just as personal and with as much potential for creativity.

  6. Jenn Zuko says:

    Fantastic article!

    First off: speed up the process? How?? In this day and age where one little image from a movie becomes a meme before the movie even goes to DVD? Where LOLcats rule? How could you possibly speed up the process–I have a modest daily news feed I follow and by the time I watch Attack of the Show at 5pm my time I’m two days ahead of the memes. Everything is lightning fast.

    Second: I have to admit that when I heard my college students waxing romantic about how hot Legolas is, I felt empowered. Sure, I could’ve told them that ten, twenty even years ago. But it feels oddly good, seeing a hot actor play a hot role, to hear the “in a world” guy recite the “one ring to rule them all” poem. And I’m not against the Ring being sold as bling, though those who buy them should really think of what they mean in the books… I mean, did Patton Oswalt never buy a single Star Wars toy, D&D dice set or book, or ’80s video game? Because I did. I bought as much as I could with my meager budget, and I have no hate whatsoever about those who tried to sell those things to me.

    About the appropriation of our beloved nerdy obsessions to the masses that used to bully us, to that I say bravo! I hope that jock or popular girl that used to terrorize me has grown to love Star Wars or anime or D&D or Lord of the Rings. Because if they have, they haven’t then peaked in high school. They have evolved, they appreciate magic, and they are bigger people for it. So a hipster is wearing an Atari shirt who is too young to know what that means. So actually I think that falls under “more publicity is good publicity”. That’s also fine with me.

    Instead of the ‘otaku’ dying, how about we get a surfeit of ‘otaku’, where many people, not just nerds, get intellectually obssessed about stuff? Wouldn’t that be great? If more smart, knowledgeable experts in all kinds of things popped up? We’d have so many arguments, it’d be wonderful.

    But again, as I said before, this is already happening.

    Sorry to go on so long! 🙂

  7. Ashley says:

    I had no idea nerdism (or whatever the noun form of “nerd” is) was so elitist!

    As a nerd, you should understand that norms are socially constructed. So once something like “Glee” catches on, more and more people will accept it and love it, for it becomes cool (or at least okay) for them to share it and admit their love for it.

    I’m glad Patton appreciates and can joke about being a nerd. Face it, Patton. There are more nerds than you think. It’s just easier now for them to come out of the woodwork.

  8. GuanoLad says:

    It’s just another rehashed argument that things were better in the good old days. Which, in every case, is partially true but mostly wrong. There are far too many good things with this onslaught and easy access to information, entertainment, and geeky toys, to go around thinking that having some kind of special subcultural claim of ownership is what made it worth it. I say Bollocks to that.

    I came from a pokey little corner of the world, with few friends, none of whom had my level of interest in the geeky things I loved. Now I have the world available to discuss, discover, and dismiss the things I enjoy with me, and I love it. Some of it may get distorted into ways I don’t like, during its adaptation for wide accessibility, but there are happy accidents that actually improve it.

    Subculture niches are overrated.

  9. Joe Wilson says:

    It’s an excellent read! Thanks for the pointer!

    When Patton looks at the post-Etewaf world of the future where his daughter knows of the superviolent line-dancing music from Germany, I think we’re already there. Ultra-niche is the new nerd.

    The ease of content acquisition and the ability to easily get your otaku on about a particular topic doesn’t create an army of mashup makers, it creates a dense DNA of influences in future content creators. Imagine John Lennon having access to YouTube when he was 12 years old? What kind of music comes out of that brain?

    A DIY tidal wave of content is chipping away at the mainstream attention span where individuals on Youtube have the equivalent to basic-cable ratings and one guy talks to over a million people on Twitter. I think that’s where the equivalent of undiscovered gems of Patton’s 1980’s will be found now and in the future, in the ultra-dense forest of Etewaf on the net. Below the level of meme, not flashes of attention, but rather stories and music made outside of the media conglomerate and delivered directly to the consumer, who has a relationship with the content creators. There will be less mass media and more niche media.

  10. JD says:

    Patton is right. He is a very wise, short, chubby, lesbianesque man.

    Which is why he’s my favorite comedian since Carlin and Hedberg died..

    *puts hair in Leia buns*
    Save us Patton, you are our only hope.