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Evan and Gordon Talk: Nerd Culture

EVAN: To start this off by ignoring our readership and addressing you, this week’s topic is a weird sort of continuation of the various posts on culture you’ve written, such as “manly culture,” “science culture,” etc. And similar to these other groups of people, “nerd culture” is a pretty nebulous sort of thing to define.

GORDON: No argument there. After all, even the “nerds” insist on calling out “fake nerds”- especially in regards to women/girls. But what is a nerd anyways?

EVAN: See, now I’m torn, because we do need to define it, but you’ve also directly referenced an issue I wanted to discuss in depth this week.

GORDON: How about we abandon our previous track record, and just plunge recklessly ahead and hope the issue resolves itself?

EVAN: Well, let me throw this image out there:

And then hope that suffices for now.

GORDON: Works for me. So what was it that you wanted to address specifically?

EVAN: Well, just last month there was this guy, a comic artist, named Tony Harris. And he wrote this post on his Facebook page that was essentially a tirade against “faux nerd” women, and how they are whores, and so on.

To break it down further, these are women who dress up as superheroes and what have you without knowing about the actual characters themselves. He is upset because, to quote him:

BECAUSE YOU DONT KNOW SH-T ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER.

Also that they attend to essentially just tease the regular con-goers and are actually not even hot, just “con-hot.” So yeah, he said a lot.

GORDON: Ah yes, I recall reading about this. And while I think we can all agree Harris went too far, is a bit hypocritical (seeing how most comic women ain’t exactly average looking), and probably getting too emotional, I can’t help but wonder if he has, somewhere in there, a point.

I mean, imagine if all of a sudden, something that you had been stigmatized for became popular, and people started trying to co-opt your identity knowing nearly nothing about it. I’d be ticked off too.

EVAN: That’s definitely something I’ve read people write about, that this used to be an exclusive club and that it took years to build up this knowledge and become, well, a nerd, and here are these noobs and they want in and it’s not that easy.

And I can see where they’re coming from as well.

But if you really love something, shouldn’t you want others to as well? The Avengers has an enormous following on tumblr these days [because of the movie], and these are people who are actually going out and starting to buy comics. They are helping sales, aiding the industry, etc.

GORDON: That’s true, and something I’ve considered, but there’s probably also an argument to be made for the other side. That something precious to you is being watered down and diluted for profit. I don’t believe that nerds (comic book nerds, anyways) can necessarily make this argument, but the line of logic is there.

Let’s try to come up with an example of this happening somewhere else, especially in regards to persecution.

EVAN: Mmk, go ahead-

GORDON: “Black culture” (or what was passed off as black culture) might be an example. Can you state that you’re not driven nuts by wealthy, comfortable suburban kids fronting like they’re from the streets of Oakland?

EVAN: Yeah, people are upset about it, sure, but there’s not this immense outcry over it. There are comic-con enthusiasts that are genuinely incensed that all of this is happening-

I doubt that an actual thug or gangbanger or whatever these rich White kids are playing at imitating is going to start freaking out that he’s getting ripped off. He’s going to laugh or shrug it off, because it hardly matters.

GORDON: I’d argue that the reason for this has more to do with the change in venue. It’s easy for the major players of the comic book industry to voice their opinions than, say, a Wu-Tang Clan fan in the late 90s. But maybe I’m wrong.

EVAN: For the most part, I see this as a mindset that is the foundation or core of hipsterism, and that we all feel to some extent, however minor. That we found something and we love it and there is a pride in joy in being one of the original fans.

And this outpouring of others somehow cheapens things. And all of a sudden we’re trying to assert how we’re better than them in some way.

“You chose to dress up as Spider-Woman? Do you even know who her alter-ego is, or what her powers are? Etc.”

GORDON: Again, do we not sympathize? Do we not feel frustrated with people who have more or less jumped on the bandwagon now that it’s all safe and socially acceptable to do so? Heck, just imagine if someone tried listing themselves as a fan of fine cooking, having only eaten sushi once- would you be ticked?

EVAN: If I equated sushi with fine cooking I guess I would, yeah. But just because we can understand someone’s anger and frustration doesn’t make it logical.

GORDON: I wouldn’t say that there’s not a logic to it. I mean, a major part of being a nerd is, and always has been, the social pariah element. All of the sudden you have these people trying to claim to be on the fringes of society? It’s condescending and insulting.

EVAN: I think that’s the issue- They’re not trying to “claim to be on the fringes of society.”

GORDON: I disagree- I feel this is a coward’s way of feigning rebelliousness and all that.

EVAN: Sometimes people who haven’t been exposed to comics for much of their lives see a movie, or read a trade, and go to a con. Maybe they wear a costume. That doesn’t mean they’re going into this thinking, in any way, that they’re suddenly a part of this group of outcasts.

Comics are popular now. I mean, more than they’ve ever been. To say “I like comics” is no longer the sort of thing that’s going to get you shunned. People are going to raise their eyebrows and wonder why you think that’s a big deal.

GORDON: Comics yes, no one is gonna argue that. The title of “nerd” however, that’s different. And after all, “nerd” is a much larger term. It applies to gamers, to film, and so on.

EVAN: So how does one become a “fake nerd”?

GORDON: Therein lies the rub- there’s always gonna be more obsessive nerds out there. People higher up and lower down the hierarchy. But for the most part, I think we can agree that a “false” nerd is one who does not meet the criteria in that diagram you posted.

The “social ineptitude”, the “obsessiveness”- if it’s not actually there (no matter how much the person or persons might insist otherwise) then that person is a “fake” nerd.

EVAN: So am I a “fake nerd”?

GORDON: Do you call yourself a nerd?

EVAN: I don’t really call myself anything. But I’d also say that many of the girls who go to cons and find themselves attacked by Harris don’t refer to themselves as anything in particular either.

GORDON: Then no, I wouldn’t define you or them as fitting this category. Like I said- Harris went overboard.

EVAN: I just don’t think social ineptitude needs to be a requirement in this. I think you could be a nerd and still have friends, and achieve some level of popularity. The diagram above really shoehorns the definition. I mean, what if I did call myself a nerd?

I’m fairly smart, about 80% of the time I’m thinking about comics, or comics-related media. At the same time, I’m a fairly social guy. What does that mean?

GORDON: You think about comics 80% of the time?

EVAN: I think about comics a lot.

GORDON: 80% of your waking thoughts is a craaaaaazy lot, though I’d say your self-identification as a nerd is flawed. Serial-killer in the making would be more accurate. But we begin to split hairs at this point.

EVAN: I guess it’s like, does Hugh Laurie have the right to play the blues?

GORDON: Hugh Laurie can do whatever the **** he wants. As does anyone. With everything he does, can he identify himself first and foremost as a blues musician? Not really. At least, that ain’t how we’re all gonna think of him, or remember him.

EVAN: Does it matter that it’s what you identify as first and foremost? I am positive that at some level, yes, he does identify as a blues musician.

GORDON: It does matter how you identify yourself first and foremost. I’ve eaten bugs on multiple occasions- I don’t declare myself “Gordon Brown: Bug Eater.” The rest of the stuff I do outweighs it by far.

EVAN: You’re missing my point. You’ve eaten bugs, so on some level you can identify as a bug-eater.

If he identifies as a blues artist less than he does as an actor, that doesn’t negate the fact that he identifies as a blues artist, and what we’re talking about is people being able to say that they can and do relate to a culture, and that doesn’t make them fake adherents of that.

GORDON: Let me offer another example: I’ve been camping, and I occasionally read survivalist pamphlets. For me to call myself a “survivalist” would nevertheless be inaccurate and misleading. That’s the crux of the matter, I believe.

A nerd is someone who is in this for the long haul- a person who enjoys The Avengers or Nolan’s Batman trilogy isn’t. At least, not necessarily.

EVAN: I’m not saying that a person who enjoyed The Avengers equates being a nerd. That’s like, half the Earth’s population, if the box office is any indicator.

I’m saying that a person who saw The Avengers, and then heads over to their local comics store to check some out, and gets really into it, has the potential to become a “comics nerd” of sorts. And people who see them and scorn them for not being there from the beginning should be ashamed of themselves.

If we’re sticking with the example of film and comics and so-on.

GORDON: And I agree- those people should not be viewed with derision. But that’s not who we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about ****ing hipsters, about people who have just enough knowledge of a culture to give themselves the veneer or adopting it. People who wear glasses as a ****ing fashion statement. You know the kind.

It’s about motives. The noob who is just now getting into the culture isn’t a “false” nerd- just a young one. The person who call himself or herself a nerd to co-opt the social stigma (now that it’s all but gone) deserves contempt.

EVAN: I honestly don’t think that what these people are trying to co-opt is the social stigma.

GORDON: My poor choice of words. I mean the false sense of rebellion. Like people who post pro-gay Facebook statements simply to draw attention and applause to themselves. Fake-rebels. Fair-weather activists.

EVAN: That’s fine, and I agree that these people are not to be applauded.

I just think that for the most part, people are realizing that there is a lot in the “nerd culture” that they find interesting and accessible, and are gravitating towards it. Not out of some misguided attempt to be on the edge of society, but because they legitimately enjoy whatever it is they’re trying to engage with.

GORDON: I agree- I simply don’t think it’s these people most old-guard nerds are angry at.

EVAN: But how can they differentiate? That’s a huge issue. It’s this reaction of the community against anyone that’s not legit, but without any way of truly being able to tell how people feel-

A person can go to comic-con in an elaborate costume simply because they enjoy the aesthetics and design of the character. They’re not required to know everything about them, and shouldn’t be hissed and booed at when they don’t.

GORDON: That in and of itself is another issue. If I showed up to the social justice convention dressed as Che Guevara  you’d best believe I’d better know a thing or two about the guy who I’m completely dressed up as- but we’re moving off track.

EVAN: But the point of social justice conventions isn’t to dress up as your favourite revolutionary- that’s entirely besides the point. I bring it up because it’s completely cogent to our topic, because it’s exactly what Tony Harris was railing against.

GORDON: Tony Harris ran his mouth and made a fool of himself, I ain’t trying to defend a word of what he said or wrote, only the general perspective he seems to be coming from.

EVAN: What I’m saying, without negating your points is this, and I’m going to try to wrap up since we’re 15 minutes past our cut-off, is this:

I’m someone says “LOL im such a nerd” and they wear glasses with big frames and have a Green Lantern patch on their backpack, yeah, I’d say that’s not okay. But a large issue is being able to, as a community, acknowledge when “outsiders” try to access what it is that we love so dearly.

We like comic books and Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons, and if other people might as well, that’s fine. Just because others weren’t always welcoming of us in the past doesn’t mean we should do the same to others. Especially when there’s some likelihood, even a little, that they could one day be as big a fan as you [as hard as that may be to believe].

GORDON: Well put. Be sure to stop by next time for our discussion of . . .

EVAN: Of . . . uh . . . I threw out this topic last week, what’ve you got?

GORDON: Let’s address the portrayal of drugs- weed in particular- in media and popular culture.

EVAN: That’s a pretty contemporary topic too, because of the legalization in Washington and all that. Sounds good to me.

GORDON: Let it be so then. Merry Wednesday to all, and to all a good night!

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Culture, Not Criteria

Earlier today Evan sent me a link to a documentary on YouTube dealing with the subject of “hacktivists,” or more specifically, the rise of internet mischief and mayhem group “Anonymous.” For the most part, the movie was decent enough, though of course it wasn’t without its own agenda and a there are a few misconceptions resulting from that. But this post isn’t going to be a review. Rather, it’s going to launch off from an interesting phenomena I saw throughout the documentary- and that was the way people talked about Anonymous.

See, whenever people talk about the group, they usually have to veer off into a parenthetical speech where they try to explain just exactly who these guys are, and how at the same time they can be anybody, because anybody can be “Anonymous.” The end result is that they wind up sounding like a paranoid schizophrenic or conspiracy theorist, and the explanation itself doesn’t sound all that believable. After all, how can any individual or group take on the mantle and conduct whatever hacking or pranking or ranting they do against their enemies without some leadership? How do they do anything if they have no demands or agenda?

The problem here (and elsewhere, but we’ll get to that in a minute) is that a completely wrong lens is being used to look at the group. People are looking for structure or goals- the two things that usually define any collection of people, and that’s where it falls apart. Anonymous isn’t a group, it’s an idea. It’s a culture.

Now that sounds strange, but bear with me here.

What’s a conservative?

You probably have an image in your head right now. You can probably tell me what a conservative would think about a certain issue, or how he or she would act in a certain scenario, or the general value system one might have, but if I really pushed you for criteria, my guess is that you wouldn’t be able to give me one. After all- there are varying ideas of “conservatism,” and no real defined boundaries. You’ll find conservatives who state that the “religious extremists” have a skewed view of conservative values, and those same extremists offer the exact same criticism of those wimpy fiscal conservatives. Regardless of the specifics, once you stand back, both groups do fit neatly into the category of “conservative.”

Now apply the same general lens to Anonymous.

What’s “Anonymous”? It’s not a group with an ideology- it’s an ideology with a group, or rather, a whole bunch of groups. Consensus isn’t made through secretive discussion boards or by a clandestine collective of angry computer-geeks. Consensus isn’t made at all- actions simply stem from a general set of perspectives and ideas (the most major of which is freedom of speech and opposition to censorship) held by the adherents. Anonymous doesn’t exist as a coherent, structured group anymore than any culture or subculture exists as a coherent, structured group. Sure you’ve got your major players, and you’ve got various projects or movements within, but at the end of the day, there’s no list of demands, just a set of values.

The reason I bring this up is that this kind of organic organization is becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, the most notable example perhaps being the “Occupy Movement.” Critics of the movement, in its early days, continually parroted the protest of “But what do they want?“- the issue with that being that there was no, and never could be, any list of demands. Occupy wasn’t a structured or unified group- it was, like Anonymous is, a culture. A massive number of people sharing (and developing) certain common perspectives and values and then taking actions based on those views (those actions further developing those views, and so on ad infinitum). Trying to get demands out of Occupy protestors would’ve been about as fruitful as trying to get demands out of conservatives. You’re going to get conflicting specifics, even if there is a general set of guiding principles.

And of course, there are others out there. Though there’s no real term or name for it yet, there’s a rising “Manly” culture, comprised of elements of survivalists, masculinists, and guys who debate each other on-line about how to build porches and properly maintain classic muscle cars. Now I can’t claim to know the origin of this- perhaps it’s partly a reaction against our increasing dependence on technology, perhaps it stems from our powerlessness in a time of political and economic hardship- but either way, it is a growing culture based in principals of independence, self-sufficiency, self-control.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the general philosophies and ideas of the trans-humanists, futurists, utopians, geeks, nerds, and people who worship the ground Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson walk on. Those who view technology as being the solution to most, if not all, human ills, and eagerly await the day when you can get a free jet-pack when you go in for your cancer vaccine.

Now why bring any of this up?

Because it’s important.

We’re currently breaking away from the liberal/conservative paradigm, and we’re going to need to understand what else is out there. This isn’t to say that we’ve only had conservative and liberal cultures- that simply isn’t true. But we can’t deny that there has been, over the past decade, developments of new value-systems which are really neither here nor there. New and alternative views for what the world ought to be, and how you ought to be in it. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on dissecting these various concepts, so be sure to stop by next Monday for my examination of “Manly” culture.

Where’s the Counter-Culture?

In my last post, I grossly oversimplified a Marxist concept called “Alienation”. Today, I’ll be grossly oversimplifying the Marxist concept of dialectics.

Don’t give me any of that “Hegel said it first!” crap.

Boiled down to its basic components, it functions more or less as Newton’s third law of motion. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and that applies to society as well. Every spirit of the times is accompanied by a little inverted version of itself- or at least, its key values. Now according to dialectics, the conflict between these two opposites ultimately resolves in an evolved combination of the two, but in this post, we’re only addressing the first part.

Or at least, we would be if I could figure out what today’s counterculture is…

Think about it…

Look at the 1950s. For all the white-picket fences; sagely, pipe-smoking fathers; dutiful housewives/mothers, general patriotism and decency, and terror at the prospect of infiltration by degenerate Commies, there were greasers and bikers.

Despite the 1950s conjuring up images of idealized suburbia, this decade was the one that gave birth to rock and Hells Angels. Trafficking and dumping excrement and urine on their initiates doesn’t quite mesh with the general ideals of the time.

The same can be said for the sixties, which produced the hippies and the civil rights movement in the face of an otherwise conservative culture desperately trying to maintain the status quot.

Or the 70s, whose militancy and pessimism were a rejection of the peace, love, and hope values that arose during the previous decade.

Or the wildly egotistically and self-centered 80s producing (or at least, nurturing) anti-establishment and anti-corporate punks culture.

Even the 90s saw rise to goths, opposing the (comparatively) cheery and consumerist zeitgeist of the time.

So why not our era?

The Occupy Movement? I did consider them, but they don’t really fit the profile.

Despite being viciously cracked down on by the powers-that-be, the OWS protestors never really presented anything shockingly antithetical to the values we hold today. At least, not entirely.

Violence is (almost) universally decried as a means of protest and social change by all but those doing it. While America hasn’t seen much of it, continued rioting in Europe could very well mean not so much a brief outburst of rage as a entirely new perspective on what is and isn’t acceptable in society in general.

That’s one way of calling for social change…

Hipsters? I did briefly consider the whole Indy/Hipster movement as a possible subculture, and generally despised, the hordes of lost lumberjacks wandering the streets really don’t stand for anything that mainstream society is opposed to.

You are NOT a lumberjack and this is NOT Ok…

Annoying? Absolutely. Opposed to the spirit of the time? Not really. At most the hipster culture is guilty of desperately trying to cling to childhood nostalgia in the face of creative bankruptcy (see Evan’s post) and espousing thriftiness in the middle of a major economic depression (see my old post).

Bros. Everyone hates ’em, from their obnoxious machismo to their flaming skull t-shirts and spray-on tans.

Problem with this group is that it’s not a new group- just the latest reincarnation of the same kind of people. The same basic mentality can be found clear on back in Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet, which essentially starts with a bunch of bros crashing a party to pick up girls.

the 1890s, when “Bros” were called “Chums”…

Ok, so what if we look at what we have in society today and just invert it? What’s the major defining element of our generation? Technology. Internet and smartphones. Social media and memes. Anonymous and scams. The opposite of all this would be the primitivist subculture, right? The people who don’t wash or shave and live in compounds in the middle of nowhere.

And while it makes sense theoretically, we’re just not seeing a vibrant primitivist counterculture or even subculture. Even when you add in the survivalist subculture (in case you don’t know, those are they guys who think the gum’mint out ta git ’em), there’s still not exactly a rising trend in people learning how to skin squirrels or live in total harmony with the earth-mother.

What about these guys?

This site (which I’ll be delving more deeply into next week) really does seem to have an actually beef with contemporary culture- specifically in regards to men. Offering instructions on how to polish your shoes, store your fedora (you’re expected to have one, and if you don’t, to go out and get one), shave (or trim your beard, if that’s your thing), throw a punch, or patch a hole in your drywall (holes may be caused by punching it). In a lot of ways, the reverence this site has for the “traditional” concept of what a man ought to be like is reflective of a more general reaction against skinny jeans and YouTube comment section debates. While the site itself has a devoted cult following (and not a ton else), I have seen this general sentiment expressed, and I’m seeing it expressed more and more. Granted, I might be too close to the issue to be seeing it clearly- I myself think guys wearing skinning jeans should be put in stocks for all the village children to throw dead animals at- but perhaps you’ve run into this too. Just last night I heard a comedian complaining that the current generation were (in short) wimps. Gone, he said, were the days when you could chuck a television set out of a hotel window after some drug-fueled rock band had just given human decency the finger via a seven minute guitar solo. Another comedian remarked that “Our fathers would never take the crap we’re taking… the founders revolted because of a 3% tax increase- we won’t even riot when we’re being forced to strip down at an airport!”.

There is doubtlessly a certain mystique and appeal to the figure of powerful, well-dressed men, sitting around roaring fires, puffing on cigars and sipping aged scotch to celebrate that they were in complete control of their lives. Plenty of guys today would give their right arms to be Don Draper.

Though ideally minus the aggressive lung cancer and liver failure…

And interestingly enough, this general “Manly” reaction against emotionalism, appearance (over functionality), pacifism/nonviolence, and interdependence has elements from each of the cultures I described above. There’s the primitive concept of being free from dependence on technology that bears a similarity to the DIY slogans espoused by the “Manly”. There’s the “if you gotta punch a guy, you gotta punch a guy” mentality that seems related to the Black Bloc protest tactics. The simplicity of the Hipsters is here, and even the general “I am Man, here me roar” vibe seems to be a more sane version of Bro machismo.

But that’s all just a theory. Might be true- might be just a passing fad, though if it is just a fad, then we’re back at square one with a rather uncomfortable question.

If there is no counter-culture- what does that say about our culture today? Have we reached a point where we’re so pluralistic and tolerant and multicultural that everything’s acceptable- or is there just nothing substantial to rebel against? If there’s no antithesis, is there even a thesis?