The real zombies . . . are us!

or, Fan Culture and the death of inspiration

I need this because I'm the geekiest of all my friends. Which makes me cooler than them.

Yesterday Von at Game Over mentioned self-referential geek/nerd culture in this post (which itself referred to this one, which referred to this one), and how annoying it is.  I’ve actually thought about this a lot in the last year or two, and now that I have this blog I have the opportunity to present my own take on the issue.  Thanks to Von and the other bloggers for reminding me.

I sincerely hope you can all ignore the crippling irony of me writing a post responding to a post about a post on the self-referential nature of geek culture, on my blog about traditionally geeky activities.  If you can (and you don’t mind reading a little), please read on . . .

Right.  So now we’ve side-stepped that vortex, let’s get started.  I can’t stand geek/fan culture.  It worries me that in the last few years geeks, nerds whatever you want to call them (you all know who I’m talking about) have actually become a tribe.  Now obviously I enjoy many activities traditionally associated with this tribe.  I like sci-fi.  I like fantasy.  I like (some) horror.  I play RPGs when I have the opportunity, video games when I have the inclination, and table-top wargames when I have the time.  I enjoy quite a few “cult” media, TV shows, etc.

The thing is, these genres and activities used to be free-floating in the sea of media and games.  They didn’t imply anything about me, as an individual.  Sure, they were often associated dimly with certain kinds of people: your archetypal geek or nerd.  An imaginative, intelligent, probably socially awkward person.  But these people were not seen as being members of a subculture in any wider sense.  Schoolyard bullies picked on individual geeks because they were weak, not because they liked sci-fi.  That was just the excuse.  You couldn’t point at people who liked science fiction and say “they’re all the same.”  You couldn’t predict someone’s values, taste and attitudes from the media they chose to consume with any great accuracy.  Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Dawn of the Dead belonged to the culture at large, not one particular group, just like sports, cop shows and romance novels did.

At some point, I think in the last ten years or so, fan culture was truly born.  Or perhaps I should say it was artificially created, enabled by the internet.  People who before were just ordinary folks who liked Star Wars were suddenly able to spend a great deal of time communicating with other people who liked Star Wars.  They encouraged each others fixations and, with the strength that only numbers can provide, they formed new subcultures, complete with their own dress-codes, ways of speaking, and ways of including and excluding those judged worthy or unworthy.  I saw this beginning when people started to say “I’m proud to be a geek” and fan shirts started popping up everywhere, secret signs for other people in the know.

Pretty soon all these people, who essentially had no connection to one another beyond the fact that they consumed the same media, came to feel as though they had many more things in common.  The groups agglutinated like a zombie horde.  Star Wars fans and Dr. Who fans identified one another as kindred spirits, against the imaginary mainstream.  They noticed that they all seemed to like the same stuff, and they mistakenly decided that this meant they were the same sort of person.  Now, artists who identify as members of this tribe create works aimed specifically at their fellows.  Only I don’t like these sorts of works.  I don’t like things because they have elves or aliens in them.  I have in the past liked particular works with elves and aliens because they were creative and different.  If you show me too many elves or aliens in tired, self-referential ways then I start to get bored of them.

That really gets me down.  It ruins it for me.  Geek culture is an entire subculture based on the consumption of media, and it stifles creativity.  It is pretty much a mass of elitist fashion followers pretending that they are something more.  You don’t get to be proud because you like books about dragons, or you enjoy comics set in an alternative past where the Nazis used clockwork mecha to fight Batman.  It doesn’t give you an identity, or make you smarter or (let’s just come right out and say it here) cooler than another person.  If you and I both like football or cop shows or romance novels, that in no way proves that we are similar in other ways, let alone part of a group.  Your taste says nothing about you beyond your taste.  It doesn’t decide what you wear, or how you talk, or what other products you buy.  Unless you’re a child.  And we’re not children, right?  We’re grown-ups, and grown-ups don’t define themselves by anything so trivial as their taste in media.  Right?

Because that’s what taste is – trivial.  I love games, and some novels with dragons in them, and certain TV shows, but they aren’t important features of my identity.  I’m a big believer in the separation of work and play, not because I think work shouldn’t be fun, but because I think play shouldn’t be work.  Geek culture with its fashions and judgments takes something utterly trivial and makes it seem serious, like it has real power.  People start to wear their allegiance to some game or TV show on their chest, and judge others.  The self-identified members of the tribe will latch onto anything (or reject anything) so long as it is judged acceptable (or not) by their peers.  Think about the sudden explosion of zombie tropes in the mainstream and in cult media, and the geeks who love them.  It’s pretty obvious to me that the more mainstream and widespread the zombie stuff becomes, the less the mavens of geekdom will be attracted to it.  They wouldn’t want people thinking that they’re ordinary.  But Cthulhu’s A-OK!  And steampunk rules!  For now.

Now, you might think I’m being a bit harsh here, or a hypocrite.  After all, I like most of the stuff geek culture thrives on.  I even own a Miskatonic University T-shirt.  So let me qualify.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking something.  And there’s definitely nothing terribly bad about teenage geekdom.  Young people have not yet developed a strong sense of self, and are searching for an identity.  Youth culture will take it’s identity where it can find it, no matter how weird or trivial it seems.  Children and teenagers can and do divide themselves up into tribes based purely on the music they like, the games they play, or the clothes they wear.  But adults shouldn’t do this.  Adults have a responsibility to be more critical, to recognize what is an important feature of their identity and what is not.  Adults predicating their identities on the media they consume is one of the most frightening things I can think of, and I’m not being dramatic here.  It’s terrifying.  It makes me think of mindless people, uncritically consuming anything they come across as long so it has some superficially familiar elements.

So now we’re back to the walking dead.  On this topic, I have one final thought:  It’s pretty well-established that the first zombie films were a critique of blind consumerism.  Zombies eat anything that is meat, no matter where it comes from.  One of them finds some new meat and they all shamble towards it and eat it like a wave of ants.  Is it a coincidence that fandom has adopted zombies and declared them cool?  Or is it a case of seeing the monster in yourself and embracing it?


6 responses to “The real zombies . . . are us!

  • sho3box

    Thats a great post.

    The Geek Hierarchy thing is peculiar and often unpleasant.

    I remember the feeling that I had in my teens when I entered a gaming convention for the first time. It was weird to be surrounded by a group of so many people who had opinions about things that I had thought a lot about but I had never actually spoken to anybody regarding.

    It was a great moment and discussing the pros and cons of things that I am passionate about is something that still keeps me interested in the hobby and associated interests today.

    At the same time however there was also a tribal, group mentality present at that convention (and many others that I have attended since)that felt peculiar. A group of people often defined by the fact that they pursued their own interests regardless of the mainstream were now empowered by the fact that they were surrounded by like-minded people.

    This brought about a sort of inverse snobbery and in some respects a brainless mob mentality just as unpleasant as the jock mentality that these people had been on the receiving end of for most of their lives.

    Like a lot of other unpleasant behaviours, the internet seems to have exaggerated and reinforced some of the negatives of geek culture along with the positives.

    For the record I have been on all of the sides of the examples above at various points, just in case I sound holier than thou or something.

    On a side note, I own a lot of dorky t-shirts, but I avoided buying them any for years. While I am not embarrassed about my interests, I wasnt sure that I needed to shout about them either.

    As time went by I mellowed regarding geeky shirts and the like. I now enjoy wearing something that reflects whatever thing that I am obsessing about currently and the options for discussing them that a conversation piece like a Godzilla shirt can occasionally bring.

    That said, there are days, usually when I have strayed onto a bile filled forum or have recently been to a cliquey game shop staffed by loudmouth Comic Book Guy-a-like staff that I cant face putting on “the uniform”.

    Sorry about the huge reply, but ups and downs of the geek “movement” and your post got me going :)

  • Von

    I was about to say that I don’t think the consumption is necessarily uncritical, but then I remembered all the problems we had with ‘criticism’ as an overburdened word and thought better of it.

    The thing about the geek bracket is that it’s both an almost toxically critical bracket and an accepting one. On the one hand, vociferous criticism of media and product from its alleged fanbase is a strong tendency; on the other hand, it’s seldom followed up with the logical step of disengaging from a product, practice or community that causes so much grief. Quite the opposite, in fact; people who whinge ceaselessly about, for instance, Games Workshop’s pricing and design policy but then rush out to buy Ultramarines and loudly defend it from all critique are, alas, commonplace. People who loathed the Star Wars prequel and Lucas’ continued flogging of his cash cow still buy Star Wars stuff, still discuss Star Wars and define themselves in relation to it.

    And don’t get me started on steampunk.

  • James S

    @sho3box, thanks for the contribution. And I love huge replies! I was a bit worried that the whole geek hierarchy had only really come across to me in the way I described above, but you described many of the same things. So I’m relieved you agree. You’re bang on about the internet too, I think it is a great thing, but it can easily convince people that if someone else agrees with them then they are right. Which magnifies negativity.

    As for the shirts – like I said I have one or two, and sometimes I can’t face wearing them either. Mostly their harmless though. Many geeky shirts look really awesome, but the ones I don’t like are the ones that are worn purely as a badge, like the one at the top of the article above. Wearing a shirt that essentially says “I’m someone who likes certain kinds of media” just seems so . . . shallow.

  • James S

    @Von, I just tried to explain what I meant by uncritical but you’re right, I had to go back and delete it because it was a massive can of worms!

    How’s this: toxic geeks uncritically choose to consume things with familiar geek elements. They don’t always like them, but they nearly always choose them over things that don’t have those elements. This makes them very vulnerable in the market. They just keep absorbing crappy re-iterations of the same once-original tropes or products, all the while complaining about how bad they are, as you said.

    And come on, now you have to talk about steampunk. You know you want to :D

  • grumhelden

    ohai!
    Yo dawg I heard you liked inane pop culture references so we made a show about inane pop culture references so you can be elitist while consuming inane pop culture references.
    I mean at first I was all like *ewww* now im all like *trollface* Bcos my BFF is like totally a browncoat and NPH is like totally Whedon!
    Im so happy that I dont have to actually fantasise my fantasy, I can just buy it at the store with my other consumables! Oh, and arent zombie pirate ninja’s like so awesome!
    I totally LoL’d when the Lonely Island referenced Pirates in that thing with that old guy…Im off to watch The Guild and Dr Horribles so I can be underground like all my friends.

    All people who claim they are “whacky” or “zany” are by definition not.
    I think we can say the same for “geek” now.

    Great post mate, sorry I was late to the party.

  • James S

    @grumhelden, no worries mate, there’s no time on the internet. As long as wordpress exists this’ll be here, fresh as the day I wrote it ;)

    Thanks for the funny post and kind words. And you’re right, everyone I’ve ever met who’s described themselves as zany isn’t – they just look like they are, and sometimes not even that. They are always the sort of people who think what you look like and consume = what you are, and they are definitely starting to add “geek” to their self-description.

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