or, Fan Culture and the death of inspiration
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?