Apparently someone who styles himself Joe Peacock said some things for which John Scalzi took him to task. Mr. Scalzi rather scathingly demonstrates that his “geek cred” far outstrips that of Mr. Peacock, thus is anyone ought to be the arbitrator of what does, or does not, make one a geek it should be him.
Unfortunately for Mr. Scalzi I’ve got something that far outstrips him. No, it isn’t awards or award nominations. It isn’t consulting for a television show or being invited to conventions. As you might have guessed by this point it’s philosophy.
Ontology is generally considered to be a subset of metaphysics that, in brief, is concerned with the categorical nature of things. That’s admittedly simplifying things, but for practical purposes we can consider that defining what it means to be a person, and then as a subset of what it means to be a person, defining what it means to be a geek to be ontological questions.
As such I have taken it upon myself, in my role as philosopher, to once and for all define what it means to be a geek. Should you then fail to meet this criteria… well, you’re fucked, but I’m sure we’ll think of something we can call you.
Let us begin. The most obvious definition of what it is to be a geek is to be someone who likes geeky things, or engages in geeky activities. As a working definition this seems rather problematic, as it simply circles itself. So perhaps we should then examine what makes a thing geeky.
Comic books are generally defined as geeky. As are video games, science fiction and fantasy media, a fondness for toys that stretches beyond childhood… I’m sure we could add any number of other criteria. If these things are all ontologically geeky, one would think that they should have some degree of commonality. Comics, video games, as well as sci-fi and fantasy are all frequently known for over the top action… but then so are any number of films, television shows, novels etc. that aren’t typically regarded as being geeky. What about powers beyond the mundane? Again, most geeky things seem to feature, magic, super science, super powers etc.. Maybe those would provide us with a solid foundation. At least as long as we ignore the Bible, which features numerous uses of magic and super powers, or the type of magic realism that is generally considered to have emerged in South America and usually gets labelled as literary, rather than genre fiction, and thus mainstream rather than geeky.
And what about outliers. The Avengers, though I honestly find myself in agreement with Ebert’s review, made a fuckton of money. The Hunger Games and Twilight, had they not captured a mainstream audience, contain elements that under normal circumstances would place them firmly in geektown (the same also seems true of paranormal romance in general – it seems to be considered romance, and thus largely excluded from the category of that which is geeky). Heroes, The Incredibles, video games making more money than I’ll ever see in a lifetime. Unless we presume that all the money these things make comes entirely from geek pockets then it would seem that there are people consuming, enjoying, and possibly even considering themselves fans of these things, who do not otherwise consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be geeks.
I could provide additional examples, or continue picking at the issue, but for the sake of word count I think that these couple paragraphs provide a decent overview of the problems that can crop up when we start trying to set hard limits on what a thing is, particular on something so broad as geekdom. Sure, it’s easy to say when someone is a Harry Potter fan, but it gets significantly more difficult when we then try to translate that into determining whether that characteristic is enough to qualify him/her/it as a geek.
Part of the problem is of course that implicitly or explicitly we often assume metaphysical referents for these questions, and thus mistake questions of something else as being ontological or metaphysical concerns. One that I’ve frequently come across is confusing a difference of aesthetics or intent as demarcating a difference in category; which simply isn’t true. And of course those who have read this blog previously will be aware that I dismiss metaphysical referents for most things out of hand, and these sort of problems are among the reasons I do so.
Judith Butler examines a similar problem in relation to defining femininity/what it is to be female. I’ll admit to my paraphrasing here being a bit rough, as it’s been a few years since I slogged my way through Butler (in fairness she’s a strong thinker, but rarely exciting to read). No matter where you start out, or where you end up trying to define that which is feminine you always wind up with a definition that is incomplete, and worse, exclusionary. This is because femininity isn’t just some abstract social construct, it’s because femininity is a performed social construct. This is doubly true of geekdom, because we can’t even fall back on the specious arguments that biological sex is the same as gender; being a geek is made up exclusively of performing the role of the geek, whether one elects to take that role on one’s sole, or it’s socially imposed onto one. I’m admittedly making a bit of a jump here, because this statement touches on some things I haven’t really talked about in depth on this blog, but ultimately what makes one a geek is part of performing that role as part of performing one’s personhood.
If you’re read this far, you might have realized that despite the title of this entry, and my previous disagreement with Jessica Mills over some of the finer points of a similar topic, I’m largely agreeing with Mr. Scalzi. Joe Peacock can’t define what makes someone a geek. John Scalzi, as he rightly says, doesn’t get to do it. Even I, with a superpower that as part of its purview is meant to handle this very sort of thing, and thus means I am qualified to make such grand pronouncements, find myself unable to draw a clear line in the sand. What is it that makes a geek? Performing the role of a geek, and/or being regarded as a geek by the world around one. The ways in which one can arrive at one, or both of those criteria are effectively limitless.