Revenge of the Nerds

No act of consumption is completely passive, but even the most active types of consumption form a shaky ground for serious left politics.

A debate has broken out over geek culture at Jacobin. Ian Williams levels the charge that geeks have displaced actual politics with a pseudo-politics of brand loyalty. Jase Short counters that the passionate cultural consumption of geeks leads to its own form of politics, from intellectual property debates to campaigns against sexual harassment.

I’m reminded of larger debates on the politics of popular culture within academia. Williams on geekdom sounds a bit like Theodor Adorno on the culture industry, bemoaning the masses cajoled into pseudo-activity by light jazz. For Williams, geeky interests, and the taste battles they provoke, have taken up the brainspace that might otherwise be occupied with radical politics. (Adorno himself had a more modest goal than social transformation: the contemplation of the impossibility of art in bourgeois society.)

While I don’t want to underestimate the propagandistic power of contemporary media, I’m not very convinced by arguments resting on the claim that we have a finite amount of attention to parcel out to worthy causes.

Short, in his focus on geek activity, sounds a whole lot like a contemporary media critic: Henry Jenkins, the self-described “aca-fan” who’s one of the most influential media theorists working today. Jenkins began his career studying geeks (“fans” as he called them) — benighted Star Wars junkies and furtive slash fiction scribblers — well before the Internet made Spock-Kirk trysts common dinner table conversation. A fan himself, he identified with geeks’ struggle for social recognition, and wanted to valorize their creative activity.

In 1992’s Textual Poachers Jenkins argued, just as Short does, that these weren’t passive consumers, but “active producers and manipulators of meaning,” whose devotion to their cherished texts had a populist, and even radical character, “articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media.” Geeks’ appropriations of trademarked characters in parody songs and erotic artwork threatened a top-down the media industry, indicating how a democratic folk culture could be built from the materials of mass culture.

Jenkins’s work was not just prescient but practically precognitive. As the media industries were shaken up by the digital networks of the internet, they sought Jenkins’s help harnessing its participatory power. Fandom would be reborn. Christened the new Marshall McLuhan, Jenkins was tasked with organizing the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT, a five year project that brought academics together with corporate media, investment bankers, and the odd oil company to strategize how firms could incorporate aspects of the social web into their business models.

The corporations belatedly came to a rather obvious realization: these geeks were incredibly valuable sources of marketing, and core sources of profit. If companies loosened the grip on their intellectual properties just a bit, fans would do a lot of marketing and product design voluntarily. Now corporations encourage the devotion of geeks, and actively consult them.

In Convergence Culture Jenkins describes how the producers of Survivor consulted the message board hosted by the show to calibrate how much they could hint at outcomes. Producers also draw on geek feedback when refashioning old brands into new products. The Fast and the Furious franchise owes its success to carefully considering fan discourse, even to the point where producers resurrected Michelle Rodriguez’s beloved character Letty Ortiz from the dead. Without a backstory to explain Ortiz’s sudden turn of fortune, fans took up the task of repairing the gaping plot hole themselves.

Fandom itself is incredibly productive, though not well-compensated. Ad-supported hosts thousands of stories, in categories ranging from Gungdam Wing to Gilligan’s Island to Greek mythology. Remixing went from a subversive underground labor of love to a short-lived variety of Sprite. Major labels now encourage fans to participate in remix competitions, with Warner Brothers leading the way. Aspiring producers can lend their talents to promoting the label’s latest signees.

A recent remix competition for New Zealand singer Kimbra even took the guise of an exercise in democracy, where fans could vote on their favorites (although Kimbra — with the, ahem, assistance of Warner Brothers — would pick the winner). The compensation for the winner’s hard work? “One lucky winner will see their creation receive an official release on Warner Bros. Records UK, accompanied by a proper servicing campaign.” The only thing the remixer earned was a fat WB brand on their song.

The most important element of geek culture is its intense loyalty. Short points out that Star Wars fans were aghast at Disney’s takeover, but ultimately this matters very little, as Disney well knows. If your brand is strong enough, you can ride roughshod over your fans’ desires all the way to the bank.

As documented in the film The People vs. George Lucas, the Star Wars creator seemed to make every effort to piss off his franchise’s fans. Lucas added pointless goofy extras and cheesy CGI to the sacred original texts while taking the old versions off the market. Then he set his fans up for the disappointment of a lifetime. After waiting a generation, he unleashed new films — the long-awaited Episodes 1–3 — that were so shockingly, excruciatingly unentertaining and dismissive of the original series’ mythology that fans accused Lucas of raping their childhood. Perhaps Lucas, resentful that geeks had pulled his film career into the lucrative cul-de-sac of Wookies and lightsaber toys, wanted fans to finally grow up and move on.

“These movies are for kids,” he insisted. But fans refused to move on, complaining incessantly while also spending millions on DVDs and merchandise. It’s hard to imagine Disney doing anything worse to Star Wars than Lucas already has, and in any case it can count on a loyal (if begrudgingly so) fanbase. One fan, using the tasteless misogynist language rife in geek culture, compares it to battered-wife syndrome. “You keep getting beaten by Bad Dad, but you keep going back to Bad Dad to get beaten some more.”

This troublingly persistent identification of disappointed filmgoers with victims of rape and domestic violence speaks to an inflated sense of persecution that is one of the chief ironies of contemporary geek culture. As Ian rightly notes, geeks are hegemonic, which is why “geek” and “nerd” can be claimed as positive identities — no concerted political campaign of reclaiming outsider status occurred; rather, a rising class fragment awoke to its real power. “I’ll be your boss one day,” the picked-on nerd once spat at his bully, and lo, it became true.

Geeks are the ultimate insiders in culture, technology, economy, and politics. Geek tastes in comics and fantasy are pandered to, and wildly successful geeks like Quentin Tarantino and Joss Whedon flatter their knowledgeable audiences with in-jokes and obscure references. Allegedly geeky pastimes like video games are hugely popular and pull in billions more than the film industry. Tech geeks in San Francisco get their own transportation systems so they can avoid mingling with the non-geeky hoi polloi rapidly being gentrified out of their communities.

Geeks rule — literally. Billionaire geeks like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt seek to privatize education and even diplomacy, and geeky technocrats maintain the levers of institutional power. The geek class’s hair-trigger sense of personal affront fits uncomfortably with its privileged status.

Which isn’t to say it’s not effective as a marketing tool. As the Star Wars fans admit, even if they hate something, they go see it. That gratifying sense of victimhood, and the enjoyment of a superior taste, are pleasures that Hollywood can cater to. The recent outrage over casting Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Superman sequel was so swift and so overwhelming that I suspected it was deliberately provoked.

The studios trolled the geeks, and the response meant even someone like me, happy to ignore any upcoming superhero film, had to take notice. Maintaining this “advertrolling” campaign is the BEN4BATMAN Twitter account, a bot, probably run by the studios, that seeks to stoke the flames of fan outrage by retweeting anyone mentioning the controversy. It’s a plan to get fans lined up on opening weekend, ready to scrutinize Affleck’s performance — after paying for a ticket, of course.

Geek-driven marketing depends on a fervent critical discourse: the movie itself is less important than what people are saying about it. Unmitigated hatred is as good for business as unbridled enthusiasm as the producers of the disastrous Atlas Shrugged trilogy know:

We know from our experience with the first two films that there is an incredible amount of vitriol out there and, we have every intention of capitalizing on it this time around. As we launch the Kickstarter campaign, those haters are going to come ALIVE. They’re going to come after us in droves attacking us everywhere online. To them, we say thank you. Thank you for helping us spread the word.

Maybe he’s right: the Kickstarter is halfway to its goal.

I’m not one to criticize people for enjoying popular culture. But I don’t think we should overestimate the political value of our habits and hobbies, or rush to defend them, just because we like them and think that we are good people. No act of consumption is completely passive — people have to think, after all — but even the most active types of consumption form a shaky ground for serious left politics. We need to recognize the ways in which geek culture has become an asset of big business and its sophisticated and evolving marketing strategies. Breaking this connection will be a step towards a radical politics of geek culture, one that emerges from the conditions of its production.