"Han Solo and Chewbacca" by Adam Lister (http://www.adamlistergallery.com/)

Freaks and Geeks: Geek Culture as Cosmogenesis and Cosmophagy


In a paper presented at the American Anthropological Association I developed a rough definition of geek culture based on statements of self-described geeks in the comment threads to two articles on geek culture: “Individuals who bond with one another over a shared exuberance for creative consumption of their cultural interests.”  My favorite comment from those threads puts it better, though:

“Geek culture doesn’t have to die, it just has to do what has always made geek culture fun – it has to focus on the things no one else notices and learn to love them as the things that make all the difference.” –RamonaGirl

I really like this because it tries to get at what is distinctive about “geek.”  While there are lots of very important things to say about how geek culture has been negatively shaped by race, sex, gender, and class, this is perhaps the least unique thing about geek culture. Offered by a self-identified geek, RamonaGirl’s definition refuses to let the nascent Gamergaters from the olden days of 2011 define geek culture. Again: I am not saying that we should shy away from challenging the terrible hegemonies that extend in and through geek culture. I am saying that to refuse to define geek culture in terms of a history of white, middle-class males can be a form of resistance.

“Shared exuberance for creative consumption of their cultural interests” also describes fairly accurately groups that would not usually be considered part of geek culture.

As soon as I offered my definition, however, a problem came up: “shared exuberance for creative consumption of their cultural interests” also describes fairly accurately groups that would not usually be considered part of geek culture, like sports fans. Geeks can, of course, be sports fans, and many are, but the Super Bowl would generally be pretty low on a word association list with “geek.”

Part of this confusion is just inherent to cultural boundaries: there is probably an element of what we usually call geekiness to almost any activity. But I think there is another feature we can look at that will help move towards a definition that is more in line with common usage: the centrality of imaginary worlds. In other words, show me something geeky and I will show you a secondary universe that geeks have cobbled together out of sometimes disparate and conflicting details.  It is often remarked that fantasy football is “actually” a geek activity; I want to argue that this is not because people obsess about it but because it is an activity that creates and takes seriously an alternate reality.

Maybe geeks are people who enjoy taking disparate details and making them cohere into worlds.

If I’m on to anything here, maybe we could define geek culture as a tradition of creating, experiencing, and taking an “as-if” stance towards secondary worlds.   Maybe geeks are people who enjoy taking disparate details and making them cohere into worlds, which is pretty much all humans do on a day-to-day basis anyway, but geeks make a game of it. I’d be interested to hear how this resounds (or not) with our readers, so please let me know in the comments.

Featured image created by Adam Lister: http://www.adamlistergallery.com/

About these ads

Weekly Geek Out: Welcome to Night Vale


A week or so ago I decided to indulge a guilty pleasure and stop at Taco Bell for a breakfast burrito. I pulled up to the speaker, which did not crackle out a rough approximation of human speech as it normally would.  I was fine with that, because I had not yet decided which rough approximation of food I wanted. I looked over the various structural combinations of tortillas, beans, meat, cheese, and eggs, and a young worker hosed off a plastic mat, watching me. Still hearing nothing, I ventured a tentative “Hello?” at the speaker. Nothing. The mat-washer hung up the hose and retreated behind a metal door. “Ah,” I thought, “he’s going to get someone to help me.” I sat patiently, imagining my breakfast crunch wrap for a few more minutes before I start to wonder if maybe they weren’t open. I drove around to the front, parked, and approached the door. Finding it unlocked, I stepped into the dim interior. There, behind the counter and under the glow of the menu, stood the mat washer. “Hi, I was outside for a while,” I haltingly explained, “but no one said anything. Maybe your speaker is broken?” The mat washer paused before replying mildly, “Oh, that was you in the red car? I thought I recognized you.” I waited to see if he had more to say, but he just stared expectantly, waiting for me to tell him which rough approximation of food I would like him to heat up and bring to me.

If Prairie Home Companion were written as a magical realism collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, and the goons at Something Awful.

I posted about this odd experience on Facebook, and a friend asked me if I lived in Night Vale. “Night Vale?” I asked a bank of computers by typing the words into a search bar. This was my introduction to Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s bimonthly podcast presenting community radio from a fictional desert community.  The show is kind of like what you would get if Prairie Home Companion were written as a magical realism collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, and the goons at Something Awful. I was hooked from the opening public service announcement:

“The City Council announces the opening of a new dog park at the corner of Earl and Sommerset, near the Ralph’s. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the dog park. People are not allowed in the dog park. It is possible that you will see hooded figures in the dog park. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. DO NOT APPROACH THE DOG PARK. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the dog park, and, especially, do not look for any period of time at the hooded figures. The dog park will not harm you.”

Image by TheAllenMeister, (http://theallenmeister.deviantart.com/)

One of the things that I love about Welcome to Night Vale is the way it parallels the town’s bizarre happenings and incomprehensible terrors with the sometimes similar irrationalities that we encounter in daily life. Cecil, the announcer on the show, never breaks his NPR-zen-calm as he reports, whether it’s the appearance of a strange philosophical pyramid implanting answer-less questions and question-less answers in the minds of citizens or simply a reminder about the city council’s ban on writing utensils.  Sometimes this unshakeable calm feels like a dystopian warning about our complacency in the face of terrors in our own world, and sometimes it feels like a hopeful existentialism, as when Cecil closes with “And while the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first, and settles in as the gentle present. This now, this us, we can cope with that. We can do this together, you and I. Drowsily, but comfortably.”

The world of Night Vale does what all good secondary universes do: provide us an interesting set of lenses for looking at our own universe, poking us and prodding us to both see that universe more clearly and imagine how it might be different.

crude buster

Cultural Sociology vs Videogames: are We Gamer-Geeks a (Middle-Class) Subculture?

What do we mean when we call something a “subculture”? Most people think of weird and wonderful fashion and/or music – the spectacular. Punks. Cosplayers. Bronies. Sometimes the term has connotations of rebellion, deviance, or outright criminality. In sociology and cultural studies, subcultures have usually been understood as a way for people to adapt to (and express) the conditions of living within a particular social class. I want to begin this discussion by outlining some of the ways in which the term has been used academically in relation to gamers. I think that an understanding of subculture is relevant to understanding gamer culture – not so much in the sense that gamers form one single subculture, but in the sense that there are a number of subcultures within gaming culture. (more…)


The Weekly Geekout: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

Well folks, it’s October again, which means that it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) season. For the uninitiated, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a movie bred of a love of B horror movies, science fiction and campy musical theatre. Billed as a Science Fiction/Double Feature, the movie is described by Richard Hartley, the composer, as “Frankenstein with a twist” (Abbott 2013). The film follows Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who stumble upon a castle full of Transylvanians, the most notorious of whom being Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite.” The movie is thoroughly steeped in horror history, filled with metareferential, self-parodying moments and characters, including Riff Raff, Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s handyman. Apart from being a humorous homage to early science fiction and horror films, the movie delightfully subverts the expectations of the genre and defies categorization, telescoping from space opera to punk rock musical.


Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 7.14.20 PM

Freaks & Geeks: A Cultural History of the Term “Geek”

As a blog interested in the anthropological study of geek culture, we are also concerned with what it means to be a geek. As a part of our new series unpacking what it means culturally and personally to be a geek, this post will give some etymological and historical background to the term, written in a spirit of linguistic geekery.

To start off with, where does the word “geek” come from? Looking at etymology online (a great destination for all your word origin questions), geck means “’fool, dupe, simpleton’ (1510’s), apparently from Low German geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning ‘to croak, cackle,” and also ‘to mock, cheat’” (Etymology Online 2014). But it wasn’t until sometime in the early 19th century that, “the Scottish word geck, meaning ‘fool,’ changed to geek and began being used to describe a certain kind of carnival performer. Geeks specialized in eating live animals, including biting the heads off live chickens” (Mental Floss 2008). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow ‘wild men’ is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley” (2014). Initially used to refer to a very specific type of carnival performer, the word soon became synonymous with freaks—that is, any individual who exhibited a physical trait that deviated from what was commonly understood within a society or culture as “normal.” Although the term designated a sense of social stigma and shame, circus and sideshow performers adopted the term “geek” as a collective and positive form of identity. While the general public could come to gawk at the freaks, performers referred to themselves as geeks, established in opposition to the norms and rubes in the audience. In Katherine Dunn’s cult classic Geek Love (1989), the Binewski family of self-made freaks represent the sense of union and kinship amongst those who self-identified and celebrated their geek status.

To be a geek, therefore, was to be set aside from “normal society.” Freaks or geeks were a community separated by physical difference, as well as social taboos and codes of morality at the time. As Robert Bogdan explains, “’Freak’ is not a quality that belongs to the person on display. It is something we created: a perspective, a set of practices—a social construction” (1990:xi). To a large extent, freakishness or geekishness were performed identities that capitalized on the spectacle of deformity or difference. Bogdan elaborates, “How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally […] ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual” (1990:10). Who a society deems to be freakish is exceptionally telling of a cultures system of moral codes, ideologies and structures of power and class. Social theorist Erving Goffman built Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963) around the characteristics that invoke stigma, and the ways in which societies have controlled or manipulated this difference so as not to disrupt established social orders. As Chemers and Ferris have written, “a ‘freak’ cannot exist in the absence of a preexisting social stigma, and second that freakery requires conditioned theatrical conventions that often enter into subversive dialectics with that stigma” (2008:25). As a cultural rather than an overtly physical condition, freakery/geekery meant, to a certain extent, “to be accepted into a community unified on the basis of shared marginality” (Adams 2001:42). The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity.