Freaks and Geeks: Geek Culture as Cosmogenesis and Cosmophagy

by NICK MIZER

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/

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About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

There are 5 comments

  1. A Geek Anthropologist’s First Time: Geek Themed Restaurants | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] Geek culture has become more popular than ever before. A new superhero movie seemingly premieres every week and merchandising is ubiquitous, including clothing, games, action figures, mugs, the list is endless. Therefore, it’s no surpise that geek related themed restaurants are also on the rise. Geek and Sundry put out an article recently listing the top fifteen geekiest restaurants in the world. But what exactly do I mean by themed restaurant? Researchers Alan Beardsworth and Alan Bryman examine the origins of themed restaurants in their article entitled “Late Modernity and the Dynamics of Quasification: The Case of the Themed Restaurant.” They loosely define the themed restaurant as “an eating establishment which clothes itself in a complex of distinctive signs…a wide range of readily recognisable narratives drawn from popular culture” (1999, 228). […]

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  2. diygeekess

    Interesting work: the use of the term geek has varied historically, and is now being used to describe all manner of groups and activities. Being a geek used to imply you were out of the mainstream, but in the Internet age what is mainstream anymore? No matter who you are and what you’re into, there’s often a whole community of like-minded people a click away.

    I’ve heard this definition: “Geeky is stuff I like, dorky is stuff you like.” 😛

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  3. afairymind

    Fascinating post. As a self confessed geek I can definitely agree with your definition. My geekdom has always centered around fantasy worlds – both those created by my favourite authors and that which exists purely within my own head.

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