What (who) is a geek, anyway?

At those painful and frequent academic moments when one has to sum up one’s entire intellectual existence (not to mention worth) in a couple of perfectly poised sentences, I often say that I work on “geek cultures.” Sometimes it’s more coy, like “geeky things”; sometimes it gets left out altogether as I ramble off about queer theory, cultural studies, utopia and futurity and temporality and the internet. Or the internets, as I once all too geekily said in a round of seminar introductions, leaving much of the class confused and the rest embarrassed on my behalf.

There’s that word “geek” again. I seem to say it a lot, don’t I? But what does it actually mean? And I don’t care about the alleged carnival-freak etymology. I’m wondering how the word traffics across different contexts, and how the communities of practice to which I belong result in my investing it with such significance.

After I introduce my yet embryonic project with some iteration of “geek,” I invariably find myself in a conversation I hadn’t anticipated. About Bill Gates, Chuck, Superbad, or one of the many other cultural proliferations of white straight men who like computers and don’t get enough exercise. My friend Mike would call these images the mainstreaming of geek subculture, and I wouldn’t disagree. The other night, after an exhiliarating session of communal anarchistic analysis of the new Lost chez Media Sheep, I found myself watching Mythbusters; those guys are definitely geeks. But these are rarely the items I am getting at when I go on about geekiness, all the same.

I think what I mean by it in the title of this blog is primarily the word’s adjectival capacity. Being geeky. Perhaps even a verb: geeking out. Getting overexcited about ideas, about texts, about insignificant and uncool things. The uncoolness, and the embracing of the uncoolness, is crucial: to be geeky is categorically not to be at the cutting edge, and not to be too worried about that, although there probably are geeks who are at the cutting edge in one way or another and I certainly will cop to that teenage longing. It’s rather exacerbated by academia.

But I’m not just geeky. Even as I disclaim those awkward white men with their technology and their awkward lust for cool, vapid women (okay, maybe not all of them), they and I often get on rather well. And I will happily give in to the identity narrative and proclaim myself ‘a geek.’ For me that’s less about loving video games and explosions and more about cathecting Willow and revelling in the science fiction and fanfic that leaves behind mainstreaming geekdoms or transforms them into queerer, less white, less male and less-binary-gendered places. Those are the transformative works and cultures that I daydream about connecting to different kinds of transformation, that have shaped my thinking about utopianisms and radicalisms and the vexed complicities of relationships to capitalist mainstreams. Of which more later, in the various ideas I have for posts in this blog.

At some point I am going to have to write seriously about geek identity politics, about what it means to happily claim an identifier that signifies simultaneously outcastness and acceptability to the mainstream. Perhaps my own incipiently queer and excessively geeky high school narrative intervenes: being ridiculed by one’s peers and beloved by one’s teachers isn’t what anyone would call revolutionary, but it maps fascinatingly on to the narratives of queer childhood’s “ardent reading” that Eve Sedgwick (“Queer and Now”) and others articulate.

Of course, it’s a powerfully classed narrative, that relation to bookishness. In my case, a story of being marked for mobility in a not-so-mobile place, of being the one everyone knew was going to get out and go on to greater things, as I’ve dutifully done: in hindsight, I can see how that was something to resent. The only person I ever heard of coming out as queer at my high school was a geek too, and he also got the hell away. Sedgwick asks “how to tell kids who are supposed never to learn this, that, farther along, the road widens and the air brightens; that in the big world there are worlds where it’s plausible, our demand to get used to it.” Some crossovers of queer with geek give their kids a leg up into other plausible worlds, may function as privilege rather than — or as well as — disadvantage.

Some don’t. I’m haunted by my comrade outcast classmate whose geekishness got him nowhere since it didn’t translate into academic achievement, who for reasons I can’t begin to think I know killed himself as a teenager. Perhaps for reasons that include his ghost I do find myself wanting to take the geek life narratives seriously, the ways people experience personality- or interest-based marginalness and write about and from it and make subcultures with it that don’t reduce to whining about success; the different politics of geekdom and the ways they cross over with different forms of privilege and oppression.

(Interesting project: trace the slippages between meanings of geekishness in this post which started as my attempt to trace them.)

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