December 30th, 2010

Patton Oswalt: We’ll Die Another Day!

Our first new writer, Joe Streckert, gives us an amazing response to Patton Oswalt’s motion that geek culture needs to die.  Way to knock it out of the park, Joe.

Patton Oswalt thinks that geek culture needs to die. In the aforelinked article, Oswalt basically says that the wide availability of information now means that everyone can access anything they want, and also that anyone can become obsessed about any sort of media they like. Real Housewives fans can be (and are) as fervently enthusiastic about their media of choice as Star Wars fans. In this world, says Oswalt, there isn’t anything special about being into obscure or odd media, there is nothing hidden or hard to get to. That saps a lot of the mystique out of geek culture, and Oswalt muses about the negative effects that this might have about future art and media.

Reading the article, though, I though two things. First: to which geek culture did Oswalt refer? Second: Does consuming given media really make you a “geek,” whatever that means?


The bookstore where I used to work was across the hall from a comic store, and I was often in there on my breaks looking for good deals on RPG books and Neil Gaiman Grant Morrison comics. Most of the clientele were functional and some approximation of normal, but there was a sizable minority who were, shall we say, not in possession of acceptable social graces.

These were men (and sometimes women) of considerable and pitiable girth. Their skins were sallow collections of red imperfections and oftentimes they would argue, loudly, with one another about minute and piffling details of anime that no one but they watched. One of them took an interest in me and tried to get me to watch Farscape, a show I learned to loathe. Their voices and bodily aromas wafted throughout the building freely, and we did our best to pretend they were not there. Oswalt probably isn’t referring to these people. If it can be said that the corpulent inspirations for the Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy have a “culture,” it is as immutable. They live apart from us. These obsessives shall always be.

No, Oswalt is probably talking about a different geek culture, one most typified by Scott Pilgrim, a geek culture that overlaps and intermingles with hipster culture (let’s let the debate over what “hipster” means for later- you know what I mean). Knowledge of comics and science fiction intersect with literary theory. Indie music is made on old Game Boys. Concert t-shirts rest alongside apparel adorned with eight-bit icons. Portland is awash in this kind of geek culture. Ground Kontrol typifies it. A collective of geeks here formed the PGC3, institutionalizing it. This culture, unlike that of the anime-hermit, is a tribe, a group, an identity.

What Oswalt is talking about is, essentially, geek culture as counterculture.


Right now geek culture is sort of cool. This is very convenient for someone like me- it means that I can wear around my old Duck Hunt t-shirt and get all kinds of compliments on it, for example. A given (though enormous) set of media and icons are a certain kind of cool with a certain kind of people.

Like all countercultures, though, this geek culture will be appropriated. In many ways, it already has been, what with the endless parade of superhero movies that show up ever summer. It will be mainstreamed and duplicated and mass-produced and frayed. Just like what happened with punk and grunge and everything else, it will be duplicated in form but not in essence. Oswalt seems very upset about this, and that is the true thrust of his argument.

To which I say: So what?

Seriously: So what? Who cares if a given facet of the counterculture isn’t “edgy” anymore? Who cares if their are fake punks next to the real punks? Who cares if jocks think Darth Vader is cool? Who cares if suburban dads take their kids to see Thor? How does that damage your enjoyment of that media? How does that hurt your identity as a geek? Lots of people really liked the Spider Man movies, Patton Oswalt, and you talk about that like it’s a bad thing.

Well, it’s a bad thing because counterculture (including geek counterculture) always sets itself up as being rebellious and in opposition to the mainstream. At least, supposedly. Supposedly counterculture is about opposition and rebellion and being weird/cool.

There will always be counterculture. There will always be “cool.” The edge will get eaten, and move, and get eaten again. There will always be media and objects of consumption associated with the edge, and they can very well be made mainstream. However, that means very little. Counterculture isn’t necessarily about rebellion. It’s about knowing something and understanding something that other people don’t necessarily know or understand.

For instance, anyone can read Watchmen. Anyone who likes can buy a copy (or download it) and absorb a vital piece of hipster/geek/alternative/counterculture/edge/punk/whatever media. Anyone- your dad, your grandma, your boss, whomever. But, would they care to? Would they enjoy it? And, most importantly, would they understand it? Would they get it? Would they have something interesting to say about it? Would they absorb its message and aesthetics and carry it over into their own art and endeavors? Most importantly, would they love it?

Probably not.

It is true that there is no more specialized knowledge or hard-to-obtain media. That is gone forever. What remains, and shall remain, is specialized understanding. Out of the hundreds of people who cram Watchmen into their brains, a small minority will get something much more substantive out of it. That minority, the ones who grasp it and love it and can remix it into something wonderful- they are the geeks.

That is what truly defines a counterculture. Reading Watchmen does not make you cool. Being able to talk about it intelligently does. The counterculture, the ineffable “cool,” will always be manifesting itself in something. Right now it’s manifesting at least partly in geek culture, and that’s wonderful. It will, though, move on. When it does, we shouldn’t bemoan it’s “loss.” Rather, the right answer is to carry on that “with-it-ness” inside of our own particular tribe/culture/media hutch.

What Oswalt really wants is to be part of an elite. There’s nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t want to be special? Now (and until the apocalypse, probably) elites geeks will not and cannot be defined by what they know about. It is not enough to simply own several back issues of Mondo 2000. Nowadays, you must have something interesting to say about them.

Passion, depth, and understanding will be the true measures of eliteness, coolness, and edge- just like they always really have been, in geek culture or any other. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt- we’ll die another day.

Joe writes his own blog, Connected Things, as well as a regular on local Portland blog site, Not for Tourists, where he writes reviews on everything from food, geek culture, and Portland landmarks.  It’s great stuff and everyone should give it a look.

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