Welcome to my dissertation research blog!

November 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hi, I’m working on a dissertation about fictional fans in contemporary literature.  I’m going to be posting book reviews, links, and other information related to my project here.

Here’s a sample of the kind of writing I want to post in this space:

This morning, I finished reading Benjamin Nugent’s 2008 American Nerd: The Story of My People. It was pleasurable to read and felt incredibly familiar in all sorts of ways, but ultimately, it was so offensively misogynistic, racist, and reductive of disability, that I couldn’t conscionably recommend it to anybody. That said, it was good insofar as it got me thinking about my dissertation project (which is nearly off the ground, for those not in the know), as it traversed the social location of the nerd in history, literature, and the author’s own social circle, rather than theorizing about the tangible output of self-identified nerds, in order to authenticate it. This is important to me, ultimately much more important than someone like Steven Johnson’s authenticating work, because it gets outside the need to determine what kinds of intellectual work deserve to be valued — instead, it focuses on the shape of social worlds, and creates a character typology within them that de-naturalizes “inherent personality” in favor of admiring the variousness of personality development.

One reason that this is so important to me is, of course, that “nerd” so regularly functions as a signifier of privilege — a fact Nugent refers to repeatedly, but doesn’t really get. He’s good at pointing to certain tendencies and desires recognizable as nerdy — the tendency to devote significant amounts of time to abstract questions, for example, and the desire to demystify human communication, especially in courtship situations. That said, he seems to embody the worst inadvertent result of these tendencies when he tries to talk about the experiences of women, people of color, people actually diagnosed with Asperger’s, etc (he doesn’t even mention queer people as such, although this is presented as a clear result of his own bitter memories of having been called “faggot” throughout his childhood). His two sentences on yaoi read like they were written by Frederic Wertham. (Summary of his argument: Nerds are mostly men. When women do it, which is barely ever anyway, it’s about loooove and learning to become more desirable love objects for men. Vomit.)

That’s the really strange thing about the book, actually, which leads me to say something about my ongoing love-hate relationship with the whole n+1 crowd, of which Nugent is a peripheral member. They all write beautifully, without any of the sort of monolithic shorthand that defines so much of contemporary cultural reporting — that said, it’s as if, in their attempt to produce original thought, they willfully suppress the Wikipedia database that could help them to make their arguments relevant to the people they’re about. So, take the yaoi example: Wikipedia would quickly have let Nugent know that what he was saying was a now-debunked stereotype that has been exposed as simple misogyny. (irony of ironies: I composed this review away from the internet, and I now see that he would have had to get to the third paragraph of the “critical attention” section of the article in order to see what I’m talking about, but is that so much to ask of a professional writer?)

And I’m of two minds about this — on the one hand, I think it sucks that none of his editors recommended that he alter his phrasing even ever so slightly in order to, like, enter the 21st century. On the other hand, I love the way he and others so purely evoke the 1990s world of gender relations with an emotional vulnerability paralleled only by the best episodes of My So-Called Life.

I guess he finished writing the book right before the first episode of The Big Bang Theory aired. Perhaps, if he’d watched that show, and seen his logic literalized, he’d have recoiled — if Wikipedia couldn’t liberalize him (and really, I do understand resistance to the site’s crypto-imperialist attempt to corner the market on neutrality), perhaps television could have.

Maybe he’d even have tried an ep or two of The Guild — which show, I really think, especially in its characterization of Vork, so beautifully makes a case for our stage of nerdom as allowing for a fusion of a multiplicity of nerd paths, including the dominant one described here. The Guild shows how the ickiest parts of old nerd cultures — especially the race and gender fail — are simply not appropriate to our moment.

And, to give credit where credit is due, I like the genealogy Nugent draws out from literature — he cites a female author’s female character, Jane Austen’s Mary Bennet, and a queer male author’s male character, E.M. Forster’s Tibby Schlegel, as prototypes of the nerd character. But then when it comes to his modern day ethnography, it really does come down to a poor little rich boy kind of thing (again, very familiar to me from my also college-oriented hometown).

Of course, the greatest thing about reading for my dissertation research is that another’s flaw is my gain — while I don’t truly intend to list in my intro all the reasons “why boys are so mean and why you should listen to me instead,” I will make clear hat I think that books like this are destructive, and fail to reach out to potential new nerds in the spirit of The Guild, which is the ideal. As I’ve argued before about The Guild, I think that it welcomes people from a wide range of subcultures, and welcomes them all into a narrative, so it’s still niche, but it’s welcoming niche, rather than self-protective no girls allowed niche. The former is not only permissible, but necessary to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. “The Story of My People” is such a self-protective rhetorical move in a subtitle, and isn’t, I don’t think, as self-aware as Nugent thinks it is. It shows an unfortunate lack of intellectual confidence on his part that he is more interested in closing borders than opening them. While I take his point that “nerd” has for a long time now been more of a market research category than anything else, I don’t think that the optimal response is to take it upon oneself to determine who belongs, especially when it’s so obvious that what you’re really saying is, who’s smart enough to be in your clubhouse. It’s so telling that he describes Asperger’s as autism “without the low IQ” — Mr. IQ, you really need to update your terms of analysis.

I think nerdom can be something better than that.


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