Archive | March, 2012

What’s it take to be a nerd these days!? Part 1

26 Mar

Let me tell you a story.

One day my siblings were talking about something they’d seen on the internet. Or a game. Or maybe a comic book. Anime? The details elude me, I was slightly traumatised by the situation that followed so have practised repression…

Anyway, my siblings were talking about this thing they liked and I asked something about it and my youngest sister looked at me with this patronising ‘oh, bless’ expression and said (I quote verbatim) “Stop trying, Rae. You’re not really a nerd”.

Wha!? Not really a…


I picked up the pieces of my shattered self image and walked away to watch reruns of Sabrina the Teenage Witch by myself.

The next day at uni I told The Office Mate about my sibling’s comment and her response was, “Well, you’re not”. What’s more, The Office Mate decided to gather support for her opinion at a party-like-gathering the following weekend, and I found myself amongst a group of people sagely nodding along with her assessment of me.

A couple of weeks after this, one of my post-grad friends stopped by my office and as we were chatting he said “You know how some people are in denial about being a nerd, well, I think you’re in denial about NOT being a nerd”.

I just sat there not knowing what to say. I looked around me and all I could think was “Is he being serious?” I mean, look at my office! Here, see, pictures! This is what I was sitting in when he suggested I was not a nerd.

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I mean, really!?

Now, having this many people in such a short period of time tell me I’m not something that, quite frankly, is a dominant aspect of my sense of self, well, it’s a little confronting. Each time these (unusually) blatant statements were made, I felt an instant urge to defend myself. I wanted to thrust my One Ring to Rule Them All in their faces, dangle my Buffy staked Edward shirt in front of their eyes, and point out that MY eyes have thick rimmed glasses around them BECAUSE I CAN’T SEE WITHOUT THEM. I wanted to assault their ears with wizard rock and make them experience the uncomfortable situation of watching me weep over ‘Doomsday’. I wanted to make them throw a ball at me just so they could see it smash into my face thus exemplifying my complete lack of coordination and athleticism. I wanted to make them sit through a slide show of my high school years – set to MORE wizard rock. I wanted to correct their assumption that nerd identity is somehow an essential and biological trait of a person. I WANTED THEM TO NOTICE THAT A CORRECTION LIKE THAT IS ITSELF AN EXAMPLE OF ME BEING NERDILY PEDANTIC. dammit.

I desperately wanted to remind them that I spend most of my days sitting in front of a computer. Surrounded by books and printouts of critical theory, computer history, and nerd reflections. Writing a PhD thesis. In Media and Communications. ON NERDS!!

It’s funny, I had just started writing this blog post when I picked up Chris Hardwick’s self-help book for nerds, The Nerdist Way: How To Reach the Next Level (In Real Life). I experienced one of those “the-universe-is-totally-on-my-side” moments where external factors seem to align with your internal process and it’s all a little bit freaky but mostly it’s just awesome. Early in the book, Chris discusses the definition of ‘nerd’ (he is perhaps a little more cavalier in his definition then I am – oh the luxury of not having to be academically reviewed at the end of the writing process) and in this section he tells a story about his personal experiences with the nerd label:

Many times I have been told I’m not a Nerd because I don’t “look like one.” I think I kind of understand what this means, but it’s always slightly offensive to me. Like if you tell someone you’re Jewish and they say, “THAT’S funny. You don’t LOOK Jewish!” Really? Offensive much? What does that look like exactly? Oftentimes, I get the Nerd denial from members of the Nerd community, which is shocking to me because if ANY group should understand the merits of exercising open-mindedness and tolerance…

I think what they’re trying to say is that I don’t seem socially awkward. Nor do I have a lightsaber attached to my hip (though for Halloween last year I was Luke Skywalker Texas Ranger and had a lightsaber awkwardly attached to my hip). (p.5)

Chris’ response to people questioning his nerd credentials was similar to mine. He tried to fight back*.  Chris  uses his words to defend and prove his nerdiness. In fact, one could argue this entire book is his response to scepticism regarding his nerdity, just as this blog post is (finally) mine. But most importantly, Chris and I had both unintentionally fallen into a wider cultural dialogue about authenticity.

The subject of authenticity is huge, so I’m going to write about it across a number of posts. However, I quickly need to note here that authenticity is a construct; it’s not biological or essential. It’s a narrative that draws on notions of essentialness, truthfulness, and realness with a flow-on effect of rendering something more valuable or worthy**. Chris goes so far as to liken nerdom to ethnicity. I don’t quite feel comfortable going as far as Chris goes in his analogy, mainly because I don’t think nerdom yet has a community, heritage or culture as strong and precedented as that of an ethnic group. But I can see his point. There are some potentially helpful parallels that can be drawn between nerd identity and ethnicity. In fact, the more I read about it, the more I think critical theory surrounding ethincity can provide super significant insights into the construction and deployment of nerd identity. In many ways, race, like nerdom, is constructed. No one is born with an Australian gene, or even a Jewish gene. People are, however, born into a shared heritage, tradition, lineage, family, history, and narrative; a culture. And just because these things are not biologically essential, it doesn’t make them any less important, powerful or valid. The reason I wanted those who questioned my identification as nerd to understand and acknowledge the deep affective ties I have with the realm, was purely because they are deep and affective. And, even if it’s not biological. Even if there is no nerd gene. Even though definitions are wibbly-wobbly and contextual and constructed. It’s personal.

Stories of authenticity affect powerful implications; authenticity is a gatekeeper of inclusion and exclusion, of participation and the material benefits that come from these. In the next couple of posts I will be considering narratives of authentic nerdery and some of the implications of these narratives.

*Claiming I “fought back” is perhaps an over statement, unless you count general arm-flailing and exclamitory noises like “whaahh” “bah”, and “ner…” as fighting back. The desire for eloquent rebuttle was at least definitely there…?

**I realise this is a contested issue, but, at least today, I find “anti-essentialist” arguments on the issue most compelling – I’m particularly liking E. Patrick Johnson’s work on blackness and authenticity at the moment: “Inevitably, when one attempts to lay claim to an intangible trope that manifests in various discursive terrains, identity claims become embattled, or […] “color” or “blackness” becomes a “dangerous phenomenon.” Because the concept of blackness has no essence, “black authenticity” is over-determined – contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its production.”(p.3) Who woulda’ thought critical theory on blackness would be so relevant to a study of nerd identity…?

Johnson. E. Patrick. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham (NC) : Duke University Press. 2003