Interpreting Interpretation: Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity…?

In an article titled “Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity“,  Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles argue that geek culture (i.e. “geekdom”) as portrayed by popular media, functions as a sort of “simulated ethnicity”, where being a “geek” becomes at some level equivalent to being say “Black” or “Hispanic”. What do they mean here, how exactly does such a thing work, and — most importantly — how does this apply to looking at fandom and “otaku culture”?

lucky_star_otaku

The article itself is quite academic and decently long, so I’ve written up a summary of it’s main arguments below.

“Geek” and “Geekdom”

Over the past few decades, geeks have become more popular in cinema and more prominent in popular culture as a whole. This has led to a rise in perceived “geekdom”, most clearly exemplified by “geek” protagonists, such as in Superbad, The Big Bang TheoryScott Pilgrim, and other media.

But wait – what are geeks? And what makes them different than, say, nerds or dorks, many of which are used interchangeably? Kunyosying and Soles provide a nice classification system, which I’ve copied below.

venn_diagram_geek_nerd_dork

There are obviously some problems with this classification scheme (e.g., do nerds have to be socially awkward, or can they just be “nerdy”?), but overall I really like this grouping as a rough first pass/a guideline for distinguishing geeks and nerds. The “social awkwardness” part, for instance, is tough to pin down (I think you can be nerdy and still be socially competent), but it’s a small gripe with what is an otherwise good attempt to separate out the group. As Kunyosying and Soles limit their analysis to “geeks”, we can thus see they’ll be attempting to focus their analysis on people who share in both academic-esque hobbies as well as more obscure ones, and for whom social interaction with others may or may not be a problem.

So what is the popular image of the “geek” and the “geekdom” he represents? For instance, geeks in popular media are almost invariably portrayed as straight, white, middle/upper-class males, and are even often Jewish! For such a broad category, this typification is striking. Why aren’t there female geeks, or geeks of other ethnicities? Or a larger variety of socioeconomic classes (say ultra-rich or poor) represented? There’s something else going on here, something possibly more sinister…

Melodrama

The overarching argument of their essay (which is messy) is that “geekdom” rises out of melodrama, which in this case is somewhat akin to a persecution complex. Melodrama is the process by which suffering, persecution, etc. is used to grant the sufferer the moral high-ground: the more someone is portrayed to suffer, the more than are seen as sympathetic and “in the right”, and thus suffering grants the sufferer increased moral privilege and garners our admiration. Because geeks are constantly portrayed (and often portray themselves) as excluded from society — often typified using jocks and/or other racial/gender stereotypes — “geeks” are cast as persecuted and good-hearted people whose self-worth cannot be recognized. Through melodrama, geeks are then able to use this persecution to grant themselves sympathetic and privileged moral standing that they can leverage against their oppressors. This allows them to move past their privileged economic/ethnic/gendered status (since they essentially win at life there) and and re-create their image as an individual persecuted for some external behaviors or qualities. This process is akin to persecution due to ethnicity.

Clearly related.

Clearly related.

Shifting (Self-)Identification

Most importantly, the definition and (self-)identification of being a “geek” has changed from partaking in a set of behaviors and/or interests that society might deem unacceptable (e.g. watching a lot of imouto wincest shows) to a quality that is internal/inherent to the individual. You can stop your geeky activities, but the inner morality/dialogue/tendencies that make up your “geekiness” will remain. The (perceived) persecution thus shifts from rejection due to something societally unacceptable (in which case you only need to stop the activity) to some core part of yourself (in which case even if you stop the activity, some core part of your personality/self will lead to some level of alienation). As you cannot strip away this “inner” geek, the persecution then becomes akin to ethnic persecution.

By making such suffering, exclusion, and conflict a common trait that overarchingly defines “geekdom” (you can’t be a geek unless you’re excluded/rejected by society at some level!), geeks use melodrama to essentially grant themselves ethnic minority status. This is functions quite similarly to the persecution of Jews (who look “white” but are still a minority with a long history of repression), and might be the reason why a lot of geek protagonists recently have been Jewish.

Desires for Re-Integration

In addition (and most crucially), geeks really aspire to integrate/assimilate into society — they feel excluded and want to join in. Although geeks are ultimately characterized by melodrama, self-doubt, and other modes of conflict, they yearn to give up that identity and life “the easy life” — “get the girl”, do normal things, be successful, make friends easily, not worry about morality, talk smoothly, etc. This internal paradox between a desire for assimilation (i.e. the cessation of melodrama) and an identity which is largely built upon melodrama is at the heart of their classification of geekdom as simulated ethnicity. Real ethnic minorities face similar conflicts between an identity founded upon differences and separation from “society at large” (i.e. melodrama) but an overall desire to integrate into that same system and subsequently lose what made them specifically “ethnic” in the first place.

Geekdom becomes “simulated ethnicity” through this process: by turning “geek” into an internal rather than external quality and forging a link between such a quality and melodrama, “geeks” are then caught in a conflict where they seek to eliminate the very same melodrama that grants them their identity. By building up such a complex, what would otherwise be middle-class, heterosexual, white males are able to subvert their “white privilege” to become a suppressed “ethnic minority”! Isn’t that neat?!

Sheldon's outward behaviors and obsessions in comic books, games, etc. are seen as outgrowths of his internal self rather than what defines his "geekiness".

It’s not “they love Star Trek, therefore they are geeky”, but rather “because they are geeky, they love Star Trek.”

Geeks vs. Slackers

Note, however, this simulated ethnicity is contingent upon some sort of melodrama, exclusion, etc. With the rise of geekdom in pop culture, such melodrama might break down as geeks (or their associated activities) become more accepted. This essentially could lead to a geek “identity crisis” which might parallel other historical ethnic assimilation.

But what about those who don’t feel this desire for integration, or more precisely are not characterized by either accepting or rejecting this impulse? This group becomes what the authors deem slackers. As these individuals are not characterized by this conflict, they do not become part of some larger “geek” culture/consciousness. Instead, they become individuals who just don’t really fit in and don’t care about fitting in. There’s no culture that arises around said individuals, and thus no development of a simulated ethnicity as is in the case of the geeks. Kunyosying and Soles use pop culture and common slacker/geek pairings (e.g., Luke/Han, Nite Owl II/Rorschach) to illustrate how this dichotomy heightens the sense that geekdom is something more than just a type of individual.

Consequences

Kunyosying and Soles go on to argue a couple ramifications of this viewpoint and how they can then become entrenched in “geek culture”. I’m a little bit more skeptical of some of these claims (and tend to believe they arise through more historical means rather than “simulated ethnic”-baed ones), but I’ve listed them below.

  1. For instance, they can use their position on the moral high ground (due to their melodrama) to get mad at women for not noticing their redeeming qualities, portraying them as shallow and perpetuating a common misogynistic vibe that runs throughout many geeky stories.
    1. By extension, this also explains the strong backlash against (attractive) female geeks by male geeks — they need to be unappreciated by members of the opposite sex that they desire to maintain their simulated ethnicity and melodrama.
  2. To distinguish themselves from actual ethnic minorities, they can then use Asians/Blacks/other “real” ethnicities and their associated stereotypes as foils in both directions (as either “nerdy”/”cool” ethnic groups to try and avoid/emulate, respectively, for instance).
  3. And, of course, this can be used create a sympathetic hero (because of the melodrama) for whom the audience can universally root for.

In all cases, these qualities are in stark contrast to the economic, racial, and gender advantages that geeks (as portrayed by popular culture) possess.

Critiques

There are a number of critiques that one can make about this argument. A friend of mine, for instance, proposed a good number of the biggest problems with the above argument. I’ve listed several of them below:

  1. Even this watered-down argument feels highly academic and overblown. Geeks may cling to an under-appreciated/persecuted image, but geek culture as a whole does not emulate and/or aspire to be an ethnic minority.
  2. Geeks don’t typically dislike attractive members of their ilk for being popular/accepted, and the suggestion that they do is simplistic and ignorant. Though misogyny is a problem in geek communities, I don’t think this arises from a feeling that geeks are mistreated by women who reject them; geeks today are not completely lacking in self-confidence, or at least not for the sole reason that they are geeks. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and others are now the norm, not the exception — and geeks know it. The misogyny arises more often from a disbelief that women really want to be part of the community, rather than that they are trespassers on the new, geeky “cool” that we enjoy.
    1. Also, so long as most “geeks” are male, it is to be expected that female characters will have less depth and seem more objectified. Of course many women do truly connect with geek culture, and it’s a shame that they face such skepticism.
  3. I believe that geek culture is more than a group of empathetic individuals, but rather is founded on a belief that obsession is okay. You can be fascinated with little, seemingly boring details, whether it’s baseball trivia or science or math or Lord of the Rings or Minecraft or anime or Star Trek or My Little Pony or anything you can think of. Geekdom is far from perfectly nonjudgemental, but it is this principle binds us together.
  4. Ethnicity is based on a historical culture and identity (and oppression). Geek culture has certainly capitalized on the “marginalized coming out” story, as seen in movies like those referenced in the article, but though we enjoy them, many geeks resent the image of the 40-year-old virgin and the protagonists of The Big Bang Theory. These hollywood geeks are stereotypes, when the reality is that geeks come in all shapes and sizes. Geeks are no longer the forcibly excluded, desperate to fit in characters from Freaks & Geeks — they are instead a tremendously diverse group that finds common ground by “geeking out” over our love of things that some find stupid or lame or mundane. They are not defined by those who find them lame or by feeling misunderstood, but rather by common obsessions. Geekdom is internal, not external.

Note: Full credit for the critiques goes to my friend. I’ve edited them minimally only to make them read more objectively; the original text included a lot of “we” and “ourselves” (just in case that changes how these read here).

The large League of Legends fandom/geekdom, for instance, could be seen to defy such a view.

The large League of Legends fandom, for instance, doesn’t seem to me to be a community defined by melodrama and persecution, although its hardcore fans are almost inevitably seen as “geeks”.

Responses

These are good critiques, and I agree with many of the points that are brought up. These responses, however, actually lead to some interesting points, which I respond to below…

  1. I don’t think this was meant to be an essay about “actual” geekdom, but the “geekdom” that is often portrayed in pop culture. The wide diversification of geekdom in recent years (although it’s been happening for some time) is in contrast to the very typified geek portrayed on TV and through other media channels. It’s good not to get the two confused, and this limits some of the articles implications for investigating “real” geekdom, but the model they propose is useful for understanding geekdom as represented by popular culture.
    1. Extending on that, the ideas the article proposes (bolded above) is interesting. While the very coarse application used can in general be argued against, you can’t fully say that the “geek” community is not often defined at some level by individual member marginalization and — by extension — its presence as a subculture.
    2. In addition, this model hints at some interesting applications and ideas for how we construct/construe identity. What could this idea of “simulated ethnicity” tell us about behavior in the LBGT community or other persecuted sociocultural groups? Or, flipping the question, what does it tell us about “real” ethnicity? Even if it’s not correct in this case, I find the implications compelling enough not to dismiss the argument offhand.
  2. This skepticism of female geeks is another form of misogyny with very similar roots to the first. Why is there a need to doubt attractive members as “posers”? It implies they aren’t “truly” geek and consume only “surface” geekdom…which is simply another manifestation of the same problem.
  3. Speaking of the idea that “obsession is okay”, I find this shift in identity to probably be the most important offshoot of this post. It implies that geekiness is more than just a common set of practices (e.g., playing a lot of video games), but actually a way of viewing (dare I say interpreting?!) said practices. If we want to be even stronger, we could even say the viewpoint leads or inspires said practices. This shift, and its impact on the way geeks view themselves, their communities, and the ways it impacts (how they construct) their identity (which plays right into the misogyny above) is fascinating.
    1. This viewpoint on obsession itself as actually really interesting, especially given the phrasing you choose (i.e. “obsession is okay“). Why wouldn’t it be okay? Why not something like “obsession is fun” or “reveling in obsession” or something along those lines? Why explicitly the “okay” part? Is it because there’s some(one/thing) that says it’s not? This idea (which is common to most definitions of geekdom I’ve seen floating around) seems to imply there’s something it’s being framed against — which leads us back to some vision of the “oppressor” sneaking back into the definition.
    2. Speaking of the oppressor, I’m not at all sure that geekdom is free of that shackle. A wide swath of members are introverts, engage in escapist practices, and often make friends through said practices because they can’t/don’t feel comfortable through other means. Although obviously not all of it is this way, there’s a noticeable undercurrent in much of what goes on that is framed by some sort of margnialization (either forced or self-imposed) against society at large.
    3. By extension, these responses (and the original argument) rely heavily on a “society at large” to frame this against. This leads use to question what this really is: a real thing that causes melodrama, some sort of boogeyman/strawman constructed to create melodrama, or something in-between?
    4. This way of viewing geeks (defined by similar viewpoints/sets of values rather than practices) also gives some interesting ideas as to how one should study “geekdom”. If “geeks” really are internal classifications rather than external practice, then defining things like “geekdom” or “geek culture” based on external behaviors and/or practices is indeed the wrong way to go about it. In other words, we shouldn’t be framing groups such as “geek culture” based on what geeks do, but rather frame our viewpoints based on why they do the things they do. The physical behaviors should be seen as manifesting from ways that geeks perceive things (i.e. how geeks read and define texts, if we’re being more academic).
    5. Likewise, this almost suggests that geeks are sociological/anthropological entities, in the sense that someone is internally a geek or not. Is there an element of choice there? Are geeks (and self-identifying as one) similar to identifying as fans? Or, more explicitly: are you a “geek”, or can you be a “geek”? Because if we go by this “reading” of geeks, we seem to be able to study them as if they are indeed some sort of race, ethnicity, etc. with cultural practices, rituals, etc. built up around them. Which essentially gives them a simulated ethnicity (albeit of a different sort than Kunyosying and Soles argue). However, a lot of groups can be studied this way, so maybe I’m looking a bit too much into it.
Shinichi's character, and the main plot of Outbreak Company, actually are cool examples of where this idea can be applied.

Shinichi’s character, and the main plot of Outbreak Company itself, actually are cool examples of where these ideas might be easily and most directly applicable.

Otaku and Anime Fandom

The arguments, critiques, and extensions detailed above so far have only applied to “geekdom”. However, the questions they raise can naturally be applied to studies of otaku, and indeed are directly relevant to understanding anime fandom and otaku culture. For instance, this type of “you are an otaku” viewpoint is all over Japanese studies of otaku (which tend to be more sociological, studying a group of people who possess some intrinsic quality). By contrast, American studies of otaku often seem to support the “you can be an otaku” view (and thus are oriented differently, since you’re now studying groups of people who have chosen to be hardcore fans).

Both of these viewpoints, however, don’t really answer a fundamental question: what makes someone an “otaku” as opposed to a hardcore anime fan? What’s the difference between the two groups (or is there one in the first place?). Using the ideas raised here, we can attempt to answer this question in a way that simultaneously fits both views: otaku are individuals who have come to interpret texts in a certain way. This way might be different from that of normal fans, and our investigation should focus on trying to tease out what these are, how they come about, and consequently how these different ways of viewing things leads to different groups — interpreting how interpretation defines and creates individual and group “otaku” identity! These naturally lead to concepts of simulated ethnicity, especially given the differences between how “otaku” is used in the US (specifically referring to anime/manga fans) and in Japan (where it is approximately equivalent to “geek”). This might also lead to some answers as to why fujoushi are seemingly viewed so differently than female geeks, and tie back into things like the database model of consumption.

Being knowledgeable is a good thing, but when you're unable to connect  together those facts that you've so carefully filed away, it can slowly eat at you.

An example of a database in action.

In the end though, this is all just theorizing and stabs at a useful/interesting way of understanding otaku and fandom at large — I’m not sure where all this leads, let alone if it leads somewhere useful and/or insightful. What do you guys think about all this? Does the concept of “simulated ethnicity” make sense? Is is justified being applied to “geekdom”? How about the wider interpretations and applications I attempt here — are they logical extensions, or am I making some huge leaps? And is there any part of this you find particularly interesting or want to comment on?

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18 responses to “Interpreting Interpretation: Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity…?

  1. There’s a certain text academics will always point to first whenever the question of “What is ethnicity/nationhood?” comes up. And that text is Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. Anderson coined the term “Imagined Communities” to describe how the concept of nationhood is ideologically constructed. Typically, communities are formed through social interaction, and the members generally know each other directly. But nationhood doesn’t require this. It’s an “imagined community”, where you can feel a kinship with people you will never meet and never hear of. (i.e. You feel a bond with other Americans because you are American.)

    The other thing that makes an imagined community work is that it needs to define its identity against other groups. We exist, therefore so must the Other.

    So when you say geekhood is “simulated ethnicity”, that actually makes a lot of sense to me, because it has a lot of the traits than define an imagined community. (By the way, “simulated ethnicity” sounds like an oxymoron to me, haha.) But at the same time, I’m a bit skeptical of the idea that geekdom is like nationhood, because what makes a geek a geek and how they relate to each other can’t be so easily pinned down. I think I’ll need to read up more on Kunyosying and Soles’s theory, because this idea of “internal” identifiers of geekdom really interests me.

    About otakudom and the question you raise whether an otaku is something you “choose” to be rather than passively “become”: I’m drawing purely from my own experience here, but I definitely chose to be otaku. If you believe the theory that “taste” is socially structured (which I do), people construct their identities in terms of their taste and which groups they identify with. I become an otaku when I decided I wanted to understand and identify with that particular subculture, and my tastes underwent a massive shift accordingly. It was not the other way around. I did not magically acquire this way of interpreting texts in total isolation.

    … Which is why I’m kind of skeptical about whether otaku is really that different from other anime fans, when it comes down to it. I’ve been thinking lately that there’s a fine line between identifying with otaku and glorifying/exoticising their consumer habits, and it’s certainly a fine line which Azuma walks. But I’ll save my full thoughts on that whenever you get around to your post about postmodernism. This comment has gone on long enough already!

    • Imagined Communities

      New pleasure reading goal obtained – thanks!

      “simulated ethnicity” sounds like an oxymoron to me, haha

      I think the authors chose to term in order to contrast with “real” ethnicities that often have extensive histories and can often be identified visually (by, e.g., color of skin). I feel it’s a little bit more derogatory, like chiding geeks for “playing around” with trying to emulate these ethnicities with a real and often intense history of persecution.

      this idea of “internal” identifiers of geekdom really interests me.

      You and me both, especially since I think the answer lies at the heart of geekdom and the construction of certain types of communities, and maybe even Anderson’s “imagined communities”, given the sprawling international state of many fandoms. It also resonate I think with ideas of what it means to be a geek, which I have encountered firsthand. About a year ago, Rebecca and I had a conversation that essentially formed the seeds of much of the points I discuss (and critique) here. She had claimed offhand that she was a “nerd” because she liked to read, was generally bookish, had dabbled in WoW and some other video games, was generally introverted, and was socially isolated for much of her youth. Although I didn’t fully understand why at the time, I viscerally rejected this claim, and found myself instantly trying to argue against her because it felt “wrong”. Over the course of the next half an hour or so of discussion, we ended up concluding she wasn’t a “nerd” (which we used interchangeably with geek) because she didn’t really participate in nerd culture “the right way”: she not only didn’t partake in typically “nerdy” rituals or engage with the community (although we both agreed this wasn’t necessary to be a nerd), but more importantly didn’t seem to share many of the same values and tendencies that “nerds” possess. Rebecca had never experienced intense fanboying/fangirling or felt the desire to voraciously consume anime/other media, for instance, and never really got “into” video games the same way she did with books (which she also consumed almost entirely in isolation and never really “obsessed” over). While we never ended up pinning down the exact reason I was so bothered (at the end she also agreed with me), the conversation seemed to imply she was missing something “internal” that was necessary to be a nerd rather than just someone who does “nerdy” things. Looking back, that concept might have been some form of “obsession”. Interestingly enough, in the intervening year as we’ve been dating Rebecca has displayed slightly more “nerd”-like tendencies in her consumption habits (like getting really into Fairy Tail and fangirling over Rider), so maybe there’s some influence from me rubbing off…? *shrug*

      Anyways, I guess the point was that before I really understood it myself, I had internalized some type of unconscious sentiment/belief/feeling that geekdom involved more than just doing geeky things and (possibly) experiencing social isolation, which Rebecca also somehow understood at some level. So the idea of internal identifiers really resonates with me as something that has real value/impact in geek culture (and constructed identity) today!

      I definitely chose to be otaku

      Same here, and I completely agree with your point about learning how to interpret texts inside a community. The big dichotomy still remains though: does this new way of interpreting things become some core aspect of your character, or is it more akin to a “role” or “position” you participate in when appropriate? I’m very much in the latter camp, although I must admit I’m certain there’s a certain amount of “bleed over” and hybridization/mixing of roles that takes place here as “otaku” values find their home in our identities.

      it’s certainly a fine line which Azuma walks

      It’s more than a fine line – it’s one of the biggest critiques of his work ;).

      I’m kind of skeptical about whether otaku is really that different from other anime fans, when it comes down to it

      It’s an interesting question. Personally, at the moment I’m fairly certain there’s a spectrum (there’s always a spectrum, amirite?) between what constitutes a fan and an otaku, and the differences that move someone along that spectrum is the way that they interpret (and consequently consume) texts. Although I definitely agree with you and do not think there’s a clear divide between the two groups, I’m ultimately not sure where the difference is (or if it’s entirely imagined) at this point. And the glorification bit always nags at the back of my mind, since otaku can build themselves up as “imagined communities” by separating themselves from/looking down upon “normal” fans…

      • Oh my gosh, did I really write ‘oxymoron’ when I meant ‘tautology’? I fail at English. But thanks for clarifying what the authors meant with ‘simulated ethnicity’ anyway.

        I can relate to that story about you and Rebecca. I have also talked to people who I instinctively feel are not as geeky as they claim. I think obsession is a big part of being a geek, like you say. May I also suggest it has something to do with feeling disconnected from reality? This has nothing to do with the geek’s so-called persecution complex being socially awkward. (I think of these more as possible symptoms than as descriptors of geekhood.) To me, geekhood is a way of mentally enhancing reality by focusing on abstractions – things that don’t really matter in day-to-day interactions. Basically, it’s chuunibyou. Immersing yourself in any topic will give you a degree of abstract knowledge, but it’s no wonder that geek fandom is still most closely linked to fantasy and sci-fi. These are two things that are already separate from reality to begin with. But anyway, when I come across someone who doesn’t seem so interested in pursuing abstractions for their own sake, I tend to think to myself, “This person’s too much of a pragmatic thinker to be a geek.”

        That’s my two cents on the matter.

        The big dichotomy still remains though: does this new way of interpreting things become some core aspect of your character, or is it more akin to a “role” or “position” you participate in when appropriate?

        I lean more towards the latter too. I like to engage with multiple readings of a text, so I mentally switch my inner otaku on and off where it’s relevant. Nevertheless, I don’t think you can ever force yourself to like something or accept it on a visceral level, so otaku fetishes must resonant with my own pre-existing values to some degree. And that means it may affect how I see things subconsciously. But I personally think media is more effective at reinforcing what you already believe rather than encouraging new types of behaviour, so I don’t think being an otaku changes my personality in a noticeable way.

        Although I definitely agree with you and do not think there’s a clear divide between the two groups, I’m ultimately not sure where the difference is (or if it’s entirely imagined) at this point.

        I also have no idea! This is definitely something I need to think about further, hmmm…

        I look forward to seeing what else you may have to say on that particular subject!

      • That’s my two cents on the matter.

        I like this push towards the abstract (or, said another way, a type of disdain for the practical). Gives me some more things to think about…

        Nevertheless, I don’t think you can ever force yourself to like something or accept it on a visceral level

        I’m not so sure, actually – so many of our fundamental values are a product of the times, and so much of our character is potentially malleable, I think we could learn to like pretty much anything viscerally given the right environment and mindset. That said, there are obviously some genetic components which may influence, say, susceptibility to becoming an “otaku”. So there’s definitely merit there.

        But I personally think media is more effective at reinforcing what you already believe rather than encouraging new types of behaviour

        Agreed, although this is more based on the self-selective nature of consumption rather than media itself I’d say. Also, ‘dat u.

  2. Pingback: What ARE Otaku Exactly? The (Non)Dual Nature of the “Otaku” in Gainax’s Otaku no Video | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  3. Interesting article, thank you for this.

    I wonder if there is difference in how geek/otaku-dom is viewed in Japan vs West? Here in west, individualism means that everyone should try to stand out – to kind of create a “personal brand” to be interesting and cool. So it’s seen as something people DO, rather than something people ARE. You choose to become a geek/goth/vegan/whatever to portray yourself certain way to others. It’s about sending a message, which I suppose is why you run into the kind of talk about “fake geeks” (this isn’t unique to geek community, it happens in all sub-cultures).

    I might be talking out of my ass but maybe in the more collective japanese culture where standing out is not seen as such a great thing, being an otaku becomes something more “inherent”. Especially since otaku in japan aren’t seen as quite as cool as geeks in west right now.
    But from what I’ve heard, even in Japan otaku-dom has changed quite a bit in the last decades. Probably more towards personal and voluntary identification as an otaku.

    • Thank you for commenting! :)

      individualism means that everyone should try to stand out

      You choose to become a geek/goth/vegan/whatever to portray yourself certain way to others.

      While I’ll definitely agree that individualism leads to the impulse that one should try and stand out (since it’s interesting that individualism turns these types of things into a sort of imperative), the ways geeks and similar types of people are often discussed at large actually often goes both ways. While I often see geeks being discussed as oddballs who’ve chosen to be that way, I’ve also seen a fair amount of people instead/also discussing geeks as people who just are oddballs. These oftentimes lead to people viewing them with a sense of pity (e.g., “they just don’t know how to interact with people”), and so on. So while you’re definitely right about the “choice” portion (which can lead to “posers”), and I do think this distinction might lie at the heart of the ways that Western scholarship tends to view otaku/geeks, I would argue that the other position simultaneously (albeit not so overtly) coexists.

      in the more collective japanese culture where standing out is not seen as such a great thing

      I think it has less to do with Japanese culture (which, although strongly uniform, is not as collectively-oriented as one might think) and more to do with how “otaku” first came to prominence in Japan (i.e. through serial killings and murders). Historically, there was a big push to view otaku as “messed up” and “different” from “normal” people, which has since led to a more internally-oriented view on what otaku are. In the West, where otaku came to prominence mainly through an offshoot of geekdom (and hence as an outgrowth of the sci-fi fan/nerd/geek), the desire was instead to study otaku in the context of participation, fan cultures, and other behaviors. And hence a focus on otaku as more of a choice and less of a “condition”.

      from what I’ve heard, even in Japan otaku-dom has changed quite a bit in the last decades

      Mostly in the last decade, actually. When “Cool Japan” became a thing in the early 2000s and Japanese pop culture became a celebrated icon of the Japanese state’s possible cultural hegemony, the image of the most vociferous consumers (i.e. otaku) underwent some reevaluations. The most important image-changer for Japanese otaku, however, has been the massive popularity of “Densha Otoko”, which simultaneously revolutionized the image of otaku from a deranged individual who no one should associate with to nice, lonely, misunderstood people who need to be brought back into society. Although it tends to characterize “otakuness” as more of a social “condition” one should attempt to escape from (the guy is essentially “saved” in the film by the romantic love interest and brought back into society) rather than a “choice”, it nonetheless eliminated most of the negative connotations the term “otaku” used to possess.

      So, yes, a little bit more towards voluntary identification (or at least a “condition” which could be “cured”) rather than some fundamental internal difference. :)

  4. I really should read that article you linked to one of these days, but I’ve got a whole lot of (rather scattered) thoughts on this anyway:
    —What the whole melodrama hypothesis does, I think, is to problematize the degree and ways in which geekdom is a choice. So there are a number of things we need to be careful of, and one of the first things that comes to mind: hipsterdom. I mean, there’s an important distinction here, and I’m not sure how sure we can be about this either in general or in individual cases, but there’s a difference between the following two stories: 1) a person has an interest in participating in a given activity in a particular way, finds out that this activity isn’t very socially acceptable, and grows to feel marginalized and left out as a result; and 2) a person has a desire to set themselves off as special and different from everyone else, and so chooses a particular activity and a particular way of participating in it…. This is a simplification and a misreading, I’m sure, but the melodrama hypothesis as set out seems to me to suggest that a lot of what looks to those involved like the first story is actually the second (on, perhaps, a subconscious level?), or something like that?
    —I suppose this is sorta related to the geek/slacker distinction, but the point is that “reintegration” in this case is by no means an unambiguous idea. (This is probably a particular point where I would benefit from actually reading the article you linked to more closely; I will one of these days, I swear…)

    —To risk treading in somewhat political waters, there’s a narrative I’ve seen floating about a bit (which I disagree with, but I’ll try for something like neutrality here) that says, more or less, that a lot of ethnic (and sexual, etc.) minorities aren’t discriminated against (or at least not to the degree they claim) and that they themselves have a big persecution complex or (at the most extreme) are looking for subversive ways to become more dominant themselves…. The melodrama hypothesis seems to me to need some disentangling from this, but (if you’ll excuse my asshattish armchair anthropology/sociology) my suspicion is that you can’t really draw a distinction solely on genetics/skin color/etc., but that you’d have a really darn difficult time of coming up with a clear line between “real” cultural practices and “simulated”/”imaginary” ones.
    —In both of these cases, it’s hard (or impossible?) to articulate the persecution complex narrative without at least implicitly acknowledging that the group you’re talking about is different in some way or another. The value judgement here, it seems to me, stems from the idea that their differences are their choice, and that the choices they are making are bad. Which is perhaps true in at least some cases! But how would you draw this line?
    —I mean, above, you referenced issues of LGBTQ community, and there’s a good example: I’ve seen people justify gay marriage and the like by saying, for instance, that one doesn’t choose to be gay and so it’s wrong to restrict the ways in which those born gay can live, but I’ve also seen people (in favor, yet again, of gay marriage!) argue that that misses the point entirely because, say, it doesn’t make sense to judge these choices (if that is what they are) in the first place! And debates about this can get particularly tricky because so much revolves around the entire way in which we talk about choice, which is always a rather volatile topic because free will.

    —Knowledge is also an issue here, I’d say. One of the big things about any community is that it tends to look homogenous from the outside, but heterogeneous from the inside. Orientalism and whatnot. Though more dominant groups are, I’d say, better able to showcase their internal diversity. So here’s the big obvious issue with how a lot of geeks feel misunderstood and so on. And this also raises questions about how geeks can split and factionalize within their subculture.

    —I don’t know a whole lot about the differences between Japanese culture at large and American culture at large, but it seems to me that the writers of the article mainly drew on American culture. So I’d wager that if their story here is true, then a lot of differences between American geekery and otakudom are probably related in some way to differences between Japanese and American cultural/ethnic makeup.

    …Though I suppose throughout I’ve basically been harping on what you’ve pointed out again and again: the big question here is to what degree we can talk about the ways in which geeks engage with their material as being intrinsic to their identities. I guess I’m mainly protesting that acting like geeks are unusual in this being problematic would require acting like all sorts of other groups aren’t tricky. It’s a different sort of trickiness, but the implicit value judgements here still bug me.

    This is a really weird subject and I’m way out of my comfort zone; apologies if anything I’ve said is painfully stupid and mean.

    • This is one heck of a comment, so here come’s the extremely long response!

      the melodrama hypothesis

      Not quite – the way I (and the original authors) used melodrama was as a post-authenticating analysis. You’re marginalized and suffer, therefore you possess the moral high ground and are generally “enlightened” compared to the society at large that has marginalized you. Now this can naturally turn into 1) into 2), especially after the fact as participants begin to take advantage of melodrama and possibly desire to view the outcome as fully within their control. But it wouldn’t do so by saying that those involved “chose” to become that way, but rather because they “couldn’t” really choose at all (without betraying some element of their self, dovetailing nicely with the ethnicity analogy)! It essentially collapses 2) into 1), or makes 2) an outgrowth of 1), rather than turning 1) into 2) outright.

      “reintegration” in this case is by no means an unambiguous idea

      Oh god no, which ties into the question of what exactly is the “society at large” which is used to frame this entire debate. It’s all fuzzy.

      To risk treading in somewhat political waters

      I too have heard this narrative and disagree with it, but there’s some (very small) truth to these claims. [This is going to be very sloppy, but let me too wade into political waters and broadly outline my opinion of why this occurs.] To truly “get past” discrimination, various ethnicities must “integrate” at some (deep-ish) level into society. This means moving past framing ethnicities as “different” or having historical issues directly ideologically connected to events in the present day at some level. But individual identity is partly constructed through ethnicity, and historical ideas are relevant (e.g. racially charged language, offensive costumes). So you have a sort of paradox: how to respect ethnicity in identity while moving past it towards assimilation/ending discrimination. People who like to believe themselves to be somewhat post-racial (or who like to believe themselves living in such a society already) then come to view lots of ethnicities being “offended” by certain things as a largely self-imposed form of suffering that feeds their “necessary” persecution complex. Now, some part of this is true, since members of ethnic minorities like anyone tend to imbue certain things with meaning based on past experience, and this may lead to them associating more things with being “discriminated against” than someone else (although they’re usually justified in doing so), especially since this tends to at some level establish their presence as a member of an ethnicity. But these claims are mostly by douchebags who don’t understand what it’s like to face real (often constant) discrimination and how that (unfortunately) colors the way you see things.

      darn difficult time of coming up with a clear line between “real” cultural practices and “simulated”/”imaginary” ones

      See the conversation between me and Froggy ;).

      idea that their differences are their choice

      Yes, this is a good point. As you mention above, this is probably the thing that separates “hipsters” from “geeks” (as is argued here). Drawing the line thought is really difficult, because almost all things are at some level a choice and yet not a choice depending on how far down the rabbit hole you end up going. I think the easiest way would be the way members of each group see themselves: did they “choose” to become members of the group (e.g., being hipster), did it just “happen” (e.g., being “otaku”), or did they have no choice in the matter (e.g., being African/Latino/Asian American)?

      LGBTQ community

      The issues you bring up are actually a fundamental split in the gay community itself, which can most clearly be seen in the differences between the movement for marriage equality (the former group) vs. gay pride parades (the latter). Here, the issue actually is less about choice and more about ideology: is the movement a push for equality/assimilation or a push for complete sexual freedom? Doesn’t make your point any less valid though, especially since introversion/extroversion and other associated traits relevant to geekdom are likely also partly genetic.

      Orientalism and whatnot.

      This is a pretty broad use of Orientalism (which has a host of other connotations), but I get what you mean. It’s good to note homogeneity is often an illusion; however, such an illusion is often the umbrella that connects many of the disparate groups together. For example: anime fans tend to look homogeneous. However, many are into anime in varying degrees, and there’s a lot of variation there. As a whole, however, the subgroups within the community are bound toegether through their mutual identification as anime fans. Or, if we’re looking at say Asian Americans, we can easily point out that there are a lot of different types of Asian Americans: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc., all of whom belong to different cultures and in general are very different people. But many of these same people end up identifying as part of “Asian Americans” at large because society imposes such a label upon them (even if such a label is grossly and unfairly homogenizing).

      it seems to me that the writers of the article mainly drew on American culture

      You’d be 100% correct.

      differences between American geekery and otakudom

      That’s some of it, although the biggest differences are really historically-based. See my comments to anonymous hikikomori.

      the big question here is to what degree we can talk about the ways in which geeks engage with their material as being intrinsic to their identities

      Exactly!

      acting like geeks are unusual in this being problematic would require acting like all sorts of other groups aren’t tricky

      This is a fantastic critique, and I think says a lot about where the authors are coming from. This sort of thing is easiest to compare/contrast when you look at voluntary organizations such as peer groups, friend associations, and most obviously civil societies. Many of these are voluntary and seen as being almost entirely a product of choice, in contrast to the way we’ve portrayed geekdom here which is seen as notsomuch. Even the most fatalistic of us, for instance, would probably not say we had no choice in what friends we made or what clubs/groups we were a part of in school or at work or in our free time. However, we have a problem: geekdom is composed of many different activities or subgroups similar in form to civil societies or clubs, and yet we have argued that it is internal. In fact, we’ve gone so far to argue it’s the element that binds all these things together and motivates their practice in the first place! Given this framework, can we say that participation in civil societies, clubs, and our choices of friends are not some manifestation of internal qualities or some overarching social construction that we have no choice over (even if it has no real “label”)? The road seems slippery now…

      The way out of this though, I think, is sort of what me and Froggy have been discussing in the comments. Namely, the process of self-identification. Both of us realize we classify/had classified geeks (and thus ourselves) with some way of viewing the world internal to geeks separate from practice. I think if you start looking at things based on personal self-identification, the distinction becomes a little bit more manageable (and also pertinent, since I’m also interested on how this “simulated ethnicity” effect impacts identity construction).

      I’m way out of my comfort zone

      You and me both lol. I have zero formal training in either field, so all this is entirely armchair stuff on my end as well!

      • Sorry for commenting so late; I had, I kid you not, a catastrophic computer event (dead hard drive) the day after I commented here.

        Not quite – the way I (and the original authors) used melodrama was as a post-authenticating analysis….

        Ah, I think I see a bit better. I may’ve been a bit too eager to get annoyed at the whole idea (‘melodrama’ tends to come with, ahem, connotations), but it makes a bit more sense now.

        See the conversation between me and Froggy ;).

        Aw man, Frog-kun beats me to the punch yet again! And says it better, too. And yeah, I just added yet another friggin’ book to my neverending to-read list. *sigh*

        Drawing the line thought is really difficult, because almost all things are at some level a choice and yet not a choice depending on how far down the rabbit hole you end up going. I think the easiest way would be the way members of each group see themselves…

        Yeah, the fuzzy notion of choice was kinda what I was trying to get at here; I like your solution (not really the word I’m looking for, but whatever) to the matter, though I’d complicate matters in a couple ways: 1) how other people view the choice matter is also at stake (because of how they define themselves in relation to the ‘outside’, so to speak); and 2) obviously different people are going to have different views and personal narratives and so we have to talk mostly about general trends and the ways in which internal differences are articulated, etc. (And both of these, coincidentally, are a huge part of what we’ve been talking about w/r/t geek culture in particular!)

        Here, the issue actually is less about choice and more about ideology

        Man, I picked a bad example. I guess I was thinking more about trans* issues, but you’re certainly right here. And yet again, the lifestyle/ideology choice is always gonna be a big thing in other arenas too; that’s got a lot to do with how this stuff gets politicized in the first place, methinks.

        This is a pretty broad use of Orientalism

        Yeah, whoops. I should be more careful, especially since I’ve gotten a bit annoyed myself lately at a couple misappropriations of these sorts of concepts.

        It’s good to note homogeneity is often an illusion; however, such an illusion is often the umbrella that connects many of the disparate groups together.

        YES! Specifically, though, I’d say that the ways in which the heterogeneous groups create the idea of homogeneity is itself a part of what that homogeneity looks like. I guess I’d say that the “realness” (argh) of the group is tied to the degree to which that group is irreducible w/r/t its, uh, sub-groups. And yet again, the way in which this happens… There’s a pretty big difference between the way in which “Asian-American-ness” came about and the way in which, say, disparate Christian sects in America (e.g. Protestants and Catholics (each of which in itself is far from homogenous!), some of which kinda hated each other for a while) got the umbrella term “Christianity” (though obviously there are all other sorts of differences… I don’t think I could ever be a sociologist).

        That’s some of it, although the biggest differences are really historically-based. See my comments to anonymous hikikomori.

        Ah, this clears things up a bit!

        The way out of this though, I think, is sort of what me and Froggy have been discussing in the comments. Namely, the process of self-identification.

        Gotcher! If I may add one more idea to this whole mix, and I’m sure you’ve already thought of this, but: I think that perhaps the closest analogy here might be religion? This preserves a lot of the links with ethnicity, but has some of the same wrinkles: self-identification, the ways in which people can self-identify with a religion with a different (how to put it?) geographical genealogy than their personal genealogy (ugh, that was bad), etc…. But it also gets at the ways in which each can be seen as a matter of interpretation and of practice; to flesh things out a bit more, I’d say that the main difference is that a geek’s canonical texts are much more explicitly fictional (I say “more” because I’ve met religious folks with what I found to be counterintuitive relationships with their religion), which also explains the oftentimes productive nature of geekery: writing theology can never be like writing the Bible (for example) itself, whereas… eh, I’ll let your own remarks on the self-critical/self-parodic nature of light novels serve as the best example!

      • ‘melodrama’ tends to come with, ahem, connotations

        Judging by the tone of the original article, I think some of those connotations might have been intended!

        I’d complicate matters in a couple ways

        I’d agree with all these — there’s a lot of interplay that goes on between self-labeling and being labeled, especially when they’re broad ones.

        tied to the degree to which that group is irreducible w/r/t its, uh, sub-groups

        I like this train of thought, and your examples (plus my commentary on the history of “otaku studies”) are good illustratations hat show how important backdrops and historical events (etc.) frequently are at framing these issues.

        I don’t think I could ever be a sociologist

        Haha I know what you mean. Many of the things I’ve been running across while looking into anime fandom leave me feeling much the same way ;).

        the closest analogy here might be religion

        I like this example, since it serves as a great contrast into how these things work. And honestly, as is pretty clear from these discussion, this type of thinking shouldn’t really be limited to geekdom in particular but is actually applicable (and in some ways has already been applied) to a host of other similar concepts.

        it also gets at the ways in which each can be seen as a matter of interpretation and of practice

        This is great and spot on! There’s a dialectic between the two which I think is key in the process of turning these groups/labels into pieces of our identities (and subsequently becoming self-aware about them and responding to them and becoming self-aware of the response etc. etc., as is the case with light novels lol).

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