Geeking Out

two critics on the art of fandom & the politics of geekdom.

Artistry often begins in fandom—as an aspiration, at first, not really to express one’s creative identity but to take on someone else’s. …Real anxiety comes not with influence, but with the imperative to transcend it, which is another part of creative development.

– David Hadju, “Pretending,” on The Beatles: Rock Band & Guitar Hero, The New Republic, 2 December 2009

Whatever the personal roots of Lethem’s compulsions in temperment and trauma, geekdom also responds to a wider history. It is not simply fandom and was not fully possible before the 1970s, the decade in which Lethem grew up. Its scholarly posture awaited the erasure of high/low distinctions and the rise of a popular culture that thought enough of itself to elicit a corresponding critical seriousness. …All of a sudden it was intellectually respectable to spin out theories about Spiderman or I Dream of Jeannie. And not just respectable, but necessary. The ’70s also marked the moment when media culture reaached a kind of saturation point, the age by which we found ourselves, as George W.S. Trow famously put it, within the context of no context. What Warhol intuited and Sontag theorized was now universal—and for children of the ’70s, congenital. All media, all the time: commercials, billboards, boom boxes, Muzak, cable; hooks, jingles, icons, slogans, logos. …Geekdom resists the informational avalanche through the impossible strategy of seeking to master it—hence both its theoretical drive and the infinitude of its quest.

— William Deresiewicz, “A Geek Grows in Brooklyn,” on the novel Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, The New Republic, 21 October 2009

Hadju, adolescent of the 1960s, and still something of a modernist, argues that fandom arises out of imitation—the anxiety of influence comes from the next step: trying to become yourself.

Deresiewicz, child of the 1970s, and fully born into the postmodern experience, expresses an entirely different worry: no more is the issue to become yourself in the shadow of heroes, but rather simply to survive the onslaught of information in the first place.

This is not an anxiety of influence, but rather an anxiety of lack of influence. The goal is not originality, but mastery of lost originals. One geeks out not to transform oneself, but to find refuge in what already exists.

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