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December 28 2010

"Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die". It's an epic Patton Oswalt penned essay.

Wow, this is major. I wonder exactly how we Whedonites fit into this in Oswalt's eyes? Are we weak otakus, contributing to his depression? Probably a little bit...heh.
I'm not sure I get the point of the article. It reads like an angry old man talking about how much better things were back when he was a kid, you know back in the good ol days(tm). Am I missing something?
I think he's got it backwards. I don't see the overexposure of “otakus” so much as the dissolution of the one “mainstream”. The internet has allowed everyone to dive into what they want, but it's not like everyone is diving into everything. There's just not enough time to take it all in.

From a creative standpoint, it's always been darn near impossible to invent something truly new that no one else ever thought of. It's just that now you can look online and find it's already been done a heck of a lot faster. Good creations of the cross pollination variety... I think those are still there and maybe easier to stumble on than ever before, but done right it's not taking actor X, writer/director Y and series Z and crassly cut/pasting them together.
Diversity R Us, and I don't see anything wrong about it, personally.
I read it as a comment on how we as a culture consume our media and how Etewaf (Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever) is affecting how we view it. Rather than watching or reading something and coming up with our own opinions, we're looking at special features, reading lists and and seeing what everyone else is saying on blogs in order to figure out what it all means or to validate our opinion (I'm doing it right now by posting on this message board). Also, this section is what really popped out to me:

"Everything we have today that’s cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past...Now, with everyone more or less otaku and everything immediately awesome...the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling."

I think the article is absolutely fascinating and that Mr. Oswalt really has his finger on the pulse of "geek" culture right now.
I'm not sure if I get the point Mr. Oswalt is trying to make. If his point is that the face of fandom has gotten less intense and analytical because there's so much data coming in that people aren't focusing as intensely on particular aspects of that data, I think Mr. Oswalt simply may be looking in the wrong places :) This board, for instance, is perfectly capable of going into a lengthy and intricate discussion on whether Xander, Willow and Joyce behaved appropriately toward Buffy on her return in Season Three, and our ability to rewatch the relevant episodes rather than relying on memory generally simply helps everybody work off the same text. Or I may be entirely misunderstanding what he's talking about.
He seems to be more annoyed with the fact that everything has a fandom and it's hard to find a small niche (or be bonded/outcasted by your small niche anyway). I find it fascinating too, TOASTERslayer, although I'm not sure Oswalt will ever get the payoff he's looking for in his pop culture-pocalypse. "The good ol days (tm war_machine)" in the way he described pre-internet 1987 seem to be over for good.

Poor guy. I know a few people like this ::coughs-bitsy-coughs::
I actually disagree with the suggestion that "everyone [is] more or less otaku". People who "obsess" over Top Chef are not the same as people who obsess over the literary Lord of the Rings. There are substantive differences in the obsession and the depth of the engagement that make them almost completely un-equatable.

(To counter another point, Hollywood can make LoTR movies until it dies, but that doesn't undo the fact that it's still a comparative few who have actually read the books themselves, and they can continue along their merry way being otaku about them in a way that's, again, substantively different than people who enjoy the movies without any of the literary context.)
right, the Literary LOTR fandom are different than the rest of the LOTR otakus who may like all of the other adaptations as well. This is kind of like how we'll probably feel vs. the newbs who may obsess over the Whedonless Buffy reboot.
Here's the gist of my reaction to Patton Oswalt's commentary: Every exploited subculture thinks it's the end of history.
I agree with b!X: there is a big difference. The college curricula are being written about LotR, Buffy, R. Crumb, Watchmen, etc... I guess someone might want to teach some kind of course about 'Desperate Real Housewives of New Jersey'... but I'm thinking that one class will cover the material.

But definitely Patton Oswalt is bringing up some interesting ideas here, but I'm not sure I agree with him. I don't think it is a bad thing that I can find like minded people online who want to discuss (in depth) the books and shows I love.
I don't think it is a bad thing that I can find like minded people online who want to discuss (in depth) the books and shows I love.

Indeed one of the things he glosses over is the fact that the Internet has helped a lot of isolated outreaches of nerdity realize they aren't quite so isolated. There's nothing inherently wrong with geeks and nerds no longer needing to feel they are alone, just as there was nothing inherently wrong with the prior circumstances of being able to consider that aloneness something of a badge of specialness. Value judgments can be made in both directions. But his piece seems overly weighted towards the idea (even if it's not entirely voiced) that today's interconnectedness has simply ruined the idea of being a geek, because geeks (he seems to argue) need to be isolated and secret in order to be geeks.
It's really well-written with some interesting points BUT a lot of it also kind of smacks of chucking your toys out of the pram because your cool, niche interest has gone mainstream, like the geek version of the indie hipster who loves a band until they become popular then considers them sell-outs. Everyone's a geek now ? Or maybe, everyone's a kind of "shallow version" of a geek ? Well guess what, everyone always was (in the sense it's used these days) it's just that now they don't have to hide it and instead of getting a badly photocopied newsletter through the post once a month (or buying magazines of knitting patterns or prowling scrapyards for obsolete car-parts on a Saturday or...) there're online communities.

Added to that, Star Wars was never particularly geeky - how can something that more or less every male of a certain age range was into be "otaku" ? Over here neither was Monty Python. What you consider yourself to have a geeky interest of has always varied (said as a "traditional" nerd/geek i.e. someone into computers who remembers a time before "world wide web" meant "internet" - which is to say, before the geeky, nerdy, techy pursuit of stuffing bits down a phone line became so widespread).

And needless to say, people said "pop will eat itself" a long time ago - sampling for instance was supposedly the point at which music started to eat its own tail which was then followed by several diverse new musical types arising. Jesus, rock n roll was supposedly the end of "real" creativity according to some. Broadening that out to apply it to pop-culture as a whole doesn't make it new. Every generation reaches a point where they claim it's all going to hell in a hand-basket and yet so far, not so much.
I would but i'm not on Facebook, nerd !
"The old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling."

I think this is the best point of the article. There's an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. Now, with instant gratification for all out entertainment needs, we face the danger of becoming apathetic towards doing anything new. Just look at Hollywood over the last decade and the sheer amount of remakes and reboots. There's even an upcoming one that people on this site are very opinionated about ...

It all boils down to a trade-off : we're getting the ability to thoroughly enjoy our particular interests, but the overall quality of new entertainment is dropping rapidly. I believe Mr. Oswalt's fear that in a few decades there will be no new movies, books, comics, etc - only re-imaginings and re-interpretations of older ones - is a valid fear.
There's an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. Now, with instant gratification for all out entertainment needs, we face the danger of becoming apathetic towards doing anything new.

I'm sorry, but I simply don't buy this. The people who want new and authentic will continue to gravitate towards, be inspired by, and create the new and authentic. The fact that the mainstream might be awash with copies, knock-offs, and re-treads doesn't change that. The mainstream has always been awash with copies, knock-offs, re-treads, and the easily digested.

The complaint here seems to be that right now we're in a period where much of what has traditionally been considered geeky, nerdy, and consigned to an ignored subculture is amongst the grist for the mainstream's mill. But so what? The source material is still there for the minority that wants it, and the bulk of the mainstream consuming the copies, knock-offs, and re-treads would never have consumed the source material anyway.

And that doesn't even reach the point that the mainstream copying, knocking-off, and re-treading inevitably leads some in the mainstream to the source material, to which they otherwise would never have been exposed, perhaps because where they grew up it was considered too geeky or nerdy and so avoided at all costs.
...but the overall quality of new entertainment is dropping rapidly.

No offence but I call BS on that. TV, for instance, has never been better IMO (look at the list of shows from the last 5-10 years). If you just look at big tent-pole movies then you could well have a case but cast your net wider and look at the totality of films being released and I don't think it's true for them either. Nor for books (though again, there're more).

What might be true is that there's more chaff in with the wheat (because there's more of both - we just reached 948 TV channels over here for instance, 1000 can't be far off) and separating the two takes more time and effort. But then that's also related to the proliferation of niches (since some of those channels are specifically for things i'm not interested in but someone else is).


ETA: a 't' cos "ten-pole" movies are something else entirely.

[ edited by Saje on 2010-12-29 02:14 ]
Who the hell is Bobby "Fatboy" Roberts, B!x? He's cute.

Sorry, off topic. I got distracted. I still find this debate interesting, I swear.
He's a local (Portland) radio guy and pop culture nerd.
Pff, I was pretty unimpressed with the whole essay. What does being a nerd mean if it's not social isolation?! I mean the guy starts off with "I'm not a nerd", too right buddy! I bet all those lonesome D&D players would have a bone to pick with you. My opinion, the popular kids who had friends with shared interests, they don't get what nerd is because they never had to. Therefore, you have jack to say about being a nerd. Everyone considers themselves otaku?? Nein, you just thought you were.
Social isolation was never really a part of being a geek/nerd for me either cos there were other people around that were into the same stuff (I mean, can you even be a lonesome D&D player ? Isn't that a bit like being a solitary footballer ? Is there an equivalent to keepie-uppie in D&D ? ;), it's not essential IMO (social stigma on the other hand probably is - my crowd may not have been the in-crowd but it was a crowd).
I have always thought that being geeky about something - in a good way - is having a thesis (not necessarily a written one, but a definite point of view) about one's geeked-over subject and being able to defend that thesis in a discussion with other geeks who are equally passionate but possibly have alternate belief systems. If Mr. Oswalt means that perhaps there is too much there to allow the kind of concentration required to become geeky, then I have to disagree - that's like saying because Earth's population is around six billion, it's impossible to really fall in love. Not everyone can or will, but if something awakens your geekiness, you will geek :)
Perhaps everyone alive, who is not severely depressed, is intensely interested in something, and unless that something is truly evil, it is a very attractive human quality, IMO.Long before the internet became ubiquitous, you could hear people on the bus passionately reviewing the details of their soap opera, or the new models of cars. And though this sort of thing can be boring, especially if beamed directly at a less engaged person who is socially trapped, it is, nonetheless, rather sweet.

Being geeky has, of course, been more about having uncommon passionate interests, incomprehensible to many. The internet lets people with the most uncommon interests find each other-and it seems to me that feeling less special is a small price to pay for the extra fun and good company. Whether it has actually, as PO seems to think, caused the general populace to embrace and identify with that which would once have been scorned as too weird, I'm not at all sure. But he does have a point about the increasingly self-conscious , self-referential quality of popular culture, to which the net has surely contributed.

This being-one-big-village business may be making us sort of universally provincial...lacking the stimulation of encountering real otherness. Certainly a person has to travel a lot further to feel really foreign somewhere these days.
Hey you damn kids with your newfangled intertubzez! You get off Mr. Oswalt's lawn!
toast, I'm not so sure one has to travel very far to feel foreign. When I read the comment threads on AOL, I often feel as if I have landed in a country of astonishingly mean, illiterate people who generally do not populate my interactive life :)
"The scene wasn't what it used to be/The scene is NEVER what it used to be." - Rasputina
When I was a youngun, we had to walk 20 miles uphill in the snow to be a nerd.

It was fun, but it was also just Mr. Oswalt showing his age.
Oswalt missed the mark badly on this one. His 'popcult = geek culture' vision excludes not only the (literally) billions outside his media sphere but the millions of Americans who don't actually concern themselves with media texts (as well as those with mainstream tastes and no 'geek discourse' going on at all). His 'ETEWAF' consists of nothing but digital texts, of course - no theatre, no live music, no horseback riding; no rare foods, sculpture, art installations, large-scale paintings, walks on hidden beaches. No fucking. No drinking. 'Everything that ever was' actually consists of a hell of a lot more than 'what you can sit down to consume with your friends,' but you wouldn't know it from this essay.

And this shit is actually offensive:

When our coworkers nodded along to Springsteen and Madonna songs at the local Bennigan’s, my select friends and I would quietly trade out-of-context lines from Monty Python sketches—a thieves’ cant, a code language used for identification. We needed it, too, because the essence of our culture—our “escape hatch” culture—would begin to change in 1987 [with the release of Watchmen and the advent of 'adult'/mainstream comics]...

My high school graduating class contained 54 people, half of them farmers and tradesmen-in-training; we would have counted ourselves lucky to have a Bennigan's, or to have reliable access to radio stations that played Bruce Springsteen. Oswalt's suburban-subcool fantasy simply isn't how most Americans now living grew up. Jesus, isn't one of the lessons of Buffy - or even The Breakfast Club - that these lame-ass unitary media identities are just fictions, and everyone's way way more complicated than the shirts they wear and the movie lines they quote?

My classmates' culture didn't change in 1987 because it consisted of what they built with their hands. (No skiing in ETEWAF either - there goes half my senior year down the memory hole!) Maybe Oswalt's forgotten that people like that still exist; maybe he really does mean to make the idiotic claim that the main function of pop culture is tribalist ego-gratification and identity-politicking. I kinda hope not. That would be too embarrassing.

Oh, he's got a book he's promoting.

What a surprise!
(I lack the patience to talk about the absolute hollowness and indeed incorrectness of Oswalt's apparent vision of media/society interaction - he seems to think pop culture is capable of responding only to itself, and external events simply don't bear on people's media codes. But this saps too much of my energy and goodwill. I don't wish to think this man a complete fucking buffoon; bad enough that this article marks him as a failed ironist and shallow critic. Better to log off and take care of my baby, sleeping nearby with no idea what 'media' are.)
Man, I think Patton Oswalt may be my master now.
meh. unimpressed. he sees his personal geek experience as the definition of geekdom. a narrow view that doesn't much consider others experience of 'geek culture' whatever that nebulous term may include - in scope and time frame.

Now he's old enough to be nostalgic. I have to agree with SpendTheNightAlone's sentiment above in quoting Rasputina.

I don't know much about Oswalt, but based on this article he strikes me as the kind of geek that tended to give geeks a bad name.
Although overstated, I get his point, and it's a valid one: In our post-Internet culture, when MTV stopped showing actual music videos all day, we became much more of an instant gratification culture. Gimme everything -- now! Yes, there are exceptions to who he's talking about, who still fit the old school definition of "nerd," but on the whole, people don't have the patience -- or willingmess -- to wait and see how something turns out. It's not all that different than the reason Fox and SyFy are so quick to cancel shows that true geeks and nerds love -- they don't give the writers and producers time to tell their story. TV watchers today need to know what the deal is now, no time to wait until mid-season to find out how the cylons turned vs. humanity or what the ultimate mission of an ancient spaceship might be. There is something to be said for digesting a book or comic or TV ep and waiting for the next one with bated breath to see what happens next. Hell, even the "on the next..." they show after every TV show now is annoying -- don't spoil it, I know my fave character survived (unless of course it's in the Whedonverse, then all bets are off), but let me entertain the possibility that they didn't, at least until next week. It's ultimately more gratifying.

Patton uses too broad a brush, but the sentiment is there. You don't have to be alone to be isolated. You can be a nerd and have friends, even some non-nerd friends. But, you're isolated either alone or as a group from the mainstream -- you don't get invited to the parties where all the "cool" kids will be, or ski trips, or sit at the table with the popular crowd. That's the secret world of nerds to which he refers.

There are still nerds out there that fit Patton's definition, plenty of them, and I don't think he's talking about them (us). He's talking about those who will eat up a bad rehash of a classic geeky film or a bad adaptation of a graphic novel, or Saw 17. In fact, I don't think he's talking about anyone who would take the time to respond to his article, esp. on this board. But us old men can sound crotchety sometimes, and there was something magical about playing D&D until 2 a.m. and walking home, afraid that a Beholder just might be waiting around the corner.
It's not all that different than the reason Fox and SyFy are so quick to cancel shows that true geeks and nerds love -- they don't give the writers and producers time to tell their story.

Um, no, it's not like this at all, as these shows get cancelled because not enough people watch them. And that can be for all sorts of reasons. It could be impatience. It could also be the shows suck. I think the "broad brush" claim works here, too.

(Accidentally published this comment before I was done instead of previewing it.)

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2010-12-30 21:28 ]
I think Oswalt is totally correct.

Pop culture is presently eating itself alive. It's astonishing how in-jokey and unoriginal everything has become. Is anyone even capable of writing something without pop culture references anymore?

The new Otakus will not involve media. They'll probably be about planting trees to save the earth or something like that. Actions that take a person out of the mainstream as opposed to what they're consuming.
I think the people who are misunderstanding Patton the most are those who are unfamiliar with him. He's a really smart and funny guy and this essay was really insightful. I didn't agree with it 100% but he's really onto something.

He's speaking generally so I'm not sure why so many of you are getting offended. He's not saying that he was more geek than you because he had to wait for things. It's not about the people. Well, not mostly.

I can think of many people who Patton described perfectly in this essay with just general statements. The ones who live in (and are satisfied with) their own little world. Many of them living on pure nostalgia. Many having awful taste because, like Patton said, we can get most everything instantly now and very few people actually form their own opinions. I don't meet many people who are discerning when it comes to movies, television, music, etc. I know plenty of "geeks" who are only interested in their fandoms and romanticize them because they loved them as children and now they can't see that what they love is actually pretty terrible.

Unfortunately we live in a society where a majority of people don't care about well-written movies or television, they just want to come home and turn off their brains and watch Michael Bay movies.

The immediate access that we have to a lot of these things leaves few wanting for more. I'll admit that lately I've been somewhat uninterested in new music or television shows because I have so many albums to listen to and shows that I've already downloaded. There's so much to consume and we can consume it whenever we want. For those who watch/listen solely for entertainment purposes, what reason do they have to ever want for more or something better? they have plenty to be entertained with. For those of us who are more discerning, there's still a lot of good stuff out there to consume. I'm not saying that I'll never want for more (I surely will always want more from joss) but I agree with Patton that it seems likely for the next wave of pop culture to be mostly remakes and reboots.
I can think of many people who Patton described perfectly in this essay with just general statements. The ones who live in (and are satisfied with) their own little world. Many of them living on pure nostalgia.

Hmm, when he talked about "hidden thought-palaces" he meant it as a good thing, was actually describing himself and his friends when they were younger. If anything his complaint seems to be that those little worlds you mention aren't little enough anymore (because "...they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans."). He's also waxing nostalgic for a time "...30 years ago when nerd meant something." so it'd seem that the criticisms you claim he's making of pop-culture/some people actually fit him quite well too.

The nostalgia aspect is one of my (and others', see above) main issues with the thrust of his essay in fact - it's a guy looking back at his youth and saying "Man, things sure were better back then" as if doing that's brand new on the face of the Earth. But of course, it isn't. I'd bet folding money that Ug the caveman, when he reached the grand old age of 28 (and so was getting on a bit ;), sat around the campfire with his mates saying things like "Man, back in my day you needed real skill to hunt with a stone, nowadays these new slings mean anyone can do it" (OK, it'd actually be more "Oog kjna ertle flungimin !" but i've translated it using my extensive knowledge of cavemanese ;). Funnily enough, whereas then it'd just be his mates that heard him, nowadays (because of one of those "easily accessed websites" Mr Oswalt laments) thousands of people across the globe can hear Ug's modern counterpart bemoaning the state of the world.

When he says things like "Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells." (leaving aside the idea that, as I say, Star Wars imagery was never particularly geeky IMO - anyone who went to school in the mid-late 70s would've seen the lunchboxes, action figures etc. all over the place so either it was pretty mainstream or we have an entire cohort of geeks from that period in which case his argument falls apart), it's clear that in his mind nerds can't possibly also go to the gym (cos those guys are douches man !), as waxbanks says, it's some nostalgia filtered, partly film/TV inspired image of geeks/nerds which has never really been true, or at least not the whole truth (in my experience). Again, that's absolutely typical of people who're looking back, seeing the past through rose-coloured glasses and then drawing (IMO unjustified) conclusions about the present/future. Having listened to some of his stand-up i'm fairly sure Patton Oswalt is politically liberal (at least by US standards) but the essay's littered with small 'c' conservative attitudes and frankly, that's just what tends to happen when you get to a certain age.

And being a "really smart and funny guy" doesn't mean you're never wrong or never guilty of the same human failings as the rest of us or that anyone who disagrees with you isn't also smart or discerning. He's expressing his opinion (quite well IMO, flawed though I think it is) and we're expressing ours. Dismissing everyone who disagrees with him as somehow being less smart or discerning simply doesn't follow and has the same exclusive, self-congratulatory feel to it as the essay itself.

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