Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hallelujah to the coming pop-cultural cataclysm!

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
[Author's note: For those handful of people who get e-mail notifications when I post, I apologize for flooding your inbox today. I was sans laptop, deliberately, for two weeks over our Christmas break in the Midwest and I'm obviously releasing some pent-up blogual tension. This is the last one today, I promise. And a heads-up which is, for me, now in hindsight: I seem to be suffering from an alliterative tic in this post, especially involving the letter "c."]

Comedian and soon-to-be (as in tomorrow) author, Patton Oswalt, has a simply superb article up on Wired's website, which I heartily commend to conscious and critical culture-consumers: Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die

The hilarious video embedded in the article is a great summary of his observations and arguments, which revolve around geek culture becoming mainstream over the past 25 years and now its being hyper-distributed since the Internet's inception, maturation, and proliferation. Check it out:

The closing stanza is a triumph:
What the hell were we thinking? We've gotta rebuild this.
We've gotta be careful. You gotta have solid foundations.
You can't throw zombies and sexy vampires into everything.
Even though it seems like it's going to be a delicious breakfast just can't do it.
We're gonna do it right this time. ...Oh god, I need a gummie bear.
I appreciate how Oswalt situates himself at the start of the article. He's ten years older than me and so was going through 80s nerd culture as a young adult while I was a child and early teenager. While we were engaging with some of the same cultural artifacts and practices (comic books, video games), his more seasoned perspective is instructive. His nerd world in Northern Virginia (which always means "the D.C. area" and not, say, Winchester) seems to have had a more social dimension, too, whereas the small Iowa town in which I grew up in the 80s contained only a very small and loose-knit crew. In my class it was only me and my friend, Jason, who I would think of as "nerds." There was another kid who skirted the darker side of nerdery, carrying around a copy of the Anarchist's Cookbook on a floppy disk (gasp!), and I cautiously interacted with him on some matters. Later in high school, I would work with this guy at the local computer shop, where we would smoke cigarettes, fix computers, and play networked games of Duke Nukem on the coax-based LAN while our boss was out on service calls (sorry, Paul). This was the mid-90s and in that town we still felt pretty countercultural.

So, excepting my rural community, Oswalt marks the late 80s as the moment when nerd culture emerged from its dark room and insider circles and began its creep into the mainstream, plodding through the 90s before being accelerated significantly with the emergence of the Internet. Now with 2010 just behind us, he points to the emergence of a startling new cultural reality: Etewaf, or Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever. All the pop-culture you could ever want, right now, in its pure or parodied forms, delivered to a dizzying array of personal devices. In effect, we're all nerds now and are able to keep watch over our pet nerd projects ad nauseum on blogs (look at me!), Facebook, Twitter, et al, ad infinitum.

Oswalt is wise to point out that our constant turbo state of connected consumerism is the grounds for weak culture creation [insert warning to non-culture-critical Christians here], cranking out endless derivatives and mashups, as well as artists who are mediocre at best. His solution? To accelerate Etewaf in order to bring about the implosion of pop-culture on a Revelation-like scale, letting the dust settle and have pop-culture be reborn. A pop-culture that would suddenly and briefly be self-ware and self-producing...and then: Bamf! Gone. Scattered to the far reaches of space, leaving only sparse remnants on which to start over.

I do wonder, though, what are Oswalt's "stronger foundations" for what comes next? And does his critique go deep enough?

Oswalt hints at the capitalist/consumerist basis for all of this in a somewhat critical way, but I would push that dimension a bit farther out were I writing the article (which I couldn't because I'm not nearly that smart or funny).  It would also be worthwhile to further explore the effects of this cultural landscape on the experience of community. It seems like Oswalt has a certain nostalgia for the "thought-palaces" that took actual work, i.e. extended periods of time, patience, and community. Now you can be an expert with a few quick searches and links in your posts. His impulse is right, I think; being an "expert" is far too easy in the digital age. Indeed, expertise is a largely joke on the radically available and democratic web. (The cream does rise to the top on the web, but the signal-to-noise ratio is terrible and doesn't show any signs of improving. (Apologies for mixing metaphors.)) Oswalt's hopeful argument for the post-apocalyptic cultural future is scant on details for reinstating a stronger sense of community and a skilled cultural craftsmanship.

Granted, these criticisms aren't aimed at Oswalt or his excellent article, but if his observations are to be taken seriously, adapted, and contextualized, they need some critical meat. It's work that I'd be happy to do at some point...

(via Inhabitatio Dei)

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