Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Modernity, Fecudity, and Being a Competent Geek

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Not too long ago, I asked all you readers just what sort of geek I should be. (The answer, in case it wasn't apparent at the time, is looking very likely to be Star Trek, but that's besides the point.) Soon after that, I read this post by one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Burke, and as I thought about it as the weeks went by, it occurred to me: can I defend my being a geek? Is it something I can justify, or is there even any need to do that? Let me explain.

Tim and I have gone back and forth over some pretty heavy issues for a long time, and I've learned a great deal from him. The heart of our engagement with each others' ideas, however, cannot be mapped onto any partisan political map; rather, it boils down to this: we're both geeks--that is, we both have deep affection for all sorts of disparate elements of pop culture, with its comic books and movies and music and cartoons and so much more--and as such, we both are obliged to have (as all true geeks are obliged to have, whether they realize it or not) an opinion about the modern world, and more particularly about its forms of production and consumption. Our opinions about all that differ, and therein, I think, lays the source of most of our mutual challenges to each other.

Is "geekery" modern? Depending on how one uses the word, not necessarily: in the same way that one can argue that there were styles of music as far back as the 18th century that were clearly composed and performed in such a way as to qualify as "pop(ular) music" (Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, after all, is every bit as much a wonderfully catchy "pop" tune as anything the mid-period Beatles produced, the real only difference being that it was composed for a chamber ensemble rather than two guitars, a bass and some drums), one can similarly claim that the basic elements of geek-obsessions--the passionate devotion to the minutiae of some certain craft or sport or skill or work of art--have always been with us. But of course, that's probably pushing the word too far. For decades, until the postwar generation needed some new words to help establish social hierarchies in America's high schools, the only real use the term had was in conjunction with carnival freak shows. So mostly I would say it is late-modern capitalism, mass production and mass consumerism, the commodification and global diversification of the manufacturing of culture, that has enabled geekery--the word and the idea--to go mainstream, for ordinary people in their innumerable places to share in the obsessive pursuit of some idiosyncratic knowledge or experience. (Daniel Stern's character Laurence "Shrevie" Schreiber, in Barry Levison's wonderful film Diner, couldn't have become the compulsive memorizer of pop music that he was absent the invention of AM radio, the 45 record, and mass distribution of both.) Hence, geeks of all sorts today--and that certainly includes both Tim and I, and probably a good number of the readers of this post as well--are implicated in the modern world.

Tim mostly rejoices in that implication, and his mostly skeptical of the attempts to impose (from without or within) standards, limits, or controls (whether cultural, political, or moral) over the overflowing materiality of modernity. I'm more troubled by it, and much more anxious to see our thoroughly commodified, corporate-driven capitalist world brought back down to a place and a pace where terms like "local" and "authentic" cannot be so easily or so cynically merchandised. This doesn't mean that I'm distrustful of all the goods the market can bring us, not any more than it means that Tim rejects the idea of austerity and conservation and community outright. It's just that we see them quite differently. Here, allow me to quote from the post I mentioned above:

[The idea that] the material world around us is dense in objects and spectacle, that we have a sense of what I've called fecundity, is important to middle-class well-being....So much cultural creation in the 20th Century has come from a sense that the world around us is materially and socially crackling with possibility, even from a sense of its excess and superabundance, and of course also the starkness of the absence of abundance and wealth from so much of the global life of humanity in the same time....

Middle-class well-being in the United States in the last ten years has been increased far more by social production than it has the addition of new material goods. Wikipedia, for all its faults, makes life better and easier....[A]s social production rises, it supplements that sense that the world is fecund, full of wealth and possibility, it provides some of the well-being that material commodities also provide, and adds new kinds of well-being at the same time. In Norman Rockwell’s "Freedom From Want", it matters that the table is well-provided with silverware, that the home is safe and clean, and that there’s a big turkey on the platter, but at least some of the comfort and well-being in that scene is social and relational. Not everything that makes us feel wealthy and happy needs to involve the conversion of material resources into material objects.

At the same time, let’s not go skipping down the kumbaya path too far. It’s one thing...to look forward to an economy that aligns social production, creativity, knowledge creation, innovation and a leaner, more coherent vision of productivity. It’s another thing to think that this gets us to a mash-up Sunday-school/countercultural version of the thrifty good life where we all live in 9-foot square houses, wear burlap bags, eat Soylent Green supplemented by the modest vegetable garden on the roof of our huts, live in communitarian happiness with our neighbors while flitting about the virtual global village on our netbooks, while producing homebrewed mash-up music videos of our cats for posting to YouTube. At least some of the material culture that both attracts and vexes us is also a part of the Good Life and needs to remain so. It will and should continue to produce difference as well as connection, be haunted by inequality and attended by pleasure....

The prophets of thrift throughout the 20th Century were also always preachers on behalf of the intense disciplining of human subjectivity, to the management of time and the control of sensation and the rationalization of beauty, to a Taylorism of the soul. That we've given those thrifty, controlled disciplinarians up for their opposite numbers, a crazed frenzy of Dionysian racketeers who pretended to rationality while they engorged themselves, is a good sign that it’s time to rethink how and when we desire, to recognize the ways that social production enabled by innovative technologies have enriched us far more than SUVs or 4-bathroom suburban mansions. But it’s not a reason to stop wanting.


Anyone that can come up with a line like "a crazed frenzy of Dionysian racketeers who pretended to rationality while they engorged themselves" can't be too much of an opponent of an ethos of localism and limits, such as those good folks I blog along with at Front Porch Republic. But still, an opponent he is, because as much as he rightly observes that there has come along with late modernity a myriad of technologically-enabled forms of social production--Front Porch Republic itself, and the friendships and insights which the exchanges which it hosts makes possible, is certainly one such--that can and often do enrich and ground our lives in our diverse places, and thus make our local worlds better places to be, in the end he cannot separate one of the great socio-economic accomplishment of 20th-century America--"middle-class well-being," as he puts it--from a more general, more crass, more material fecundity. Moreover, he associates that particular kind of well-being with an individual liberty that--I think, at least--is actually counter-productive to the kind of supports and arrangements and associations that truly contribute to the sort of happiness (or the sort of bourgeois virtues, if you prefer) he celebrates. "Thrift," in his view, is haunted by a kind of rationalization and disciplinarianism, a conforming of human existence to the most easily mocked sort of vegetarian eco-conscious pious communalism. True, some of it has been. But most of it, I would insist, has not.

Perhaps the key dividing point here is Tim's tendency to look at the amply-provided table in the Norman Rockwell painting--and, by extension, though it is something he hints at only obliquely in this post, I would say also his own many and varied geek interests, his fascination and learned appreciation for the popular as a source of entertainment and diversion and wonder--I see it as a representation of "luxury." That food--and probably also his various idiosyncratic and obsessive delights, so many of which I share--are sumptuous and ephemeral; they partake, in the oldest meaning of the word "luxury," of something lustful, something that gratifies but does not satisfy, something that you fancy but which does not fulfill. And here, at this very deep level, perhaps we see the essential connection between the "deadly vices," between consumption both sexual and economic, which Patrick Deneen wrote wisely about a few weeks ago. If one allows that the pursuit of self-interest and gratification as probably an acceptable--indeed, depending on how one reads The Federalist Papers, perhaps even a politically necessary--element of modern life, and if you understand those interests and those gratifying pleasures to be, in essence, a species of lust...well then, surely, the voice that calls for limits and local restrictions and standards of appropriateness is only echoing Dana Carvey's old Church Lady routine, right?

Perhaps I exaggerate; very likely Tim could respond that I am conflating too many categories here, and that defending an interest in, say, Star Trek is not the same as defending an interest in fine dining (and the occasional overeating which goes with it), and that neither is the same as defending rampant economic expansion and sexual experimentation. And, of course, he's correct: those aren't at all the same. But if they aren't, why associate "middle class well-being" and "the Good Life" with an image of luxurious fecundity, a conception of materiality that involves "difference as well as connection," one that is "haunted by inequality" as well as "attended by pleasure," at all? Perhaps because we're fallen creatures, and that any attempt build something lasting in this mortal sphere will invariably also produce byproducts and excess? That would be a good answer, but it's a religious one, and generally defenders of liberal modern materiality don't care much to go there. So I have a better answer: maybe the diversions and excellencies of modern productivity need not have anything to do with actual luxury at all: maybe they should be distinguished from such, and instead be labeled what Christopher Lasch called them: "competencies." As he put it towards the end of The True and Only Heaven:

Those who believed in progress were impressed by the technological conquest of scarcity and the collective control over nature that seemed to be inherent in the productive machinery of modern societies. Abundance, they believed, would eventually give everyone access to leisure, cultivation, refinement--advantages formerly restricted to the wealthy. Luxury for all: such was the noble dream of progress. Populists, on the other hand, regarded a competence, as they would have called it--a piece of earth, a small shop, a useful calling--as a more reasonable as well as a more worthy ambition. "Competence" had rich moral overtones; it referred to the livelihood conferred by property but also to the skills required to maintain it. The ideal of universal proprietorship embodied a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodied a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life. The progressive conception of history implied a society of supremely cultivated consumers; the populist conception, a whole world of heroes. (Norton 1991, pgs. 530-531)

Might it be that the grandfatherly figure looking down at the bounty which his wife is placing before the hungry and happy ones assembled around the table is not ruminating upon the luxury that is theirs, but rather upon the competency--the work, the stewardship, the regular attending to daily life--which allowed that bounty to be present in the first place? Such competency could have been honed and expressed on the farm, but perhaps it was found in the office building, on the construction site, in the classroom and teachers' lounge, at the power plant, in a hundred other places. Such competency--and the "middle-class well-being" that it sustains--would not, above all, have necessarily depended, even in an abstract and unconscious way, upon an assumption of limitless fecundity, the "sense of [modernity's] excess and superabundance"; rather, it could just as easily--and probably much more likely--had arisen through an engagement with a vocation, the enjoyment of the responsibilities of proprietorship. That engagement and enjoyment is the heart of the Good Life, a good life which makes room for innumerable little pleasures along the way.

The notion of being a "competent" geek is on its face silly, of course; almost by definition, the sort of practices and skills and arenas of knowledge upon which someone can build a "competence" that will sustain and satisfy them will almost never include those collectible, popular, ephemeral, idiosyncratic things (television shows, baseball scores, radio programs, Boy Scout merit badges, train schedules, comparative marginal tax rates, etc.) upon which modern life allows one to specialize. And yet, perhaps it would be better for geeks such as myself to think about just such questions of competency. All story-telling, all appreciation of good work, all acts of world-creation and social interaction, are forms of "production" that are blessings which modern freedoms and modern opportunities make available to us: Tim certainly has that much correct. Maybe it would be better to not give him any more ground than that, however; maybe it would be well to eschew any unintentional and however reluctant acceptance of my creative life as a participant in the self-interested pursuit of luxury, and instead see how many of my own passions expand and contribute to--or at least reflect back--an authentic competency, a study and work that I and others are a part of.

Modernity has had consequences good and bad, and some upon which the judgment is not yet final. The fecundity and diversity and complexity of modern life is one of those. For the most part, I find it worth retreating from, or at least seeking ways to make it more simple. But simplicity need not be a denial of opportunity; it may merely be an insistence upon seeing it with different eyes, seeing it first in light of the many communities of production and exchange (often local, often specialized, and almost always--at least if my experience of attending fan conventions are any indication--rather humble in their understanding of the ground upon which they necessarily stand) which it adds to and rebounds from, and not first and foremost as a possession of the individual who buys and consumes it. Or at least so I think, as I work on my garden, grade end-of-semester papers, teach my Sunday School class, and wait for May 7th to arrive.

2 comments:

Camassia said...

I am reminded of a recent post my friend Wess wrote about fandoms, arguing that they are a means by which people go from being isolated consumers to collective producers (http://gatheringinlight.com/2009/03/10/fan-culture-and-virtual-communities/). I think this indicates that it matters not just whether you're a geek, but how you're a geek; it can be a passive form of escapism, but it can also be a vehicle for friendships, creativity, and even careers (lots of scientists and engineers started as sci-fi fans, after all).

At the same time, though I may be misunderstanding Lasch here, I wouldn't pit consumerism against competence and blame only the former for our current mess. An overweening sense of competence in the financial arena was also partly responsible; one of the recurring features of bubbles is that everybody thinks they can play stocks or real estate or whatever's hot at the moment, when really they don't know what they're doing. (Iceland is a good recent example of this.) I also suspect that the desire to be master of one's house created the political pressure that loosened the mortgage business to the point of bankruptcy. Clearly, there's something in the American psyche that values homeownership above and beyond its material benefits.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Camassia,

I think this indicates that it matters not just whether you're a geek, but how you're a geek; it can be a passive form of escapism, but it can also be a vehicle for friendships, creativity, and even careers (lots of scientists and engineers started as sci-fi fans, after all).Excellent thought, there (and an excellent link to your friend's comments--thanks!). I kind of tried to sum up this point and connect it to what the rest of the post was doing in this addendum I posted at Front Porch Republic:

If there is a relatively brief upshot from my post in connection with your observation above, it might be this: yes, being able to “geek out” over whatever it is which catches your fancy invites you into a community of fellow fanciers–an “imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, but nonetheless, a community of shared understandings and activities. There will be an effort to draw close to fellow members of that community, spatially and materially, and mass production and modern technology do make said associations possible. Will they replace the localities that should ground us in virtue, or will they “merely” complement the competencies which we ought to be striving to build and maintain? Tim–though I admit this reading of him may be unfair–would probably insist that there will unavoidably be a bit of replacement involved, because the pursuit of any kind of luxury or excess emphasized individual appetite and acquisition over the discipline of a place or group. I disagree: I choose to believe–and I think I can argue persuasively on behalf of the belief–that the delights of modernity need not force us into distinguishing ourselves, and our chosen “herd,” from those localities and communities and proprietorships we are and should be organically connected to.As for your other point, I think you and Lasch are using "competence" in different ways; he was employing a somewhat archaic definition of the term which revolved around notions of sufficiency, rather than a sense of personal accomplishment. But your observation about the "desire to be master of one's own house" being a contributor to the mortgage mess is a very relevant one, and something which those of us disposed to put a lot of emphasis on "proprietorship" need to think about.