Ratatouille, and nerd demi-god Patton Oswalt has written a fascinating piece for Wired about the rise of geek culture from the schoolyard fringes – kids quoting Monty Python and playing Dungeons & Dragons – to its present status as an all-encompassing cultural force. You see geek culture everywhere now, Oswalt notes: The relentless parade of superhero movies, the post-Lost vogue for detail-obsessed TV fandom, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” As you might guess from that quote, Oswalt’s less than joyful about geekery’s current mainstream dominance. “Everything we have today that’s cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past,” he notes. “Action figures, videogames, superhero movies, iPods: All are continuations of a love that wanted more.” Oswalt’s piece is hilarious and incredibly thoughtful, but his ultimate point is worth discussing: Has the internet-assisted rise of geek culture had a negative effect on pop culture? Certainly, Oswalt’s vision of the future sounds eerily possible: “One long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background.”Comedian, starring-voice-of-
Oswalt begins with an extended personal riff about his own youth as an otaku with an encyclopedic knowledge of Alan Moore comics, a more leisurely time before the Internet made The Lonely Geek extinct. So you could feasibly dismiss Oswalt’s piece as a typical elder rant: Things were better in the good ol’ days before modern technology has ruined everything, and also what’s the deal with these kids on their cell phones and the Twitter, am I right!?!?!
Certainly, Oswalt’s definition of “geek culture” is indefensibly vague: “The fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons,” he argues. “It’s the method of consumption, not what’s on the plate.” It almost seems a bit like what Oswalt is really arguing is that people talk too much about pop culture now – an interesting notion which sounds a bit hypocritical coming from someone who has made a career out of brilliantly talking too much about pop culture.
Still, Oswalt is definitely onto something. I collected every isue of The Mighty Thor for a decade, so I should feel ecstatic that the character is actually getting a kabillion-dollar movie. But I feel the opposite – it seems too good to be true. (It’s sort of like the Talking Heads song, “Once In a Lifetime”: “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, this is not a beautiful $200 million movie about a character who carries a big hammer.”) Oswalt’s tongue-in-cheek solution is to push geek culture into a semi-omniscent realm of dystopic minutiae: “Lists of the best lists of boobs… Goonies vs. Saw… The Human Centipede done with the cast of The Hills and directed by the Coen brothers.”
Oswalt envisions a singularity point at which geek culture burns itself out. But you could just as easily argue that, just as the auteurist film culture of the ’70s turned into the Stallone/Schwarzenegger steroid-pumped ’80s, the modern vogue of geekery will slowly fade into something else. (Jockery? Is that word?) What do you think, PopWatchers? Do you agree with Oswalt’s anxieties about geek culture in the mainstream? Would you rather play Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft?