Geek Fire (with discussion questions)
“The thesis is quite simple,” said Charles G. Anorak one late winter afternoon at Café Zembla to a small coterie of fellow coffeehouse philosophers. “The Geek is the most socially successful Nerd, and the Dork lies in the middle of the continuum between the social adroitness of the Geek and the social maladroitness of the Nerd.” Anorak held one pudgy finger aloft as he spoke, as if explaining the world to innocents, and a casual glance at him confirmed that he likely knew what he was talking about: threadbare blue blazer, hideous green and black tie askew at the neck, beige polyester pants and a pair white Adidas sneakers, curly, unkempt red hair and plastic frame glasses that surmounted a slightly piggy nose. Add the spark of intelligence and enthusiasm behind those lenses and most people would instantly assume that Anorak was, in fact, a nerd.
Or was he a geek? Anorak could often be found holding court at the café, always engaged in excited discourses with other students, artists, bohemians, drifters, crackpots, slumming professionals, and—there seemed to be no other word for it—nerds. Anorak, who dominated these klatches with obvious charisma, didn’t seem to be socially challenged in the slightest, despite his hopeless wardrobe. On the day he put forth his Geek-Dork-Nerd theory, it was clear that the time for a clearer distinction in categories and definition of terms had come, and I pulled up a chair amidst the half-dozen regulars gathered around one of the café’s chipped and stained white marble tables. The smell of stale coffee and lingering clove cigarette smoke competed with Anorak as he warmed to his subject.
“It’s a progression, you see,” said Anorak. “Everyone starts out as a Nerd, usually in junior high school, and either progresses through Dorkdom in high school towards Geekdom or alas remains trapped as a Nerd well into adulthood.”
“Wait,” said Scott, a stage manager and would-be comic book writer, “what are we talking about when we say ‘nerd’? Are we just talking about sci-fi and fantasy fans, or computer club kids, or what?”
Again, Anorak held up the finger, smiling. “I’ve thought carefully about this. For someone to be a Nerd, Dork or Geek, three characteristics must be exhibited. One, they must be intelligent: an intelligence leaning toward braininess. Two, they must be obsessed about things that mainstream society cares little for.”
“So a sports geek isn’t a true geek,” interjected Alex, a thin, tattooed man who might have passed for a hipster were it not for his love of role-playing games.
“Precisely,” Anorak agreed. “Competitive sports are obviously a mainstream concern. Only if someone was into some ridiculously obscure sport, like curling, might they fit the description. Which brings us to the crucial third characteristic: They must be considered a misfit by the larger society, someone to be derided and ostracized. All three characteristics must be in place in order for someone to be a Nerd, Dork or Geek.”
“I’m not buying the distinction you’re making, though,” said Josh, a web designer whose girth approached that of Anorak’s but whose aesthetic was more Goth biker: leather jacket, greasy hair dyed the color of jet. “Society uses words like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ interchangeably. They all mean the same thing.”
Anorak shook his head patiently. “They used to be interchangeable. But with the rise of the Internet and the ascendance of computer technology, ‘geek’ became cool. Geeks discovered not only money, a huge factor in their socialization, but the only thing that’s possibly more powerful than money: fashion. As society began to accept their undeniable technical and financial prowess—the creation of ‘geek chic’—they began to recognize and embrace society’s rules and conventions. They started dressing well, they got girlfriends or boyfriends, and they began to gloss over their obsessions. The Geek still has his geek tendencies inside him, but he doesn’t wear them on his sleeve. He understands that the fact he has a whole room in his house dedicated to Star Trek memorabilia is not the sort of information you volunteer on the first date.”
“Further,” Anorak continued, “the Geek to some degree grows up. He’s more integrated with others, less self-absorbed, less infantile. He turns his intelligence and obsessions—whether they’re in computers or the arts—into a career. This is in contrast to the Nerd, who remains despised because the Nerd never understands any of this. The Nerd never becomes fully socialized, never understands good hygiene or the opposite sex or the simple truth that people who don’t care about Babylon 5 or animation software are not enemies to be held in contempt. The Nerd becomes a megalomaniac or a dope; either defiantly self-conscious about their despised social status or utterly unaware that they’re completely clueless. Either way, they are a prisoner of their inability to transform into the Geek, and nowadays I believe most people make the distinction when they use the epithet.”
Anorak was on to something. As the writer Sandy Starr put it in an essay about the success of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, “The word ‘geek’ has… lost its stigma, having been promoted from a noun to a verb, as in to ‘geek out.’ If you want to insult somebody today for being obsessive about fantasy or sci-fi, you have to resort to calling them a ‘nerd,’ which in polite society has become almost tantamount to using a racist slur.” For the word ‘geek’ to move from describing a carnival performer who bit the head off of chickens to a person who was brainy but socially inept to a person who was admired for their stock options and devotion to Japanese anime is an odd seismic shift in the cultural language. But there was something about Anorak’s formulation that was bothering me.
“Okay,” said Scott, “I can see all that. But where does Dork fit into this?”
“Ah,” said Anorak with a smile that told how this was his own little contribution, “the Dork is the transitional stage. Not necessarily transitional, I remind you—someone can become a Dork and stay there. The Dork is the Nerd who has gotten a little bit of a clue. He no longer dresses quite so badly, he can socialize, etc. But he still geeks out at inappropriate moments, either about his obsessions or just by making general social faux pas. The Dork is likely never going to momentarily fool someone into thinking he’s not a Geek, but he’s also not going to necessarily be labeled a hopeless Nerd by mainstream society. There’s affection for the Dork, whereas there’s currently love for the Geek and old-fashioned disdain for the Nerd.”
“Ah,” said Scott, nodding. “I see.” He turned to Josh and peered over his glasses, fixing him with a mock penetrating look. “Dork city,” he declared.
“Oh, please,” replied Josh. “I was popular in high school and had a girlfriend. Freak with Geek tendencies.”
With that exchange, the table erupted in a frenzy of classification of friends, family and the famous into Anorak’s categories. But the very act of such classification—Anorak’s whole new delineation of the usage of those labels—was itself a thoroughly ‘geeked out’ enterprise, one that only a table full of nerds or social scientists (often the same thing) would bother to engaged in. It struck me as a desperate but understandable attempt to lift that nerd stigma into the exalted and elusive realm of cool. It was anecdotal rather than empirical. But then the best theories defy empirical thinking: they exist to spark a discourse. Or, in this case, to justify a desirable re-invention of social identity while conveniently reinforcing the pecking order within the sub-culture itself.
I couldn’t hold back any longer. “You know,” I said to Anorak, “By those definitions, you yourself strike me as a Nerd. Though I’m merely an acquaintance, I recall that you live with your mother and spend most of your time here at the cafe discussing the relative merits of the various actors who’ve played James Bond.”
There was a pause, and an intake of breath around the table, but Anorak’s eyes still shone brightly in spite of my impertinence, and he took no offense. “True enough,” he replied. “But there’s one last type of Geek-Dork-Nerd that I did not elucidate, because of its rarity.” He paused, and with a theatrical gesture slowly placed his finger in the air. “There is the Nerd so brilliant and charismatic that he becomes his own center of gravity, and all social distinctions are meaningless as everyone, from every part of society, orbits him like spy satellites gathering intelligence that they could not obtain in any other way.”
There was a silence around the table, and not a few smirks, but whether they were in deferential awe, or the signs of a suppressed wave of laughter, was impossible to tell. Perhaps, in true geek chic fashion, they were both.
1) Does Anorak’s schemata ring true? Is there a geek hierarchy, or does the ontological marginalization of individuals under Late Capitalism remove them from such culturally hegemonic structures?
2) Anorak posits the existence of a super-nerd. Doesn’t observation of such a nerd render him no longer a nerd? Can the nerd be simultaneously cool and uncool before the observer opens the box?
3) What is the viewpoint of the narrator? Where does he fit into the schemata? Is he unreliable? Would you buy a used comic book from him?