Fredrik deBoer on the phony populism of geek culture:
We’re not even talking about, like, you should try a black and white movie sometime. We’re talking about Rembrandt. Let me ask you, denizens of the internet: are you finding it difficult, these days, to get away from that constant pressure to appreciate Rembrandt? Do you find yourselves deluged under all of the Rembrandt coverage online? Do you feel left out by the constant in-depth conversations about Rembrandt on Twitter? Are you getting a little tired of all those Rembrandt-based memes and reference humor? Does your daily browsing experience involve constantly having to click away from heavy-handed Rembrandt coverage, frustrated with the endless stream of bloggers and aggregators, taking advantage of the latest Rembrandt-related fads? That Rembrandt clickbait! So incorrigible! I mean, lord knows, video games are currently a purely niche aspect of our culture, one that you barely hear about in journalism and commentary, which totally aren’t economically dominant or critically ascendant. Rembrandt, on the other hand. That’s the gravy train.
Take it from someone in the actual higher education system: there is way, way more video games in academia now than Rembrandt. I like video games fine, I really do. But if I didn’t, I could not function in the contemporary humanities. To the degree that any subject can be hot in the humanities under current labor conditions, video games are as hot as it gets. They’re getting job lines and conferences and special issues of journals. And in the way this dynamic always goes, there’s still this persistent notion that video game people are disrespected. It’s the same old two step: “my preference for geek art and media puts me at the heart of the culture and the economic engine that exists to serve it, but I still don’t feel respected, so therefore I’m oppressed and you have to put up with all of my bad behavior.” And as this gentleman is once again demonstrating, facts simply have no bearing whatsoever on this dynamic. It doesn’t matter how ignored and marginal the “high culture” you deride is, or how ludicrously praised and popular the “low culture” you celebrate is. You always get to posture as the underdog, and to treat being the underdog as a get-out-of-jail-free card for acting like a jerk.
deBoer is correct, and not just about this. Hell, I don’t like video games at all; I didn’t even like them when I was a kid and played them for peer pressure’s sake. Lucky for me, I do really like comics, another hot commodity in today’s academe. Given that, I am able to weather the pop culture storm, even though I would, candidly speaking, mostly prefer to address both my criticism and my pedagogy to literature.
There is a solution to this whole cultural crisis, which is the understanding (cf. Leslie Fiedler and Scott McCloud*) that high and low culture share a method (formalism) and an enemy (the middlebrow) and so should fight together. Such a realization even has the potential to resolve the ideological conflicts around something like, dare I say it (I don’t), g——gate: with the wider dissemination of a radical politics outside the ever-more-grotesque middle-class moralism promulgated absurdly under the rubric of “social justice,” a term culturally appropriated, ironically enough, by puritan-statists from us anti-capitalist and anti-socialist Catholic wops. When I was in college, all my left-wing professors, whether male or female, were sixties people who unremittingly mocked political correctness; that generation is now aging out of command and the rising generation seems to be made entirely of pulpit-pounding technocrats, a seeming oxymoron that is the worst of all American archetypes (a German cultural inheritance, vulgate Hegelianism, nein?). I can’t wait until I am old, when their children turn on them, and I will play pied piper, like Burroughs and Genet strolling among the hippies. No, no, don’t worry, I am really not cool enough for that; I am much more of an Eliot than a Burroughs, in the end, though I am just a petit-bourgeois and not decaying old money as both of those strange men were.
What is actually ongoing now, what deBoer notices, is the gentrification, hence middlebrowization, of low culture in its present form (TV, comics, video games); if they were not being tamed, how could they end up on all the trigger-warninged syllabi and glossy-mag best-of-the-year lists? That low culture’s proponents present themselves as victims is the sign of this mainstreaming, for America is a victimology, a culture that began in revolt against real and fancied oppressors when the Puritans fled the official churches. The pilgrims’ struggle continues even today, one hashtag at a time, despite the fact that they and their successors would not recognize each other as partners in a shared struggle for a New Jerusalem on a hill. Anyway, low culture and high culture are rarely self-pitying in this way: they center around works that boldly seize the place of (aesthetic) power and so belie any claims to victimization that might be made on their behalf. So, if comics and video games have become a den of complainers, there must be some other vital source of unconstructed aestheticized social energy out there for the next wave of modernist experimentation in high art to pick up. But where is it?
*My little essay on McCloud contains all the misgivings I have about the opinions I’ve voiced above, for those devotees of ambivalence, moderation, and the inner dialectic. I have my anarchist side and my civic-republican side, possibly reconcilable as some kind of Tory anarchism, and then again possibly not reconcilable. I trust everyone has a similar conflict within themselves between their desire for freedom and their desire for order. This is to be expected because life is life; problems begin when people deny that they are so conflicted and seek to impose their false solution to this insoluble problem on the rest of us, whereas what we need is not an ultimate answer but rather grace in the midst of incertitude, or, as I prefer to call it, art.