The Book About Geek Triumph You Probably Don’t Need

Neoliberalism offers the illusion of choice. The triumph of geek culture is an illusion of triumph; it's just another way to be bought—and to like it. A critique of A.D. Jameson's I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing.

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture
A.D. Jameson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 2018

A.D. Jameson‘s I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing is an unnecessary defense of geek culture, making the argument that geeks have triumphed over the media landscape and thus stuck it to the jocks and cheerleaders who mocked them in high school. Of course, you can already tell that “geek” has an implied identity hiding behind the glasses and pocket protectors: men who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s consuming a limited archive of media products in the science fiction and fantasy genres. This has always been the problem with the “geeks are a subculture” argument and defenses thereof. For one, it’s a subculture based almost entirely on the consumption of a specific set of media, and it’s assumed by those who talk about geek culture to be ahistorical, to have emerged in the ’80s and existed in the identity of those male teens in the same form ever since. This is most certainly not the case, and while geeks really did and do exist, they are neither static nor singular in their expressions of interests and the cultural works they tune in to.

To refer, then, to a triumph of geeks is a call to cement a set of cultural practices and fantasies that cannot easily be set into stone, even if author Jameson and many other self-proclaimed “geeks” think they know precisely what “geek” means. Moreover, Jameson’s book attempts to cast geeks as a disenfranchised people, using the metaphor of Marvel’s outcast mutant X-Men as a stand-in for the socially outcast geeks of youth. Imagining geeks as a disenfranchised population calques the language of activism to create “geek” as an identity along the lines of race and gender (and without acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of geekdom).

While other youth subcultures have certainly produced rhetorics of identity, none has been so adamant as the geek, which has used the success of science fiction and fantasy, as well as new media and the centrality of computer technology in daily life, to argue that the identity itself has finally had its comeuppance. And yet this so-called triumph of geekdom is also paired with a constant firing back by “real geeks” at the new or “fake geeks”, the people who (supposedly) didn’t really grow up loving Star Wars or Star Trek, who haven’t memorized the differences between AD&D and D&D 3.5, or who didn’t read comics until the Marvel movies conquered the silver screen.

Unsurprisingly, Jameson devotes plenty of space to lamenting critics like me who point all of this out, calling our critiques unfair and elitist examples of high culture’s inability to take geek culture seriously. Jameson’s introduction, for example, lays out how unfair journalists are to blockbuster science-fiction films, suggesting that criticism of films like Transformers or Avatar has nothing to do with the quality of those films and everything to do with a bias against the genre or against the blockbuster film itself. I don’t really need to spell this out: bullshit. Unfortunately, this discourse of geekdom collapses a range of complex factors circulating in the worlds of media production and reception, and ignores the fact that a film might indeed be, well, awful.

The argument Jameson puts forward asks for open-ended embrace of geek culture qua geek culture, and as a result seems to shut down legitimate criticisms since any such criticism can be called “anti-geek” and therefore deemed a product of brow bias, rather than a legitimate issue. While I don’t think Jameson means his argument this way, it’s this sort of thinking that has led to the triumph of the anti-diversity movement across many spheres of social media, where people decry criticisms about quality and diversity as unfair attempts by “fake geeks” to change the beloved properties they love. (See, for example, recent misogynist backlash against Netlfix’s revival of She-Ra and the Princess of Power.)

What Jameson’s book also ignores, and what might be more frustrating than its imagining of something like a static and stable geek culture that can “triumph”, is that the so-called triumph is nothing more than the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. As Jameson notes, transmedia brands like Star Wars—the titular case study of his book, which has been at the center of transmedia expansion and driven the reboot craze of the past half-decade—shot geek culture to its present heights of global popularity, being screened by folks in the hundreds of millions and raking in billions of dollars for the entertainment industry, easily the most profitable aspect of entertainment media next to sports like football, basketball, and soccer.

What Jameson is describing may indeed be science fiction and fantasy going big, but that also means that they are not a niche subcultural interest anymore. They never really were, if the growing global sales of all of these things, plus their easy recognizability since the ’30s, demonstrates. The only triumph here is that a profitable market was located and expanded, a market which once stood among a half-dozen others as the mainstay genres and audiences of blockbusters whittled down to an even smaller number of markets. These markets expanded across platforms that were themselves becoming pervasive because of the widespread use of digital technology, and decades worth of marketing and licensing deals to solidify certain franchises in the public mind succeeded.

This doesn’t bother Jameson, it’s just business as usual—and it benefited him, because he loved all of this stuff. So do I. I’ve edited books and journals on topics that belong to “geek culture” and made a career as a historian and critic of geeky things. But the whittling of the media landscape to fewer and larger properties is not a triumph, it’s a cultural and artistic disaster. To say so is not highbrow disgust directed at lowbrow culture; my life is lived in love and frustration with popular culture. To say this, rather, is to recognize that our freedoms as consumers of media (and more: how many shirts do you have that are franchise-licensed? How many other things in your life bear the imprint of Star Wars or Marvel? If you have a kid, how few of their clothing, toys, and accessories are not branded with a major media franchise?) are dwindling, that what we have to choose from is increasingly limited. Neoliberalism does not do choice well, despite the fantasy that the free market offers nothing but choice; neoliberalism offers the illusion of choice. The triumph of geek culture is an illusion of triumph; it’s just another way to be bought—and to like it.

Jameson’s I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing is full of geeky knowledge. So, if you like being reminded of what you already probably knew (see, for example, the pandering of Ready Player One, which parades references to make you feel in-the-know), then this book will at least offer you that. It’s argument is hardly unique, though Jameson’s emphasis on Star Wars as driving the “triumph” of geek culture is certainly an important one. This book will doubtless be well-received among the target audience, even though it adds very little to the critical conversations about anything covered in the book.

To be clear: I don’t think Jameson is unaware of these things; he’s written a target-perfect book that will please, interest, and sell. I understand that my own frustration with this book is not shared by everyone (Kirkus and The Washington Post have both praised it). But as a scholar of science fiction, fantasy, and transmedia who has written, among other things, on Star Wars, it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone except those interested in congratulating themselves for liking the things media companies spent billions of dollars for you to discover, fall in love with, and buy into.

Here’s to the triumph of geekdom, the motto of which seems to be: shut up and take our money.

RATING 3 / 10