Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nerds nerds nerds

Inspired by some blog or other I read (they all sort of blur), I picked up a copy of Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd from the library. The book, unsurprisingly, offers a sort of history and cultural study of nerds. Though as my reading progressed, I lost some steam (I am not as interested in the minutiae of science fiction and video game nerds as some of you may be), on the whole the book offered much food for thought. (Not as much food for the stomach, but there are Cadbury eggs for that.)

I’d like to point out two parts of the book that were interesting to me. The first, near the book’s beginning, is Nugent’s broad historical look at the rise of the concept of the nerd. This has a couple of interesting components. First off, more or less turn-of-the-century WASPy America, fearing the influx of, among others, Jewish and Asian immigrants, wanted to make sure its homeboys could be strong against these groups’ perceived sissy-intellectual qualities. Rather than just study, good prep school boys had to learn to be men: to play sports, to protect their country from threats within and without. “I’m not sure I like boys who think too much,” said the founder of the Groton School, an early proponent of this type of thinking (if I may term it “thinking”). It’s interesting to me that schools could, in some ways, try to diminish the intellectual impact they have on students. (A surprising-to-me side note here is that physical education was not always a component of school—in fact, the first program was established in 1892.) I guess schools these days do say they focus on forming the whole person, not just academic study; coming from where I do, though, it is difficult to imagine an environment where study is not the primary objective. Still, ye olde alma mater is probably one of a couple of nerd capitals of the world, so you get what you pay for, I s'pose.

The history section was also interesting because it discussed the idea of a split between thinking and feeling. (In philosophy and what-all, I have heard too much about this, so will spare you the detail, except to say that many people believe there is one.) Whereas in Enlightenment days of yore, humanity was defined by reason (cogito ergo sum), by the time of our computerized age, it's increasingly defined as irrational, in opposition to machines. And so nerds, who are in some ways machinelike (obsessions, fondness of rules, difficulty in reading social cues), may be viewed somehow as less than human. Boo.

I should also mention that Nugent says there are two kinds of nerds, those who actually have those machiney characteristics, and those who get grouped in with the first set because they also don’t fit in for some reason or another, but may be quite different in other ways. I never feel quite like a nerd of the first variety (who are predominantly male, anyway); I suspect I’m one of the second. I would say I really don’t have that many nerd-like obsessions, though of course you may disagree with me. I'm certainly not into the gaming/sci-fi/debate ones that Nugent steps through later on in the book (though don’t ask me about the subway map or crosswords if you don’t want to hear some answers).

The other chapter that really got to me (and you as a regular reader of this blog will not be surprised) was the one about hipsters. Who Nugent basically describes as fake nerds—to hipsters, nerds are a sort of noble savage (“I’m so uncool I don’t care about trends”). Picking up the superficial characteristics of these strange beasts is attractive to hipsters, who tend to work in fields—internet, editing, design—where it’s important to be aware of current trends and to make people think you know what you’re talking about. (Particularly because a lot of this work is freelance and involves trading in on connections. Whew, don’t I know about that.) Dressing like a nerd is a way of acting like you are, weirdly, too cool to care about the trends you draw on to survive in this context. Though, of course, “nerd” becomes its own sort of trendy: as one TV programmer described it, “Nerds are really in right now.” This interest in nerdiness may come from what I’d call an admirable impulse; describing Napoleon Dynamite (a movie of which I’m not particularly fond, by the way), Nugent explains, “When the nerd [Napoleon] goes over the top into super-nerdy he makes everyone want to be more authentic and less judgmental. That shoot-the-moon play for social acceptance is what informs the quirky-nerd look when performed by self-conscious young hipsters. You’re a menace to social uniformity, in some unspecified fashion, through your natural and heedless iconoclasm.” If only. Too bad this sense of freedom and nonconformity pretty much falls to pieces as soon as you meet the darned creatures.

Nugent says he isn’t writing to condemn or to praise nerds—he wants to be unbiased, as someone who professes to be, basically, a former nerd. It’s interesting to read the book’s tiny last section, about Nugent’s own metamorphosis from nerd to not-nerd. It’s good to remember that, while nerds often suffer unfair ridicule, being a nerd does not necessarily make one a nicer, smarter, or better person. Alas.

(I don’t know what the rules are about citations these days—do blogs have rules? I know that they do when people offer you stuff to blog about them. no one offers me anything. grumble—but obviously all my quotations are from American Nerd, which is worth checking out! It's certainly more nuanced than my patchwork summary here.)


  1. What an excellent commentary (I love your description of hipster admiration for the nerd as a noble savage--totally stealing that for the next time that whole concept comes up--which it does a lot in my line of work).

    I am very fond of the blatant anxious masculinity on display at the turn of the (20th) century. [Less fond of its current iterations.] Lots of mandatory football playing, boys pretending to be 'savages' in order to evolve into civilized manhood, the Tarzan novels.

  2. The noble savage is also a quotation from Nugent, so give him the credit. I bet you would like the book, especially the historical parts. There was much talk of savages.