Image by Courtney Nicholas
What is a nerd? Are nerds the new cool? That’s what people have been asking ever since video games started making more money than movies. But the reality of nerds is much different than how the media portrays it, as evidenced by American Nerd: The Story of My People. In the book, author Benjamin Nugent explores his own childhood of Dungeons & Dragons, video games, awkward interactions in the schoolyard, and confrontations with jocks to get to the bottom of nerdhood.
Nugent’s thesis is that nerds tend to resemble computers, meaning they are more comfortable with rules and systems they can depend on rather than tacit cues that transpire during social interactions between people. There is even a chapter that compares the general attributes of nerds with those of people with Asperger’s syndrome: an inability to understand body language and facial expressions, odd ticks, awkward behavior, a dependence on predefined conditions, etc.
The schoolyard, where the jocks are usually the most popular, is many times where nerdom is defined. This is the cult of the physical—the cult of sports—which is the cult of the primitive. When the American rural landscape shifted into clusters around cities, and the agrarian world gave way to the industrial world, there was a need for independence from the machinelike routines of the factory. Sports were a way to create spheres in which men could compete and prove their superiority to one another, even if their work lives were full of subjugation.
If the dichotomy of jocks versus nerds is the physical versus the mental, then are nerds the new cool in this information age when every teen worth his or her salt is social-network friendly? Of course we still revere and pay big money for our sports, but this seems a somewhat conservative obsession, a preoccupation with the earthly when we are already in a world that is posthuman. We spend half our days, half our lives, looking at screens, hooked up to the digital realm—the realm of the nerds.
One thing about high school that I realized after I was no longer in school was how much it resembled a gladiator’s arena. Unless you go to a specialized school where everyone is there because they want to learn a specific thing or in a specific way, you are more or less thrown into a pit with a bunch of people who often share little in common, other than age and hometown. I went to a very good public school, and although we didn’t practice hagiography on our athletes to the point that mothers were maiming rival daughters to ensure their daughters a place on the cheerleading squad, we came pretty close. Our basketball team won the state championship in ’93, and hell, Jeremy Lin attended my school (Palo Alto High School) a decade after me.
Jocks have all the confidence because they are the most visibly successful. Young creative types, or young scholars usually don’t have much to show for their labors as teenagers, and if they do, it is not as flashy as strutting across the playing field in front of the entire school.
If nerds can’t compete in the social scenes of the high school halls or weekend parties because they don’t understand the rules of such interactions, or don’t have the social capital to make any inroads with people of the opposite sex, it is no wonder that they escape to worlds of fantasy where rules are strictly codified: role-playing games, video games, television shows, etc. In such fantasies the outcasts who can’t compete in reality can engage in worlds where the playing field is evened; everyone is an avatar. Instead of living the reality of a five-foot-tall shrimp, you can suddenly transform into an alien-blasting warrior from the future with a gun as phallic as Michael Fassbender, or you can be an Orc-smashing warrior with the stature of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and it’s all by the role of the die. These are enterprises with clear rules that can't or won’t be changed, unlike the social world where everything is relative and missed cues or false moves can leave one at the bottom of the popular ladder.
But doesn’t everyone play video games now? Isn’t everyone on a social network? And is the rise of the hipster actually the rise of the nerd? Hipsters, at least some kinds of hipsters, are defined by their love and pursuit of retro activities: old trends, old music, old movies, old art. This retreat to a former age is a way to pull out of the competitive race of the present. It is a way to say, “I don’t want to have to keep up with all the trends. I accept my uncoolness as cool. I have something I can depend on because it’s from the past and I’m not buying into mass-market trends.” So who, exactly, are the nerds now? The ones blazing the trail of new technology? The ones checking out and forming new subcultures of fantasy? In a world where everyone has an avatar on Facebook, what is now fantasy and what is real? We do all live with simulacra and the jocks who play local games on a field for friends and parents seem small compared with the worldwide competitions between World of Warcraft players on the international web.
There is also a racist underbelly to the jock-nerd dynamic that I don’t want to get into too much. All I’ll say is that the way that humanity is defined is in contrast either to animals (i.e., we have more intelligence and choice) or computers (i.e, we have more emotions and spontaneity) serves the purpose of maintaining Caucasian superiority. Even if the nerdy Jews or Asians clearly pave the way for the future of human interaction and existence, they will still be seen as socially inept in one way or another, because when the white race—the heteronormative race—sees itself lacking in one way or another, it will just shift the lens of perception so that it can both denigrate the competition and gain materially from the work of others.
More James Franco from VICE: