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What is geek culture’s big problem with criticism?

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I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.

“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”

Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.

The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.

Jean Baudrillard's classic Simulacra and Simulation.
Jean Baudrillard’s classic Simulacra and Simulation.

Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.

The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.

“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”

Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.

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Very angry.

When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.

The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.

You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.

But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.

Coming soon in “Geek Culture”: A Meditation on the Male Chest. You can help make this essay happen by becoming a backer.