Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nerd Bullies and Cyborgs

I get so many book catalogs in the mail thanks to my semi-pointless student membership in the MLA. Some of them tease me with books I'd really like to read, if I could afford them -- books on everything from the love lives of obscure philosophers, to King Arthur mythology, to life in poor, rural America. Some of these things might sound silly, or maybe snobby to you. But I thoroughly enjoy these topics and I thoroughly enjoy imagining reading these books about them.

You can bet there are so many more books in the catalogs that I think sound silly and snobby and even what I'd call academy-trendy. I can't figure out if they make me cringe so much just because they are on subjects I don't personally enjoy, or at least subjects I don't wax scholarly on, or if the "ad copy" promoting the books is just so pretentious, or if it's because the titles of the books themselves drip with "isn't this relevant?" -ness. In short, I feel like I am reading a catalog of parody summaries of parody books (complete with parody reviews) put out by The Onion.

Some of them I keep by the bed to read for laughs at night. The way some of them make me laugh but then just a little angry at the same time, I think I might be becoming some kind of academic bully. Ralph from The Simpsons, if he made it to grad school. I'm a nerd, but I have to pick on the nerdier nerds. "HA ha! You said diASSpora!"

I just picked up a catalog from the bed pile. University of Minnesota's "Cultural Studies" catalog. As a former art-school-girl I'm partial to the pages on Duchamp, film studies, architecture...but there is a very painful media studies section that for my comfort takes pop culture and technology far too seriously. I mean, I understand why we study media and technology, but it looks funny when it's backed up to a page of all-Lyotard books. I get all excited about French philosophy and then "wham!" a centerfold of nerd culture. I admit this media page spread simply falls under the category of "not my taste." I don't plan on reading any scholarly works on gaming culture or superheroes anytime soon, and I won't scoff at someone who might. But I can't promise I won't try to give him a swirly. In the girls' bathroom. It might be sexist of me to say so, but I think mostly men read these books: Biomedia, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, etc.

Then follows several pages of film studies ending with an entire page dedicated to Derek Jarman. A review of one book on him is glowing and wordy: "...his rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship and lucid, perceptive writing are inextricable from his passionate personal engagement from one of the most influential and charismatic European artists of the latter third of the twentieth century." That's a lot of adjectives, and that's the first time I've had to consider "the latter third." He probably could have just said "He writes really great, and you can tell he really likes the really great guy he writes about." The review is so specific and at the same time generic. The reviewer probably keeps a notebook of verbose stuff that just hits him (or he steals) at dinner parties or while sitting in a bar, and when he is called upon for a blurb he can piece the praise-phrases together to make myriad reviews befitting any literary occasion.

On the Dada and avante-garde page there is a little treat about which I have mixed and giggly feelings -- I love Dada, and some nerd went and mixed it with science! They sullied it up with robots. The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, it's called. "Finding the cyborg in early twentieth century art," is what it's about. Ok...Futurism, Hannah Hoch's men with factory-machine parts, the kitchen appliance creatures on the large glass, the semi-robotic Woman Descending a Staircase... I see why they see the cyborgs. But what of it? What do you do when you "find" them? "Coooool! Cyborgs!!!" I wonder if I wonder enough to read the book and find out. My interest is disturbingly piqued, and it gives me that sick tickly feeling in my stomach, like when someone won't stop doing something annoying yet slightly endearing. And then you have to punch them.

Here's a funny one. For a book on how French theorists changed American thought (aptly titled How Foucault, Derrida, Deluze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States) there is a review from an expert on the subject: "A remarkable book in every respect." --Jacques Derrida. He would like a book on himself wouldn't he? Old coot.

There is one spread labeled "literary criticism." A couple of the books are actually about literature. One of those is on science fiction. The rest are about linguistics, travel writing...they tried.

I probably don't need to mention the sick feeling I get from all the titles containing slashes, commas, and colons, and endless uses of trendy gerund words like finding, recovering, reconstructing, queering, and best of all this whole title of them: Firsting and Lasting. They're kidding right? Like when that Facebook dissertation quiz tells me my topic should be "Othering the Others: A Metaphorology of South Park." These titles are no less ridiculous! Best title in here: Manhood Factories. There's nothing funny or stupid about the book itself.

Now it was probably wrong to pick on Minnesota, but I don't have any real doozies in my pile right now. There is a Dutch catalog that's somehow even worse. And I trusted the Dutch! Tons of lit crit, but every title initiates instant gag reflex. Sometimes I think the books can't even be real -- they're just doing this to get to me. I hope I get another one soon so I can post its goodies here. I probably burned the last one, or tore it to shreds in a fit.

That Dutchy catalog also has French language books, and the summaries are in French. That makes sense, and of course I feel cool as shit when I can read them...but it also feels like it might be another level of alienation for some would-be readers.

So, why do these things make me sick and happy at the same time? In a way I'm glad people think about all this stuff. No one person can think about all of it. That part is pretty cool. What's uncool is the latching onto title trends, vocabulary trends, using pompous language in a summary or a review, publishing on trendy topics just because of the market segment they might command (scholarly publishing might be part of academia, but it's still an industry!). I don't like the way it's all so professionalized. That's the stuff I actually have a problem with. That's the stuff that really needs to be parodied.

The stuff I don't have a real problem with (like the Dada Cyborgs) but that gives me the tickly yuckies is partly the nerd bully coming out. I guess the things I like, while nerdy, have been liked in academia for long enough that they are the tough guys there. Avante-garde art, French philosophers, Victorian stuffs, there's gangs to back all that shit up. The new kids on the block, the cyborg finders, the gaming culture scholars, the superhero politicizers, well, they might have to watch their milk money for awhile.

(It did occur to me that bullies bully because of insecurities. And it did also occur to me that I might not understand some things (especially cultural studies...) as well as some other students. And that maybe I'm threatened because it's quite possible these new fields of "relevant" studies are going to steamroll the old standbys. And maybe that's why I need to laugh at them.)


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for your interest in my book. There's a bit more about it here:

    In addition, you can read the introduction to The Dada Cyborg on google books.

    I'd like to think I'm not a nerd, but, hey, even my wife thinks I am.


    Matt Biro

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the link! And thanks for not taking my ribbing the wrong way. I will definitely check out the intro. Maybe someday soon I can give The Dada Cyborg a proper (non-cheeky) review!



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