In defense of Patton Oswald

The geek world is up in arms over Patton Oswald’s most recent article where he warns that the popularity of geek culture risks the production of “Weak Otaku.” They are angry, and feel betrayed over his accusations. He’s been accused of having “shovel envy” and elitist desires. What people are overlooking is that he very well may be right, because what he is touching on is not just a problem emerging from within geek culture, but within society as a whole.

When writing was first introduced to the ancient Greeks, there was a huge debate over not only the benefits, but the dangers of adopting written language. For, even though writing allows for better preservati0n of information, it does so at the cost of the development of human memory and artistic ability. Greek scholars were taught to recite great works like “The Odyssey” and the “Illiad” perfectly from memory. The works themselves were composed in artistic rhyme and meter for the purpose of enabling recall. The fear among the Greeks was that if they adopted the writing, we would lose our developed skills for memory see a degradation in our art.

In many ways, they were right. The ability to recite great works from memory is now seen as an exception, and not the norm as it has once been. Today, one can actually make some money selling tricks to better memory; the same tricks and tips that are, in reality, rediscoveries of knowledge thousands of years old, lost with the advent of writing. The quality of the writing has suffered too. And I am not just referring to the the modern day pop schlock that I occasionally rail against (though I wonder if we would have to worry about sparkling vampires if society as a whole gave more attention to the linguistic arts). Instead, I am referring to the loss of linguistic ability among the population in general. From the verbal faux pas, of politicians, to the sentence structure of the productions of students in writing classes, there has been a general loss of ability to carefully craft linguistic expression.

When Pattton talks about the creation of “weak otaku” he is talking about the same thing. What made a geek a geek was not the subject matter, but the seemingly obsessive fixation on that subject matter at a time when it was ignored or shunned by the greater society. Geeks, in a sense, were the modern literary experts of the new expressions of the fringe. Geeks did not just consume the culture, they analyzed it. Geeks took their time to deliberate on what they saw and read, and put in the effort to put it into its intended context. And in doing so, they strove to understand it.

The problem is, with popular culture, is that we like to consume, but we don’t like to understand. We like to have it now, and we never want struggle with it or to look at its context. As a result, we end up forcing the medium to serve us, rather than growing with and learning from it. We see this problem in all parts of our society, not just in the popularized geek culture. We have people who feel there is no separation between church and state because the “words separation between church and state” don’t occur specifically in the constitution, and because they neglect the contextual reasons for the first amendment in their analysis. Similarly, we have overly powerful corporations because people have interpreted the lack corporate mention in the constitution as meaning corporations should not be controlled, even though at the time and context at which the constitution was written, corporations were tightly controlled as they had to prove their benefit to the community before they were allowed to operate, and control was inherent in their creation. And anyone who has heard me rant against fundamentalists will tell you, you can generally find biblical support for love and acceptance as the biblical commandment. These conflicts in interpretation do not come from the idea that “the bible can be made to say anything” but because when you take anything out of context, you can make it serve whatever your ego demands. And was for who has the better contextual understanding in these biblical battles, I should point out I’ve studied under biblical scholars, while fundamentalists I have fought show disdain for biblical scholars.

With the popularization of geek culture, we have the same processes removing our ability to grow and understand. When I was formally introduced to anime, we would watch an episode, and then discuss its historical context and the individual themes of the episode. Now, people download and watch marathons, sometimes with others, often alone, and when all those episodes are watched together, they blend together, and the finer themes and details are lost. And when you decide to watched dubbed anime, rather than subtitled, you lose the information in the fine details of casting and performance, such as the meaning behind the choice to cast a female as the voice of the main male character of the Kenshin series.  And when you read subtitled movies, rather than learn the language yourself, you lose even more, because, as the adage goes, “translation is treason.” With one of the most popular manifestation of geek culture, zombie movies, the popularization has has removed the actual meaning from the genre. In Romero’s works, which created the modern zombie, the emphasis was not actually on the zombies, but how people react when the thin veil of society is removed. The zombies are just a vehicle to move the story. But today, they’ve become the story itself, and the larger themes are forgotten. Star Wars, one of the most iconic sources of geek archetypal iconography has also been injured by geek culture. Princess Leia, the woman for whom femininity and power were not mutually exclusive, who took control of her own rescue, was a high ranking commander in the rebellion, who held up against torture, and the princess who slew the dragon (Jabba the Hutt), has become a favorite for cosplay. However, it is not the Princess Leia who is fighting on Hoth, nor the Princess who is commanding the jungle battles on Endor, nor the Princess fighting her way out of the Deathstar. The Princess Leia most commonly copied is slave girl Leia, the princess who has been chained and humiliated, chosen because she is the Leia that has the least amount of clothing, allowing girls to be nearly naked for the approval of those around them. Finally, the new trends to popularize geek icons through movies and mass media has done the most damage to geek culture itself. Remakes of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and “Clash of the Titans,” and movies of popular books and shows like “Watchmen,” and “The Last Airbender,” have all suffered from the same flaw: to create a movie that appeals to the populous, they’ve had to remove the finer themes that gave them their importance. And don’t even get me started on the new “Star Trek” movie…

…And this is where I believe Patton’s assertion of the “weak otaku” gains support. Our mass access, and the mass popularity of the culture has created such an ease of superficial knowing, that we do not learn to understand what is in our hands.

So if Patton is right, if we are creating “weak otaku,” what should we do? Patton’s solution of “lock and load” may be a bit extreme, as we may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, even though “weak otaku” may be diluting the pool, there still are a lot of true geeks who are taking the time and putting in the effort to understand their favored topics. My solution would be to advocate a geek mentorship program. After all, it was through the direction of other geeks that I first began to fully appreciate the themes and stories I watched and read. But one thing does remain true, if we don’t make the effort to preserve true geekdom, geek culture will be nothing more than a fad that will fade with the rest.

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