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American Nerd: The Story of My Peopleby Benjamin Nugent
Before I launch into a discussion of what a nerd is and where the idea of nerds comes from, I'd like to disclose that when I was eleven, I had a rich fantasy life in which I carried a glowing staff. On earth I ran to class under an L.L.Bean backpack erupting with books that I was too distracted by my medieval life to put in my locker, as I was pursued by an actual medieval-style warrior society of lacrosse players. When I saw them, I would blend with the crowd or run. They, in turn, established a pretty good Nugent impersonation: you bend forward at the waist to signify the burden of the swollen backpack and stick out your elbows, funky-chicken style, with your hands bunched into fists on your chest to signify the straps of the backpack clutched close to the body. Running through the halls with a backpack that was capable of doing real harm to others didn't do much to draw sympathy, so nobody raised serious objections when every once in a while somebody hit me in the crotch with a clarinet case or hockey stick. All of which is to say my journalistic objectivity with regard to my subject matter is seriously compromised. But I am trying my best.
That means I'm not writing a defense of nerds or a celebrationof nerds or a polemic against the nerd stereotype. There is a rationale, I think, for despising the young me. I empathize with nerds and antinerds alike.
As of this morning, Wikipedia states that "nerd, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to somebody who pursues intellectual interests at the expense of skills that are useful in a social setting such as communication, fashion, or physical fitness." That sounds about right, but it's wrong.
If an art critic arrives at your get-together in khakis and an undershirt, helps himself to six fingers of Jameson, tries to flirt with your teenage daughter, and then urinates with the bathroom door open, he's behaving like a socially awkward intellectual and exhibiting a pronounced disengagement with fashion and physical fitness. But "nerdy" doesn't feel like the best description of his behavior. The graphic designer you've recently met, who visits your apartment for the first time and talks for three hours about the suicidal impulses she's weathered since she dropped out of grad school, then describes your Klimt poster as sort of "freshman year of collegey," is also a socially awkward intellectual. But she isn't acting like a nerd. The problem with the current Wikipedia entry, in other words, is that nerdiness isn't really a matter of intellectualism andsocial awkwardness.
I believe there are two main categories of nerds: one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machinelike, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machinelike. These nerds are people who remind others, sometimes pleasantly, of machines.
They tend to remind people of machines by:
1. Being passionate about some technically sophisticated activity that doesn't revolve around emotional confrontation, physical confrontation, sex, food, or beauty (most activities that excite passion in non-nerds — basketball, violin, sex, surfing, acting, knitting, interior decorating, wine tasting, etc. — are built around one of these subjects).
2. Speaking in language unusually similar to written Standard English.
3. Seeking to avoid physical and emotional confrontation.
4. Favoring logic and rational communication over nonverbal, nonrational forms of communication or thoughts that don't involve reason.
5. Working with, playing with, and enjoying machines more than most people do.
Do I mean that nerds in this category are robots made of flesh and blood? No.
Brian Wilson is not into the ocean. "I'm afraid of the water," he says when people ask him about surfing. One interviewer has described his "Rain Man-like personality" as being reminiscent of a "voice-mail menu." Wilson is from Hawthorne, California, ten minutes from the Pacific, which makes his hydrophobia impressive. But his mother, Audree, has long maintained that he hummed the entire melody of "The Marines' Hymn" before he could talk, and that his mastery of musical instruments proceeded apace. When his younger brother Dennis persuaded him to write a song about a new teen pastime, he came up with "Surfin'," which became the Wilson brothers' first hit and led to their reinvention as the Beach Boys. Wilson proceeded to paint a fantasia in song, an amber-encased America ruled by athletes with multiple vehicles and multiple girlfriends. In the mid-1960s, as the rest of the Beach Boys toured Asia, he surrounded himself with studio musicians and recorded Pet Sounds, making Coke bottles into percussion instruments, recording in a pit of sand to get the right sound, writing string charts, and letting other people write his lyrics. The more the world fell for his make-believe, the more time he spent alone in his studio, sequestered from the world, living with equipment.
Wilson did things a machine cannot do. His work was more intuitive than logical. Nerds of this kind, crucially, are not actually like machines; they just remind people of them. They get stuck with the name "nerd" because their outward behavior can make them seem less than, and more than, human.
The second type of nerd probably consists equally of males and females. This is a nerd who is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion.
In 1959, a twelve-year-old ninth grader named Anne Beatts moved from a small, cozy private school in Dutchess County, New York, to a public high school in Somers, then one of the more remote New York City commuter towns.
"That was when I first heard the expression 'nerd,'" says Beatts. "The joke definition of nerd was someone who farts in the bathtub and bursts the bubbles. But really it was a person considered by the popular kids to be uncool. A lot of things would make you a nerd, and they were basically being thought of as someone who worked, who did homework in study hall. Teenage acne was a qualification, appearance. I was wearing undershirts and everyone else was wearing training bras, at least."
Friendless, she tried to get her homework done at school instead of at home, so she would work during homeroom and lunch. The only other person who opted for that isolation was "a mathematical genius who muttered to himself." His name was Marshall.
"So somebody noticed this and they said, 'Do you like Marshall?' And I didn't know high-school vocabulary, and I didn't know the loadedness of the word like. I didn't want to go, 'No, I don't like him,' or 'I dislike him,' so I said, 'Sure.' And they went, 'Oh, she likes him. There goes Marshall's girlfriend.' And so this became an epithet and a cry of humiliation to me in my first year of high school, Marshall's Girlfriend. And so I'd been labeled as a nerd."
By the time grade-skipping had made her a fifteen-year-old senior in 1962, Beatts had become editor of the high-school newspaper, and by pursuing every activity that might engender acceptance, up to and including cooking hot dogs for the football game, she had attained a perch where she was no longer mocked as a matter of routine. She chose this time to publish an editorial in the paper called "Leave the Nerds Alone," which caused her to be suspended from her editorship for its controversial subject matter.
In the early 1970s she wrote for National Lampoon, and she landed at Saturday Night Live in 1975. There, she created the "Nerds" sketches with her sometimes writing partner Rosie Shuster, helping to bring the word nerd into mainstream usage, which will be discussed more thoroughly later. "Marshall Blechtman" became a character on the sitcom about nerds Beatts created, Square Pegs.
Anne Beatts is an example of the second kind of nerd. Beatts became a nerd not because she was like Marshall but because she got shoved into the same category as Marshall (a type-one nerd) by peers who were looking for somebody to exclude.
The heroes of American popular culture are surfers, cowboys, pioneers, gangsters, cheerleaders, and baseball players, people at home in the heat of physical exertion. But so many of the individuals who make these images are more like Anne Beatts. Their voyeurism — their sense of staring from the wrong lunch table at a radiant nation — makes for a vision of America that appeals to the whole world, including America itself. There's a globe full of outsiders thirsty for glimpses of the land of myth, and American nerds have gratified them with adoring images. Wilson — the bodiless studio addict who spent days refining drum sounds for songs about high-school football and girls on the beach — was the rule, not the exception, for North American fabulists, for DreamWorks as much as Microsoft. In this book, I'll try to catalog the way a largely nerdy chain of media figures has affected the way we think about nerds.
I'll also address the relationship between nerdiness and ethnicity. You don't need to belong to any particular class or ethnicity to be a nerd, but some ethnic stereotypes are nerdier than others. In the late nineteenth century, educators strove to nourish the "primitive" in white middle-class boys and thus mold them into athletic men of character, the opposite of the "greasy grinds" who studied their way out of the Lower East Side. In the 1980s, opinion columnists warned that the Japanese were taking over the world through their unrivaled love of machines and their mechanistically corporate cast of mind. If a propaganda artist of the Third Reich had time-traveled to 1984 and watched Revenge of the Nerds, he might have interpreted the hero, Louis Skolnick, as a traditional age-old caricature of a Jew, and Ogre and his band of overwhelmingly blond-haired and blueeyed jocks as the image of ideal Aryans (in appearance, if not conduct), even though the film never explicitly raises the question of ancestry or religion. The linguist Mary Bucholtz has observed that some contemporary high-school students who consider themselves nerds cleave so tightly to American Standard English, even as the popular white kids cultivate hip-hop affectations, that they engage in what she called "hyperwhiteness" — whiteness so white it destroys the aura of normality that usually attends white people. The history of the concept of nerdiness helps show some of the ways we have thought about the primitive, the "Oriental," white people, Jews, nature, and the machine.
"We" here does not mean "Americans." Rosie Shuster, Lorne Michaels, and Elvis Costello — two Canadians and an Englishman — all made their mark on the history of the nerd at the same pivotal moment. Tokyo is the city where otaku, a type similar to the American nerd, has its own neighborhood, Akihabara, known for waitresses who dress as manga characters. In England, the word boffin has been around for centuries. Theories about the fine differences in meaning between geek, dork, and nerd in Silicon Valley and other tech hives are all over the Internet, but, internationally, the nerd/otaku/geek/dork is a concept that involves: loneliness; the rote, mechanical nature of work in the industrial and postindustrial ages; the way modernity allows the body to fall into disuse; and the way contemporary mass media invite people into voyeuristic relationships with simple fictions and numb them to the pleasures of real life. To understand nerds is to enrich our understanding of many demons.
Beyond the traits that fit into an intellectually defensible definition of nerd, there's a nerd tone, a nerd aesthetic. You know it when you see it: the indestructible-looking but nonetheless largely destroyed glasses, the pair of pleated shorts that exposes thigh, the childlike laugh, the intense self-seriousness. These are the universally acknowledged symptoms, and it's worth tracing how they come together in a chain of pop-culture images.
What is the history of the nerd? What are the different nerd subcultures like, and what are the rules and rituals that hold together the communities within those subcultures? What do the stories of two of my friends from childhood have to do with all this?
I will take a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly,which is a nerdy thing to do.
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