Mar 1, 2008


Japan has stripped off bits of me. No, "bits" is the wrong word. Japan has sloughed off whole segments of my brain and personality, rebuilt them, and changed them. And, I'm the better for it. You know that whole thing about how you have to go off, go away from home and get into unfamiliar territory in order to find yourself? Well, it's true! Wow!

Specifically, I'd like to talk about two things: irony and geekiness. I've written a bit about this before. But, I'm more than a little further along now. Both of these traits are things that I value, things that I look for in people, things that I find appealing. But, they have not been unequivocally good to me or good for me. Self-identification can prop you up, give you an identity, act as set of struts upon which you can build yourself. But, it can only go so far before it becomes constraining. Saying something like, "My geeky identity allows me to enjoy this socially unconventional past time like D&D or SF" is all well and good, but one slides into a nasty little trap when you think "My geeky identity prevents me from doing such and such social activity."

Joseph's recent post reminded me of this.
His opening description of clubbing being "not who [he] is" made me wince with identification. I've had similar thoughts about activities that I've imagined are outside my usual realm. But, I'd take issue with one word that he uses in his second paragraph: "concessions." I think that when you allow yourself to go outside your normal experience, you concede nothing. You have only the accumulation of experience, not the negation of any. (Joseph, when I finally get around to visiting L.A. you're going to have to show me some of the more eccentric clubbing sites.) But, I can completely understand his feelings and his use of the word. Stepping outside one's defined circle does, weirdly and viscerally, feel like a concession, when in fact expanding one's experience is just the opposite.

Anyway, irony. Or rather, the analysis and thinking that ironic distance lends itself.

Like I've said before, I like irony. I love it. The dry, acidic, cutting sort of irony that builds so much on itself no one can quite tell what it means. For instance: Are aviator glasses cool? Are they hip, fashionable, etc.? The answer is "Who the fuck knows?" "yes," and "not really," all at once. Ridiculing things, cleverly deconstructing things, stripping away the parts and understanding everything on various levels of understanding and obliqueness does something for me. No, more than that. It's a process that has made me feel easily intelligent. To simultaneously see something (a person, a book, a movie, a song) both from a distance and to gaze into its component parts is a wonderful, stimulating experience.

But this misses something. Examining something from a distance, seeing it in context of other, related things and examining something's parts, seeing the bits and guts of it misses something. It misses the thing in and of itself. It is like laboriously examining the sides of a razor, but missing the edge.

For instance-

I was clubbing out in Tokyo a few weeks ago, and thought, for a few moments, that I could think of it as an anthropological experience, watching the scene and the people and observing and noting everything around me. I did do that, a little, but for the most part, I just enjoyed the flashing lights, the clouds of dry ice, and the people.

This is not a new skill for me, I've always been able to simply enjoy things, simply be in the moment and such. But in Japan, I've been able to do it more. Here, in my relationships with students and such, I've had to speak and communicate directly, without subtlety or double meanings. I've had to let my communication be simply what it is, be direct, be straightforward. What follows, is that I've had to allow experiences be simply what they are, be direct, be straightforward. Going into a club for me was not a place where I would set my brain aspinning, analyzing social dynamics, thinking about anthropology, my head moving more than my body as music and light filled the atmosphere. Instead, it was what it was.

This can be a bit frightening, actually. Irony, distance, analysis, etc. can all be a sort of shield. To hiply/intellectually stand outside of something, take it apart, be with it without experience is a way of armoring oneself, of providing a sort of cool/smart excuse for self-consciousness and social awkwardness. This shield can be addictive, and not only provide an excuse for these things, but pile onto them.

Make no mistake, I'm still a sarcastic, analytical person. But as I said earlier, new experience is not a concession. It is an addition.

And, geekiness.

Geekiness, first off, can be great. It can provide a sense of belonging and inclusion, it can allows people to feel like they're part of some secret society where everyone knows lots of watchwords that come in the form of Monty Python quotes and Star Wars references. It's great. I've heard people make (completely sincere) comparisons of geekdom to gay subculture, and I don't think that such a comparison is completely unfair. Both cultures have an array of signifiers, rely on specific shared interests, and have behavorial patterns associated with them both by the observers and participants of each subculture.

This is all very useful for identification, but like all forms of identification, it can be constraining and sometimes infuriating, as it was last week. I was in a bar in Chiba listening to some live music, and the people I was sitting with were going on and on about video games and Star Trek. There were some Simpsons quotes in there, too.

And I just wanted to yell at them to shut the fuck up.

I didn't. I did the socially responsible thing and simply went to another part of the bar and talked to other people about other things, but I found it remarkable that I walked away, rather annoyed, from a subculture that I've so long embraced. I chose smalltalk over Star Trek, and loved it.

The problem is that identification of any kind can become toxic and constraining, can make new experiences feel like concessions instead of expansions, can become insular and twisting, a mobius strip of behavior and conversation.

Since coming to Japan, I haven't had a video game system, have not played in any RPGs, have watched very little in the way of TV or movies, and read only a few SF books. I haven't taken part of the cultural bits of geekdom for sometime, and I feel like I'm losing my identification with the subculture. I know that I'm losing my identification with the subculture. I still do things like watch anime and read SF, but now I seem to be enjoying those sort of things in the same way that I enjoy anything else. I don't feel it's connected to anything culturally, and I don't want that culture to dominate my interactions or conversations with others, which is why I became so annoyed with the geek crowd in that Chiba bar. Their conversation was culturally monchromatic, a staid, unlively thing that said nothing about any of the participants.

Anyway, my larger point is that the feeling of cultural disassociation that I've experienced over the past sixteen months has been liberating. I feel that my identifications aren't really being constraints any more. It's wonderful, weird, disorienting, fun, and rather exciting as well.


Joseph said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa. I was trying for a tone of self-deprecation and irony in that post -- I wasn't being (totally) serious! I actually enjoy dancing quite a bit, and don't in the slightest bit feel like I'm making a concession there. And I'm more than happy to go out clubbing and totally unironically enjoy myself, although it's still not at the top of my preferred weekend activities. Lessening my alcohol consumption, however, is definitely a concession.

I understand how you feel, though. Since coming down to LA, I've indulged almost none of my geeky habits. I went out of my way to find sports teams to join, but haven't tried in the slightest to join a role-playing game or attend a LAN party. Like you, these are things I would enjoy, but their interest to me is so much less than it would have been. I find myself going out of my way not to hang out with my fellow CS grad students, because my interests are so divergent from theirs -- I have no desire to sit around talking about video games or the latest operating system or whatever.

Kori commented on one of my recent posts, saying that the nice thing about moving is that you get the chance to reinvent yourself, and try new things that you wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to. It's nice, since the new people you meet have no preconceptions or expectations about you, so you don't feel like you have a reputation to live up to. I'm glad you've been taking advantage of that opportunity, and that it's been working out well for you.

You're probably being a little too hard on yourself, though -- I remember you being more than happy to try things outside of your regular comfort zone while you were in Eugene. Sure, you ended up doing geeky stuff more often than not, but that's more a side-effect of your social group than anything else. I suspect your new attitude is not all that new, but that circumstances have allowed you to experiment a lot more.

My two bits.

SonicLlama said...

Whoa! I know that you were serious. I'm familiar with your tone of self-depreciation and irony, and I sort of wondered what kind of response I'd get using you as a jumping off point. I'm not trying to be critical in any way, it's just that I identified both with your little intro bit and your use of the term "concession."

I have thought like that, I thought you hit on something, and I used the idea to try to explain my own deal. By no means was I impinging on your sterling dance-o-matic character.

It's true that I tried non-geeky things in Eugene- soccer, ultimate frisbee, and hiking (which I really miss) were all part of my regular routine. I may very well be being too hard on myself.

Kori's absolutely right about moving and reinventing yourself. It is awesome to talk to people who have no preconceptions of you. But it's not just the perceptions of others that you can use to reinvent yourself. You can also use it as a sort of focus to reevaluate how you relate to yourself. Which is what I was trying to talk about.

Joseph said...

Not to worry. I tease, I tease.

Bryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SonicLlama said...

Sorry, no idea.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

... do you really say "SF"???

fuck, I've been telling students that no real English speaker would know what they were talking about when they said "SF" rather then "scifi"

apparently, I should have been saying only subculture geeks will know what they are talking about.


SonicLlama said...

No one pronounces "SF" "ess-eff."

"SF" is pronounced either "scifi" or "science fiction." I suppose "SF" is a somewhat more literary or dignified abbreviation than the pulpy (but lovable) sibilants of "scifi."