On Nerds, Nerd Culture, and Formalism

Posted: April 10, 2015 in Braak, poetics, Politics
Tags: , , ,

Here’s the thing about nerds – and please know that I’m including myself in this, maybe as the worst of us all, the monster is within me, &c.: we all know at this point that there are nerds. Nerds are people who like weird stuff, and sometimes display a socially-unacceptable level of enthusiasm for our weird stuff. We dress up in costume for Harry Potter book launches or sign our emails with Star Trek quotes or what have you. But I think everyone also knows that there are nerds, and then there are nerd nerds: the kind of guys that you hope never show up to a conversation about any topic, because despite our enthusiasm and our granular knowledge of every little bit of a topic, we’re fucking terrible.

We’re the Comic Book Guys of the world, the Um, Actuallys, the Technically Speakings of the world. You all know us and I think that, even though we talk a big game about bullying, I think we maybe know, deep down, that when we do that kind of shit we deserve a little bit of the pejorative muck that still sullies the word “nerd.”

So, what I’m here to do is to present my Unified Theory of Being a Nerd, and then (maybe more importantly), I want to talk a little about the two major attitudes towards the world that it causes, and why these things are bad, why they should be rejected, and a little bit about how to quarantine them.

What Is A Nerd, Exactly?

At this point, everyone is enthusiastic about some dumb thing. You’re not a nerd because you like the Avengers or comic books or science fiction or Star Trek or, I dunno, pirates or something. The Internet has come and solved the problem of hobby-based isolation, and so no matter what you love, you’ll be able to find people in the world who share your interest. It’s not “mainstream” exactly, but it’s your stream, and there’s no such thing as hobby too weird to have a stream you can swim in.

And yet we’ve still got nerds, so what does that mean? I will explain. (And, again, remember that I’m talking about me, too, maybe about me most of all. Mea culpa, mea culpa.)

Nerds are people who use information to establish their dominance in a social hierarchy.

That’s basically it. It’s the foundational mechanic of all of our worst habits – “uhm, actually” is the example nonpareil, of course: someone says a thing that’s not quite right, and so we’ve got to jump in with the truth. But do we? Does it actually matter, in any verifiable or moral sense, or any kind of sense at all, that Tharanduil rides an Irish elk in The Hobbit movies, and not a moose? I humbly submit that no, it does not, and it OBVIOUSLY does not, and that anyone who pretends that this is some vital distinction to make is either delusional or a liar.

It does not matter, but you and I, we’re going to jump in and say it anyway. And why? Please see above.

“Uhm, actually” is the simplest example, but I think we can see this mechanic underpinning a lot of nerd conversation. Consider, for example, spoilers: for a thousand years, human beings have been able to successfully enjoy art while simultaneously knowing what the outcome of a story is. “Being surprised about a plot” is basically the smallest and probably one of the least important elements of appreciating a story, but here we are, losing our shit over whether or not someone’s going to spoil what’s happened in it.

Not just losing our shit either, because even though we’re all obsessed with not spoiling things, we’re ALSO obsessed with spoiling things for ourselves – poring over casting information or set photos to try to figure out what kind of sandwich Ultron likes to eat or something. So how can this be? How can we simultaneously hate the idea of spoiling a movie, while also being obsessed with spoiling a movie?

Of course it doesn’t make any sense when it comes to appreciating a piece of art, but it does make a lot of sense when it comes to battling for social dominance in a hierarchy that prioritizes information. Just having information, even if I don’t reveal it, gives me power in our (nerd) society; I can gain esteem just by indicating that I’ve got a spoiler, whether or not I use it. And similarly, by abjuring spoilers in a particular context, I also control the power that you have to disrupt my social dominance – because spoilers are verboten here, you can’t use your superior information to supplant me without violating another social norm. Nerd culture, in this particular domain, becomes a constant struggle between obtaining enough information to prove my superiority while simultaneously refusing enough information to prevent someone else from getting the advantage over me.

(We can see this further illustrated in the way that, when nerds get new information, we have to act nonchalant about – because if information is a surprise, that means we didn’t have it, and that would improve the social standing of the person who revealed it. Acknowledging surprise is therefore acknowledging weakness. Similarly, our posture of enthusiasm that doesn’t care about revelations is about abjuring that social dominance: by publicly refusing to care about spoilers, I protect myself against admitting that weakness.)

I’m not going to go into every way that it plays out in nerd culture, but I think, with this in mind, a lot of these social structures make a lot of sense: our preoccupation with sorting out “real” geeks from “fake” geeks by quizzing them about trivia; the weird nerd posture of “naïve cynicism” (admitting surprise at the sometimes appalling aspects of human nature is admitting ignorance, which is admitting weakness); our obsession with writing long screeds explaining our opinions in rigorous detail (what? Who does that?); our habit of responding to someone’s enthusiasm for something by nitpicking details and logical inconsistencies; our fetishization of “logic” and “objectivity”; our obsessive cataloging of “tropes”.

It’s that last one that I want to talk about first, because I think it leads to one of the shittiest parts of nerd culture.


For those of you who don’t know (and are thus inferior to me in the social hierarchy, sorry) “Formalism” is a critical philosophy that a work of art’s merit is based entirely on its technical fulfillment of specific forms. So, for example, a painting of a bowl of fruit that was meant to be “realistic” (or that we can in some way intuit is intended to be presented in a “realistic” style) is judged primarily by its realism: how much does the bowl look like a bowl, how accurately were the shadows rendered, can I tell what kind of fruit it is, &c.

In my experience, the bulk of nerd criticism is Formalist in nature, and the bulk of nerd responses to other kinds of criticism is a Formalist defense – it’s a pretty recognizable one, you’ve probably heard it, “[x] thing should be judged on its merit, not its politics!”

This is part of the reason that I’m writing this whole thing, because of people who say that on the internet – it’s a cagey rhetorical device, because when you hear it (or read it), your instincts are to respond with “But this DOES have merit!” Which is all well and good, but you can see that what you’ve done is implicitly conceded the terms of the argument to us. When I say something should only be judged on its merit, and you respond by defending that merit, you’ve implicitly allowed me to decide what merit is – and because I’m a nerd, “merit” is equal to “adherence to specific technical requirements”.

There’s a certain group of people – I won’t name them, lest I inadvertently conjure one of those tedious motherfuckers – who’ve explicitly stated that their critical philosophy for videogames is essentially Formalist: we should review videogames based on playability, how good the graphics are, framerate or something I guess. They don’t call it Formalism, of course, probably because they don’t know that most of these critical philosophies have already been discussed at length and in great detail. This is a shame, because even a shallow investigation of Formalism reveals it to be pretty bankrupt as any kind of useful philosophy.

I know, I know, it seems like this is a pretty reasonable way to review things. “What is it technically trying to do? How well does it do it?” You could even argue that my own dramaturgeries are pretty basically Formalist (of course, I said before, the monster is inside me), but I think actually they provide a pretty useful example of the difference.

Obviously, production dramaturgy (the real kind, not the fake stuff about “research dramaturgy”), is about the manipulation of elements of a production (or book or movie or what have you) with respect to historic forms: how we think plots are supposed to proceed, how character is revealed, &c. And when I suggest that we ought to be rejecting Formalism, I am NOT suggesting that those traditional forms should be ignored – I think it is pretty valid to just, as I did in this Guardians of the Galaxy bit, that a movie can be improved simply by that kind of Formalist manipulation; plots can be stronger, characters can be clearer, dialog can make more sense. Forms are fine, and good, and it’s important to observe them even if your intent is to overturn them.

But forms aren’t the only thing in the world, and what I am mostly trying to do with the dramaturgeries is to manipulate the forms in a way that reveals or expresses something else – something beyond the technical fulfillment of specific historic requirements for “good storytelling.” If you look at Star Trek Into Darkness, for example, the entire problem I have with it is that it’s simply formally good (well, for the most part; whenever you see nerds arguing about “continuity” or “plot holes”, what we’re really arguing about is Formalism – in other words, the adherence to “plot continuity” as a historical form for stories, and Star Trek Into Darkness does have a bunch of weird plot holes); the purpose of rearranging those forms is so that, in addition to being technically good, it can also be about something interesting.

(Generally speaking, if a person asks a question about “why does this happen” in a story, that question, even if they don’t realize it, is expressive of some need for understanding more complex than simple plot coherence. It’s about understanding not just what happened, but what it means; nerds typically respond by arguing about why it happened within the context of the plot – in other words, providing a Formalist defense: such and such an element is good or right because it fulfills the formal requirement of “interior plot coherence”.)

Frankly, I think that if art can’t be used to tell the difference between good philosophies and bad philosophies – if, in other words, I’ve created a critical structure that does not usefully distinguish between, I dunno, Triumph of the Will and Metropolis – then what fucking good is it? What do we have art for, if all we’re doing is making up a set of critical requirements and then seeing how well something fits into them?

You can see the problem with this, though, right away – if I’m saying that a work of art can be judged not just on its technical ability, but also on the philosophy that it espouses and the point of view that it presents (and, just to be clear, I am definitely saying that) – if I believe that this is a reasonable way to engage with art, that this should be the way that we do it, then what’s to stop all the Nazis from getting together and declaring that my art is bad? Without a set of rules that separates art from the requirements of cultural norms, aren’t I going to be subject to just as much censure as, for example, a group of homophobic white supremacists who’ve seized control over the mechanism of a relatively prestigious awards process?

Well, I am glad that you asked that, because that brings me to the other problem that I have with the way we talk about things, and in a way I think it’s even worse than Formalism.


So, Legalism in the sense that I’m using it here is a moral philosophy that equates “rules” with “rightness”. Most often this comes in the form of laws, of course, where you run into a cat who says that it’s okay to do something simply because it’s “not illegal.” Now, to me, this is so self-evidently stupid that I have a real hard time explaining why – why just because something is legal isn’t the same thing as it being right. (At a basic level, I guess: we create laws to codify social norms, not the other way around; if we simply equated legality with morality, there’d be no need to ever make any new laws.)

It’s not only the law though; this preoccupation with rules permeates a lot of moral philosophy. In fact, it comes up an awful lot when we talk about racism in the media, for example, or misogyny – typically we see it as a defense that looks like this:

“I think it’s wrong that the female villain in this story is a slut.”

“Oh, what, so women are never allowed to be villains? Or villains are never allowed to be sexy?”

You see how this works, right? The implication is that any problem that a person has with something that can’t be immediately extrapolated into a Rule is either a problem that isn’t real, or a problem that they should just suck up. The Legalist philosophy of the nerds is that things can only be expressed as right or wrong if they can be codified, and if it’s reasonable for that code to last forever. The abiding principle, then, is that there is a set of laws that human beings operate under, and that this set of laws is either perfected or is being perfected, and so any addition to it must be valid in perpetuity.

(Less charitably, I think this defense against criticism is a pretty cynical ploy, because it requires all criticism to be universally perfect and applicable in order to be valid – I can’t criticize your use of a black villain in this movie, for instance, without my criticism being equally and completely applicable to every other instance of a black villain in every other movie, real or imagined – and since this is impossible, it insulates us against any criticism at all. But. Let’s be charitable about it.)

The problem with this one is a problem with the outcome, I think – this legalist idea presumes that one day we’ll be finished with rules; we’ll have figured out exactly what they all are, in every circumstance, and, having achieved this sort of universal Law Code, we will no longer need to consider ethical or moral questions. Got a problem? Simply refer to the Code – if your problem’s there, prosecute the person who committed the infraction. If not, then there’s no problem.

Now, nerds don’t like to discuss or consider individual experience as a general rule, and the reason for that is that it’s inconclusively superior – that is, there’s nothing for us to appeal to in order to establish who is “correct”, and since “correctness” as a tool for advancing in the social hierarchy is the entire point of conflict in nerd culture, a situation in which we have to give equal validity to two contradictory experiences is untenable. I can’t simply accept that your experience of being harmed by my comments is commensurate to my experience of making the comments, because I’m not wired for that kind of ambiguity; you and I aren’t talking in order to explore an idea, we’re talking in order to establish a hierarchy, and we can’t establish hierarchies if things are equal to each other.

So of course we reject this kind of experiential understanding of the world (see also our Formalist rejection of criticism: two people who like and dislike a movie simply because their experiences of it are different is not acceptable; one person’s experience has to be invalidated by the presentation of sufficient data), and instead hang our hopes on this Legalist idea that we can, and eventually are going to, come up with an optimized set of rules that will handle all the problems that are necessary to handle. (And, look, a problem related to this is obviously that if it’s – FOR EXAMPLE, I’m not saying that it is or anything – a bunch of white men who are trying to make the optimized set of rules, we can guess pretty easily which sorts of problems AREN’T necessary to handle.)

My opinion on Legalism is the same as my opinion of Formalism, which is that it’s basically morally bankrupt. The purpose of morality is to mitigate harm; morality itself is the act of mitigation, not the adherence to some set of formal principles; those principles are only as useful as they are mitigating of harm, otherwise who gives a shit?

No, really, who gives a shit? What is the point of adhering to a moral code if it doesn’t usefully mitigate harm against other people? What other reason could it exist for?

Be It Concluded

Be it concluded then, that as part of my ongoing effort to be a better person (here by “better” I mean “better than all of you”, obviously), I am rejecting this basic principle of nerd culture, this desire to establish social dominance with information.

And furthermore I specifically reject Nerd Formalism, and encourage everyone to reject it similarly – I hope that I can provide this as a useful tool for recognizing when we’re falling into a Formalist trap, arguing about a thing’s technical merits in place of arguing about it’s philosophical, moral, or political merits. Because Formalism is an ultimately bankrupt critical theory, Formalist arguments are not useful or interesting arguments to get into, and I am going to do my best to abjure them, and likewise I hope that everyone else will, too, until only the most dedicated nerds spend their time arguing it with each other.

And further-furthermore, I specifically reject Nerd Legalism when talking about social interaction. I’m not here for, and I’m not interested in being here with, a bunch of people who want to establish a Code of Rules for Behaving All the Time, or to establish Rules for How Not to Be Racist in Movies, or Rules for What Counts as Sexist. Moral behavior is best expressed through sensitivity, compassion, and, importantly, flexibility, all of which are unavailable under the system of Nerd Legalism, and so what we need to do is pre-emptively reject arguments that are founded on on this rigid philosophy.

Don’t fight with a guy who’s going to ask you, “Oh, so we should just never do [x] again?” This is a Legalist argument, and Legalism is not a good way to talk about morality; nothing of value is going to come from this. Don’t fight with a guy who’s going to tell you, “We should judge art just on its merit,” because what he means is “We should judge art based on its adherence to Formal Requirements” and this is the most useless way to talk about art.

And if you are one of those guys, then please believe that I say this with deep understanding and compassion:

We have to be better.

  1. Elspeth Grey says:

    I wonder if the tendency towards Formalism is an outgrowth of the popularity of “the death of the author” in Western culture in the last 50 years or so. I know that during my primary education my classes were often encouraged to simply look at the content and judge for ourselves, because guessing at authorial intent was futile. There’s merit to the death of the author, of course, but there are drawbacks as well- it encourages reading in a vacuum. And what is “judging something for its own merit” other than looking at something in a vacuum?

    I’ve thought about this a lot since becoming more engaged with Chinese literature. The Chinese critical tradition has always placed a great deal of emphasis on the connection of the author’s views and his environment to his work – “the poem reflects what is on the mind intently.” There are drawbacks to this approach as well, of course (the accusation of a satirical author of being “immoral” because his work portrays immoral acts comes to mind). But it seems to me that Western discourse would benefit some re-emphasis on the role of the author.

  2. “The Legalist philosophy of the nerds is that things can only be expressed as right or wrong if they can be codified, and if it’s reasonable for that code to last forever. The abiding principle, then, is that there is a set of laws that human beings operate under, and that this set of laws is either perfected or is being perfected, and so any addition to it must be valid in perpetuity.”

    The idea of a perfected set of laws is profoundly conservative–anything that goes “against” those laws is against nature. I wonder if that has anything to do with the appeal of certain types of sci-fi–making up your own unbreakable rules, and applying hierarchies from “our” world in your creation. (I’m thinking of you, military sci-fi.)

  3. braak says:

    @Elspeth: One of the things that depresses me about Formalism is that you get a bunch of critics that get really into it every couple of hundred years or so. It never pans out (I think for obvious reasons — first among them is that it yields really boring art); for the most part, I think it’s a kind of cultural holding action, usually espoused by people who see themselves as maintaining a classical tradition or see themselves threatened by changing social mores. I.e., the only people who want art to be purely technical are usually the people who have the most to lose by changes in the cultural conversation.

    @Magpie: yeah, I think there’s a real strong undercurrent of a kind of Legalism that underpins a lot of these guys’ obsessions with fascistic hierarchy, strict discipline, and unyielding ideas about what human nature really IS.

  4. […] if you recall my previous rantings about Nerd Formalism, you know the kinds of problems that this is going to engender.  I think there’s something very […]

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