Saturday, October 04, 2008

On Being A Geek

This is from an e-mail reply to an ex-student and friend who is applying to grad school (God help him):

Dear Josiah,

> Of course I know the litany, you said "fear is the mind killer"
> in class once and I called you out as a Dune geek!

It probably says something rather bad about my character that I don't recall all of this “Gary Gygax/Dune calling out” until I'm reminded of it. One of my character defects is that I get so focused on the task at hand that I sometimes don't take in enough of people as people. My intellectual strength is that I can focus. My intellectual weakness is that having a gift for focusing means I'm not good at relaxing.

These references are opaque for most people. I really should remember when someone actually gets the references.

I'll work on this.

> The irony
> of accusing someone of something which, by your very
> accusation you admit to being as well...

What? Being afraid? Being a geek? Being human?

What's truly ironic is that being human is something that we fundamentally are (a biological fact) but is something we must also practice a great deal to be any good at (because it is also a constructed, idealized identity). These two conflicting constructions of the word drive liberalism as a political ideology and account for its deep tensions and contradictions.

Did they make you read The Republic before you left here? For Plato, the foundation of recognition, hence of knowledge, is the form of the good. You recognize an object by its virtue. How do you know a knife if there's a chunk missing from the blade and the handle is broken? Because you know what a good knife is supposed to be and you can see that the defective knife is "trying" to be a knife, but not quite making it. You have to know the good knife to be able to recognize the defective one. So how do you recognize a man? Plato thinks you do it in just the same way—because you know what a good man is supposed to be. A man who doesn't live up to the standard isn't a good man. But you can only recognize him as a man because you know what a good man is. For Plato, the precondition for knowledge is morality.

You could be immoral, says Plato, but you have to admit that you are absolutely ignorant in order to do so. Evil is fixed as ignorance for all eternity. There is something good in this argument, as it forces you to wake up and be moral. There is something wicked in it, as the Bene Gesserit forces your hand into the box and, if you flinch, you clearly never were human. Those who do not live up to the standard are forced into the category of the sub-human. It's only a hop, skip and a jump to Hitler's death camps from there.

Weber's critique of this argument is that it confuses logical perfection for moral perfection. Yes, you do have to have a specific "form" in your head in order to marry sensory stimuli to the constructs that exist in your mind. Further, you do compare sensory stimuli to those forms and they do, "more or less" fit (remember Piaget? You accomodate or assimilate). But if you are a scientist, the fact that the real, palpable object does not accord to the image is the result of the fact that the image, not the object, is defective. Weber consciously uses the term "ideal-type" rather than "form" as he is very frank that human beings create ideal-types, which do not exist at some transcendental level, some realm of the forms. Moreover, Weber is very frank that it is the ideal-type which is "one-sided" and not reality that is imperfect from the vantage of logic. Reality is complex and the imagination is limited. We do our best to understand reality with limited resources.

Weber is very clear that epistemology is divorced from morality. What is entailed in morality is embracing a one-sided ideal and rejecting reality for not "living up" to it. There is no one who does not do this and it is at the heart of being human. Knowing that its origins may be a logical fallacy in no way means that you will or even could give it up.

This deliciously fucked-up moment is both the origin of postmodernity and perhaps the clearest ideal-type to date of the human condition. Weber, more than any other philosopher, understands tragedy.

So, no, you don't have to be a geek to know a geek. You can model it as a logical category, even if you can't really understand it through empathy. You may not really know what a "good" geek is. You don't have to know that it's good to be a geek or that a geek is a good thing.

Foucault ends The Archaeology of Knowledge by saying of the modernity that emerged from the Enlightenment, "They cannot bear (and one cannot but sympathize) to hear someone saying: 'Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he.'"

In the starkness of the world that Foucault describes, there is a deep solace in the fact that at least some individuals who have been initiated and acculturated into a world of contradictory identities can find a common identity with others from a radically different context. This identity offers a certain freedom from the institutionally enforced basis of family life or the all-pervasive disciplinary influence of the modern state. Both of these identities, despite their value, have their Schmittian fascist undertones which cannot easily be reconciled with human freedom. Being a geek is a strange, unexpected identity born from self-imposed discipline that emerges from the simple personality trait of being a compulsive, obssessive thinker.

Having such a mind hurts. It hurts because its own disposition forces it to experience a lack of psychological resonance as it looks at the contradictions of its given identities. Such a mind is forced, as a result of its own proclivity for probing the world, for making rational sense of the world, into seeing the interstices where the constructs come together and where their artificiality is most apparent. The resulting awareness that the content of identity is not natural, not "of" some transcendent, divine world of forms, but created, fallible and constantly revised, and yet utterly necessary to our psychological well-being, is traumatic. It forces you into solitude and isolation. It disconnects you from an assumptive world shared by all those that you love. This has been the greatest source of pain and sorrow in my life.

Yet, if the person who has such a mind has a desire or a drive to be an agent of healing, there is deep meaning to be found in such a life, and in this love, there is a balm for one's suffering.

Moreover, there is always someone else, from some strange, far away, bewildering context, who shares this experience. That person is a geek. And if you are lucky, he or she is a good geek. And while this still does not offer a Platonic moment of recognition, it sure doesn't suck to know that in this crazy world there are others who are just as fucked-up as you are.

And who knows? Maybe together, the geeks can heal the world.



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