#AcWriMo: Identity

I am intermittently participating in Scholarshapes’ “reflective” #AcWriMo for 2018, not necessarily in-step with the prompts. I previously wrote a post on the topic “about”; today’s post is on identity categories, the prompt for day 14.

In some ways my scholarship seems to have almost nothing to do with my identity. Being entirely superficial about it, I am not, for instance, primarily interested in questions of gender, sexuality, religion, or rural, small-town identity. In each case, I recognize the importance of and like reading about these issues to incorporate into my teaching, but they are not the questions that comes first to my mind when I sit down to research. Nor do I research books, games, sports, or food, my other hobbies and interests, though I hope to research food as part of a future project. In fact, the questions that come first to me as a student and now an early-career scholar tend to look like those of someone who grew up reading old-school political histories and fantasy novels—probably because I was.

This does not, however, mean that my identity is absent from the types of questions that influence my research. It just took a while to figure out what linked the questions I kept coming back to in classes and, eventually my dissertation.

There are outliers, but unifying threads to most of my research is the tension between the center and periphery and a dissatisfaction with histories that normalize the political, cultural and economic centers. This manifests in a number of forms, including an interest in how the Macedonian court of Philip and Alexander incorporated newcomers into their court, interest in the Roman provinces, and an interest in parts of Greece outside Athens and Sparta. In particular, it manifests in my main research project that reinterprets the position of Ionia in the Aegean. The question is how any of this a reflection of my identity.

I grew up in small town Vermont, far enough north that I’ve had people tell me that it might as well have been Canada. Fads and trends came almost stereotypically late before the arrival of fast internet, like in Pawnee from Parks and Rec. In fact, Woodbury, which is where I went to elementary school, was peripheral to the larger town of Hardwick, where I went to high school, meaning that this peripherality operated on two levels. Adding to all of this was that my parents had moved to Vermont from the midwest. I recall that the integration to high school was harder coming from Woodbury than anything about my parents’ backgrounds, but these factors are all woven together into my background.

I don’t consciously think in these terms when I choose what I research, but in retrospect these factors absolutely shape my approach to history as much as they shape my exasperation with New York or Los Angeles as normal for America.***

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***This is not exclusively an urban-rural distinction, or a coastal-flyover one, but a complaint about using a funhouse mirror version of two of the largest metro areas in the United States as shorthand for “American” in cultural representation.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.

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Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.

Geeks: A few thoughts

Several days ago on CNN’s GeekOut blog, Joe Peacock wrote a post titled Booth babes need not apply. The gist of his argument is that the Geekdom has been infiltrated by attractive women who appear at various conventions scantily clad “just to satisfy their hollow egos.” He continues, saying that there are “true” female geeks, some of whom are even attractive (after all, “being beautiful is not a crime” and he does exhort you to “flaunt it if you got it”), and praising their effect on the Geekdom because, as a result, books, movies, and tv shows are smarter and of better quality. The women Peacock has a problem with are the “beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work.” They are poachers, he says, who “seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street” and “have no interest or history in gaming.” As though he had not been blunt enough, he continues:

“They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.”

He points to a problem that:

“There’s an entire contingent of guys in geekdom who absolutely love you, because inside, they’re 13 year old boys who like to objectify women and see them as nothing more than butts and a pair of boobs to be leered at,”

so “fake” women are able to make a living off the hard-earned dollar and immaturity of geeks, BUT:

“Those of us who actually like substance? We’ll be over here celebrating great comics, great games, great art, great movies and great television, because we’re actually attracted to a completely different body part: the brain.”

Those particular quotes jumped out at me, but enough on Peacock. There have been several quite cogent responses to what Peacock wrote, including from John Scalzi who declare in no uncertain terms that there is not a single spokesman for the Geekdom and anyone who who wants to be a geek is allowed to be a geek in whatever way he or she wants, Forbes, which argues that getting up in arms about fake geeks is just a stupid business plan (duh…the first rule of customer service–ahead of “the customer is always right” is that anyone who wants to spend money on your business should be allowed to), Liz Argall, who adds some notes about being a woman who is a geek, but does have some issues with the sleaziness of the Geekdom, and Genevieve Dempre.

My first reaction (as it often is to random extended rants online) is: who cares? My second is: CNN has a blog with the descriptor “It takes one to know one. When it comes to topics of interest to nerds, geeks, and superfans, we know how true that is. Geek Out! features stories from a nerd’s perspective that you can still share with your “normal” friends and family.”? Perhaps it is because I am a man, but more likely because I find it relatively easy to dismiss the rants of a single individual online, I am almost more offended by the blog description than by the post. I play board games, roleplaying games, video games, and follow sports closely. Most of my “normal” friends and family have done the same at some point or another and if they haven’t, they can be on the outside looking in for the moment without getting offended or weirded out; if they can’t, then I am fairly certain that I would not be friends with them. A blog like this reinforces the stereotype of “geeks, nerds, and superfans” as being a uniform other when the reality is that everyone has the things about which they are passionate and my geekness is different from other people’s geekness. At various points in my life I have been self-defined as and called a geek, a nerd, and a dork. Sometimes it is malicious, sometimes it is a compliment. Once upon a time the labels bothered me, but I moved on. I am who I am, I study what interests me, I read what I want, and just don’t have time to worry about the labels that come along with those actions. I would much rather be myself and let other people try to describe me through labels than choose labels and try to become what I have chosen. This is the long way of saying that labels are, by and large, a waste of time. The blog itself might contain many interesting stories, but that a major news outlet is carrying a blog so designed bothers me.

Though Peacock goes about it in a rather ham-handed manner, he does bring up some valid points about geeks and women in that the tendency to create social outcasts out of people who fail to conform or lack the social skills to make friends is a persistent issue, and certainly high school (the flawed model of social interaction that it is) does often result in a division between the popular kids and the geeks. But perhaps it is the Geekdom itself, what with generations of stereotypical social outcasts and misanthropes, combined with popular culture, that perpetuates the more insidious myth that because you are a geek you therefore lack social graces and of course the popular girl won’t ever talk to you. Because of this myth, the geek never develops social graces and, in turn, develops his own misanthropy, thereby perpetuating the cycle. The lack of social interaction, most likely, develops from a discomfort from both directions, but in order to change this one side or the other has to make a leap of faith that the other side is more than their stereotype. Sure, people can be mean and cruel, so it is possible that the cheerleader will turn up her nose at the geek, but it is also possible that the geek will make her undergo initiation to prove her intelligence/cred/whatever. Both sides of these imaginary communities need to be just a bit nicer to each other.

I should also point out that I generally feel honored when a pretty girl is in my presence, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I am a man. I don’t feel dishonored when another man or a woman I don’t find particularly attractive physically is in my presence and, in many instances, I am and/or would be more honored by a man in my presence than a woman. I may even gawk. I also can’t deny that there is a chance I would act differently in the presence of a pretty woman–there is a reason that coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and most sales jobs actively seek attractive women to work for them, though there always has to be a balance between competence and looks. Sex sells. This does not mean that you should treat the “ugly people” (barista, bartender, author) badly by any stretch of the imagination, but in a capitalist system, you do whatever you can to make sales.1 And for “booth babes”? Even if they are only there for the modeling gig, I would guess that it has more to do with the money than for the leering eyes. To think otherwise would be akin to thinking that the dancers at a strip club really get up on stage in front of strange men for the attention. Some women probably do enjoy taking their clothes off in front of men and performing, but in such a purely objectified way (as Peacock seems to argue) is improbable. More likely, most dancers do so because they have few other options and need to eat. Besides, even according to Peacock’s article, geeks aren’t exactly the prime demographic for such attention seeking, money-grubbing women (as they are described in the article) to seek.2

The rest of the misogyny I will leave for other people to address, as they have summed it up better than I can.

What I want to conclude with are some of Peacock’s assumptions about men. Women have done wonderful work for science fiction, fantasy, comic books, movies, etc, but I still think that the best authors in the field are men. This is not a sexist comment, but rather an observation (with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear sitting on the table in front of me). I suppose that these male authors could be writing good books because there are more women than there used to be who will read them, but I can only think of the phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc here. I suspect that they write good books because they are good authors, not because of any particular demographic shift in their readership. It may actually be that the growing acceptability of being a geek (I suspect due to the internet and, perhaps ironically, due to a growing emphasis on entitlement and individuality that, I think, is having some particularly nasty side effects) has caused better writing and more women being involved the Geekdom. Peacock’s “boys will be boys, except for those of us who are just above the fray” argument bothers me because it assumes that most men are incapable of being polite, incapable of enjoying a good book, or a good movie. Men retard culture and women are required to improve it. Only, not all women, because some of theme are leeches.

Yes, there are serious social issues with misogyny, manners, and stereotypes, but going on a fundamentally flawed rant that actually buys into many of these stereotypes just perpetuates the problem. I nearly subtitled this post “Who cares?,” as was my initial reaction. There are real issues address when it comes to the Geekdom, so, perhaps most of all, the focus on how “real” of a geek someone is, or how real a hipster, or a feminist, or most anyone else is vis a vis their cultural tag is pointless. To quote Admiral Percy Fitzwallace from the West Wing, “I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”


1 When I managed a Quizno’s, my boss once saw a young woman come in for an interview and immediately told me to hire her. I did so, but only after going through the application and deciding she was qualified for the position and would be a good fit–not because she was attractive.
2 More than the posers, though, Peacock suggests that his real problem is with the corporations who have learned that geeks have money and are now exploiting their basest immature fantasies. While this is probably true, I still don’t understand how this is any different from any sort of advertising or business model…ever. A monied economy basically boils down to the idea that there is a set amount of money out there, so people go to work in order to gain some of this money, most directly my creating a business that will provide some good or service that the person or people with money need or want in order to persuade them to give that money to the business owner. The employees are willing to trade their time in order to share in that income, and then some other business finds a way to separate those people from their money. The fact that corporations or pretty women have found a way to seperate another group of people from their money shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.