The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons
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171 pages
English

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What happens when math nerds, band and theater geeks, goths, sci-fi fanatics, Young Republican debate poindexters, techies, Trekkies, D&D players, wallflowers, bookworms, and RPG players grow up? And what can they tell us about the life of the mind in the contemporary United States? With #GamerGate in the national news, shows like The Big Bang Theory on ever-increasing numbers of screens, and Peter Orzsag and Paul Ryan on magazine covers, it is clear that nerds, policy wonks, and neoconservatives play a major role in today's popular culture in America. The Year's Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons delves into subcultures of intellectual history to explore their influence on contemporary American intellectual life. Not limiting themselves to describing how individuals are depicted, the authors consider the intellectual endeavors these depictions have come to represent, exploring many models and practices of learnedness, reflection, knowledge production, and opinion in the contemporary world. As teachers, researchers, and university scholars continue to struggle for mainstream visibility, this book illuminates the other forms of intellectual excitement that have emerged alongside them and found ways to survive and even thrive in the face of dismissal or contempt.


Acknowledgements
Introduction: Working in and on Nerds, Wonks, and Neo-Cons, this Year and to Come / Jonathan P. Eburne and Benjamin Schreier
1. Wonk Masculinity / Dennis Allen
2. Surface Worship, Super-Public Intellectuals, and the Suspiciously Common Reader / William J. Maxwell
3. Stratigraphic Form: Science Fictions of the Present / Warren Liu
4. Obsession, Pathology, and Justice: Nerds, Bodies, Winsor McCay, and the 1893 Chicago Fair / Nathan L. Grant
5. The Neoconservative Imagination / Jennifer Glaser
6. Conservative and Internationalist: George S. Schuyler's Pulp Fiction and The Imperialism of The Oppressed / Sara Marzioli
7. The Turing Test and Other Love Songs / Brian Glavey
8. Sex and the Single Nerd: The Schizo Saga of Genes, Genius, and Finally Getting Some / Judith Roof
9. Nerds in Capes: Courtly Love and the Erotics of Medievalism / Jamie Taylor
10. Comic Book Kid/ Scott T. Smith
11. Walking Simulators, #GamerGate, and the Gender of Wandering / Melissa Kagen
12. The Fan as Public Intellectual in "RaceFail '09" / Siobhan Carroll
13. Autism, Nerds, and Insecurity / Chloe Silverman
Afterword: Professors Without Chairs / Aaron S. Lecklider
Index

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Date de parution 17 avril 2017
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EAN13 9780253026873
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THE YEAR S WORK IN NERDS, WONKS , AND NEOCONS
THE YEAR S WORK: STUDIES IN FAN CULTURE AND CULTURAL THEORY
Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, editors
THE YEAR S WORK IN NERDS, WONKS , AND NEOCONS
EDITED BY JONATHAN P. EBURNE BENJAMIN SCHREIER
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
This book is a publication of
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
Office of Scholarly Publishing
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Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
iupress.indiana.edu
2017 by Indiana University Press
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z 39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress
Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Comentale, Edward P., editor. | Jaffe, Aaron, editor.
Title: The year s work in nerds, wonks, and necons / Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, editors.
Description: Bloomington, Indiana : Indiana University Press, [2017] | Series: The year s work: studies in fan culture and cultural theory | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016040462 (print) | LCCN 2017000858 (ebook) | ISBN 9780253026187 (cl : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780253026828 (pb : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780253026873 (eb)
Subjects: LCSH : United States-Intellectual life-21st century. | Intellectuals-United States-21st century. | Popular culture-United States-21st century. | Stereotypes (Social psychology)-United States-21st century.
Classification: LCC E 169.12 . Y 33 2017 (print) | LCC E 169.12 (ebook) | DDC 306.0973/0905-dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016040462
1 2 3 4 5 22 21 20 19 18 17
So this is it, said Arthur, we are going to die.
Yes, said Ford, except no! Wait a minute! He suddenly lunged across the chamber at something behind Arthur s line of vision. What s this switch? he cried.
What? Where? cried Arthur, twisting round.
No, I was only fooling, said Ford, we are going to die after all.
He slumped against the wall again and carried on the tune from where he had left off.
The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 1979. Reprinted by kind permission of the Estate of Douglas Adams.
CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
INTRODUCTION : Working in and on Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons, This Year and to Come
JONATHAN P. EBURNE BENJAMIN SCHREIER
PART I: THROUGH GLASSES, DORKILY
1 Wonk Masculinity
DENNIS ALLEN
2 Surface Worship, Super-Public Intellectuals, and the Suspiciously Common Reader
WILLIAM J. MAXWELL
3 Stratigraphic Form: Science Fictions of the Present
WARREN LIU
4 Obsession, Pathology, and Justice: Nerds, Bodies, Winsor McCay, and the 1893 Chicago Fair
NATHAN L. GRANT
5 The Neoconservative Imagination
JENNIFER GLASER
6 Conservative and Internationalist: George S. Schuyler s Pulp Fiction and the Imperialism of the Oppressed
SARA MARZIOLI
7 The Turing Test and Other Love Songs
BRIAN GLAVEY
PART II: NATURE, NURTURE, NERD: WAYS OF BEING
8 Sex and the Single Nerd: The Schizo Saga of Genes, Genius, and Finally Getting Some
JUDITH ROOF
9 Nerds in Capes: Courtly Love and the Erotics of Medievalism
JAMIE TAYLOR
10 Comic Book Kid
SCOTT T. SMITH
11 Walking Simulators, #GamerGate, and the Gender of Wandering
MELISSA KAGEN
12 The Fan as Public Intellectual in RaceFail 09
SIOBHAN CARROLL
13 Autism, Nerds, and Insecurity
CHLOE SILVERMAN
AFTERWORD : Professors without Chairs
AARON S. LECKLIDER
INDEX
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Years ago, like when he was first hired as a junior faculty member at Penn State, Ben had an idea for a conference- or seminar-type affair about the New York intellectuals and what they mean today-that is, framed otherwise than by the more or less standard, and reflexive, oscillation between relatively leftist and relatively rightist nostalgic yearnings. Then Jonathan had the idea-and the pluck-to adapt and expand this idea into something like the kernel of what you now see before you. In turn, Jonathan had the energy to keep at it, and Ben had the wisdom to follow his suggestions. So, first and foremost, we acknowledge, and thank, each other.
A few moments ago, Jonathan decided that an epigraph from The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy might make an appropriate opening statement for the contents of this volume. He is currently reading this novel with his ten-year-old daughter, Adelaide, having never done so previously; it is no less a rite of passage for traditional nerds than reciting dialogues from Monty Python-its author, Douglas Adams, was in fact friendly with the Python group and collaborated on a number of radio plays with them. And so the world turns.
Until of course, it ceases to do so: one of the premises of The Hitchhiker s Guide is that the earth has, in fact, been obliterated, owing less to the relentless human exhaustion of the ecosphere than to a bit of interplanetary bureaucracy. The premise is, needless to say, a resonant one. To compile a volume of essays about Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons in an era when we are facing the nonfictional possibilities of global collapse might seem no less alien-or maddeningly flip-of a gesture than Ford Prefect s joke in the face of imminent doom. Only fooling! Such jokes are inveterately nerdy: inappropriate, untimely, and curiously unsentimental. It is in the spirit of such inappropriateness, untimeliness, and curious unsentimentality that we offer this series of reflections on unpopular intellectuals: these may not be the intellectuals you re looking for. The solutions they offer may or may not claim to solve the world s most pressing problems, or to find the secret, hidden switch to reverse all our woe. But who knows? Maybe they will. Either way, why not keep on humming a tune in the meantime? And why not keep on reading? We thus wish to thank you, dear reader, for at least getting this far.
Before the contents of this volume became a book, they took the form of a day-long symposium, held on April 29, 2013, in State College, Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Penn State English Department s Center for American Literary Studies. Thanks to CALS and its intrepid director, Sean Goudie, for making that symposium such a success. And thanks, too, of course, to the twelve symposiasts, most of whom are represented here in this book: Siobhan Carroll, Ed Comentale, Brian Glavey, Jennifer Glaser, Nathan Grant, Aaron Jaffe, Warren Liu, Bill Maxwell, J. Paul Narkunas, James Braxton Peterson, Judith Roof, and Jamie Taylor. We would also like to thank Cheryl Mohr for her support in organizing the symposium, as well as the students and faculty who attended the event.
We would also like to thank the Year s Work series editors, Ed Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, for their enthusiasm toward the project-as well as for their own participation in the original symposium. We are grateful, too, for the support of Indiana University Press, particularly Janice Frisch, in seeing this volume through production, as well as Caren Irr, who offered important feedback, and David Shumway, who reviewed the manuscript.
THE YEAR S WORK IN NERDS, WONKS, AND NEOCONS
INTRODUCTION: WORKING IN AND ON NERDS, WONKS, AND NEOCONS, THIS YEAR AND TO COME
JONATHAN P. EBURNE BENJAMIN SCHREIER
It says a lot about your intellectual life if you remember being pushed around for wearing glasses and reading books as a kid-or if you remember pushing around kids who wore glasses and read books. Such persecutions may have faded to a distant memory or persist as a lingering ordeal. But what was the appeal-or the pathology-of glasses and books in the first place? Perhaps you were a Young Republican and flourished on the debating club; perhaps you were the manager for the varsity sports team, more comfortable with a clipboard than a sports bra or jockstrap. Were these expressions of social belonging (or nonbelonging), or were they active interests, ruling passions that comprised the very lifeblood of intellectual existence? Band and theater geeks, lab rats, wallflowers, bookworms, math nerds, goths, sci-fi fanatics, RPG players: the typology of adolescent outcasts reveals a variety of intellectual subclasses that form part of the basic landscape of school-age flora and fauna, a cross-fertilization of patterns of socialization and patterns of intellectualism. But what can it tell us about intellectual life more broadly? What happens to such ruling passions, for instance, when the kids grow up, go to college, and find work? The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons takes seriously the kinds of thinkers-and ruling passions-often marginalized or considered simply too weird, too annoying, or too divisive to be considered as real public forms of intellectualism. Nerds, wonks, and neoconservatives have much to tell us about subcultures of adults and kids who pursue the life of the mind in ways that may not fully register among the traditional ranks of public intellectuals, whether pundits or professors. Such subcultures are the subject of this book.
The history of modern American intellectuals has been told, in many ways and by many people, as a history of marginalization. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) Richard Hofstadter charts the development and enforcement of a wide and unhealthy gap between American intellectuals and the people, as Arthur Schlesinger put it. 1 Hofstadter addresses the Cold War-era images and public discourses that increasingly cast the intellectual as an outsider or oddity, fatally out of step with the governing forces of business and political decision making. The intellectual no longer stood for us, We the People, but instead designated a wordy and pretentious man [ sic ], subject to a ruling passion incompatible with the norms of production, decisive action, and the accumulation of capital. 2 The nerd, we might say, became a figure for this outcast (though presumably elite) intellectual, whereas the wonk became the sanctioned number cruncher whose intellectualism was put to work in the service of other ruling passions. The neoconservative emerged, by contrast, as something of a reaction formation: a thinking person no longer bound to the ideal communities of knowledge to which intellectualism might otherwise dedicate itself, but instead a strategist of the free market. 3
Intellectualism persists, these roles suggest, but in oddly countercultural forms. The academy has long embraced-or at least acknowledged-the simmering, rebellious leftist or the European philosopher-critic as available figures for such a counterculture; Lionel Trilling s indictment of the adversary culture of US intellectuals became one of the key prooftexts of the neoconservatives, after all. All the same, most American college professors and students have long since abandoned their berets and black turtlenecks. The communard and the gallant philosopher-king still resonate as asymptotic ideals in many undergraduate literary theory courses, but their sublime alienation is already an acquired taste. Far more available is the experience of alienation itself, an alienation not simply of the intellectual but also from the collective experience of intellectual life. A passionate interest in ideas tends to be marked by an alternative set of social and sartorial codes: corrective lenses; social awkwardness in the face of a prevailing climate of sexual, athletic, and corporate precocity; ethnic and sexual difference; or private, even secret coteries of shared interest. Intellectual passion has, we might say, gone underground. Or rather, it inhabits the oddball margins of popular culture itself as the result of a stubborn paradox in American society, as Aaron Lecklider puts it, by which popular culture encourages brainpower while deflating the pretensions of those who [are] labeled as overly intelligent. 4
Nerds-along with wonks and neocons-are figures of persistence, cultivating their idiosyncratic gardens of ideas. All the same, the anti-intellectual stigmas and prejudices attached to such figures are no less persistent. In Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope (2007), the child psychiatrist David Anderegg reminds us that the term nerd still bears a major stigma in spite of its ironic adoption as a marketing category and marker of social affiliation; he likewise interrogates the tendency merely to recast a derogatory name for maladjusted youths as a moniker for unorthodox intellectuals. Hipsters in their twenties might find it empowering to sport giant glasses and dress in carefully curated unfashionable clothing, pursuing their counterhegemonic passions in small intentional communities. But the same cannot be said of most middle-school children, for instance, who still view the nerd as a maladjusted outsider, manifesting a queerness defined less in terms of sexual preference than in terms of phantasmatic notions of scholastic normality. Nerds may be everywhere, finding economic and social prestige later in life, but as children and adolescents they often remain painfully invisible, or, for that matter, hypervisible as archetypal outcasts, rejects, nobodies. The antisocial and counternormative behaviors attributed to adolescent and preadolescent forms of intellectual passion have, Anderegg argues, done much to police against the very formation and acknowledgement of intellectual interests. Wonks and neocons might designate adult career decisions, but the specter of nerdiness still casts a long shadow over the intellectual development of children and adults alike-and thus to the very development and institutionalization of social behavior.
This doesn t mean, however, that nerds, or wonks, or neocons are exempt from bad behavior. The terrain of nerdiness and intellectual passion is rife with turf wars and clashes, as both Siobhan Carroll and Melissa Kagen discuss in their contributions to this volume. The recent Ghostbusters reboot (2016) is a case in point: even before the film s release, scores of ghostbros bum-rushed Twitter and online review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes with scathing reviews of the film, on account of its largely female cast. The original Ghostbusters (1984) was such a cherished classic of supernatural humor, apparently, that a woman-centered reboot presented a sacrilege to nerddom and fandom alike. This film has already killed everything good about the franchise, writes one blogger, noting that back in early May [i.e., before the film was released] I wrote about how terrible this film was likely to be. 5 Such categorical judgments confirm how deeply antisocial nerdy behavior can be. Yet they also register the ugly side of intellectual passion, the extent to which the interests of unpopular intellectuals can lead to hatred, violence, and white supremacy as much as to solace or solidarity. What happens when nerds and wonks write for Breitbart?
Nerds, wonks, and neocons may thus be unpopular for a reason. What remains significant even in the ugliest cases of antisocial behavior-whether at #GamerGate or against Ghostbusters , whether as political policy or as political posturing-are the intense intellectual interests that fuel them. The chapters in this volume examine such oddly resilient desires and consider the forms and practices through which they continue to manifest themselves in the contemporary United States. Far from seeking merely to popularize marginalized social types, this book explores what unpopular intellectuals can teach us about the possibilities and passions of maintaining a life of the mind.
Unpopular Intellectuals
It s easy these days to use the word intellectual, and a key reason for this is that the term does so much work so effortlessly. The term and its cognates and compounds-among the more popular of which we can count such academic and journalistic workhorses as intellectual culture, intellectualism, intellectual work , and public intellectual -are powerful levers in our current fascination with the seductive, productive intersections between information and power. We admit that in using such an overdetermined pronoun as our to describe those whom intellectualism serves today, we do so in order to indicate a collectivity, a group, a shared enterprise or space of labor. There may not actually be any such we, any such de jure collectivity, in spite of the fact that many people in many professional and institutional contexts still appeal to it, or maybe just expect to rely on it.
But this is precisely the point: intellectual remains a functional concept because it is so often assumed to be constitutive and representational above all else. Insofar as naming them has the strange effect of calling us into being, we assume that the pronouns us and we offer up for consideration a social or political formation that is nonetheless real in one way or another: they invoke the promise of a sociopolitical formation whose existence we already expect and whose effects we already desire to discover. Philosophers and intellectual historians differ on the question of how such figures may come to speak for and comprehend the public who call them into being-whether their wisdom stands proleptically in the vanguard of human understanding, for instance, or whether it gives form to the fissures and complexities of that understanding. Either way, we love-or resist-the idea of the intellectual because it instantiates a fundamentally affirmative expectation about social knowledge, implying concrete relays between abstractions such as agency, knowledge, and society. Public intellectuals in the current political and sociological imagination seem almost always to be our representatives, at least ideally so; they are the legislators we wish to acknowledge as the agents of our interests, standing in for models of social action. But who are we? And what kinds of voluntary or involuntary exclusions might any such constitution entail?
Russell Jacoby is probably the most visible critic to champion this positive, representationalist image of the intellectual, a figure who speaks out for truth in opposition to repressive social forces. For Jacoby, the model for speaking out against alienation and oppression in the interest of enlightened integration is the group of mid-twentieth-century cultural critics known as the New York intellectuals: the last broadly significant group of critics in US history, who claimed to speak about culture in its widest, most general, and most political modalities-though also in the name of a liberal, assimilationist, and (hetero-) normative model of inclusivity. 6 Jacoby s view of the intellectual-coordinated by a liberal enlightenment constellation of ideas about power, truth, nation, and agency-can be traced back to mile Zola, whose 1898 newspaper editorial J Accuse ! is often considered the principal manifesto of the modern intellectual as a public figure. For Zola, the act of entering into the public fray voluntarily-at the risk of libel-constituted a revolutionary measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice. Zola s fiery condemnation of the anti-Semitic persecution of Albert Dreyfus for treason was a writerly act carried out in the name of truth, in opposition to the repressive function of the state and popular opinion. The task of the intellectual was to dare to tell the truth, and thus, as Zola writes, I will tell it, because I have promised to tell it, since the regular channels of justice have not adequately done so. My duty is to speak up; I do not want to be an accomplice. In closing his litany of counteraccusations against the military leaders and legal experts who condemned Dreyfus, Zola articulates the very stakes of intellectualism, as Jacoby and other liberal thinkers view it: I have but one passion, he writes: that of enlightenment, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is nothing other than the cry of my very soul. 7 The intellectual is our conscience, our corrective agent; her soul cries out to enlighten the rest of us, in the name of humanity.
Heroic, humanity-enlightening intellectuals continue to air their singular passions in the public arena, in spite of persistent efforts to drum them out. From Julien Benda s 1927 screed against the trahison des clercs , on account of their insouciant meddling in political affairs, to the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the very premise of intellectual agency has become increasingly contested, slighted, and even rendered suspect. Our aim here is hardly to join the chorus of anti-intellectualism and philistinism that rings out all too clearly in the contemporary media. We seek instead to interrogate presumptions about who an intellectual can be, how she can be an intellectual, and on whose behalf her passion might speak. The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons thus extends from contemporary thinking about the particularities and parochialisms of intellectual engagement that takes issue with the universalist image of the public intellectual described by Jacoby and Zola. Such thinking takes its lead from Antonio Gramsci s ideas about the organic (as opposed to the traditional ) intellectual, who speaks in the interest of a specific social class to which she belongs, as well as from Michel Foucault s notion of the specific (as opposed to the universal ) intellectual, who forges solidarities with others in local struggles for institutional and discursive power. 8 For a large number of such thinkers, Zola s but one passion hardly seems to be the appropriate fuel for political change; and the task of enlightening a suffering, presumably ignorant public suggests a presumptuousness well out of step with the corporate structures and risk management protocols to which so much contemporary life adheres. Must those on whose behalf an intellectual speaks be so woefully in the dark? We might take heed here of Frantz Fanon s ruthless dismantling of the cosmopolitan native intellectual for his tendency to assimilate to, rather than resist, the dominant culture-precisely in claiming to speak on behalf of the unenlightened. 9 Must intellectual activity be so restricted in its guiding passions-and does writing newspaper editorials constitute the only legitimate means for exercising this passion? In the face of the many barriers that restrict public access-or that restrict the public to be accessed-the passions and truth-claims of intellectuals have been not so much exhausted as overdetermined.
The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons asks what happens when we interrogate the affirmative, representational expectations about intellectual labor to which even such contemporary models adhere. Beyond mourning, decrying, or simply denying the marginalization of intellectuals in contemporary US culture, the chapters in this volume pinpoint alternative forms and models of intellectual passion, even from within the alleged margins themselves. Beyond simply updating the models we invoke to represent our interests-is there an mile Zola for the millennial generation?-this volume asks whether we may have spent too long in front of magic mirrors, ignoring the growing disparity between the ideal figures we seek and the living complexities of our contemporary world. It s not so much a question of whether Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, or Cornell West, Slavoj i ek, and Howard Zinn-or, for that matter, Irving or Bill Kristol-still lay claim to representing us. Rather, it is a question of whether representing is the best rubric under which to think about the relationship of such figures to the manifold possible ways of thinking about us. Instead of seeking a reflection or recognition of our ruling passions, we find a proliferation of passionate scholars and proto-scholars whose interests, and whose features, may or may not resemble our own.
Whereas the New Deal Brain Trust may now be taken for granted as the very model of how intellectuals can act assertively on behalf of and in the interest of a public, we can also admit that the rise of the neocons in the 1950s and 1960s, in the form of folks like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Gertrude and Milton Himmelfarb, exerts surprisingly dynamic pressure on any pat representational concepts of constituency or liberal inclusivity one might wish to imagine. The mindless media pundits we see on television may be taking over from the measured, thoughtful, careful, and well-intentioned intellectual class of yore. This phenomenon points, on the one hand, to the unregulated commodification of the public, whereby access to media networks is increasingly dominated by large-scale corporations whose commercial and often ideological interests explicitly shape program content; all other media channels-from book, magazine, and newspaper publishing to universities, television, cinema, and the internet-are rendered obsolete or downmarket backwaters. On the other hand, the neocon attack on the premise of liberal inclusivity has since become an ironic point of agreement between the political left and the political right: how dare they represent us ?
Under such conditions, do we simply need a new, fresher crop of intellectuals, or is it time we reconsidered the very function of the intellectual altogether? Such questions open up to a further set of queries in turn: what if the possibilities we presume intellectuals to represent run counter to or even contest the models of representability we hold dear? In place of-or at least alongside-the public intellectual, we propose that the unpopular intellectual is no less deserving of attention, and presents a more variegated image of American intellectual life, warts and all.
The chapters in this volume explore some of the alternative channels that intellectual activity has followed in the contemporary United States, not all of which are heroic or even popular. In American culture, intellectuals are nowhere and everywhere at once: the eggheads of America may no longer represent a consistent, mandarin caste of European-style intellos ; rather, they have scattered and diversified, as have their practices and predilections. Some of the eggs may have cracked, perhaps, but others have simply become harder to find, or harder to recognize. Nerds, wonks, and neocons designate realms and spheres of intellectual passion and pursuit that extend from the local Starbucks to the extemporized laboratory in a suburban garage; from the tech support department to the English department, and from the Junior High Mathletes team to the think tanks and nonprofit institutes of the Washington Beltway. The chapters in this volume explore what, in short, we can learn about the nature-and the future-of American culture by thinking about antisocial intellectuals, or intellectuals who elude or even flout normalized social possibilities.
Nerds, wonks, and neocons are, of course, provisional and often derogatory terms for such ersatz public intellectuals. As we have already begun to suggest, wonkiness names a model of knowledge production that doesn t align with accepted social protocols, insofar as the wonk is precisely she or he who has a nonnormative interest in particular sets of facts or fields of information. The nerd is by popular definition more comfortable sequestered in the laboratory, in the dragon s lair, or on Vulcan than she or he is in the company of the neighborhood kids on the Little League team. And the neocon points to a specific group of Cold War figures who, on behalf of a newly invigorated libertarian individualism, famously contested New Deal presumptions about civil society in terms that have hardened into public self-evidence in a remarkably speedy generation or two. All three designations have become commonplace stylistic markers in contemporary US popular culture, with neocon applying as much to art critics such as Hilton Kramer and Terry Teachout or tradition-minded jazz musicians such Wynton Marsalis, as to any explicit ideology. 10 Wonk has become, in turn, a generalized way of describing an abnormally asocial qualitative relationship to quantitative knowledge, such as when it names the failed folksiness of a policy geek such as Al Gore, whose earth tones and public kisses could never fully displace his relentless, antisocial passion for facts and data. And perhaps most visibly, nerd has come to describe new sartorial trends that seek to redeploy the very fashions that had hitherto amounted to a kiss of social death: bulky corrective glasses, too-short pants, and argyle socks.
Beyond, or perhaps on account of, their increasing vernacular usage, all three terms have become sites of significant transvaluation as well. Once the derogatory name for a socially maladjusted enthusiast of arcane or otherwise difficult knowledge, nerd is now increasingly embraced in an effort to recognize laboratories, reading circles, and dragons lairs as productive sites of youthful interest and attention; wonk designates an entire caste of government policy workers, as well as the increasingly in-demand fellowship of number crunchers and statisticians contracted as invaluable outsiders in business, sports, and industry. And nerds now seem to be everywhere, with the term recast and seemingly rehabilitated as a badge of intellectual empowerment. As Stephen H. Segal puts it in the introduction to his Geek Wisdom , the once-derogatory terms nerd and geek now offer tongue-in-cheek handles for passionate fans of stuff, and particularly of stuff that lies somewhere along one of two cultural axes: math and myth . 11 Nerds and geeks are, in this light, intellectual amateurs, in the literal sense: those who love passionately. Yet unlike Zola s one passion, theirs are often content to remain in the dark, in basements, labs, and online networks, rather than directed explicitly toward the enlightenment of others. With such resurgent roles in mind, the questions about intellectuals and intellectual activity posed in The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons compel us to think about such difficult-to-imagine possibilities as antisocial communities of knowledge; or a concept of intellectual labor mediated by concerns other than a public, or with goals other than power.
In addition to thinking about how and where such communities and forms of labor occur, The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons is attentive to who such alternative intellectuals are, and according to what social, cognitive, sexual, or elective criteria they come to occupy such roles. Thus we could also imagine this inquiry as a series of questions about the styles , as well as the media , of intellectual activity: What would the critique of intellectuality look like were we to concentrate on how and in what contexts intellectuals, intellectual labor, and intellectuality emerge? For that matter, what if we paid as much attention to Zola s beard-linking him to slouchy-beanie-capped hipster Brooklyn pickle mavens and pakol-capped US military commandoes alike-as we do to the liberal traditions of humanist naturalism and bourgeois protest his writings engage? 12 What if intellectuals don t represent us, or our fully formed political concepts, so much as they represent often importantly surface-level, dare we say even superficial , patterns of knowledge, power, and information through which we recognize and model ourselves as we circulate through them? This book expands our understanding of what intellectual means-as both noun and adjective-through an analysis of how its unpopular, queer, and antiheroic forms bear on its status as a conduit for social agency, for communities of knowledge and affinity. How might we imagine a field of inquiry into intellectual activity that does not orbit around the self-evidence of concepts of the popular or liberalism? Nerd, wonk , and neocon name potentially non- or even extraliberal modes of intellectualism within which style is as conspicuous-and as significant-as substance, in which style is substance. As such, our interest in these terms aims to expand the universe of, by contesting the normalized patterns and traditions of, our analysis of the modes, fulcra, fields of operation, and interchanges of the figures of intellectuality that remain alive and dynamic.
With its eye on the awkward, the covert, the single-minded, and the unpopular, The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons explores and complicates the history of intellectual life in the contemporary United States. It looks beyond the scholarly tendency to idealize intellectual activity as the resistant work of Zolaesque figures heroically wielding their pens in the face of corruption and intolerance in order to explore instead other models and practices of learnedness, reflection, knowledge production, and opinion in the contemporary world. In an age marked by dramatic shifts in the media and institutions of knowledge, it has become increasingly important to take stock of the kinds of intellectualism, and the kinds of intellectuals, that persist. As teachers, researchers, and university scholars continue to struggle for mainstream visibility (as well as for funding and employment possibilities), we aim to consider what other forms of attention, excitement, and expertise have emerged alongside them, or as their de facto replacements. If the Zolaesque intellectual inhabits the progressive historical narrative of heroism, enlightenment, and justice, what other narratives and ideological structures frame the way we think and engage with our passion for stuff ?
Everywhere and Nowhere
For all the nerd s idiosyncrasy within traditions of liberal sociality, nerds seem now, more than ever, to be everywhere. Is the modern world run by nerds? Bill Gates is a nerd; Warren Buffet is a nerd; Taylor Swift claims she s a nerd (well, at least she used to make this claim). Nathan Glazer and Paul Krugman are nerds; Rachel Maddow probably is a nerd. Peter Orszag s double BlackBerry holsters confirm that he s a nerd, at least according to the New York Times Magazine , as Dennis Allen discusses in his contribution to this volume. Washington may be swarming with glad-handing political animals, and Hollywood and Wall Street may be teeming with outsized egos, but their ranks are peopled with number crunchers, statisticians, legal analysts, and policy wonks. The great irony of David Fincher s film The Social Network (2010) is its attention to the antisocial tics and habits of its central figure, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Not only is the great inventor of social media a nerd himself, but his own intense, involuted ways of dealing with people have since become the very means through which millions of people now communicate and socialize as well. And in turn Facebook has pioneered the wonky examination-and big-time monetization-of big data. Therefore be nice to your fellow nerds, advises one online fan site, concluding that you never know, you may be working for them one day. 13
Wonks and nerds may always have been with us, but these days we seem to be witnessing an explosion. Nerds are no longer just awkward bookish or science-loving boys, either, but powerful and eccentric girls and women: the popularity of fictional characters such as Hermione Granger and Willow Rosenberg has much to do with the prominence of writers such as Tina Fey, J. K. Rowling, Sarah Vowell, and Amy Sedaris. The agonistic nerd of popular culture used to struggle against the jock, in the hope of proving that nerds could accede to normal social roles. But these days nerds create new social roles that are themselves rapidly accepted and normalized; it s time for nerds to come out of the closet, as the Black Girl Nerds website puts it, and tell the world that they are PROUD to be who they are-no matter what anyone says, does, or thinks. 14 This is one of the basic plot points and a key dramatic axis, we might say, of the recent remake of 21 Jump Street (albeit less so of its inevitable sequel, 22 Jump Street ). The real revenge of the nerd is not simply that the nerd gets the girl (a narrative Judith Roof upends in her chapter here) but that the nerd is what everyone now wants to become. Even the archetypal jock has diversified, opening up into the money-balling number cruncher, the econometrics-minded sports analyst, the statistician: she has become a nerd in fact . The path from geeky MIT and Cal Tech to high-powered Goldman Sachs and K Street is now a clich . From day traders to home brewers to armchair political bloggers to iPhone technophiles to Pinterest scrapbookers, nerds are everywhere. Nerds are not just other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre may or may not have said; they are, in fact, already us.
Rather than offering a socially restricted counterpoint to the American fantasy of libertarian rugged individualism-or, for that matter, just another derogatory word for white male power-the nerd has regularly reemerged over the decades as a kind of stumbling block in the idealization of an American self-image. While not necessarily following a simple populist itinerary, the nerd reappears throughout modern American culture as a point of cultural transfer, marking-but also spanning-the lines of demarcation between rarified practices of knowing and more recognizably practical patterns of agency and intelligence. Whereas the egghead of the 1950s marked an intellectual caste whose whiteness and maleness served to further remove him from the people, or from mass culture in a decade when whiteness had come to signify blandness and an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo, such figurations also helped ensure that intelligence would be inextricably associated with contests over race in relation to American identity, and tied in with representations of social change. 15 True to its Cold War coinage as a marker of the bookish introvert, the nerd designates a category for demarcating intellectualism-as much as a deliberately unfashionable self-styling-that has as much to do today with the intense concentration of interest characteristic of hipsters, locavores, musicians, and diligent introverts, as with the professional investiture of laboratory scientists and other eggheads. Yet it also marks the intellectual passions of gifted thinkers weaned on public libraries and secondhand computers and clothes, for instance: nerds can also be bootstrappers who exercise their dedication to ideas in spite of economic disadvantages, limited school resources, or dysfunctional families. Nerdiness can mark the idiosyncratic cultural idioms of recent or second-generation immigrants, as much as the explicitly antisocial tendencies of shyness, closeted sexuality, or even autism (as Chloe Silverman discusses in this volume). What can such figures-in their powerful and public guises as well as in their more modest and particular incarnations-tell us about the past and future of intellectualism in the United States, as well as throughout the world? What might it mean to consider such unlikely figures as nerds, policy wonks, neoconservatives, and techies, but also the aficionados of comics, sci-fi, RPGs and MMORPGs, bearded Mason jar-bound fermenters and skinny-jeaned fixed-gear bikers, and other fixations as intellectuals, in an age in which bookishness and scholarly commitment already seem unpopular and irrelevant? The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons addresses the increasing fan interest-as well as the increasing political significance-of unpopular activities and intellectuals in US popular culture. Beyond merely attending to the way nerds and wonks are depicted in pop culture, the chapters in this volume address the forms of intellectual endeavor such figures come to represent, as well as the institutions and media that broadcast and shape what it means to be a nerd, a wonk, or a neoconservative.
The public university plays a major role in the rise of nerds, wonks, and neocons in US popular culture, especially during the long decades of the Cold War, when the university fully emerged as a US State apparatus. All the same, the university is an overdetermined site for the circulation of such unpopular intellectualism. Universities may function as an important pillar of what used to be called the military industrial complex, but they also house errant intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, and have produced generations of hippies, draft dodgers, protesters, and introverts alike. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the struggle over universities as privileged sites of intellectual culture reached its peak during the very period when such institutions provided the greatest access to secondary education for an American public. Even so, universities are hardly the only site for intellectualism in the United States, whether popular or unpopular. Whether the liberalism of New York intellectuals after WWII; the implicit or explicit radicalism of communists, worker movements, black or Chican@ radicals, and other political movements; or the rightism of neoconservatives who dominated the afterlife of the New York intellectual group, our classic understanding of public intellectuals has always tended to exist in a relation to university curricula that can at best be described as oblique. The same is true for nerds and wonks, and increasingly so. Far from fixing static definitions of entities such as university, state functionary, public intellectual, activist, or expert, our goal in this collection is instead to analyze how such institutions contribute to the complex and multivalent processes of knowledge production, circulation, and utilization. Nerds, wonks, and neocons have much to teach us about how such processes work.
About This Book
This volume features new essays on topics ranging from comic-book fanboys to cape-wearing college women; from autistic children to artificial intelligence; and from the FBI s employment of ghostreaders to spy on African American writers to the science fiction of black neoconservative author George Schuyler. These essays aim both to chart a thematic anatomy of twenty-first-century intellectualism and to establish a set of critical keywords for an analysis of contemporary intellectual cultures. By turns traditional and profane, the essays in this book approach the question of popular and unpopular intellectuals in the postwar United States with creativity and humor-but without losing sight of the topic s exigency.
The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons is bifocal in structure. The collection opens with a series of chapters that explore the means through which less-than-popular intellectualism has been exercised, whether as a practice of social exclusion or as a more recuperative method of interpretation and cultural analysis. Working across the spectrum of US politics, from left wing to right wing, from the center to the margins, this first series of chapters, Through Glasses, Dorkily, investigate specific patterns of creative thought, writing, and interpretation demarcated by terms such as nerd, geek, and spaz -as well as by their governmental counterparts such as wonk, wonkette, pundit, or neocon. The seven chapters in this section offer much to teach us about ways we can look through glasses, dorkily, to understand new ways of reading in the contemporary world.
The volume s first half opens with Dennis Allen s Wonk Masculinity, which addresses the struggle between vita activa and vita contemplativa in the image-marketing campaigns of two contemporary male policy wonks, the one-time presidential hopeful Paul Ryan and the former Obama White House budget director Peter Orszag. Allen s chapter examines how ideas and anxieties about the nature of (white) masculinity emerge into visibility in the concept of the wonk. Allen s analysis of the stakes of image making both above and beneath the Washington Beltway is followed by William J. Maxwell s discussion of more clandestine government acts during the Cold War in chapter 2 . In Surface Worship, Super-public Intellectuals, and the Suspiciously Common Reader, Maxwell investigates the contemporary decline of public intellectualism and the rise of surface reading in terms of the modes of suspicion typified and exerted by the FBI in its surveillance of African American intellectuals.
Countering suspicious and surface reading alike with a practice of reading nerdily, Warren Liu investigates a deep, obsessional form of reading that draws from both science fiction and geology. Chapter 3 , Stratigraphic Form: Science Fictions of the Present, offers for consideration a devotional approach to reading, and to knowledge, that contests the hyperspecialization and professionalization of the contemporary scholarly world, without losing sight of its own passions and priorities. In chapter 4 , Nathan L. Grant offers a parallel history of reading nerdily, albeit a more ambivalent one. In Obsession, Pathology, and Justice: Nerds, Bodies, Winsor McCay, and the 1893 Chicago Fair, Grant studies Winsor McCay s massively popular turn-of-the-century comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland as a model for nerdy fascination that approached the hegemonic consumer capitalism of white America as an enchanting spectacle. Rather than considering the nerd as a figure for intellectual resistance, Grant s proto-nerd Nemo offers a model for both the counterculture and the hypercapitalism of entrepreneurial pop-culture icons such as Walt Disney and Will Eisner.
Such suspicion toward the public sphere is the subject of chapter 5 , Jennifer Glaser s The Neoconservative Imagination, which discusses how the neocon rejection of democratic liberalism persists within contemporary literature. In chapter 6 , Sara Marzioli offers a parallel genealogy of African American neoconservativism in her discussion of George Schuyler s speculative fiction and newspaper editorials; in Conservative and Internationalist: George S. Schuyler s Pulp Fiction and the Imperialism of the Oppressed, Marzioli argues for the contemporary significance of Schuyler s hostility toward black internationalism as a spur for independent thinking. The very possibility of independent thinking lies at the heart of Brian Glavey s The Turing Test and Other Love Songs. In this final chapter in the volume s first section, Glavey addresses the recent popularity of Alan Turing s work in artificial intelligence, which complicates the relationship between knowledge-or information-and the human. Glavey examines popular speculations about the question of whether machines can think and of whether humans can be replaced by machines, and in doing so demonstrates the extent to which rule-bound and algorithmic thought -thinking not only like a computer, but also like a nerd-is not necessarily an impediment to thinking about sex or even love, and in fact relates deeply to modern techniques in lyric poetry.
The second half of the volume, Nature, Nurture, Nerd: Ways of Being, features six chapters that explore the vicissitudes of living as a nerd or recognizable practitioner of otherwise less-than-popular intellectual activities, whether through self-identification or genetic accident. From communities of sci-fi fans, gamers, and medievalists to the diagnostic spectrum of autism, this section offers a poignant and playful examination of popular reimaginations of contemporary intellectualism as a cultural style.
Chapter 8 , Judith Roof s Sex and the Single Nerd: The Schizo Saga of Genes, Genius, and Finally Getting Some, studies the hidden recesses of masculine sexuality attributed to nerds throughout contemporary popular culture. Rather than presuming that nerds are asexual or flatly unattractive, Roof studies how the so-called revenge of nerds draws directly from the traditional assignation of masculine sexual prowess to geniuses. Roof thus criticizes popular representations of nerds according to which self-proclaimed geniuses can vicariously live out delusions of masculine empowerment instead of working to surpass the limitations of both brawn and brains. An important counterpoint to Roof s assessment of male nerds in popular culture is Jamie Taylor s Nerds in Capes: Courtly Love and the Erotics of Medievalism, which offers a case study of self-styled nerdy subcultures at the all-women s Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The cape-wearing college-age fans of medieval culture present themselves as elusive and strange outsiders who are extraordinarily dedicated to their obscure hobbies without sacrificing their social and sexual interests. For Taylor, the Capies form a nerd community that self-consciously embraces and enables the possibility for women who pursue intellectual and erotic pleasures simultaneously.
In chapter 10 , Scott T. Smith, himself a scholar of medieval literature, offers an autobiographically driven analysis of how it becomes possible to pursue both scholarship and comic-book fandom: to be, in other words, both a professional academic and a nerd. Whereas the rise in academic credibility of graphic novels has shifted the lines of demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable objects of scholarly study, the passions with which comics fans approach the topic remain problematic, if not alien, within the university. In Comic Book Kid, Smith thus seeks to interrogate the cultural formation and status of different modes of intellectual work and expertise that comic books demand.
In chapter 11 , Melissa Kagen studies the sociological shifts in the gamer community that arise as video games become increasingly mainstream, rather than the province of nerdy fan subcultures. Kagan s Walking Simulators, #GamerGate, and the Gender of Wandering examines the online debates about the role-and especially the gender-of so-called hardcore gamers in the increasingly culturally diverse world of video game fandom. The chapter focuses on #GamerGate, a hotly contested Internet debate about walking simulator games, whose digressive, wandering, and often nonviolent nature many hardcore gamers considered to be feminine and purposeless; for Kagen, #GamerGate thus offers a significant moment of contestation about the nature, and especially the gender, of intellectual passion in the gaming world.
Siobhan Carroll s The Fan as Public Intellectual in RaceFail 09 discusses a similarly polemical set of online debates that erupted throughout the blogosphere in 2009 about how to portray racially diverse characters in science fiction writing. In tracing how bloggers, fans, and writers of online science fiction addressed the question of whether science fiction writers were racist in their attempts to portray characters of color, Carroll demonstrates how RaceFail 09 offers an important example of contemporary intellectual debate, precisely insofar as it insisted on the demarcations between university-affiliated writers and critics and common readers and fans. Finally, shifting from online debates to cultural clich s about those who engage in them, Chloe Silverman s Autism, Nerds, and Insecurity begins with the cases of a Scottish systems analyst cum computer hacker named Gary McKinnon and Darius McCollum, a New Yorker fascinated with the MTA, who have both been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Silverman analyzes the consequences following from the ways popular culture elides the distinction between the diagnostic label of autism and the cultural label of nerdiness in the interest of shedding light on social expectations about, and normalizing patterns of recognizing, achievement, ability, and competence.
Given the uncertain present conditions of public education throughout the world, and especially in the United States-from the eclipse of print media and the fiscal crises faced by major intellectual institutions such as universities, libraries, schools, museums-we hope that this volume will contribute to broader conversations about the history and future of intellectual endeavor.
It has become a truism to claim that the public intellectual is in eclipse. Without either confirming or debating this claim, The Year s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons instead considers where else and how else we might look for intellectual labor-that is, for the networks of intellectual production, reception, and intensification of expertise that we might call intellectuality. Given the tangled history of American intellectualism and the fraught present of global knowledge production, what are the contemporary stakes of the lines of demarcation between rarefied knowledge and quotidian behavior, between the esoteric and the practical, between the nerd and us?
Notes
1 . Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , 3.
2 . Ibid., 5.
3 . Academic books analyzing intellectuals, their practices, and their traditions of course have a long history, to which we can only begin to allude, were we actually all that interested in so alluding, here. Books such as Aaron Lecklider s Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture , Bruce Robbins s Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence , Andrew Ross s No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture , and Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz s Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism and Fifties America build on an established tradition of books on US intellectual history to look at the activities and popular image of intellectuals from wider and more multivalent perspectives. Susan Jacoby s recent examination of the longstanding effects of American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason , proposes that the marginalization of intellectual activity not only permeates the political culture and popular media of the contemporary United States, but even extends to its institutions of knowledge: the pulpit, the field of scientific inquiry, and the university. But there is also an emerging body of scholarly work that investigates the intellectual currents in popular culture with a methodological approach and tone born of equal parts academic rigor and, for lack of a better word, fun. Twenty years ago, Steven Shaviro s Doom Patrols looked to figures from late twentieth-century popular and mass cultures for the patterns of intellectual activity they practiced, reproduced, made available, and otherwise represented. Recent trends in commercial publishing likewise attest to a fun, sometimes even parodic, popular interest in intellectuality; indeed, the popular marketplace is already well stocked with the innumerable parodic how-to-guides-such as Alex Langley s The Geek Handbook: Practical Skills and Advice for the Likeable Modern Geek (2012) and Garth Sundem s The Geek s Guide to World Domination (2009), or Stephen Segal s Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture (2011)-and humorous memoirs-such as Simon Pegg s Nerd Do Well (2012) or Benjamin Nugent s American Nerd: The Story of My People (2008)-which offer a nerd s-eye view of the world.
4 . Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead , 4.
5 . Yiannopoulos, Teenage Boys with Tits.
6 . R. Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals , 77.
7 . Zola, J Accuse ! Translation by the editors.
8 . See Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks , esp. 5-10; Foucault, Truth and Power, 109-33.
9 . Fanon, Wretched of the Earth , 178-79.
10 . See Prestianni, What Wynton Doesn t Hear. The article responds to Marsalis s essay on The Music of Democracy, which, according to the Prestianni, blows off the last three decades in the evolution of jazz, representative of an ideological chasm that has economic as well as artistic repercussions based on the dearth of possibilities for players whose vision extends beyond bop.
11 . Segal, Geek Wisdom , 11.
12 . Were it not for Susan Weeber, we would not have been able to light upon the term slouchy beanie.
13 . About BGN.
14 . Ibid.
15 . Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead , 201-2.
Bibliography
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Foucault, Michel. Truth and Power (interviewed by Alessandro Fontana and Pasquale Pasquino). In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 , edited by Colin Gordon, 109-33. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
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Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life . New York: Vintage, 1966.
Jacoby, Russell. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe . New York: Basic Books, 1987.
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Nugent, Benjamin. American Nerd: The Story of My People . New York: Scribner, 2008.
Pegg, Simon. Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid . New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
Prestianni, Sam. What Wynton Doesn t Hear: Lester Bowie Explains. SFWeekly , September 11, 1996. Accessed September 18, 2016. http://archives.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/what-wynton-doesnt-hear/Content?oid=2133416 .
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Sundem, Garth. The Geek s Guide to World Domination . New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
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JONATHAN P. EBURNE is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Penn State. He is the author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime , editor, with Judith Roof, of The Year s Work in the Oddball Archive (IUP, 2016), and coeditor of ASAP/Journal , the scholarly journal of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present.
BENJAMIN SCHREIER is Associate Professor of English and Jewish studies and Lea P. and Malvin E. Bank Early Career Professor of Jewish Studies at Penn State University. He is author of The Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literary History and The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature , and he is also editor of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature .
PART I
THROUGH GLASSES, DORKILY
1
WONK MASCULINITY
DENNIS ALLEN
Sometime during the summer of 2013, Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, began wearing glasses. Now, these were not just any glasses but a pair of very big, very obvious, black-framed spectacles reminiscent of Clark Kent, which the media, with some consistency, referred to as nerd glasses. Since Perry s general self-presentation had up until then run toward an extremely traditional man s man image, this change prompted considerable speculation in the press. Ultimately, the pundits consensus was that after a disastrous performance in the 2011 Republican primary campaign, including a debate in which he forgot one of his main talking points and was unable to name the third of three government agencies he would close down, Perry was trying to rebrand himself as an intellectual, or, at the very least, as reasonably intelligent. As Scott Greer succinctly put it in the Daily Caller , the glasses are clearly an attempt to transform himself from a swaggering bro to a knowledgeable policy wonk. 1 Thus, the glasses represent a new Rick Perry, who, as his wife Anita has remarked, now reads constantly and who has spent the last couple of years meeting with various experts to get up to speed on economic policy. 2 The effect on his political fortunes aside, Perry s attempt at self-fashioning raises a number of questions, including one of the major questions that this chapter will address. If a wonk is something like a nerd, and if popular culture has traditionally told us that it s bad to be a nerd, is being a nerd now a good thing? Or, to put that question in a more academic way, does the wonk signal a reconfiguration of our conceptions of the value of various types of contemporary masculinity? This question actually derives some of its momentum from the almost universal assumption in the press that, as was the case with Clark Kent himself, Rick Perry s glasses are something like a disguise, a gestural appropriation of an undervalued secondary form of masculinity, a nerdish bookishness, that is not only not real masculinity but that is probably not who Perry actually is. After all, one of Perry s recent photo ops showed him reverting to a form of masculinity that was both more traditional and more typical of him. With aviator sunglasses replacing his nerd glasses, carrying a gun and wearing a flak jacket, he and Sean Hannity patrolled the Texas/Mexico border looking for encroaching hordes of illegal immigrants. Yet, even if-actually, especially if-we conclude that Perry s new image is inauthentic, merely a superficial attempt to rebrand himself, the very fact that Perry would want to be seen as a wonk suggests that it might be as valuable, and possibly even as masculine, to read a book as to wander through the sagebrush with a gun. Being a wonk must be a good thing, right?
Well, maybe. In a rather strange piece about Rick Perry s transformation in the Economist , Will Wilkinson begins to answer that last question. Arguing that Perry s disastrous debate performance was not a reflection of his innate intellectual abilities but could instead be attributed to the fact that Perry was medicated because of pain from spinal fusion surgery, the explanation given by Perry s campaign itself, Wilkinson suggests that the glasses may indeed be part of a subtle repositioning in Rick Perry s performance of masculinity. As Wilkinson sees it, the glasses are both a concession to age and part of a related attempt to soften Perry s abrasive alpha male persona by displaying a certain vulnerability. According to Wilkinson, this vulnerability is intended not only to produce empathy in voters but to suggest that, as a result of his travails, Perry himself might have learned to be empathetic to their concerns. All of this is plausible enough, but Wilkinson s underlying conceptions about the relative value of these various types of masculinity become evident in the conclusion of the essay in a formulation that is bizarre even if we take into account that it is almost certainly tongue-in-cheek: He s your handsome Texas grandpa. He could still strangle you to death with his bare hands, but his back hurts a little, and he cares. It s not a message a truly dim-witted candidate would try to send. 3 Now, leaving aside the question of whether it might not, after all, be dimwitted to suggest that an aspirant to the job of commander in chief is in chronic pain, we can focus instead on how Perry s masculinity is implicitly framed here. Although Wilkinson acknowledges that masculinity is a performance, at least in public self-presentations in the political realm, the essay nonetheless takes Perry s machismo to be, if not innate, the most natural pose for him. If Perry is thus a tough guy, as Wilkinson would have it, the glasses become a sign of a certain diminution of masculinity, whether that is attributed to the depredations of age or to a calculated image of empathetic vulnerability or both. Even more crucially, rather than seeing the glasses as Perry s adoption of an alternative but positive form of masculinity, a stance as the intelligent, informed wonk, Wilkinson can only view them negatively, as if anything other than being the tough guy were cause for sympathy.
If real masculinity is alpha male machismo, then this is indeed its inevitable tragedy. At some point you ll get old enough that you can no longer bench press a small Fiat or are too tired to strangle someone with your bare hands, and then you re no longer a man. Fortunately, as gender studies has insistently pointed out, masculinity is not a unitary or singular quality and hence not an either/or, a successful or failed performance of that one way of being, the assumption underlying Wilkinson s piece. At any given historical moment, there are multiple types of acceptable masculinity. 4 The central project of this chapter will be to examine the emergence of the wonk as a significant moment in an ongoing reconfiguration of the landscape of twenty-first-century masculinities. I will suggest that the wonk is a site of identity that lies somewhere between the jock and the nerd, to use only one formulation of a familiar binary understanding of contemporary types of men. As such, the wonk signals a shift from a conception of masculinity based on physical or psychological dominance to a masculinity whose value is derived from expertise and rationality. Yet, as we will see, precisely because of this liminal status, the wonk is also the site where some of the tensions and incoherencies inherent in our ideas of masculinity emerge. It is in this sense that Rick Perry may, after all, be emblematic, not simply because his public persona wavers between gun-toting cowboy guarding the border and economics expert nerdishly boring the voters in New Hampshire, and not even because this wavering raises questions about who, what sort of man, he really is. 5 Finally, Rick Perry the Wonk is significant because that identity produces an evaluative aporia about wonk masculinity itself: Do those glasses represent the laudable knowledge of the expert or the sad vulnerability of the aging jock?
Definitions
So what, then, actually is a wonk? An expert on intricate policies, we learn from Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of Political Slang , with the added notation that, more generally, the term can mean a studious or hardworking person. 6 Particularly since the latter definition is fairly expansive, it might be best to start by narrowing down our field of inquiry. This chapter will focus on the wonk as a political identity category, as a type of politician or political figure, if only because that is still the sense in which the term is most commonly used (e.g., a policy wonk ) while expertise in other highly specialized fields is usually designated by nerd or geek (as in computer geek ), identities with which, as we ll see, the wonk nonetheless shares some affinities. Even more specifically, I d like to focus on male wonks, not simply because most policy wonks are still male, but also because I would like to investigate the ways in which the category of the wonk is, precisely, constructed as a particular type of masculinity, how it is, by default, assimilated to maleness, if you will. 7 Finally, this chapter will not concern itself with matters of policy themselves, with the details, say, of various budget proposals, but rather with how the individual proposing them is gendered and, as an inevitable corollary of that, with how that individual is sexualized, although, as we will see, it is finally not possible to completely separate the gender of the politician from the gender of his politics.
In order to define the wonk, then, it would first seem to be necessary to distinguish that identity from the nerd and the geek. In Nerds , psychologist David Anderegg parses out some of the differences between a wonk and a nerd. The stereotypical nerd, he argues, is defined by five qualities. A nerd is not sexy, is interested in technology, is not interested in personal appearance, is enthusiastic about things that bore everyone else, and, finally, is persecuted by the jock, an equally stereotypical category. 8 Above all, Anderegg adds, the nerd is distinguished by a lack of self-consciousness reminiscent of preadolescence. Interestingly, for our purposes, while Anderegg devotes some attention to articulating the differences between a nerd and a geek (the former term, he argues, tends to denote an unappealing appearance while the latter indicates a grasp of arcane knowledge), he spends very little time discussing the wonk. 9 In fact, his treatment of the wonk implicitly suggests that that figure actually falls in a liminal space within the nerd/jock duality. At times, Anderegg uses wonk as synonymous with geek or nerd, primarily in cases of someone who, like Bill Gates, is famous for his technological expertise. Yet, finally, Anderegg suggests that the wonk may be a separate, and clearly separable, identity category. Discussing the 2000 election as a classic confrontation between a nerd (Al Gore) and a jock (George W. Bush), Anderegg is careful to point out that this view of that electoral contest is a construction that artificially fits the candidates to the stereotypes since, after all, Gore is not physically awkward or unattractive just as George Bush is not really all that athletic. What doomed Gore to the nerd category, Anderegg continues, is that he seemed smug about his knowledge, and in this respect he differed from Bill Clinton, who was also knowledgeable but rarely seemed self-satisfied about his expertise. As such, Clinton represents an entirely different sort of political figure: He was the ur-wonk, the man who made the term wonk what it is today, because we all needed a term to describe someone as brainy as Clinton was who was, at the same time, so manifestly unnerdy. 10
Unfortunately, this looks like a far more precise definition than it actually is. Nor is that problem solely due to the vagueness of the description brainy but unnerdy. Crucially, the imprecision here arises because the definition is primarily comparative. A wonk is a smart non-nerd, and this process of definition by juxtaposition, rather than by the recounting of definitive qualities, fits with Anderegg s larger point about the 2000 election in particular and about nerds in general, which is that the terms nerd and jock ultimately derive their meanings from each other. A nerd is, basically, a non-jock just as a jock is a non-nerd. Now, clearly, the two positions are associated with particular qualities that are both seen as opposites and subject to a cultural valuation, a point to which I ll return. For the moment, though, it seems important to stress that the crucial structure here is this binary difference itself, or, as Anderegg suggests, the real stereotype is not the identities of the jock and the nerd but the struggle between them. 11 Thus, as with the Gore versus Bush election, the candidates are assimilated to preset roles that do not fit them very well. Although Anderegg does not devote much attention to the point, what the wonk thus does is to disrupt this binary in Anderegg s taxonomy, and I would like to suggest that it does so in ways that may mark a shift in contemporary ideas of masculinity. To understand that, however, we need to look at some actual wonks and see, specifically, what kind of men they are.
The Wonk as Jock
I d like to turn now to two contemporary policy wonks, Paul Ryan and Peter Orszag, both budget experts, to see exactly how their public personas can help us further articulate a definition of the wonk and, in the case of two relatively famous photos of them, how those media depictions simultaneously complicate that definition. We can begin with Ryan, who may very well be the contemporary politician whose name is most frequently associated with the label. Writing during the run-up to the 2012 election, Alec MacGillis did a profile piece on Ryan in the New Republic that both confirms and elaborates on Anderegg s definition of the wonk as smart but not really nerdy. Noting that Ryan worked as a personal trainer while studying up on policy during his early years in Washington, MacGillis makes clear that part of Ryan s success comes not only from his knowledge of domestic economic matters but from qualities, such as athleticism and a certain charisma, that have traditionally been associated with the jock. One of MacGillis s main points is that fewer people in Washington today understand the inner workings, the details, of government than was formerly the case, so that Ryan s knowledge stands out, but he goes on to note that it also didn t hurt that he carried his geeky authority with decidedly un-geeklike personal charm, not to mention a trim physique. 12 MacGillis then quotes Ronald Reagan s secretary of education, William Bennett, one of Ryan s friends, who has something like a dream vision when he articulates Ryan s particular blend of the intellectual and the physical: Ryan and Bennett have gone on several long hikes in the Colorado Rockies together on which they ve had free-ranging policy discussions, and Bennett raves of the congressman s mix of smarts and physicality: Paul s an all-American guy. He s the fisherman, the hunter sitting alone in the tree. He s hunting something with a bow. 13 I ll return to the ideological underpinnings that animate the quote from Bennett. For the moment, I ll simply note that the phantasmatic nature of Bennett s view of Ryan that emerges here is evident precisely from the way that the depiction elaborates itself as it goes along, moving from present tense to present progressive. Thus, Ryan s masculine physicality is increasingly stressed, first in the shift from fishing to hunting and then from hunting to bow hunting. Actually, it s probably fortunate that the vision of Ryan ends where it does since, given its rising curve of machismo and Bennett s political predilections, the next sentence would almost have to be something like: He s hunting something with a bow. He s hunting Hillary Clinton.
Given Paul Ryan s Bennett-approved blend of the mind and the body, the concept behind Gregg Segal s famous photo shoot of Ryan for Time magazine, Ryan working out, seems like a natural one. The photos, taken in 2011 when Ryan was in contention for Time s Person of the Year award, were finally published a year later on the eve of the vice presidential debate during the 2012 election campaign. The shoot consists of a number of contenders for the Most Awkward Photo of a Politician award, but perhaps the most conceptually rich one is shown in figure 1.1 .


1.1 . Paul Ryan in 2011. Photography by Gregg Segal. Image courtesy of the artist .
Ostensibly used to demonstrate Ryan s devotion to the P90X workout regimen and hence to confirm his athleticism and reinforce his mens nerd in corpore jock image, the photo sets Ryan adrift in a sea of conflicting signifiers of various types of masculinity; or to put it another way, the disparate masculine qualities that Ryan is supposed to unify begin to pull apart. To begin with, while the image of Ryan is clearly meant to be read as jock, the addition of the earbuds, the backward snapback, and his direct (and rather smug) look into the camera slide him toward the younger end of that demographic, toward frat boy, a subject position that he is a bit too old to pull off. Perhaps because of the dissonance produced by this unsuccessful bro impersonation, the photo s representation of Ryan s masculinity simultaneously flips into what Revenge of the Nerds assured us was the polar opposite of the frat boy jock. Ryan s ectomorphic build and the goofiness of his expression read not simply as nerd, but as that far more pernicious identity category, the nerd pretending to be cool. It s not then surprising that Joe Scarborough, presumably thinking of Screech, said that the photo looks like a 1980 s sitcom. Like Saved by the Bell or something. 14 The vague sense of imposture or dissimulation here would have been reinforced for contemporary viewers by the fact that, just prior to this, Ryan had misremembered his marathon time, giving himself a significant, and purely discursive, performance boost. It also doesn t help that, probably for the benefit of the camera, he is holding the dumbbell at the wrong angle to do the exercise he s supposed to be doing.
We can take that last point as something of a synecdoche for the general effect created by the picture. Because the photo presents us with multiple, conflicting signifiers of various types of masculinity, one obvious way to resolve the conflict is to read it along a true/false axis, precisely according to a logic of authenticity and imposture. So, the effect is that Ryan is trying to look younger than he is or that Ryan is a nerd pretending to be a jock. And this itself carries a deeper implication. In a sense, because the photo presents but does not reconcile the signifiers of both the nerd and jock aspects of Ryan s persona, the traditional conflict between those two figures is played out here within Ryan himself, or, perhaps more accurately, across the surface of the image of him. Thus, the photo implicitly solicits the traditional reification of the nerd/jock binary as a binary, which causes us to read it according to a logic of either/or rather than both/and. Instead of making us see Ryan as a complex blend of qualities, as a nerdy jock or a jocky nerd, viewing the wonk as a figure somewhere between the poles of that binary, the photo, because of its semiotic dissonance, pushes us toward a more traditional and far more familiar reading based not only on that binary but on the cultural stereotypes of the hierarchical relation between them: Paul Ryan is simply a nerd who wants to be a jock.
The Wonk as Nerd
In order to understand why this photo of Paul Ryan is so confusing, we can compare it to an equally famous photo of another wonk. Published in early 2009 in the New York Times Magazine as one of Nadav Kander s series of fifty-two portraits of the members of the incoming Obama administration, the picture of Peter Orszag, the budget director for the Obama White House, functions in the exact opposite direction of the photo of Ryan. Widely circulated in both print and digital forms, the image is available on the New York Times website, as well as elsewhere on the Internet. 15
Unlike Ryan s gesture toward athleticism, the photo of Orszag embraces the image of the geek. Thus, there are the glasses, the rather unfortunate haircut, the crooked tie, and the closed, awkward stance, not to mention the twin BlackBerry holsters for which Orszag was famous. Rather than trying to blend the jock and nerd aspects of the wonk, this image focuses exclusively on the nerd side and celebrates it. In fact, although the entire series of portraits was intended to be informal and the sitters were encouraged to express their individuality, the image of Orszag that s created here is as studied as the photo of Ryan, although it s not entirely clear how much of this comes from the photographer and how much from Orszag himself. In addition to the pose, which seems expressly designed to make him look awkward, one of the most striking things about the photograph is the way in which the notebook in the shirt pocket and the pens clipped to the front of it clearly recall that ultimate nerd symbol, the pocket protector. In fact, once one compares the portrait to the hundreds of press photos of Orszag from the same era, it becomes clear that this photo is as calculated to present a certain image of the wonk as the one of Ryan. In actuality, Orszag is usually fairly dapper for an American politician, rarely appearing in public without a suit jacket, and while it s possible to find a few other shots of that notebook and those pens, those vanish from the media record fairly early on during Orszag s tenure in the White House. Moreover, aside from the BlackBerry holsters, his main stylistic affectation at the time was to wear cowboy boots with a suit, a sartorial statement that, if it doesn t exactly say jock, clearly reads more as macho than as nerd, so that it makes sense that the photo is cropped to exclude them. Unlike the photo of Paul Ryan in which the signifiers clash, making the semiotic manipulation of the shot clear, in the picture of Orszag all the signifiers align without contradiction, concealing the artifice. We are clearly looking at a picture of a nerd.
If the portrait of Orszag thus gives us a clear way of understanding the wonk as nerd, the other side of Orszag s iteration of the wonk, his more jock-y elements, and the resulting tensions between those two aspects of Orszag s wonk identity were played out in a more general arena, in the overall presentation of Orszag by the White House publicity machine during his time there. On the one hand, the White House took great care to insist repeatedly that Orszag was indeed a nerd. Yet, the twist is that Orszag was also considered something of a heartthrob so that, as Rahm Emmanuel was quoted as saying in the New York Times , Orszag has made nerdy sexy. 16 Thus, unlike the stereotypical nerd, Orszag also has a more charismatic, sexually attractive side that aligns him with some of the traditional attributes of the jock. So, for example, there was a website during this era entitled Orszagasm , a fan blog devoted to Orszag s charms that is now, sadly, defunct. This image of Orszag reached a peak at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, when there was extensive press coverage after Orszag, who had divorced his first wife in 2006, left his current girlfriend, Greek heiress and venture capitalist Claire Milonas, who had just given birth to his child, and became engaged to ABC correspondent Bianna Golodryga, which led the New York Times to refer to him as Casanova with a calculator. 17 Perhaps the best summary of Orszag s overall image during his White House years, the way in which he stood between more familiar nerd and jock stereotypes, however, is Alec MacGillis s characterization of the media representations of him as the stud with a spreadsheet. 18
Thinkers and Deciders
Yet, the point is not simply that the wonk lies somewhat uneasily between the twin poles of the stud and the spreadsheet, the jock and the nerd, albeit trending, perhaps, a bit toward the latter. To fully understand these two portraits, we need to look more closely at that binary itself, seeing wonk masculinity in the context of a larger and more detailed framework, if only in order to understand why the Obama administration would consistently stress the nerd side of their budget wonk. If nerdiness is, by definition, always the negative counterpart of whatever the jock represents, why would the White House emphasize it? We can get a bit of help here from sociologist R. W. Connell, who argues that the rise of a technological infrastructure during the second half of the twentieth century and the corresponding growth of professional and technical work, combined with the expansion of higher education and of a new middle class of intellectually trained workers, led to the emergence of a type of masculinity that provides an alternative to the traditional form of masculinity that Connell calls dominance masculinity. If the older form is based on a model of physical or psychological domination exemplified by the command structure of the military and traditional forms of corporate management, the new masculinity, which we can call expertise masculinity, is based on technical or technological knowledge and the use of reason, qualities that are traditionally understood, Connell is careful to note, to be primarily associated with men. 19 If the former derives its authority from physical strength or social rank or wealth or corporate power, the latter finds its justification in expertise. The contrast between these two competing definitions of masculinity provides at least one possible explanation for the official framing of Peter Orszag as a nerd. In fact, it can also explain the particular series of projections that animate William Bennett s view of Paul Ryan.
As sociologist Michael Kimmel points out, one way different conceptions of masculinity play out in contemporary life is in the political arena, where they not only animate the public images of different administrations but are encoded into policy, although this encoding is often reflected less in the actual details of any given political position itself than in the hierarchical (and often agonistic) relation it establishes between the politician and other entities (other individuals, other branches of government, other nations). 20 For example, it seems safe to say that one of the hallmarks of the George W. Bush White House was its devotion to dominance masculinity. From Bush s declaration that he was The Decider to the generally bellicose nature of the administration, the Bush administration, as personified not only by Bush but by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, emphasized force, a structure of command, and the assertion, explicit or implicit, of power. The clearest articulations of these principles were the administration s attempts to expand the power of the executive branch, particularly after 9/11, and the Bush Doctrine, which, in at least one of its iterations, asserted that America had the right to attack countries that we perceived to be potentially threatening even if they posed no imminent danger, dominance masculinity elevated to the level of foreign policy. 21 Perhaps the perfect synecdochic illustration of the Bush administration s version of masculinity, however, is not the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq or even the continual stream of signing statements from the president asserting that he was not bound by particular provisions of legislation passed by Congress but a minor historical footnote, the incident in 2006 when Cheney accidentally shot Texas attorney Harry Whittington while the two were quail hunting. Although this caused Whittington to have a collapsed lung and atrial fibrillation, it was Whittington and not Cheney who apologized, noting that my family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with. 22 Apparently, being the alpha male means never having to say you re sorry.
Given the disastrous consequences of the militarized masculinity of the Bush White House, most notably the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, it makes sense that the Obama administration might have wanted to project a different image, stressing a measured approach based on expert knowledge of any given situation, in other words a White House governed by expertise masculinity. Thus the emphasis in foreign affairs shifts from the use of military force to negotiation, most notably in the case of Iran, and Barack Obama s own public persona seems generally designed to present him as eminently measured, reasonable, and thoughtful, qualities for which David Cameron, for one, has praised him. 23 In this context, it makes perfect sense that the New York Times portrait of Peter Orszag would stress his nerd credentials, his intellectuality, since that extended the administration s insistence on expertise into the realm of economics and budget policy, a particularly important emphasis given the financial collapse of 2007. As it happens, the best example of the public relations value of the wonk as nerd actually comes from Orszag s career after leaving the White House in 2010, when he was hired as a vice chairman of Citigroup. As Gabriel Sherman notes in New York magazine, Citi, which had been one of the prime architects of the housing bubble, was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2007, requiring a government bailout precisely because of its heedless and aggressive pursuit of profits, the economic version of dominance masculinity. According to Sherman, Orszag was thus hired to give Citi an air of intellectual respectability, his expertise helping to transform Citi s image from a profiteering bank to a significant American institution. 24
Yet, these emphases on differing types of masculinity are not confined to the Bush and Obama administrations but reflect larger trends. As Michael Kimmel makes clear, the right and left wings of the political spectrum diverge in their conceptions of what masculinity is or should be. Kimmel s example is drawn from the 2004 election, during which, he argues, the choice was between two different visions of paternal masculinity, with Bush Jr. figuring as the forceful, if unreflective, stern father and John Kerry as the nurturing parent who, at least in the eyes of the right, exhibited a feminine indecisiveness precisely because he did spend time thinking about policy matters and sometimes changed his mind. 25 Even if the distinction is not absolute or universal, if political conservatives tend to favor an older dominance definition of masculinity while liberals incline toward the newer ideal of expertise masculinity, then it becomes clear that much of the indeterminacy in defining wonk masculinity comes from the spectrum of perspectives in which the wonk is situated, the unstated assumptions with which political commentators and pundits approach that figure. Thus, one way to understand Rahm Emmanuel s assertion that Peter Orszag has made nerdiness attractive is that it fits with a contemporary trope, itself a reflection of the ideological assumptions of expertise masculinity, that smart is sexy, so Orszag is a stud because of his spreadsheet rather than in spite of it. Similarly, we can now better understand some of the intellectual gymnastics that Will Wilkinson undertakes in his piece on Rick Perry. While Wilkinson clearly wants Perry not just to look smart but to actually be intelligent, his sense of Perry s masculine identity finally comes down to Perry s physicality, the implicit ideological ground of the ideal of dominance masculinity on which the article is based. Since bookishness or intellectuality traditionally represents a diminution of that identity, the logic of Wilkinson s essay is thus forced to tie itself in knots so that Perry can simultaneously read books and be a real man. Even more interesting, however, is Alec MacGillis s further elaboration of Bill Bennett s phantasmatic view of Paul Ryan, which begins from the same premises as Wilkinson but takes an entirely different tack: In Ryan s world, policy is macho. He s the kind of guy, Bill Bennett says, who likes to get together at night with Budget Committee actuaries, just to get a few beers and talk numbers. 26 Here, the threat to dominance masculinity represented by intellectual interests is reconfigured so that intellectuality now becomes an attribute of the traditional man s man. It s a particularly nice touch: in the process, not only does expertise masculinity disappear completely as an alternative form of maleness, but the act of conceptual colonization that takes place here, in which thinking becomes just another act of machismo, is itself also an illustration of the aggrandizing way in which dominance masculinity tends to work.
Making Mr. Right
I m not convinced that policy is macho, but that s actually the point. We can now see that the instability in wonk masculinity, its uncertain location between the jock and the nerd, is not really an aporia inherent in the concept of the wonk. Instead, the difficulty in pinning down the nature of wonk masculinity is a reflection of a larger problem with contemporary masculinity itself. As Bill Bennett s view of policy suggests, this problem is not simply that there are two competing conceptions of masculinity but rather that how we understand, and more importantly evaluate, any particular masculine attribute itself depends on the implicit understanding of masculinity, the mobile and shifting set of assumptions and preconceptions, with which we begin. Thus, to finally answer the question with which we started-is it a good thing to be a wonk?-the answer actually depends on whom you ask. If, for Rahm Emmanuel, the nerd can be sexy and if, for William Bennett, talking to accountants can be macho, then there would no longer seem to be any clear roadmap to the territory of the masculine and no universal answer to that question.
Yet, this indeterminacy itself may be the most valuable thing that the wonk can finally teach us about masculinity. One of the main themes of Michael Kimmel s work is what he calls the contemporary crisis in masculinity, by which he means precisely the way in which that roadmap has been lost. Kimmel s taxonomy of types of men differs slightly from Connell s, with Kimmel stressing the Self-Made Man as the dominant conception of American masculinity in the twentieth century, in contrast to the older ideals of the aristocrat and the artisan-laborer. 27 As a taxonomic category, the Self-Made Man would include both Connell s dominance and expertise masculinities, the police officer and the aeronautical engineer, since it is predicated, finally, on an ethic of individual achievement, self-control, and the role of breadwinner. According to Kimmel, in an era of outsourcing and globalization, of deindustrialization in America and rising income inequality, not to mention increasing gender and racial equality, the economic and cultural foundations of this masculine ideal have substantially eroded in recent years, sparking a rising curve of anxiety and, more recently, anger among men. 28
What I would like to suggest is that the anxieties about the status of masculinity-actually, anxieties about the nature of masculinity-that come into play here emerge into visibility in the concept of the wonk and are indirectly inscribed into the two portraits we have been discussing, which can now be seen as fairly anxious documents. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is clearest in the less anxious of these: the portrait of Orszag. The best way to explain this anxiety is to uncover something that has only been implicit in our discussion up until now. However the relation between them may have been reconfigured by the rise of high technology enterprises, the contrast between dominance masculinity and expertise masculinity really harkens back to a much older distinction in types of men: the Man of Action versus the Man of Contemplation. In this variant of the mind/body split, dominance masculinity, the masculinity of the Man of Action, is always ideologically grounded on the male body, on physical power and force, even if these are sublimated into command structures or psychological control. By the same token, the Man of Contemplation, as the illustration of thought, and more specifically of reason, is, on an ideological level, inherently disembodied. The resultant anxieties can be clearly seen in the photo of Orszag.
As I ve already suggested, the signifiers in the portrait of Orszag align perfectly, providing an overdetermined message: this is expertise masculinity, the wonk as nerd. Yet, it s the elaboration of paraphernalia here that signals a problem. Precisely because knowledge or intelligence or expertise can t be seen, they have to be visually encoded in the picture through a sort of nerd iconography, evident in the Blackberries and the pens and the glasses. And this very proliferation of apparati suggests that wonk masculinity requires a certain prosthetic supplementation. The glasses are the most obvious symbol of this, the sign of a literal defect or weakness that must be corrected, but the Blackberries and the pens and the notepad follow the same logic of the supplement, which suggests that the thing itself, whether we think of that thing as the wonk or as wonk masculinity, is incomplete or insufficient. Actually, in a literal sense there is some truth in this. If you re a wonk, where are you without your smartphone or your calculator or your PowerPoint slides of charts and graphs? And if, on one level, the notepad and the Blackberries suggest what any academic knows is true, that no matter how smart you are and how much you know, you can t keep it all in your head, that intelligence or expertise requires tools and props, on a deeper level the proliferation of such tools implies a more metaphorical lack. If the expertise that is the basis for expertise masculinity needs prosthetic enhancement then the obvious implication is that the masculinity part of that identity may be wanting too, particularly when compared to dominance masculinity, which, based on the body, should, at least in theory, be self-evident, sufficient unto itself. 29
Yet, I would argue, even dominance masculinity is subject to the logic of the supplement and hence to anxieties about its insufficiency. In part, this is because, as we ve seen, dominance masculinity is already abstracted away from the corporeal through sublimation, but even a masculinity directly based on the male body requires a certain supplementation. If Rick Perry is going to guard the border with Sean Hannity, then his masculinity still requires props-the gun and the flak jacket and the aviator glasses-just as, if nothing else, Paul Ryan s photoshoot requires the workout gear and the weights. Now, granted, part of that photoshoot s attempts to articulate Ryan s masculinity, the wonk as jock in this case, is through Ryan s toned and defined body itself, but, as Michael Kimmel points out, the emphasis on masculine fitness, particularly weightlifting, that began in the 1980s is itself a symptom of the crisis in masculinity precisely because the muscular body created by exercise has no utility, because it is ornamental rather than useful. 30 Yet, the problem with the P90X body isn t really that it s not used to buck the bales from the south forty but simply to look good. Far more importantly, the worked-out body is transmuted into a sign of physical power rather than being simply physicality in itself. Thus the muscular body, redoubled as a sign, becomes its own supplement. The latter point is particularly salient given that, if we believe Kimmel, the body as a sign of the physical strength associated with traditional masculinity is compensatory, simultaneously also a sign of the anxiety resulting from the erosion of the social and cultural grounds of dominance masculinity.
Kimmel argues that, for many men, one of the primary responses to this anxiety is not to question our conceptions of masculinity but to fall back with renewed vigor on the ideals- physical strength, self-control, power -that constitute traditional masculinity, in other words, to insist on what we ve been calling dominance masculinity. In fact, this anxious retrenchment may also be the site where gender itself becomes an object of public policy, specifically in the conservative focus on legislative control of the corporeal, the reproductive, and the sexual (in its positions on, for example, stem cells, abortion, and same-sex marriage). As should be suggested by the fact that a number of these positions, taken collectively, have been popularly referred to as the Republican War on Women, one way to see conservative efforts to constrain reproductive freedom or to insist on traditional definitions of marriage is as an attempt to police both gender and sexuality, restricting particular behaviors or actions as a way of indirectly containing and stabilizing the increasing complexity of concepts such as men, women, and marriage. However, as Kimmel goes on to add, precisely because the changes that have produced the crisis in masculinity are global economic and cultural shifts, this strategy of insisting on traditional definitions of gender does not work particularly well on the individual level. 31 Arguably, it is also not particularly successful in the realm of public policy.
Yet if wonk masculinity is a site where the anxieties produced by shifting conceptions of the nature of masculinity can be clearly seen, it might also be a site where a possible solution to the crisis emerges, if only as a locus from which an interrogation of our ideas of masculinity can begin. In fact, the key to this interrogation may actually come from the very symptoms that signal this anxiety. If masculinity is decorporealized, abstracted into signs, then one way to understand that process is to reimagine it. Instead of seeing the signifiers of masculinity as supplements that attempt to mask a lack in, or insufficiency of, masculinity, we can instead see them as being the basis for masculinity itself insofar as masculinity might best be understood as a conceptual abstraction. In other words, we can regard masculinity not as a transcendental or universal thing that is signified but as, instead, a mobile and shifting set of significations, of conceptions of what a man is. This runs directly counter, of course, to an idea of masculinity that is grounded on the apparent facticity of the male body, but it meshes nicely with the basic premise underlying expertise masculinity, which stresses precisely the process of abstraction and signification that is thought, and it is from this angle that the wonk, or at least the nerdier aspects of the wonk, can begin to suggest a different approach to masculinity.
To put the point as abstrusely as possible, the existence of the wonk suggests that the basis for the conceptual abstraction that is masculinity is not the body but the mind, conceptual abstraction itself. R. W. Connell articulates the practical implications of this point in far clearer terms. While Connell notes that expertise masculinity has been used to support an occupational or institutional culture-think engineering-that bolsters male authority through a masculinized definition of expertise, he argues that the very premises of expertise, logic and instrumental rationality, are in conflict with a doctrine of male authority, with dominance masculinity. 32 Connell s focus is the rationality of the marketplace, in which one wants to hire the best worker regardless of gender, but his larger point, that expertise or knowledge are not the sole province of men and that, even more importantly, they need not be linked to a gendered conception of authority, does indeed have, as he puts it, the power to disrupt gender as we currently understand it. 33 Sadly, I m not quite sure we ve currently reached the point where expertise can be completely detached from masculinity, if only because, if nothing else, there is still plenty of mansplaining going on. Yet the very emergence of the idea that this is possible suggests the start of a critique that would allow us to imagine different, more expansive definitions of gender. Perhaps the wonk, who, as we ve seen, is not supposed to be smug about his knowledge, can help us begin to draw a new roadmap for masculinity.
Notes
1 . Greer, Have the Glasses Changed Rick Perry s Stance on Amnesty?
2 . W. W., In Defence of Rick Perry s Eyeglasses. See also Woodruff, Rick Perry Read a Book on Economics.
3 . W. W., In Defence of Rick Perry s Eyeglasses.
4 . See, for example, Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 1-43, and Berger, Wallis, and Watson s Introduction to Constructing Masculinity , 1-7.
5 . Woodruff, Rick Perry Read a Book on Economics, notes the boredom in New Hampshire.
6 . Barrett, Hatchet Jobs and Hardball , 296.
7 . The apparent counterexample that comes immediately to mind, the website Wonkette, actually demonstrates this point. Founded by Gawker Media in 2004 with Ana Marie Cox as its first editor, the site s use of the feminine diminutive for its name implies that the wonk is, by definition, male.
8 . Anderegg, Nerds , 13.
9 . Ultimately, Anderegg concludes that making a clear distinction between the nerd and the geek is not really possible (ibid., 24).
10 . Ibid., 216.
11 . Ibid., 27, 219, 226.
12 . MacGillis, How Paul Ryan Convinced Washington of His Genius.
13 . Ibid.
14 . Scarry, Time Publishes Year-Old Unflattering Outtake Photos.
15 . See photos by Nadav Kander at http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/01/20/magazine/obamaspeople-38.html and http://www.flowersgallery.com/works/view/14276-peter-r-orszag-office-of-management-and-budget-director .
16 . Kantor, Obama s Man on the Budget.
17 . Leibovich, If Peter Orszag Is So Smart.
18 . MacGillis, How Paul Ryan Convinced Washington of His Genius.
19 . Connell, Masculinities , 164-65. Connell illustrates the gendering of expertise, the association of technical knowledge and rationality with men, by presenting a number of sociological case studies. As we will see, and as he himself notes, considering expertise solely as the province of men is not, itself, entirely rational.
20 . Kimmel, Manhood in America , 248.
21 . For expanded executive power, see Michiko Kakutani s review of Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Huq s Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror ; for an anatomization of the various versions of the Bush Doctrine, see Froomkin, What Is the Bush Doctrine, Anyway?
22 . Whittington, Harry Whittington s Hospital Statement. As of 2010, Cheney still had not apologized to Whittington. See Fahri, Since Dick Cheney Shot Him.
23 . Fuller, David Cameron on Obama. Obama s calmness and rationality are so clearly established as part of his persona that they form the basis for a series of comedy sketches on Key Peele in which Obama is provided with Luther, an anger translator, who restates the president s points with considerable emotion.

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