The anthropology of the pocket protector
MAYBE THE time for revenge really has come: “American Nerd: The Story of My People,” by Benjamin Nugent, is one of the season’s most talked-about cultural studies. A New York-based music journalist and the author of “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,” Nugent, 30, has produced a book both comic, in its recollections of the author’s nerd childhood, and dead serious, in its anthropological excursions into the nerd’s origins.
He visits a faux-medieval club and deciphers the work of Mary Bucholtz, a UC Santa Barbara linguist who sees nerdy students as defined by “hyperwhiteness” -- their tendency to ignore the African American slang and styles used by the popular kids. (Nugent seems to have recovered: He’s dating actress-writer Mindy Kaling of “The Office.”)
We spoke by phone to Nugent, who talks in a flat style, part self-deprecation, part too-cool-for-school, from a tour stop in Portland, Ore.
What made you want to write about one of the most loathed creatures in contemporary American history?
Being that loathed character, in short. When I was a kid, everyone called me a nerd. I grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and Amherst, Mass., which are sort of Berkeley-esque towns where the history of prejudice and categorization was a big part of our education.
But nobody could offer an explanation of where this apparently arbitrary category I’d been placed into came from. So instead of studying a real thing, I wanted to study the genealogy of a construct. I wanted to figure out why I was so despised and, if possible, empathize with the people who despised me.
The places you grew up were about as tolerant as anywhere in America.
I say at one point in the book, “It’s really hard to be not tolerated in Amherst.” And somehow I managed it. I think what happens with nerds is this cycle where they’re rejected, and then they start thinking of themselves as this elite race -- cutting themselves off deliberately as a defense mechanism. And then the cycle repeats itself.
How far did you find the nerd went back?
I went back to the early 19th century. Romanticism was blossoming in England at the dawn of the Machine Age, and the movement called Muscular Christianity, espoused by Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, started out in England and only then became popular among the Protestant establishment in the United States. So we get our ideas of romanticism, the soul versus the machine, and the gentleman athlete, from England.
You talk about the anti-nerd being the American jock.
The American jock is the creation of a few different forces, and one of the most interesting ones is the idea, and here I’m quoting from Teddy Roosevelt, that physical education is a racial defense weapon for the Nordics. That if what he considered the Nordic race became insufficiently masculine, became too comfortable, couldn’t engage with the physical world, then America would never have a great destiny the way England did.
So he was emphatic that young boys should read “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” which was one of the models for Muscular Christianity, and also one of the models of Harry Potter.
You traveled the country for this book, and some key chapters take place in Southern California. What did you find here?
Southern California has an amazing nerd landmark, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in North Hollywood. It’s a relic of a time when nerds physically got together in one place to discuss their interests, like sci-fi and the space race and D&D; and anime.
I went through some records, and the attendance used to be larger and, more important, the average age used to be late 20s, and now it’s clearly middle-aged to late-middle-aged. The people who would have been their [new] members are on the Internet.
Why was that physical getting together so important?
I think a lot of people in these subcultures think that it’s not important, that they’re exchanging ideas, or playing a game that’s fun, or figuring out problems -- they really do crave social contact and community and a kind of spiritual release. The things they did at the Science Fantasy Society were in some ways like a Quaker meeting house. They’d eulogize a member who had recently died, or a writer they were a fan of.
Was there a writer who seemed to be the favorite?
[Robert] Heinlein seemed to be pretty universally looked up to there. I also visited a “polyamorous” household that was inspired by his writings; this group household where everyone can kind of make out with everybody else.
Did you go anywhere else in California for the book?
I also went to the Antelope Valley, the local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. They’re called the Kingdom of Caid, the California chapter, and I went to a huge battle they had with Kingdom of Atenveldt, the Arizona chapter -- a huge war that happens once a year. It was maybe a thousand guys, in armor, charging each other in a park in the desert. The night I got back from it, I went to a party in Beachwood Canyon, and talk about a contrast.
Wasn’t there someplace where they addressed you as “kind sir” or something like that? Some of the nerdy kids in my high school were very into Renaissance festivals.
I think with Renaissance festivals, that quasi-medieval language allows for a certain clarity and politeness in discourse which a lot of nerds miss in high school, and need to find a place where it’s spoken. And that sense of elaborate rules and hierarchies that are very clear and open to everyone -- that’s something else high school does not allow. The hierarchies in high school are difficult to climb, it’s not clear how you do it. Everything is intuitive rather than rule-bound, all speech is elusive, etc. While the medieval society, the way it’s imagined, is this clear -- everyone knows where everybody stands -- honor society.
There seems to be a complicated ethnic and racial subtext to nerd identity as well. You say they’re simultaneously “hyperwhite” -- using less black American imagery than cool kids -- and related to stereotypes of Asians and Jews.
If you look at contemporary racism, we stereotype certain ethnic groups -- Asians and Jews -- the opposite of the way we stereotype other groups, like African Americans and American Indians. The former is what you might call Orientalist racism -- “these people are insufficiently earthy, they don’t feel enough, they’re too industrious, they’re asexual.” And on the other side, it’s, “These people are too primitive, they’re too earthy, they’re too sexual.” And white people get to be right in the middle.
And one of the things that I thought was emblematic was when Brian Eno made this assertion in an interview, “The problem with computers is there’s no Africa in them. If you went to Africa, no one would want computers, because you don’t use your whole body with them.” And that ties in with Mary Bucholtz’s theory that nerds engage in a kind of hyperwhiteness. A whiteness so white it’s not totally white anymore.
It sounds like nerds still aren’t cool.
I think the idea of nerds has become cool, even if nerds themselves aren’t. If you look at shows like “The O.C.,” the Seth Cohen character is a nerd -- he’s into comic books, he’s scared of the bullies. But he became a heartthrob, and I think that was really something new. We got desirable nerds, probably tied to nerds’ economic ascendancy.
How close are you to the subject? Do you consider yourself a recovering nerd, an ironic nerd, a hip nerd, or what?
I guess I was a nerd who became a social climber in high school, and was still pretty nerdy into college. And then was lucky enough to get shot out of college into New York at a time when people who were cool and people who were nerdy were visually indistinguishable.
I think by dint of the fact that I’m not a very good scientific or mathematical thinker, and that my job involves persuading people to talk -- through intuitive social interaction -- I’m probably not very good at being a nerd anymore. You could say I’ve fallen from grace.