‘By Heart, not Rote’: some observations on geeks and geekiness

By skepticlawyer

Chrissie Amphlett and the Divinyls provided a decent chunk of the soundtrack to my young life; reports of her early death (aged 53) hit me in the childhood memories, hard, much like the arrest of Rolf Harris, or pictures of Berliners crawling over the remains of the Wall. I have, by saying those things, disclosed my past as a true child of the 80s. I was surprised, then, to find someone my age — and Australian to boot — asking, ‘but who’s Chrissie Amphlett?’

After I’d picked myself up off the floor, I was reminded that it is quite dangerous these days to assume common cultural knowledge, even among educated people. In the past this was not so, at least (adding the inevitable caveat) among educated people. That cultural knowledge took in a great deal of classics (Homer, Virgil, Ovid), the Book of Common Prayer (even for non-Anglicans, as Methodist Margaret Thatcher’s funeral disclosed), the Bible (KJV), a substantial body of literature, at least Mozart and Bach with a generous leavening (at least among Anglophone people) of Handel, a wide knowledge of art and art history. That seems a great deal, but I had all of it (thanks to a combination of background and schooling) by the time I was 14.

More adventurous types (I was one of these) added Russians and Americans; I spent quite a bit of my junior year (standard grade/GCSE/O-Level) reading Russians. I suppose you could say I got the depressing stuff out of the way early. I also watched very little television. This was partly an exigency enforced by circumstances: in much of rural Australia you needed a 90 ft aerial just to get the ABC, and that badly. I recall seeing most of the Tom Baker and Peter Davison Doctors Who, but don’t really remember any of the others. I saw the three Star Wars films on television, a long, long time after their cinema releases. I remember friends collecting Star Wars figurines, and marvelling that Yoda’s cloak was material, not plastic. I never got into Star Trek, perhaps because it was on a commercial station and we were an ABC family.

This means that much of the material that provides the ‘common knowledge’ presumed among ‘geeks’ (and I wish to problematise that word) was not part of my cultural armoury until I left high school. I read Lord of the Rings at university. I read Dune as a pupil barrister. I certainly read some science fiction at high school, but without any loyalty to a particular author: I recall Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K Dick. Of the three, I thought Le Guin by some margin the superior writer: she could turn a sentence like the best of the Modernists and evoke emotion like the Victorians. I found myself counting (and mentally correcting) Heinlein’s grammatical errors.

540745_10151362022231401_890656435_nThis can have amusing consequences, because among many people (including not a few of my friends), the ‘geek’ is often what passes for a person educated in literature and culture. I then turn up and lack entirely the ‘geek’s’ depth of knowledge when it comes to science fiction or fantasy, but get to explain to an audience of skeptics why Dickens’s portrait of the equitable jurisdiction in Bleak House contributed to urgently needed law reform between the years 1873 and 1875. Now, time was when the interminable court case of ‘Jarndyce v Jarndyce’ could be named without either its author or novel attached: no more. The world has changed.

This is why I was greatly amused when, last week, Liberty Fund’s Sarah Skwire (she blogs most famously here) sent me the graphic attached to this post (original location here). It is years since I have seen Star Wars, but I have done Latin translation recently (some last week) — and for £, too — including for the Reason Foundation. This meant that I had to retrieve the joke by means of the Latin, as well as explain to a fellow classicist that I think the full colon between ‘non’ and ‘ego’ is meant to work like a comma, so he’s saying ‘no, I am your father!’ or something to that effect. I then added this caveat:

[Please note, my knowledge of Latin is far more secure than my knowledge of Star Wars. I haven’t seen the films since I was a child, and even then only on telly; I am literate and cultured, but not a geek.]

He, like me, approached the image via the Latin, not the popular culture reference.

The problem of equating ‘geek’ with ‘knowledgeable about literature and culture’ is not only that the arts are not a democracy: much popular culture is not, I’m afraid, very good, and what is good is not as a general rule comparable with high culture. Sorry, but there it is (I should note that Sarah cordially disagrees with me on this point).

The other (and more pressing) problem is a complete lack of understanding of what cultural literacy is supposed to achieve.

I was exposed to this problem of critical–if not cultural–illiteracy this week. It involved the author Orson Scott Card, of whom I had heard only faintly. Apparently he wrote a famous book called Ender’s Game, which is generally highly rated among science fiction aficionados. However, in more recent times, Scott Card was commissioned to write a Superman story by the established comics publisher, DC Comics. However, Scott Card is a homophobe, a genuine one: not only is he opposed to same-sex marriage, he believes homosexual activity between consenting adults in private should be criminalised. He is also on the board of the National Organisation for Marriage, a body that has often fought its battles dishonestly (I know this, because I picked apart its amicus brief in my paper for the Reason Foundation).

This disclosure meant I asked my interlocutors if Scott Card’s personal views on gays had caused a drop-off in the quality of his work, to which I received the response that (a) they didn’t know and (b) they weren’t ever going to know, because they now refused to read any of his books, not even the famous Ender’s Game.  I was then told about the campaign to have him removed from his Superman writing role for DC Comics. It would appear that his story may now never see the light of day: it has lost its illustrator (rather essential in the world of comics) and, one suspects, would be subject to a fan boycott if published, such has been the anger. I responded that it was entirely fair for a publisher to make a marketing decision like that: the world of publishing is precarious enough without losing a significant chunk of a given fan base thanks to consumer boycott. And it wouldn’t be the first time an author has alienated his or her readers: lots of people didn’t take to the posthumously published Northanger Abbey back in the day, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses marked a significant departure from his earlier erotic poetry.

Three things fell out of this series of conversations:

1. A large number of geeks do not get that the purpose of creative literature is not to make you feel good about yourself. If you want books that make you feel good about yourself, then ‘self help’ is the genre you’re after.

2. A large number of geeks seem to think that if they disagree with an author’s politics or other beliefs, that means they ought ipso facto to reject the author himself, along with all his works. I always thought conflating an author’s characters’ views with the author’s views was bad enough, but if widely adopted across the culture this more expansive rejection would decimate the Western Canon, let alone popular culture. I should not have to give you a roll call of the misanthropes, misogynists, kooks, racists, homophobes, bigots, and crooks that populate the arts–both canonical and not.

3. A large number of geeks do not get that a publishing company does not decide to pull a given publication because it necessarily agrees with that publication’s critics. It pulls the publication because it is worried about loss of marketshare. Publishing companies are not charities. I know this, I have worked for and with several of them.

I do not know where this idea of literature and the arts as providers of succour comes from, but it fascinates me. Maybe it comes from the common geek experience of being a reader at school, and as a result being treated horribly for having intellectual pursuits. Sympathetic writers and artists are then co-opted into a defence for a wounded individual, and cannot be allowed to stray too far from that individual’s experience of woundedness because they are needed for protection. This is just a guess, though. I don’t know. The inability to grasp how the free market works is commoner: indeed, it’s almost universal among my arts and humanities friends, and common among scientists, even when it comes to those in the throes of engaging a commercial lawyer to protect their IP or build the corporate structure for their start-up.

When one first encounters poetry, one is commonly enjoined to learn it ‘by heart, not rote’: indeed, rote learning has killed not a few of my friends’ enjoyment of literature generally and poetry in particular. I think rote learning is ill-advised as an educational technique, even though I admit it worked well for me as a child. ‘Heart’ has its origins in ‘love’: that is what makes for future generations of readers. However, it is unwise to allow love for a genre and the feelings it evokes to blind one’s critical sensibilities. If you don’t like a book [or film, or painting, or other cultural product] that’s fine, but remember that the author [illustrator, musician, other artist] is under no duty to tailor his work to your sensibilities. Keep a few critical rules of thumb in mind: good writers separate their work from their beliefs (this is what Ayn Rand famously failed to do, and what Tolstoy almost fails to do in the long essays scattered throughout War and Peace; still, both were Russians, and Russians do like to expound their beliefs). Remember that mediocre writers often haul a great deal out of the confessional and spill the result in front of the public: think, for example, of the ‘misery memoirs’ so popular in recent years. Above all, do not form a critical view of an author’s work unless you have read some of that work. More than anything else this bespeaks cultural illiteracy, ignorance, and intolerance. It is redolent of an age where women had to write under male pseudonyms because people would not read ‘silly books written by silly women’.

Oh yes, after exams I’ll be reading Ender’s Game. It’s been mentally added to the pile that sits beside this reader’s bed.


  1. Dave Bath
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I got to the picture via the Latin too – and my latin is crap … reading left to right, top to bottom … hit Caeliambulus and went “heaven walk …. hang on … -us is a noun, lucius heavenwalker …. hang on …. ooooh … darcus vadorus …” (glance over whole thing quickly … see “your father” and nail what it is … then the picture confirms the scene)

    As for ” A large number of geeks seem to think that if they disagree with an author’s politics or other beliefs, that means they ought ipso facto to reject the author himself, along with all his works.” …. hmmmm … maybe L Ron Hubbard wrote good SF … and the film a few years ago got panned unfairly ….

  2. Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    I think getting there via the Latin is not just confined to classicists and people with schoolboy Latin. It really is very dangerous to make cultural assumptions. Yes the Chrissie Amphlett one floored me, but I was in a city by the time her later stuff (‘I touch myself’) came out so found out about the rest of her oeuvre that way. Other people may not have shared that experience, or they may be immigrants, or not into that style of rock (I always bracketed the Divinyls with AC/DC).

  3. Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    the National Organisation for Marriage, a body that has often fought its battles dishonestly

    Which is yet another way anti-queer activism replicates the patterns of anti-Jewish activism. For the same reasons; since the intent is to morally exclude via a distinction which does not actually morally differentiate (Jews and queers are not categorically different from other folk in their general moral behaviour) and because elevated claims have to be made about their corrupting power (otherwise it is transparently a large majority monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority), dishonesty is built in.

    Part of what is going on is not only a status thing (“good people believe x, bad people believe not-x”) and considerable mutual miscomprehension but also the consequences of queer normalising. Fans read it as an attack on their queer friends, relatives, acquaintances and cultural heroes (any Adam Lambert, Ricky Martin or Elton John fans amongst those angry geeks?) who are just folks now, while the queer-haters simply cannot comprehend how anyone can treat those people as “real” people.

  4. Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Agreed–I cite Lois McMaster Bujold. A Civil Campaign is one of the great comedy of manners of our, or anyone’s, time.

  5. Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Not a fan of burying bad bits of the past: while I don’t blame Eastern and Central Europeans for knocking down most of the butt ugly statues of Lenin and Stalin (chiefly on the basis that they were, indeed, butt ugly), I think if we removed every bad thing from the past on public display we’d be heading dangerously close to Roman-style damnatio memoriae, which is unhealthy.

    I like the way the Czechs have kept a few, or put lots of them in dedicated museums (I visited one in Prague when I was there; it was funny in its own way).

  6. Posted April 23, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I was surprised … to find someone ….. asking, ‘..who’s Chrissie Amphlett?’

    While not in the same league as asking “who’s Slim Dusty?” it is still something I struggle with.

    Totally oblivious as I am to her genre of music I still knew she was an Australian rock singer whose conduct and surname put her into that group of people who once encountered, won’t be forgotten. I’ve never knowingly heard any of her music, nor did I know she was in the Divinyls (who I also know only by name).

    There was a series of cards in cereal packets once, that depicted “Australian Bands & Singers”. Neither she nor the Divinyls were in the series, so they pretty much didn’t exist in my mind. (The series included, but was not limited to: Renee Geyer, Hush, Little River Band, Ol’ 55). If they didn’t have a card in a cereal packet, well…. they just didn’t rate!

  7. Will
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Though genre fiction is a big tent, my experience is that it has strong appeal for cultural and religious conservatives. Possibly it’s tied to the salience of heroic and fantastical imagery for conservative cognition and the more binary moral vocabulary associated with the hero’s journey to confront the big bad. As it must be said, the appeal seems to fracture with grittier works in genre fiction that have a more pronounced moral ambiguity and most of cyberpunk. But whatever is the case, it’s well-reflected in the stable of authors of genre fiction and their readers.

    Notwithstanding the fact that I find Card to hold vile and callow views, I have never felt it appropriate to screen any literature according to the views of the author.

    That said, only good writers are disciplined enough to write organic and interesting characters, with real motivations and sources of conflict, whatever their prejudices. The worst authors use characters as two-dimensional soap-boxes for their authorial prejudices and that provides adequate reason by itself for rejecting their work. I would put Terry Goodkind and Ayn Rand in this category, though Rand’s prose at least is pretty decent and her stories have some allegorical worth in expressing her philosophy.

  8. John H.
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I think that science fiction and fantasy contains some of the modern world’s great literature (Ursula Le Guin is a very good example). Not all sci-fi and fantasy is great, but some of it is fantastic. It gets written off somewhat because of the perception that “genre” writing is less highbrow.

    Yeah to that. Trying to recover my scifi\fantasy reading habit so if anyone has recommendations I will be grateful.

    BTW, same thing goes for comedy re high brow pretensions, why are literature “great novels” so often so D and M and bloody sad!?

  9. Posted April 23, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I slogged through Atlas Shrugged at some point. I guess my main problem was that the villains were better characterised than the heroes. The villains were all too human. The heroes were cardboard aliens.

  10. Posted April 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    As for Canon, it’s merely moved to movies and TV shows primarily and novels and comics secondarily. The learnèd nerd these days can work into conversation quotes from, or references to, Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and a handful of other cultural touchstones.

    The fancier high-falutin’ sorts might discuss Ender’s Game (which I thought was overrated, relying heavily on a Surprise Reveal for its effect) or perhaps Watchmen and so forth.

    Political head-bashing is very much part of the scene in science-fiction; much more so than fantasy. Probably because of the future = advanced society fallacy. Star Trek is particularly guilty of it, but then, Gene Roddenberry was an idealist and his successors were lazy writers. Take The Next Generation series as whole and the crew of the Enterprise are breathtaking hypocrites. Out of one mouth they preach the Prime Directive, out of the other they break it whenever they feel bad about something. They blather about being sensitive, but if a crew member is in in the slightest trouble they’ll break any local law or custom at a whim. It sets out to be an morally instructive world and, purely by accident, becomes a perfect demonstration of how an inward-looking hyperpower behaves.

  11. John H.
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The Next Generation series as whole and the crew of the Enterprise are breathtaking hypocrites.

    I hated that series, it was full of warm and fuzzy nonsense. Enterprise got back to being human.

  12. Posted April 23, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Though genre fiction is a big tent, my experience is that it has strong appeal for cultural and religious conservatives. Possibly it’s tied to the salience of heroic and fantastical imagery for conservative cognition and the more binary moral vocabulary associated with the hero’s journey to confront the big bad. As it must be said, the appeal seems to fracture with grittier works in genre fiction that have a more pronounced moral ambiguity and most of cyberpunk. But whatever is the case, it’s well-reflected in the stable of authors of genre fiction and their readers.

    I think Will is onto something here.

    If you’re a bit of an outcast and think you’ve found a happy place, having a bunch of moral policemen colonise your happy place once you’ve been there for a while would be profoundly irritating. And while I loathe Scott Card’s politics, I loathe the moral policeman/literature as therapy views of many of his critics almost as much.

    One geeky friend (on reading this post) made the observation that part of the problem is spillover from a certain sort of left politics, where controlling how one’s minority is represented seems to be front and centre. Hence the utterly pointless campaigns about ‘sexualisation’ or page 3 girls or bus ads or whatever when there really is rather a lot more to be worried about, even in a developed country.

  13. Posted April 23, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Though genre fiction is a big tent, my experience is that it has strong appeal for cultural and religious conservatives.

    Up to a point. Apart from Rosemary Sutcliff (bless her), the first positive queer characters I came across were all in SF. Diane Duane has a particularly warm spot in my heart because of her The Door into Fire (ignore the wonderfully inappropriate cover art) which had a nicely realised male-male erotic love at its heart in a society where that was fine as long as you also propagated.

    There is a noticeable “patriotic libertarian” genre, often written by American ex-servicepersonnel. Though calling it conservative is confusing conservatism with libertarianism.

    SF has an inherently anti-conservative effect, because exploring alternative societies tends to create a notion of alternative possibilities rather than of society having a set form.

    LE: always happy to put people onto Bujold, who is an endless delight. Katherine Kurtz, Sharon Shinn, Wen Spencer, Gael Baudino and Jane Routley are also worth exploring. Mercedes Lackey is rather excessively prolific (and her gay men are usually just girls with penises), but her latest series, The Heirs to Alexandria (based on a world where Hypatia escaped pagan martyrdom and became a Christian Saint of great influence), is her best work. (I will confess, however, to a weakness for her Bedlam Bard books.)

    In her Diane Tregarde stories, particularly Burning Water, there are some pointed observations about American religious prejudice.

    The idea of oppressed minorities tends to be very strong in SF, and is also not inherently conservative. There was some conservative grumpiness about Bryan Singer’s X-men treatment of anti-mutant prejudice having obvious similarities to anti-queer feeling. (Though, with a gay director and a gay actor as main villain, it was probably going to go there.)

  14. marks
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    @8 SL

    During the time of Stalin, the Czechoslovak Communist Party secretary (notorious drunkard and sycophant Klem Gottwald) decided to build the world’s largest statue of Stalin. It portrayed Stalin at the head of a procession of workers in two lines (one line Russian, one Czechoslovak).

    The Czechs called it: “The meat queue” in honour of the meat shortages consequent to the glorious socialist revolution, and their respect of Stalin and things Russian, of course.

    It has been replaced by a rather large modern arty farty pendulum.

  15. Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    It has been replaced by a rather large modern arty farty pendulum.

    I think the Stalin statue is in the Prague museum I went to; the one I remember is the ‘monument to the unknown soldier’, which had ‘monument to the unknown rapist’ spray-painted in 3 languages around its base.

    It was probably unwise for the Russians to invade a country that gave the world Kafka and Hasek.

    Lorenzo & LE: I think we may be pressing on a different (although sometimes overlapping) fanbase when it comes to SF and Fantasy. I must admit I much prefer SF, although I have enjoyed some fantasy over the years.

  16. Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I never sympathised with the idea of books as succour, or comfort, or escapism. Viewing the latest book as serving a specific purpose, like those listed above, always seems to me to be a diminishment of the capacities of literature (if that makes sense). But then perhaps labels like SF or fantasy encourage this – if a book is not just ‘literature’, but is described as falling into a particular genre, then perhaps that is because people view it as having a purpose. Succour, escapism, whatever. I don’t want any part of it though.

    SF appealing to conservative types? Well you might say so. From my experience the majority of SF readers – certainly the majority of SF fans – tend to be lefty progressives: though maybe SF is conservative insofar as it offers progessive values in a conservative way, if that makes sense.

    However, one of the appealing aspects of SF and fantasy, it seems to me, is the way it has of providing a voice for the views of its authors, or a means by which the authors can argue more conveniently. It’s an old technique, maybe one of the oldest literary techniques, in fact. I like books that combine argument and drama and essay and narrative in the one package; all these forms I find pleasing, and I find it even more pleasing when the author finds a clever or attractive way of working them in to the one book. (Though it helps if the author tends to have interesting and original views; the arguments that Brian Aldiss’s characters have tend to be much much more interesting than those that Asimov’s characters have). In this respect SF borrows a little from medieval allegory, a little from Shakespeare and Spencer, as well as from romantic and modern writers like Shelley and Wells.

    Interestingly, those early fantasy writers Tolkien and Lewis almost never do this. Tolkien’s fantasy has as far as I can remember no neat moral lectures; Lewis’ might put some attractive aphorisms in Aslan’s mouth, but the argument in the Narnia books is almost entirely subsumed in the drama. Those old literary perfessors certainly knew what they were on about.

  17. Jeremy
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t waste my time on Ender’s Game. A common factor in the perceptions of many fans is that they read it while adolescents, and my experience has been it does not stand up to a more mature reading. There are better sci-fi ‘classics’ out there. The Stars my Destination, Rendezvous with Rama, and above all on the totem pole of sci-fi literary pretentiousness (as others would describe it, I love the series) The Book of the New Sun, to name a few. The last is prose pornography on a Nabokov level.

    I will agree that repugnant authorial views should not lead to immediate rejection of their work – it’s as common in sci-fi as elsewhere, possibly moreso. Orscon Scott Card, John C Wright, Dan Simmons… The last two having produced some superlative works which it would be a shame to avoid.

    @Legal Eagle: your comments regarding Tolkien certainly have some weight behind them. Michael Moorcock’s essay ‘Epic Pooh’ expresses his distaste for the nostalgia for a time that never was works like LotR evince.

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