Queering the Nerd/Nerding the Queer

Any invocation of “queer theories” carries with it the gifted messiness of an ambiguous web of epistemologies, politics, and reading strategies to which the term refers. To clearly explain what I mean when I’m working with queer theories is somewhat of a challenge. Jagose reminds us, “queer itself can neither have a foundational logic nor a consistent set of characteristics” (1996, p.13). Halperin says of the word queer, “There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence” (1995, p.62). Fichte claims, “Queer speech is vague, indirect speech” (1996, p.403). To play in the queer is to stay in the messiness, to resist the seduction of neat and stable lines of demarcation. It is to embrace ambiguity, and then speak as clearly as possible.

Sullivan introduces her exploration of “Queer Theory” by noting that while it “may now be recognized by many as an academic discipline, it nevertheless continues to struggle against the straightjacketing effects of institutionalization, to resist closure and remain in the process of ambiguous (un)becoming” (2003, p. v). Yet, Sullivan is quick to argue that “Queer Theory” is not “ethereal, quixotic, unknowable,” rather it functions in “specific – albeit complex and somewhat ambiguous – ways in particular contexts, and in relation to particular issues” (p. vi). And so, following the strategy Sullivan adopts based on those claims, I enter into this conversation not with an attempt to define queer theories, but rather to explore what they can do (vi).

Given that any attempt to exact a definition of either “queer” or “queer theories” is a decidedly un-queer move, what to do? As I get into thinking about what queer theories can offer in examining nerd masculinities – and given the inadequacy of typologies for this – I propose instead a topography, a mapping of linked ideas and processes akin to neighboring mountains on the same range. Each of these “mountains” has distinctive geological features and textures, yet all emerged out of a similar convergence of influences played out in neighboring and often overlapping contexts.

For the purposes of situating and problematizing nerd masculinities, I’m going to pay attention to three mountains in this chain of queer theories. Each, through parallels or direct application, could be helpful here.  I begin with the problem of nerd identity, or the category “nerd” in and of itself. Through a queer lens, I will explore the notion of identity and the construction of identity categories, opening us to important questions about our consideration of “nerd” as a subject. From there, I’ll consider the implications of queer reading strategies that destabilize hegemonic identity constructions and/or privilege interpretations of texts through queer experience. The implication here is to consider nerd as queer position in its implicit challenge to (or disregard of) normalcy and thus open possibilities for further problematizing cultural institutions, specifically masculinity. Finally, drawing from the queer use of “camp” as a problematizing strategy, I want to look at the radical possibilities (and limitations) of employing a nerd aesthetic towards disrupting cultural assumptions. So, I might pay more attention to what queer theories might “do” in a study of nerd masculinities than the “doing” itself. In other words, my attention for this post is more about (briefly) identifying the possibilities more than fully realizing them.

Queering Identity
One of the challenges of using “queer” as a noun is clarifying to whom one is referring, because “queer” so actively resists easy the very notion of easy categories. The notion of a list of characteristics qualifying one as a queer is absurd, and yet the challenge is that the ambiguity of the term disrupts the basis for intellectual and political engagements dependent on the stability of identity categories – disruptions that are ultimately the point of queer projects. One of the reasons I am interested in “nerd” as a subject is because of its similar messiness. While there is a fairly crystallized notion of the nerd in functioning in American culture, it is just as easy to accept that it is an ill-defined and poorly constructed category. Thus, it serves as a helpful entry point when drawing attention to the limits of other socially constructed identities often assumed to be “natural”, such as gender, race, sexuality and so on. In other words, a transparently constructed category like “nerd” can open doors for post-structural novices to better understand the constructed nature of other identities they may assume to be more stable. In this way, the nerd is a useful tool in introducing the queer.

However, unlike the queer defiance of defining “queer,” defining the parameters of the category “nerd” is a very nerdy enterprise, at least as defined by those trying to define it. In writing about nerd masculinities, I am faced with the challenge that “nerd” cries for a definition…but how would I do that? In resisting the temptation to offer a checklist of characteristics mimicking a diagnostic manual and delineating the nerd from the geek or the dork, I turn instead to what queer theories might offer in thinking about the very nature of identity and the construction of the categories used to build it.

Particularly useful in this regard is Judith Butler’s work on performance and performativity, first articulated in her seminal text Gender Trouble (1990). Gender, Butler argues, is a social construct serving particular purposes and institutions. As Sullivan explains her argument, “Gender…is the performative effect of reiterative acts, that is, acts that can be, and are, repeated” (2003, p.82). Over time, through constant repetition in highly regulated contexts, those acts “congeal…to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler, 1990, p.33). So, rather than any essential identity, gender consists of repeated acts and gestures over time, which produce the illusion of a stable essence. The “essence or identity,” which these acts “purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means” (1990, p.136).

Gender then, is always a copy of a performance, which is a copy of a performance, which has no original. I could no more offer a stable definition of “nerd” than I could answer the questions “What makes a man a ‘man’, or a woman a ‘woman’?” However, I may be able to offer descriptions of aspects of the repeated acts or gestures by those (real and fictional) who either claim or are assigned the nerd moniker. In short, to define “nerd” would be to offer an illusion of categorical stability that does not exist, yet common characteristics of nerd performativity may be identifiable. Part of what this awareness of the fluidity inherent in our subject offers, aside from a basis to challenge attempts towards a nerd essentialism, is to disrupt any line of reasoning directed towards whether or not a given figure is “nerd enough” to be considered authentic. Though certainly there is great variance in the nature and frequency one repeats and performs nerdy acts and gestures, any clear demarcation of the boundaries of a nerd tribe is suspect at best. Other implications of Butler’s theories of performativity on a study of nerd masculinities will be explored throughout this series.

photo by outcast 104 / flickr

About Brian Ammons

Brian Ammons is an educator, spiritual director, author, and ordained Baptist minister. He lives and works in the intersections of gender, sexuality, spirituality, and justice. He is a former faculty member in Duke University's Program in Education, and currently serves as Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC.

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