Just as Hall asks, “Is a ‘queer’ history even possible?” (2003, p.21), I wonder about the possibility of writing a history of the nerd. Just as there has been sexual activity between same-sexed bodies in other places and times, there have also been those who preferred to spend their time in libraries and laboratories in other eras. Those who cared less about dress and appearance than about whatever grabbed hold of their curiosity at that moment are not exclusive to our cultural context, however reading them as nerds is. The problem with a history of either queers or nerds, is that it necessitates, at least to some degree, an ahistorical notion of the queer or the nerd to be written back beyond their contexts.
Hall reminds us: “One of the most useful insights for the late twentieth-century critical theory and reconceptualizations of historiography is that ‘history’ is always an artificial construct, one that depends upon numerous acts of interpretation, exclusion, and information shaping that reflect inevitably and indelibly the beliefs and biases of the historian or critic” (2003, p.21).
The writing of history, then, is a political act reflecting the ideologies and desires of the author, and as such it is an act full of discrepancies and challenges. To trace a history of the “nerd” requires an assumed causal relationship with the outcome of that history (the establishment of the “nerd”), which must then be read back onto circumstances that predate its inception. Sullivan approaches a similar problem in her efforts to explore what preceded the current construction of queer by adopting Foucault’s notion of “genealogy” (2003). In his own words, Foucault’s genealogical analysis examines “instances of discursive production…of the production of power and the propagation of knowledge” (Foucault, 1980, p.12). So, in constructing a genealogy of the nerd, my task is to examine the ways in which power has functioned and been deployed to discursively construct the nerd and its counterparts. In so doing, we may come to a better understanding of the nerd in the present, “in all its complexity – in terms of the past(s) that inscribe it” (Sullivan, 2003, p.2).
Histories of “nerd” can be found in various forms on countless websites. Many like Jim Burrows’ “The Origin of the Nerd” (http://home.comcast.net/~brons/), take an etymological approach focusing on the emergence of the word “nerd” itself and its integration into the popular lexicon. In the last decade, two major works on nerds also have been published: David Anderegg’s, Nerds: Who they are and why we need more of them (2007), and Benjamin Nugent’s American nerd: The story of my people (2008). While these authors have significantly different agendas and approaches, both offer a historical perspective with significant insights for a nerd genealogy. Perhaps what is most important about these books and the nerd themed websites that precede them is that they reflect an understanding of the nerd as subject in this particular moment – they participate (as does this essay) in both the re-creation and propagation of the nerd as they engage a discourse in which the nerd is assumed to be a knowable subject, created by earlier discursive productions of power.
For both Anderegg and Nugent, power shifts in nineteenth century American discourses around masculinity demonstrate new strategies in the regulation of manhood. To be clear, Anderegg is not interested in theorizing the process of writing history when he boldly and anachronistically names Washington Irving’s character Ichabod Crane as “America’s first nerd” (2007, p.66), yet he raises interesting questions about the portrayal of Crane and his nemesis Brom Bones as they seek the affection of the same woman. Based on the characteristics of nerds Anderegg lays out earlier in his book, he argues that we can know Crane is a nerd because of his “laughable figure” (physicality in nerd embodiment will be discussed more in response to question #2), his intellectual role as the town’s schoolmaster, and his Dungeons and Dragons-like interest in the supernatural as evidenced by the books he read. Perhaps most significantly for Anderegg, who writes as a child psychologist concerned about anti-nerd bullying, Crane is a nerd because “he is persecuted by a nonnerd; “He is, by definition, not what his opposite number is” (p.67). In the end, the burly Brom Bones both wins Katrina’s affection and runs Crane out of town.
Anderegg notes that the collection of stories in which Irving first published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was wildly popular in both the United States and England, regarded by some as the “beginning of a truly native American Literature, with a capital L” (p.68). While Irving mocked the superstition of the small-town Dutch settlers, Crane is mocked more. Anderegg argues that the story is not so much about two competing characters, but “about three competing forces: the American “intellectual,” who is undone by his interest in old-fashioned European superstition; the superstitious and ignorant Dutch settlers, who with their funny names and old-country ways resemble Europeans more than Americans; and finally the wily, tough hero who ignores superstition, but uses it to his advantage, Brom Bones, the real American” (p.68). Irving mocks European superstition and American intellectual pretension, trumping them both with a new man, the brawny, bold, brave, American hero functioning as both exemplar and regulator of acceptable masculinity.
Pervasive images of the American man as frontier hero, as in the novels of James Fennimore Cooper and the Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, continued to take hold in early nineteenth century American popular culture (Connell, 2005, p. 194). In contrast, using Connell’s notion of “hegemonic masculinity,” (2005) derived from Gramsci’s analysis of class relations, we might view literary figures like Crane as failing to comply with the “configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (p.77). Theirs is a failure to live into the “currently accepted” strategy, and are thus they are subordinated. While Connell is not a queer theorist and refrains from questioning the stability of the categories “men” and “women,” her analysis of fluidity in gender practice and contextually accepted strategies resonates with similar aspects of Butler’s theory of performativity – together they offer rich possibilities for furthering an investigation of nerd masculinities.
Towards the end of the century, as the industrial revolution transformed the United States from a largely agrarian economy towards urban manufacturing, the strategies for legitimizing patriarchy and regulating masculinity would shift again. Messner (1992), in an exploration of masculinity and sport, argues that while industrial capitalism established separate and unequal spheres (public/domestic), allocating privilege for controlling the family wage to men, the separation of wage labor from the home brought with it a dramatic decline in the amount of time men spent with the family. As result, boys spent more time being raised and socialized by women, generating a wave of anxiety about a perceived crisis of masculinity among young men. The rise of feminism further complicated the stability of the gender order, requiring a new strategy for maintaining the hegemony. It is out of this anxiety, Messner argues, that organizations like the Boy Scouts rapidly spread through the country, and out of this anxiety that men “created sport as a refuge, as bastion of masculinity” (p.18).
Nugent notes that Teddy Roosevelt, author of The Strenuous Life, referred to physical education as a “racial defense weapon” against the weakening of the Nordic races (p.30). “For American workers,” Nugent argues, “sports represented a way to reclaim physical mastery from the increasingly industrial, urban, and bureaucratized civilization that had started to push highly skilled physical work to the margins,” but for the upper classes, with equal importance, it became a way to prepare young gentlemen to be leaders and define themselves over against rising waves of immigrants. Nugent quips that if Entertainment Weekly had done an article on the protestant establishment from 1870 to 1920, “there would have been a sidebar that read: ‘Out – Effiminacy, Jews, the library, immigrant hordes; In – football, nature, England, island colonies…” (p.31)
As immigrant labor forces moved into the urban centers of the United States, a re-identification with England emerged among the upper classes, and with it came the embrace of a newly articulated English strategy for regulating the boundaries of gender, race and class known as “Muscular Christianity” (Nugent, 31). The term “Muscular Christianity,” first used in 1857, referred to any doctrine “that celebrated the pious gentleman who learned the manly art of rugby football as boys to become an unstoppable offense for the empire, which was understood to be a device of Jesus” (p.34). Muscular Christianity found its most valuable advocate in Endicott Peabody, a product of English education and founder of Groton, a private school in Massachusetts geared to make “real men” out of the sons of the elite. “Character” was emphasized over academics in the schools to such an extent that overt studiousness became suspect. Appealing to WASP Americans – who were eager to model the English and differentiate themselves from Jews and other immigrants – the athletic culture of Groton took hold and was replicated in boarding schools throughout the region (p.35). In the wake of this culture, in the era of Teddy Roosevelt’s brawny presidency, in colleges and boarding schools students who opted out of athletics became known as “greasy grinds” or “greasers,” possibly linked to ethnic stereotypes about personal hygiene.
In the patriarchy preserving strategies of the new Muscular Christianity, these subordinate boys and men, these “greasers,” were for the first time constituted as an identifiable category. Their failure to adequately differentiate themselves from other subordinate men represented a failure in class, race, and national identity. Greasers did not live up to the hegemonic masculinity that justified the privilege of patriarchy, however, I would argue they were central to that justification for other boys. Greasers were needed as convenient others. Whereas largely the “others” from whom WASP boys were consciously taught to differentiate themselves were institutionally denied access to their schools and playing fields, the greasers were in their midst. Patriarchy demands power and subordination, and thus greasers were necessary – the jocks (or their precursors) need their nerds in order to be jocks.