Patrick Paglen explains how feminism is, in its own right, a nerdy interest.
The Guardian reported on January 23rd that Wikipedia has sanctioned five editors from editing articles on “Gamergate,” a controversy within the video game development and consumer communities involving abuse, rape, and death threats targeting key women within the community. The editors, the Guardian claims, were “actively attempting to prevent the article from being rewritten with a pro-Gamergate slant.”
Meanwhile, another controversy unrelated to the video game community sparked over this winter. MIT removed the title of professor Walter Lewin over online sexual harassment of a student. In a personal Blog, a fellow professor Scott Aaronson condemned Lewin but lamented that MIT removed the availability of his lectures for the time being. This sparked a very long reply thread, which inspired Aaronson to write a short essay on his often fraught relationship with feminism as a young nerd, which sparked several other articles in response by such as Arthur Chu, Lauri Penny, Amanda Marcotte, and Harris O’ Malley.
While these two separate controversies seem like battles in a growing conflict between nerdom and feminism, they would be better represented as a struggle within nerdom itself. On the one hand we see nerds who are feminists attempting to call out and stop harmful and problematic behavior in the various aspects of the their communities they love and belong to. On the other hand, we see those who only see supposed outsiders attacking the industries they consume, and retaliating with as much force as they can.
This situation to me seems very ironic, as the study and practice of feminism is a highly nerdy endeavor.
I do not mean that all feminists are nerds, though many feminists are nerds. And certainly I do not mean that all nerds are feminists. What I mean is that the essence of nerd is not love for the trappings of “nerdy” interests such as comics or theoretical physics. The essence of a nerd is a love and craving for detail. The franchises created by JRR Tolkin and George Lucas are so loved by nerds because of their detailed richness, where one get a glimpse of a larger world than what is presented on paper or on screen, and the fictional universe can be expanded upon, argued over, and studied. Matthew Rozsa recently wrote a piece on being a “football nerd” because there is so much history, statistics, possibility, and strategy one can analyze about the game. Nerds and sciences are so associated with each other because the sciences are old, detailed, and ever changing means of explaining natural phenomena, and thus lends itself to the kind of person who not only has the patience to absorb a lot of information but is enthusiastic to do so.
Likewise, while one can fight for women’s equality in some aspect of which they’re familiar and rightly call themselves a feminist, feminism is so much deeper, richer, and more detailed, filled with disagreements on theory and tactics, supplemental ideas that can overshadow their origins, and cross-pollination with other fields and industries. There is so much to study that the sheer volume of thought can feel overwhelming, as Tatsuya Ishida jokes in his webcomic “Sinfest.”
But for someone who cannot stand to have only superficial interest in a subject, feminism is a treasure of questions. For instance, what might be the very essence of human nature: is the human purely a rational being where regardless of any physiological condition, one can demand their due dignity with help from education, as the earliest feminists such as Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill argued? If even mere anatomy is responsible for generating gender roles and oppressive hierarchies across cultures, as Shulamith Firestone explains, can humanity’s relationship with technology free us from a monstrous necessity? Or is the essence of gender something metaphysically fundamental, and our use of technology led us to neglect and disrespect the power of one gender over another in the first place?
Speaking of technology, how many possible discoveries and advances are we ignoring because we fail to respect women’s voices? Whether or not gender is essential or constructed, the feminine experience is significantly different from the masculine. By not enthusiastically promoting and defending women in research fields, we are neglecting a sea of insight. Even the English language and many others, the most basic of human technologies, is constructed to assume the masculinity of the subject. As our language informs how we communicate and understand, all other aspects of culture and society can do the same.
It then becomes no wonder how Sandra Lee Bartky was able to study Michael Foucault’s use as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design as a metaphor for social control, and apply it even more powerfully to explain and explore the experience of women. Once one begins to have an inkling of awareness the control of social space, time, voice, and power in our streets, political structure, and especially important for those in nerd culture, the industries we consume, we find brand new meaning and ways to interpret all of these aspects of our lives, kind of like seeing the negative space between animals in Escher’s “Metamorphosis” change into other animals.
The only attribute that makes feminism stand out from a majority of the other nerd interests, is that it is the opposite of escapism. While Star Wars has some great value as literature, it is primarily a pastime that gives us needed space to disengage from the world. Feminism gives us tools to deal with the troubles of this world head-on, including the troubles found in our escapism. For a nerd, cyborgs are fun. For a feminist, cyborg development is not only a serious idea, but an urgent one. This fact alone should pique a nerd’s interest in feminism.