Geekin’ High

Phil Ford

David Brent Johnson, host of WFIU’s ineffably hip jazz show Night Lights, has posted on the bankruptcy of the International Association of Jazz Education and the attendant cancellation of its annual meeting in Seattle. For forty years the IAJE has been the main institutional carrier of jazz in musical academe, and as David notes, its conferences have been a necessary meeting-place for jazz musicians, educators, scholars, and music industry people. Those of you who have never attended an annual meeting of any scholarly or professional arts society might wonder what the big deal is. But for a lot of people, especially those who feel a certain isolation from the mainstream of American culture — i.e. those whose music of choice is some variety of relatively unpopular music — such things are sort of like what comic book conventions or Renaissance fairs are for other tribes of geeks: places you can let your hair down and let your geek flag fly.

And I’m saying all this in a geek-positive way. I don’t have a problem with being a geek. Geeks make the world go around. Geeks get things done. Three years ago Neal Stephenson, whose gigantic SF/historical novels are Baroque edifices of geek obsession, wrote a great NYT piece on geeks — well, actually about the Star Wars movie Revenge of the Sith. He points out that basically no-one could follow the details of galactic politics that motivate the plot but also didn’t seem to care, and this bothered him. Why not sweat the details? That’s what geeks do. It’s pretty much their defining trait. The new Star Wars movies* don’t offer a self-standing narrative: “they are akin to PowerPoint presentations that summarize the main bullet points from a much more comprehensive body of work developed by and for a geek subculture.” It’s the geeks who understand the context because they’re the ones who have been reading all the spin-off comic books and watching the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoons and boning up on the fine points of Galactic Trade Federation politics on Wookiepedia and generally just sweating the details.

The Star Wars movies were pre-sold to geeks because, as Stephenson notes, the Jedi themselves are Ur-geeks: “they have beards and ponytails, they dress in army blankets, they are
expert fighter pilots, they build their own laser swords from scratch.” And, as geeks, they are in a precarious though hidden condition (a phantom menace, you might say): “the masses and the elites both claim to admire them, but actually fear
and loathe them because they hate being dependent upon their powers.” Which might remind geeks right here on earth of our own phantom menace:

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society
as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural
left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math
classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive,
comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people
are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign
exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to
think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced
technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of
living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

OK, so jazz geeks meeting at IAJE or musicology geeks at AMS or pop culture geeks at EMP might not be keeping us alive, comfortable, and free in the same way as a guy who codes the program that keeps a satellite in orbit. But there is a family resemblance between different forms of geekery, and I think Stephenson’s emphasis on sweating the details is the key. It’s what makes geeks objects of mingled admiration, pity, scorn, and envy, and it’s what makes geek pursuits sort of tenuous, and why they need institutions like IAJE. You need to see other people doing things like what you’re doing, and above all you need to see what details other geeks are sweating, so you can incorporate them into your own sphere of geekitude, or at least stay humble in mind of the wider sphere of knowledge you don’t possess. Hanging out with other geeks keeps you on your toes.

And you need moral support. Stephenson’s emphasis on the sometimes adversarial relations between geeks and non-geeks is on point, and this is what unites Star Wars obsessives and jazz freaks with guys who build code and spaceships and stuff.  This is one reason why I still like to blog, despite my misgivings: I can be into my stuff and I can “talk” to those out there who care about it (there’s a community for everything). Alex Ross wrote recently that classical music has experience a modest boom on the internet, and not for no reason. “If, as people say, the Internet is a paradise for geeks, it would logically work to the benefit of one of the most opulently geeky art forms in history.” It’s interesting to think about why classical music might be considered geeky, and perhaps it’s simply that it’s a music that, like jazz, offers unlimited scope for detail-sweating. Actually, a writer for a blog called Classical Convert has already made this point in a post titled “7 Reasons Nerds Should Listen to Classical Music.”  Point 1: We love discovering and understanding how things are put together. Point 2: We love classifying stuff. Point 6: We like having long and detailed discussions/arguments about stuff. (This is why we need conferences and blogs.)

There’s probably something uniquely (opulently!) geeky about classical music, if only because there’s so much of it over such a long period of time, and the genealogy of its forms and styles provide such a rich field of minutiae. But jazz scratches the same itch: anyone who ever caught a recondite musical reference in a Dexter Gordon solo or got in a slangin’ match over “Blue Skies” contrafacts will know what I’m talking about. And given the hyper-egalitarian, anti-elitist tone of contemporary society**, such pursuits will always seem a bit . . . suspect. So, long story short, it’s a sad thing to see one of the bastions of geekery fall. It’s one of OUR bastions; even if you never listen to jazz and never heard of the IAJE, it’s still one of OURS.

*Which I execrate, if only for the single reason that Lucas’s idiot
rationalization of The Force — “midichlorians,” FFS — undoes the
point of the whole universe he constructed.

**But as John Stewart said of Obama’s supposedly “elitist” tendencies, “doesn’t ‘elite’ mean ‘good’?”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Geekin’ High

  1. Excellent point about geekdom, Phil. I’ve never believed “the devil is in the details.” Rather, that’s where all the good stuff is.
    And though I have never attended the IAJE conference, my colleagues who have done so always spoke highly of the experience. I do hope this organization can find a way to come back strong.

  2. Mark says:

    Phil, nice meeting you in Seattle. David Ritz referred to us as “jive-ass eggheads.” It felt good for a weekend to be a jive-ass egghead among jive-ass eggheads. I second WF in that I hope IAJE gets back on its feet.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Mark —
    It was nice meeting you. Many apologies for not making your session — in truth, I was completely burned out on the conference at that point and took the day off after my paper session was over, walking around Seattle with an old friend and enjoying the weather. I found the experience of reading this paper oddly depressing. Maybe it’s just the time of year. Hope your experience was better!

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