Patton Oswalt: “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.”

The last supper… before Oswalt’s “a-pop-calyplse.” Image from The Last Supper Collection. Painting by Misha.

Yesterday, Wired published an essay by writer/comedian Patton Oswalt titled Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. It’s about the demise of geekdom, the rise of otaku culture in America, and what it means to be living in a world where Boba Fett’s helmet appears “emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” All this discussion is very near and dear to our hearts, and was eloquently explored by Joshua Ellis in an essay called Children by the Million Wait for Alex Chilton, which appeared in Coilhouse Issue 04.

Both essays make the point that “we’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” But where Joshua Ellis suggests that we’ve won the culture war by essentially remaking the world in our image, Patton Oswalt argues that  “with everyone more or less otaku and everything immediately awesome… the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling.” This, he warns, produces “weak otakus” – not a generation of artists, but one of noncommittal pop-culture consumers. “Why create anything new,” he asks, “when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” The proposed solution to this problem steers the essay into a weird, fantastical place. In order to rebuild geek culture, Oswalt argues, we must first bring about the “Etewaf Singularity.” He goes on to explain:

It has already started. It’s all around us. VH1 list shows. Freddy vs. Jason. Websites that list the 10 biggest sports meltdowns, the 50 weirdest plastic surgeries, the 200 harshest nut shots. Alien vs. Predator. Lists of fails, lists of boobs, lists of deleted movie scenes. Entire TV seasons on iTunes. An entire studio’s film vault, downloadable with a click. Easter egg scenes of wild sex in Grand Theft Auto. Hell, Grand Theft Auto, period. And yes, I know that a lot of what I’m listing here seems like it’s outside of the “nerd world” and part of the wider pop culture. Well, I’ve got news for you—pop culture is nerd culture. The fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the method of consumption, not what’s on the plate.

Since there’s no going back—no reverse on the out-of-control locomotive we’ve created—we’ve got to dump nitro into the engines. We need to get serious, and I’m here to outline my own personal fantasy: We start with lists of the best lists of boobs. Every Beatles song, along with every alternate take, along with every cover version of every one of their songs and every alternate take of every cover version, all on your chewing-gum-sized iPod nano. Goonies vs. Saw. Every book on your Kindle. Every book on Kindle on every Kindle. The Human Centipede done with the cast of The Hills and directed by the Coen brothers.

That’s when we’ll reach Etewaf singularity. Pop culture will become self-aware. It will happen in the A.V. Club first: A brilliant Nathan Rabin column about the worst Turkish rip-offs of American comic book characters will suddenly begin writing its own comments, each a single sentence from the sequel to A Confederacy of Dunces. Then a fourth and fifth season of Arrested Development, directed by David Milch of Deadwood, will appear suddenly in the TV Shows section of iTunes. Someone BitTorrenting a Crass bootleg will suddenly find their hard drive crammed with Elvis Presley’s “lost” grunge album from 1994. And everyone’s TiVo will record Ghostbusters III, starring Peter Sellers, Lee Marvin, and John Candy.

This will last only a moment. We’ll have one minute before pop culture swells and blackens like a rotten peach and then explodes, sending every movie, album, book, and TV show flying away into space. Maybe tendrils and fragments of them will attach to asteroids or plop down on ice planets light-years away. A billion years after our sun burns out, a race of intelligent ice crystals will build a culture based on dialog from The Princess Bride. On another planet, intelligent gas clouds will wait for the yearly passing of the “Lebowski” comet. One of the rings of Saturn will be made from blurbs for the softcover release of Infinite Jest, twirled forever into a ribbon of effusive praise.

The essay continues on to describe “year zero for pop culture,” in which we’ll be stuck with nothing but “a VHS copy of Zapped!, the soundtrack to The Road Warrior, and Steve Ditko’s eight-issue run on Shade: The Changing Man” to work with for creating new culture. Oswalt goes on to describe the society that emerges: it includes entire musical genres spawned by Road Warrior (“waste-rock” and its counterpoint, “flute-driven folk”), the creation of the Iranian Beatles, and the ubiquitousness of Shade as “the new Catcher in the Rye.”

A great read, right down to the comment thread. For the full essay, click here. [Via William Gibson, whose name, incidentally, appears in both essays, both times in the passages describing the authors’ personal golden age of otaku/alternative culture].

One possible visualization for how Patton Oswalt’s “Etewaf Singularity” may play out – with the world being destroyed by 8-bit characters from old video games. Amazing video by Patrick Jean.

12 Responses to “Patton Oswalt: “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.””

  1. Patton Oswalt: “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” | Dzker Says:

    […] original post here: Patton Oswalt: “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” Uncategorizedamerica, culture-time, demise, helmet-appears, otaku-culture, patton, […]

  2. Chris L Says:

    This is great! I’m not sure that I agree with him, though. (I mean, the non-satirical parts.)

    I’m just as concerned about endless sequels, remakes, and reboots (though my last contract saw me participating in one that turned out really well)… but I think it’s futile to fight the implosion we seem to be heading towards. We’d be fighting the internet, after all. Something new, and parallel, will come along. Besides, I think there’s still enough work being created on the fringes (of a kind that fits into his “Dr. Cali-Gory” riff) for true seekers to find. Coilhouse does a pretty good job of it, already.

  3. Zuni Dyer Says:

    That wonderful Last Supper painting is by incredible LA artist Misha I love her work!

  4. alumiere Says:

    Here’s what this brought out of me, copied from my livejournal post on the subject ( if you want to comment)…

    Yesterday, Coilhouse wrote about Patton Oswalt’s Wired piece “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die”. I’ve been thinking about it since reading it, to the point of dreaming about my own reactions to pop culture and becoming a punk in the 80’s.

    I agree with a lot of what both Oswalt has to say and what Joshua Ellis brings up in the linked Coilhouse article. Being a geek or a nerd (as it was defined in the 80’s) isn’t freakish the way it once was. But I also think that while pop culture may be reaching “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever” there are still large numbers of creative types making new and interesting art, music, film, etc.

    Remember how disturbed you were when you first heard Devo’s music in a car commercial, or The Cure followed by Erasure while grocery shopping? I know it creeped me out a bit, but the music I listen to now is as outside of the mainstream as anything I loved in the 80’s was then. And maybe in 30 years, I’ll hear Aesthetic Perfection or Gogol Bordello at the grocery store, but by the time that happens, we’ll all be dancing to something else.

    The same goes with movies and film. There’s always been a distinction in my mind between the two, and movies are all too frequently garbage (and have been since I was in college – my favorite film then was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover; a decidedly non-mainstream film to this day). I think the last time I went to a mainstream movie theater was in December 2009. But there’s lots of interesting stuff going on in independent film, and some films that have gotten wider release than just the art houses one would expect. And occasionally big Hollywood makes a great film in spite of the stupidity of the studio system (Moon or Black Swan anyone?).

    The big thing I think both Oswalt and Ellis miss is that the things that made us freaks in the 80’s and 90’s are more mainstream, but there are lots of other subcultures that have not been co-opted. Hipster assholes are everywhere in LA, but we also have great small theatre, bands, independent film and web series, teenage freaks of many persuasions, and writers and artists who create new and interesting work regularly (including Coilhouse which is awesome and full of good stuff each issue).

    Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever is not a death knell for creativity, just a warning that what made us (old farts now) freaks isn’t the same things today’s freaks search out. It’s time to try something new guys, and then Etewaf isn’t a big deal. And the internet is often a good place to find fellow travelers, which is in some ways easier and in other ways more difficult (too much information; too many hard to find styles).

  5. Elias Says:

    Love Patton Oswalt! Just watched his stand-up special My Weakness Is Strong while stranded at the airport over the holidays. I work at DISH so I got the TV Everywhere app for my iphone, and love this thing. Of course I got some odd looks when I kept cracking up. I was like the only one in the airport not rocking the perma-scowl!

  6. Maggie Says:

    ‘fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the method of consumption, not what’s on the plate.’

    I really, really have to disagree with that. People have been ‘fans’ of things since long before there was anything called geek culture. And among the fans there have probably always been a few who were unusually enthusiastic. The Real Housewives is just a new soap opera for a different time, would he say that people who were *really* into Dallas were part of geek culture, just because they incessantly gossiped about the show? I see that he’s saying geek culture is mainstream now, but to suggest that all that matters is how people respond to pop culture, not what it is, basically says geek culture never actually existed.

  7. Tequila Says:

    It was a fun read for sure. Can’t say I agree with much of it though. It seems to miss the point that it’s less about Geek Culture being the Mainstream than it is about The Mainstream being exactly what it was suppose to be – COMMERCE.

    As geeky as each of us has been about anything we each have to admit we fueled a market in SOME form. Be it buying music, comics, books, etc. We bought, traded, created to learn and experience more yes but to also collect, build on, and identify with. A lot of it – more than we sometimes admit was utterly disposable.

    Much of it still is.

    So while Etewaf seems inevitable the way we’ve used the net to trade music alone – it also means we have to filter MORE than ever. Not to achieve purity but to achieve what we will actually enjoy and build on.

    Essentially it’s learning to rip apart entire libraries of content from inception to current examples in less time than it takes to read the above article. We’ve HAD to learn how to do this both to catch up with what came before us and understand what’s currently built on all that.

    There seems to be this odd idea that the things which make up Geek Culture or really any sub culture MUST exist away from Mainstream Eyes. Can’t we grow out of that and just accept the fact what we enjoy doesn’t have to be secret, hidden, and unknown to all? Are we that addicted to elitist ideology?

    Again, enjoyable article but it seems to be missing the point of what ALL the things we get so geeky about teach or try to teach us. It’s also filled with some pretty silly revisionism like the bit about The Lord of The Rings – THAT WAS NEVER A GEEKS ONLY BOOK. Millions of kids grew up with it in a myriad of languages. Art, music, etc. was created about it LONG before D&D, Death Metal, or even the first cinematic adaptation.

    If anything the main issue is less about Pop Culture becoming Self-Aware than it is about our inability to look at Pop Culture and our Geek Love in an honest manner. It’s like we WANT it to be shameful & hidden. Worse we seem to let our Nostalgia dictate way too much.

    Lastly commerce has unfortunately changed how we digest such Geek Joy. With music for example it would have taken a fortune to amass the discography of a particular artist. Now it’s all in a torrent. YET – that’s not the point. We’ve allowed the idea to HAVE such a massive collection to actually become relevant. If one likes an artist, great, but now it seems we’re also conditioning ourselves to have the ENTIRETY of just about anything. Sometimes it’s only because we feel we should based on the emotions it triggers (like 80’s cartoons shows.) None of this is inherently evil but it does make for a bloated sense of what’s actually important, relevant, and worth keeping.

    We’re forgetting how to let things die and keeping too much “immortal”.

    Part of me wants to blame The Beatles for this madness but really it’s all of us. I don’t think we need a Year Zero for pop culture (much like we didn’t need that NIN album either…ok ok cheap shot.) so much as we need to take responsibility for its direction. Wasn’t the whole point of all the stuff we enjoyed as geeks, nerds, etc. embraced so we could reshape the world as we knew it?

    Cultivate vs. exploit as filler for the sake of filling our unending appetites. Cause if we don’t we’ll have a Star Wars inspired Jersey Shore like abomination to contend with…or worse we’ll each become some mad horror mixing the smugness of obnoxious vinyl collectors (be them of the toy or music persuasion…) with the insatiable lust of sneakerheads. May the Dark Gods help us…

  8. Nadya Says:

    Zuni, thanks so much for that. I thought it might be Misha’s, but wasn’t sure. Added the credit to the caption!

  9. Tom Gastall Says:

    I think the important thing to note in Oswalt’s article is the observation that the primary behavior underneath all forms of fandom is the hunting and sharing of whatever you’re a fan of, and how the web has accelerated it. So now trends tend to burn out quicker.

    As for the future, I think art & entertainment will change not due to fandom – because fandom is a reaction to art – but due to piracy. Art has to mutate in order to allow artists to continue to make a living off of it.

  10. Tom Gastall Says:

    oops – I meant “I think art & entertainment will NOT change not due to fandom.”


  11. Melponeme_k Says:

    Ridiculous. What Oswalt wrote about has already happened. The internet denudes everything of meaning. Has done so since the mid-90’s with the rise of internet culture.

    Jaron Lanier wrote all about it in “You are not a Gadget”. Which was released last year. I’m sure Oswalt read it and nowhere does he cite it as a source for his new “essay”. A perfect example of Lanier’s cultural limbo.

  12. cho Says:

    oh yeah, i play a very tiny violin for geek culture, which considers me an intruder, objet de sex or geek lite for being female. i particularly miss how it exoticizes and fetishizes me for being asian, and how geeks of color and their works are trivialized and ignored. and how it has set up a knowledge-based hierarchy of cool just as repressive as the mainstream one, in which knowing all the references and having all the nerd cred gets you top shelf cool, regardless of what a dickhead you are to others. and how bullshit like steampunk gets a pass despite it’s colonialism-porn tendencies but me casually mentioning the appalling racism of most beloved sci-fi tropes is like shooting Jesus in the back. yeah, a very tiny violin for geek culture, and for all the geeks and hipster and “alt” folks who are weeping for the days long gone. sorry about capitalism, sure, but even in their heyday your scenes were as much about posturing and stature and reproduction of kyriarchy as anything else. /rant