I was thinking recently that perhaps my readers might be wondering about that “nerd is punk” tagline. I thought I’d explain myself, which sounded great until I went to the wordpress dashboard, opened up a new post, and was actually confronted with the ambiguity I have unleashed on the world, all because punk sounded like a cool way to mask inherently geeky tendencies with an aura of anti-establishment “Take That!”
So why is nerd punk? Are either of these good things that any public blog about astronomy should stake reputation and readership by holding up as something to be aspired to? Did I lose you on that last sentence?
Let’s start with nerd. Here’s a Venn Diagram of the brainy misfits strata of modern society, from Buzzfeed:
Personally I could quibble with this. It all seems pretty arbitrary. Are geeks really obsessed but not intelligent? Are nerds really socially indept? While Dorks are definitely socially inept, I’m not so sure they are not intelligent as well. I think this diagram really isn’t very helpful, and I apologize for having propagated it. Ah, well, what’s done is done.
Let’s dip into the lovely Macbook dictionary authority and look up nerd:
nerd |nərd| noun informal
a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious : one of those nerds who never asked a girl to dance. (Oh, it’s like they knew me in 7th grade!)
• an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession : he single-handedly changed the Zero image of the computer nerd into one of savvy Hero. (Why are both examples men? Feminist nerds, stand up and be counted!)
ORIGIN 1950s: of unknown origin. (I love this…so mysterious. Like maybe it had to do with Nazi rocket scientists and the roots of 1960s rebellion or something).
What about Punk? Can we nail that down any more than nerd. Let me move the cursor the little magnifying glass at top right.
punk |pə ng k| noun
1 informal a worthless person (often used as a general term of abuse). • a criminal or hoodlum. • derogatory (in prison slang) a passive male homosexual. • an inexperienced young person; a novice.
2 (also punk rock) a loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. • (also punk rocker) an admirer or player of such music, typically characterized by colored spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zippers.
3 soft, crumbly wood that has been attacked by fungus, sometimes used as tinder.
1 informal in poor or bad condition : I felt too punk to eat. 2 of or relating to punk rock and its associated subculture : a punk band | a punk haircut.
ORIGIN late 17th cent. (sense 3) : perhaps, in some senses, related to archaic punk [prostitute,] also to spunk .
(Interestingly, one of the usages I remember from growing up isn’t represented here. We used the word “punk” to mean citronella-laced incense sticks used to keep mosquitos away. Those punks were punk!)
That Macbook dictionary isn’t very helpful. Matter of fact, it seems rather square and reactionary. So, seeking wisdom as Nerds always do, I asked my friend K-D, who does the Kpunk podcast, just what punk was. It’s a bit like trying to define Gravlax. So instead he gave me a list:
- Punk is:
- a commodity
- a marketing term
- a fashion
- the soundtrack to a revolution on hold
- an aesthetic
- an ethos
- a dedication to a do-it-yourself lifestyle in order to transform individuals from passive consumers to active cultural producers
- a category of social identification that can draw from all of the above
- an empty vessel waiting for the brave and/or foolish to fill it
He followed up with: “I suggest you focus on the idea of a ‘punk ethos’ which some discuss as an anti-status quo disposition coupled with DIY practice in order to engage in the process of ‘disalienation’ (resisting the forces of alienation of today’s consumer capitalist society). Dismissing the notion of experts and hierarchies towards self-empowerment and accessibility.”
Okay, that was a lot of stuff. Punk is about as complex as nerd, that’s for sure. Let me draw some parallels here. Why is nerd punk, and in this case I’m mostly talking about astronomy nerdiness? Because punk is about direct experience and first-hand knowledge. It’s about collecting the actual photon messengers sent to us from various far-flung locales in the universe rather than having them be predigested by the Hubbell Space Telescope or Photoshop. It’s about sharing knowledge with people that don’t have access to it because nobody else cares enough to share, to think it’s of any importance, or think those bereft of these experiences as worthy of them. Nerd is punk because knowledge of the universe, and the way it works, is not part of the consumerist plan. If you knew too much about how things really worked, for example, you wouldn’t be eating food coloring, for example. Or factory raised meat. If you knew how massive the universe was, how tiny and finite our existence is, you wouldn’t be watching Stories of True Celebrity Flatulence on cable. You’d be in the streets in Yemen or Syria. You’d be trying to stave off complete environmental collapse before it’s too late. You’d be living.
I’ll stick by some old guns here and say that democracy (the real deal) requires an educated, thoughtful and reflective populace or it…will rather look like what we have today, with Wall Street wives bilking the Fed of millions of bailout money while the rest of us struggle to shift balances around on zero APR credit cards. Nerd is about being educated when nobody wants or cares you to be, and that, my friends, is totally punk.
Nerd is punk because it’s not afraid of shocking other people. I’ve seen lots of people get shocked by Saturn, or the mountains of the moon, or a distant greenish smudge made up of 500 billion stars. Astronomy documentaries usually have some soft, ethereal electronica soundtracks. That’s cool, but the universe might go better with loud, fast-moving and agressive music. Like when Theia pummeled the early earth and the moon was created. Brian Eno would have reached for an electric guitar if he witnessed that, and probably screamed.
Here’s another affinity: punks and nerds love the dark. Punks plot and invent subcultures and make great things happen largely in secret, because the co-opting machine is ever watchful. Nerds love the dark because there are meteor showers to watch, and grand vistas of the cosmos on display. Which might just make them want to plot and invent subculture and make great things happen. You see my point.
And lastly, Nerd and Punk are both about DIY. That’s Do-It-Yourself. Nerds build radios in their basements. Or telescopes in their garage. Sometimes they make zines about building radios, or telescopes, or modified radio shack robots that dance every time they hear the word “perambulate”. They are Punks.
Some Punks wire up their own amplifiers out of stuff they fished out a dumpster. Some learn organic farming and others take over abandoned buildings and wire together their own communities, rebuilding social relationships by subverting established hierarchies They are Nerds.
If you remain unconvinced about my comparison, or about the value of Nerds and Punks and their inherent affinity, let me ask you this: Why is it not cool in our society to know stuff?