I’ve been inspired to write a post on nerdery after reading John’s rather wistful thoughts at his glob on whether he should position himself as an ‘aspie’. That is, someone suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, a cousin of autism in which its sufferers often have virtuous capacities for obsessive intellectual tasks, but are limited in their expression of affect and seemingly immune to the subtleties of social interaction, empathy and so forth. (If you want a contemporary example, apparently Barry Jones is an aspie.)
I’d been thinking about writing something about nerdery for some time, and Asperger’s is kinda like the pathologisation of the nerd. Aspie’s is also syndrome d’epoque, at present. Forgive me if I don’t have the order (or the French) quite right here, but a little while ago, ADD (or attention deficit disorder) was Top Syndrome when parents & teachers felt they could no longer ascribe hyperactivity to GI green cordial. Then it seemed that everyone was suffering not just from the plain old black dog of depression but bi-polar or manic-depressive order … now it seems that people are coming down with Asperger’s syndrome everywhere. I imagine streams of anxious parents, lining up with their egghead sprogs, begging psychiatrist to classify their one-and-only as an Aspie so they can get special treatment as a Gifted Yet Problematic Child. (I seem to remember that OCD and borderline personality disorder both also had brief surges of popularity.)
I’m sure there is some biochemical basis for this new tag. I can’t deny I’ve found it useful for describing certain people’s behaviour (like that of medical specialists) and I wish this tag had been in vogue ten years ago so I could have used it to joke about certain heads of academic departments. But at the same time, what is the real use value of labelling yourself or other people as an aspie? Is this kind of pathologisation really necessary to talk about what seems to be an extreme form of nerdism?
I don’t want to totally deny a biological dimension to people’s problems and the usefulness of interventions such as drug therapy at times. But sometimes I wonder if the current penchant for relating people’s quirks and issues to biological causes and disorders isn’t a reflection of the conservatism of our era. On the other hand, anti-essentialist notions of identity seem to be allied more with socially progressive, even utopic, ‘we can change things’ eras.
Personally, I don’t know that I could self-identify as some kind of aspie tho I’m a little fearful that some of my friends & colleagues might start suggesting it’s a label I should consider for myself. Like their classification of me as ‘definitely an NT’ or an ‘INTJ’, supposedly the worst type in the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, (as if being a Virgo born in the Year of the Snake wasn’t enough already). The thing I’ve come to think about personality typologies is: why not just go the whole hog and classify your friends and colleagues in terms of personality disorders in the DSM-IV? (And if you haven't been categorised in terms of the MBTI, then you haven't worked in a modern workplace.)
I would like to think that I’m not far-gone enough yet for Aspie status. But what I am in favour of is positive identification as a nerd. I’m a self-proclaimed nerd and girlyswot; I don’t resile from identifying with these categories. I even warn people on occasions that they’re dealing with a nerd.
However, it seems the nerd is still yet to gain social cache in much of popular discourse and contemporary living. A couple of examples: I was doing the agony aunt thing (not that I don’t enjoy it) for our media officer as he discussed the why’s and wherefore’s of his ex’s behaviour. I suggested that some of her behaviour was simply attributable to being a nerd.
‘The nerd overanalyses, yet the nerd takes things to heart,’ I told him. ‘The nerd falls hard.’
He was aghast: the petite, gamine (yet bespectacled) anaesthetist could never be described as a nerd.
‘Look, she’s an anaesthetist,’ I said to him. ‘She has to be a nerd at some level – only a nerd could get off on a specialty like that.’
I assured him I intended the epithet entirely as a compliment; in fact, I identified myself wholly as a swot and a nerd. ‘You’re not a nerd either!’ he retorted.
I thought it was self-evident. ‘Only a nerd reads medical journal articles and irrelevant reports from other agencies for fun,’ I proferred as evidence.
He seemed rather disturbed by this conversation, and came past my bay about ten minutes later, saying ‘You could never be a nerd!’ I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment. Perhaps his comments relate more to a fear of Being Seen to Consort with Nerds.
On another occasion recently, I caught up with an old schoolfriend at School Reunion time (yes, again – horrors). We were talking about our academic endeavours (useless in my case), I joked about how we had both been nerds and could now claim status as ‘queen of girlyswots’.
‘I wasn’t a nerd!’ she said in horror.
‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘We were both nerds, we were nerds at a school for nerds’.
‘I was never a nerd. I was a wog!’ she corrected me.
But how could she be anything other than a nerd, after ten years or so of medical study into such subjects as sheep’s foetuses and sleep apnea, and was there a valuable nuance she was missing out on here? Is it possible that nerdery is on the verge of becoming the new chic, in a world networked by the sophistry of technies. Perhaps this is why Aspberger’s has become syndrome d’epoque and maybe also why anxious parents might be seeking classification of their genius sprog with this potentially profitable disorder?
Anyway, I’m all for making use of the current techno-psychological climate for rehabilitating the social status of the nerd.
I was discoursing with Rachel a couple of years ago on, y’know, the inevitable subject of A Decent Man is Hard to Find, when a happy thought struck me. What the charming and vivacious, about-to-embark-on-a-PhD Rachel needed was a nerd.
‘A nerd is for life, not just for Christmas!’ I told her. ‘A nerd will be grateful for love. They will never stray too far from the kennel you make for them, unless they achieve some kind of Stephen Hawking status.’
(It seems she’s since met someone, tho I’m not sure if he’s a nerd.)
I must admit, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for a man in glasses (tho tall, dark and handsome with glasses is even better). The only problem is, one wouldn’t want to go too far into the Stephen Hawking or the Beautiful Mind territory.
So, let’s hear it for the nerd and nerdery (self-proclaimed or otherwise). Actually, I think Alain de Botty (like him or loathe him) is doing much at present to popularise and create a respectable niche for the nerd. There’s also that wonderful autistic nerd in American Splendour (whose name I’ve promptly forgotten) who defiantly asserts his right to nerdery.
Perhaps Clark Kent needn’t have transformed himself into superman. And does anyone have any favourite nerds? Aspirations to reclaiming the nerd and nerdery? And – is there such a thing as a sexy nerd or is this a contradiction in terms? Does anyone have any examples of hot nerds? (Not sure that Alain de Botty qualifies.)