Breaking the Fourth Wall

In the article To Geek or not to Geek, I made a short presentation of the geek culture. This article analyzes more specifically the impact of fiction into reality in the geek culture, and how far this impact can go.


The many faces of a nonexistent Fourth Wall

 I would love to change the world, but they won’t give me the source code.

Geek saying

One of the most interesting features of the geek culture is that it erases the “fourth wall” separating the public from the fiction from the fiction itself.

From this perspective, there is two types of work in the geek culture. First, those who, like Star Wars, cater to a geek audience. Second, those where geeks themselves become a specific object of representation.

An early example of this process is given by the comic Spiderman: Peter Parker, before being bitten by radioactive spider that gives him his powers, is portrayed by Stan Lee as a skinny boy, introverted, passionate about science, constantly lost in reveries and desperately shy when it comes to talking to girls. In short, a perfect geek, with who several generations of readers will identity.

More recent fictions takes the geek as a specific object of representation. They are portrayed as a laughingstock (Big Bang Theory), an object of social fantasy (the group of cyber-terrorists in Die French Hard 4), or even in reality shows such as the Beauty and the Geek, which was characterized by some as “the ultimate social experiment” since the show consisted in locking up geeks with brainless blondes hoping it will create some hilarious interactions.

Another approach is to remove the geek from the fiction to better immerse them in it: thus, the hilarious movie Galaxy Quest shows us how the actors of a legendary science fiction show from the 80s will find themselves immersed in a true story of Space Opera.

Another recent example is given by Kick Ass, an American adapted into two movie. Kick Ass tells us the story of a 17 year old geek who spends his life reading superhero comics, and decides one day to cross the line by becoming a superhero himself. Written by Mark Millar and penciled by the Marvel artist John Romita Jr, Kick Ass is a story with a dark tone: we are spared nothing from the woes of this teenager, who undergoes terrible suffering, but finally provokes a social phenomenon around him.

With Kick Ass, the marriage with reality seems finally consumed, since in the United States, is born a movement of “superhero neighborhood” and “real life superheroes”.

As we see, the geek has became a kind of meta-character, a symbolic figure that acts as a catalyst to the collapse of the fourth wall that separates fiction from the real world. It is in-between, both in the cosmos of fiction and outside it.

Of course, it is easy to throw on geek culture a disdainful gaze, especially considering this tendency to “pretend to believe” that can be easily assimilated to an incurable naivete. But the truth is that the geeks are a fascinating illustration of a possible exit to the era of disenchantment we have been through.

The exemplify the possibility of a creative and positive use of myth, a reservoir of myths for personal use, a toolkit where everyone can find something to draw to build their own myths.

This is why it is no wonder that the geek sensitivity usually blooms during adolescence, where the metaphysical interrogations are the sharpest. It is a defensive reaction against a certain form of social conditioning.


The personal myth

Adolescence is the only time when we have learned something.

Marcel Proust.

In the Western world, education is no longer a way to grow the individual, but a way to normalize him and to prepare him to be an obedient consumer.

The discomfort experienced by teenagers is not a matter of hormones improperly set: this is a time when one often develops a great metaphysical acuity. Therefore, the anxiety that characterizes current adolescence is the result of a lack of answers concerning the central questions of existence.

In animistic cultures with a strong initiatory structure, young people do not go through all the pain and anguish that our youth has to face.

Moreover, adulthood as we experience it is not a resolution of the lack of answers we face through adolescence: the essential questions may seem to wear off, but it is only become we become used to the inner suffering and because our environment provides us endless way to distract us. But this is only a derivative and essential interrogations still remain: what is the meaning of my existence? How to accomplish myself? How to make the difference between right and wrong?

This is why the ability to create personal myths is so essential. Take a moment to discuss with a geek of his favorite universes, and will be struck by how the heroes he has passionately followed the adventures: Frodo enduring the worst trials to save the world from darkness, Luke Skywalker confronting his father and finally managing to awaken his conscience at the last moment; Peter Parker realizing that with every great power comes great responsibility after failing to save his uncle that, eventually builds a moral center in the geek conscience.

The geeks are modern believers. In an era of widespread relativism, they build mythologies and give birth to the most unexpected form of spirituality. A genuine geek is primarily an individual who was so imbued with fictional models that he/she eventually assimilated them completely. Offer him a fortune to fulfil an immoral act, and he will refuse simply because it enters in conflict with the values ​​he inherited from these models and puts above all else (in geek terms: because he has been able to sense in this proposal a temptation of the dark side of the Force).

Another essential aspect of geek culture is its openness to possibilities. Western science, bolstering a materialistic view of the universe, had dried mankind’s spirituality. Science-fiction is a bubble of oxygen that brings back metaphysics and philosophy into science.

This ability to question the reality for other possible scenarios is crucial to understand the intellectual straitjacket we are caught in. As a schoolboy, I had a true enlightenment when our history teacher gave us a this dissertation topic: “What if Hitler had not come to power? “. This uchronic approach sparked all kinds of fascinated debates in the classroom. For the first time, we began to think in a history class.

Only then I realized why I always considered history as a boring and sterile discipline, which aroused in me a vague sense of rebellion.

Alternate history (or uchronia) is a quintessential geek genre, that opens a sense of possibility that institutional history tends to anesthetize: Philip K. Dick will produce more than its share of uchronic works (the most notable being The Man in the High Castle). Another striking example of uchronia is Fatherland by Robert Harris, a terrifying and brilliant novel that shows how the Holocaust could have been obscured with the complicity of Western governments if Germany had won World War II.

It seems to me that it is this ability to put into perspective the events that truly allows us to understand how history works, and not knowing by heart the date of the Battle of Marignano .


Saved by the Geeks?

We shall be saved by geeks … Every day at 8 PM, the news condition the herd to think in a specific way. Geeks know that there is something else at hand, they may also consider the flock with a perspective.

Bernard Werber, Suck My Geek

For a decade, we can consider that we have entered into a world of science fiction. A geek universe.
The public is discovering what kind of impact a project as Wikileaks can have on a global scale, but the struggle between governments and hackers supporting open informationn was already described in the literature of science fiction geeks read in the nineties. Since then, they have already explored thousands of possible scenarios, and there is very little that can take them by surprise.

The real is: what they will do with that knowledge. The greatest weakness of geek, his fatal kryptonite, lies in his disinterest of the World’s issues.

The writer and geek Bernard Werber said that “one day the geeks are going to save the world.” And it did not take a few weeks for it gives rise to a new geek saying: “One day the geeks save the world. But not tomorrow, because we have a LAN (video game network).”

This trait of self-mockery will only become more tragic in years to come. In a world where new technologies have become ubiquitous, geeks are finally in their element. They have the means. They have the vision. They have the power. But will thy find they find the will?

This is all the ambiguity of the fiction: it can be used to open new paths as it can be used to escape reality.
The universe, with a pitiless logic, has put the geeks in the role of hero with whom they identify. There are now in the shoes of Peter Parker: they enjoy their powers, but they forget that with great power, comes a great responsibility.