I’m assuming you already know about Penny Arcade (PA), PAX, and the dickwolves. If you don’t, here is a summary, and here is a chronology. As you can see, this is one of those internet social-justice kerfluffles that was bottled in vintage.

They’re at it again. Just to be clear, before we get into the dry philosophy, I think Krahulik is behaving like a pig. A very pointed and intelligent denunciation of his conduct can be found here [Penny Arcade and the Slow Murder of Satire, by MammonMachine].

I want to talk about something a little different. I’ve long been uncomfortable with geek culture, despite arguably being a geek, and I’ve been trying to understand why I feel that way. Geek culture has pathologies that are not wholly different from what infects most American male youth culture, but they appear in a peculiar way. I think Hegel can help us understand what’s going on.

There’s a section in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel is describing how we develop our consciences by encountering other people.

Say you’ve done something wrong. You did something dumb; you should have known better; you hurt people. What do you do? You apologize.

But an apology is a strange sort of act. An apology isn’t a recompense; it’s merely a statement of recognition. “I realize I fucked up.” Why is such a small thing so important? Because it’s supposed to be universal. We are all sinners, and in an apology, we recognize that we too have much to be sorry for; we see ourselves in the apologetic wrongdoer. It’s a moment of human equality.

Yet it often doesn’t work out that way. Other people can be recalcitrant. There’s no rule that they have to accept our apology just because we offer it. Sometimes they don’t, and they stay mad. They even say that we “still don’t get it.” Maybe we don’t! They refuse the moment of equality implicit in our apology. We don’t get what we wanted. Hegel says:

…seeing this identity and giving this expression, he openly confesses himself to the other, and expects in like manner that the other, having in point of fact put itself on the same level, will respond in the same language, will therein give voice to this identity, and that thus the state of mutual recognition will be brought about.

…But the admission on the part of the one who is wicked, “I am so”, is not followed by a reply making a similar confession. This was not what that way of judging meant at all: far from it!

…By so doing the scene is changed. The one who made the confession sees himself thrust off, and takes the other to be in the wrong…

Now what? Rage and resentment. The one who confessed now feels they are the one who has really been wronged. “Ok, what I did may not have been strictly the best, but where do they get off still flaming me after I said I was sorry! They aren’t really any different from me! Who do they think they are?

Sound familiar? It may even be that the one who now feels themselves wronged, after their apology was rejected, will retreat into feeling their original act was not even bad. Why? Because in the encounter with another person, a void opened up, a failure of understanding and forgiveness – that wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Instead, the other wronged me in return for my confession. There was no mutual expression of humility, no expression of common humanity, showing that our consciences were hardly the same to begin with. But that difference means theirs must have been broken all along! So other people are not the source of my moral development. Mutual understanding of conscience is not important for me to attempt.

The conscience, our own subjective feeling for morality, then changes its mind about the importance of listening to other people, and arrogates to itself the right to be the final authority:

Conscience, then, in its majestic sublimity above any specific law and every content of duty, puts whatever content it pleases into its knowledge and willing. It is moral genius and originality, which knows the inner voice of its immediate knowledge to be a voice divine.

For Hegel, conscience, when it reaches this stage, is uneducable. It has turned its back on others. It does not feel it has anything to learn from them.

I think you can see where I think Krahulik stands in this dialectic. He took his apology back, and said he was never wrong to begin with. He said he just should have kept quiet, not engaged. He said, in effect, that he never had anything to learn, that there was no point in his ever having listened.

Hegel calls this state “the beautiful consciousness.” Obviously, he doesn’t think much of it.

Why “beautiful”? That’s a little bit of a joke. It’s meant to evoke something like the narcissistic boho spirit of self-cultivation, to the exclusion of real-world engagement with others. The beautiful consciousness is sealed off from others. It’s not interested in, as Twitter and Tumblr social justice folks put it, shutting up and listening. All that would show is how dumb other people are. Instead, it gets all it needs from within. The beautiful soul’s own desire to express itself is its own law. (c.f. Amanda Palmer.)

But – here’s the big problem. There isn’t anything in there. The beautiful consciousness has sealed itself off from the very people that would provide its sensibilities with content other than itself:

We see then, here, self-consciousness withdrawn into the inmost retreats of its being, with all externality, as such, gone and vanished from it […] an intuition where this ego is all that is essential, and all that exists.

The result is a mind that is, in a profound way, empty – empty of engagement with others, of what one gains from engagement with others. It’s like…a beautiful snowflake. Crystalline and pure and inhuman and small. Beautiful, in a way, but utterly impoverished.

Even if it wanted more, to know more, to understand what it is about other people it has failed to understand, the beautiful soul has cut itself off and therefore no longer knows where to look. Even when it looks outside itself, it begins to see only versions of itself: objects that are as cold, inhuman, hollow, and empty as it itself is. Even in a crowd of such empty, identical beings, it must be desperately lonely.

Its activity consists in yearning, which merely loses itself in becoming an unsubstantial shadowy object, and, rising above this loss and falling back on itself, finds itself merely as lost. In this transparent purity of its moments it becomes a sorrow-laden “beautiful soul”, as it is called; its light dims and dies within it, and it vanishes as a shapeless vapour dissolving into thin air.

Because its own self-assertion is the whole of its own law, when criticized, the beautiful soul retreats immediately into non-sequitur, abstract defenses of its right to speak. Obviously, it isn’t really invoking the majesty of the First Amendment (as everyone points out, free speech isn’t a claim against criticism, it’s a claim only against prior restraint) or any other political ideal; it’s invoking its own endless need for pouring out the depths of its empty self. Indeed, because the principle of its activity is its own right to scream out its lack of interiority, it becomes deranged:

Thus the “beautiful soul”, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is unhinged, disordered, and runs to madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption.

The beautiful soul, it turns out, is kind of a dick. Not a sociopath or an antisocial; those people actively enjoy causing pain and chaos. Just a dick. Someone who just isn’t interested in “getting it.” Someone who probably wants to see themselves as principled and justified, but whose principles are nothing more than assertions of their need to gratify themselves with their own forms of self-expression. That’s all that’s left for them.

I think this whole dialectic, this regression from a more mature conscience and consciousness to the “beautiful soul”, is emblematic of geek culture; I think it’s something that young male geeks in their “geekness” tend to do a lot (I mean, this is the smart kid’s version of being a dick; wordily, by being a snot). And I think it’s a repetition of something that happened before, in the life of many young male geeks, and in the ur-narrative of geekness itself.

What is the ursprung of masculine geekness, besides being smart and good at fiddly tasks? Being bullied in school. And having girls turn you down – either in a moment of humiliating explicitness, or implicitly, in the regular order of things. Well, I was there myself, and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating in a way that warps minds.

The beautiful soul exposes itself and expects to find commonality. Consciousness seeks for its fellows in others; it expects to hear, in response to the admission that it is itself unworthy, the answering assertion that we are all unworthy. When it does not get it, but receives continued denunciation, it retreats into an angry, yet sterile, self-enclosure, in which the its own desire for self-expression at any price becomes the principle of its existence. Yet there is so very little to express, when the interior is empty of the voices of others.

Similarly. The young geek soul exposes itself in what it is already convinced is its brokenness. It assumes even in this brokenness it is still no less than human. But the reaction is not one of welcome, but revulsion – the riposte that other people are not broken at all, that it is just the geek who is unacceptable. Social and sexual life are withheld. The geek soul turns inward. Wasting itself in yearning, it turns inward.

And it gets angry.

Because what it wanted was only what it assumed was due any human insofar as they are seen to be human. Things one is owed simply because one is alive. Sociality. Sexuality. Belonging.

Owed. Sound like “the nice guy“? The nice guy is the beautiful soul in its sexual moment.

What do you do when you aren’t given what you are owed? Act out.

At last, our chance to be that asshole 16-year-old we couldn’t be the first time around because we were too busy getting jock locks and swirlies. Even if we really weren’t, we remember it that way, because that’s what it is to be a geek, and that’s why the world owes us an endless, consequence-free adolescence. Here’s to the crazy ones. Fuck you if you can’t take a joke.

This is such a nasty dialectic because, of course, the geek soul is right. It should have access to things like sociality and belonging and a sexual life. Humans need those things. To be denied them is as painful an experience as a human being can have. Geek youth is cruel. The geek ur-story is a tragic story. The turning-inward, the evolution of the geek soul into the beautiful soul, is not surprising. Probably it is inevitable.

But at the same time, it’s maddening and terrible. The older geek’s beautiful soul is one that feels violated by others’ righteous claims of conscience in the same way that the younger geek’s soul felt wounded by others’ cruelty and rejection. But those aren’t the same. The older geek’s soul hasn’t advanced enough to make the distinction that the rejection experienced in high school is not the same as the judgment it receives now. The geek soul retreated inward and so did not allow itself the experiences, the openness, needed to become the mature consciousness that could make such a distinction. The beautiful geek soul is stuck in a repetition compulsion. This repetition is what makes it such a dick.

Stop being a dick, geek culture. Grow up and stop being a dick.