Let's say you have a group of 30 nerds who want to watch a movie. These nerds are an eclectic, and varied group. Some of them are easily and deservedly mocked film geeks, most are science and tech geeks, and maybe a few that don't really meet either label other than general nerdery. You propose two movies to watch. One of them is Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that gave birth to Hollywood's Second Golden Age with its radical use of violence, unprecedentedly explicit sexuality, and proposition that two murderous bank robbers could be counterculture antiheroes. The other movie is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, whose politics never went beyond "Nazis...I hate those guys," and pretty much defined campy, popcorn-munching entertainment for Generation X and Yers. I think anyone who reads this blog and those who read xkcd would predict that crowd would choose to watch Indiana Jones by a vast majority. I also think that a smaller but still substantial majority would also agree that Bonnie and Clyde is a better movie. Indiana Jones, however, is safer, and more enjoyable to watch in a crowd (read: easier to make fun of and quote incessantly). This thought experiment is meant to show that, in a group of intelligent, educated people, nostalgia and camp value is more valuable than searching for quality in art. Whether this is predominantly due to postmodernism, contemporary political apathy, or some other cultural factor I cannot say, but it is certainly a troubling thing to think about when you care as much about art as I do.
Randall Munroe is not to blame for this particular trend, but he has certainly taken advantage of our love of nerd nostalgia—dare I say exploited it—for his own reputation and self-aggrandizement. Wednesday's xkcd tackles the Father Superior of nerd geek nostalgia: Star Trek. Make no mistakes about it, despite it classifying itself as "normal" as opposed to "quantum" teleportation, this is still a reenactment of a Star Trek ritual that rivals only a Darth Vader breath in its ability to give nerds boners.
While Randall may have been able to get away with a post like this a couple of years ago, he's exhausted his options here. The post directly preceding Wednesday's was a surface-level inversion of a popular 90s television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (few things are loved by nerds more than anything having to do with the 80s or 90s). Four comics previous to that, he not only used the same joke about popular misconceptions of science due to movies (this time it was Jurassic Park), but continued his trend of spending far too long on an extending story to make a pun that hasn't been funny since the first time he did it over a year ago... The comic right before that one was a Ghostbusters reference. For those who haven't been keeping score, that's 4 out of the 7 previous xkcd posts that have made overt references to beloved nerd pop culture artifacts. And two of the other ones both referred to movie cliches, one with Morgan Freeman sounding comforting (tastefully timed after his automobile accident, may I add), and one using Google Maps for a horror movie cliche. So in actuality, it's really 6 ironic references to pop culture cliches and geek movies/television shows out of the last 7 posts. Any more posts like these, and we may actually want to see the mushy love comics again.
What strikes me about Randall's use of pop culture so heavily of late is how incredibly dated it seems and how out of character it is for Randall. In truth, this kind of humor was already falling out of favor before xckd was even published. Randall got away with it in earlier days because a) his pop culture references were much rarer and b) usually included a twist of science humor that was still fresh at the time (this comic being the classic example). But what's particularly appalling about this recent trend is that in one of the very first xkcd's was devoted to calling out exactly this kind of use of humor. Rereading this comic after the last few weeks of xkcd is like the scene in Citizen Kane when a bitter, older, ruthless capitalist Kane is sent the manifesto claiming to be a people's advocate that he wrote as a young, green, idealist newspaper mogul. But of course, that comes from a sincere movie, so that parallel is likely to go over the xkcd fanbase's head.
Thanks, Esteban. As before, e-mail email@example.com if you want to talk about writing something for this blog. All authors are paid (compliments) handsomely!