Zaki Hasan: The Grandmaster of Geekdom

Zaki Hasan: The Grandmaster of Geekdom December 8, 2011

Originally Posted on ILLUME Magazine.

Zaki Hasan has been a geek all his life, though he’s never felt comfortable admitting it until now. From a childhood steeped in Superman comics and STAR TREK reruns to his current role as a professor of communication & media studies, Zaki has spent much of the last two decades analyzing and evaluating the role of popular culture in shaping and defining our cultural, societal, and spiritual discourse. It’s this realm of ideas that’s central to GEEK WISDOM, the new book he co-authored.

How did you get involved in this project for co-authoring the Geek Wisdom book?

I’ve had an online friendship with the editor, Stephen Segal, for several years through various message boards and common interests, and through that he became a reader of my blog, I think what Stephen glommed onto is that I give equal coverage to society, politics, and pop culture in my writing, and my interests tend to lie where all three intersect. As a matter of fact, two summers ago, at the height of the manufactured “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy that ate up so much media bandwidth and which I had been spending a great deal of time covering and refuting on my site, Stephen sent me a very nice note thanking me for my fortitude in dealing with this story — and the hate it was eliciting — day after day. It wasn’t too long afterwards that he contacted me about working on the book. I feel like, in some small way, it was my coverage of the Park51 story that, directly or indirectly, led to my being included in the lineup for GEEK WISDOM.

What are some of your favorite quotes featured in the book?

There are so many great quotes in this book that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. You can literally just pick it up, flip through it, and find something interesting to ponder on whatever page you land on (which I’m doing right now, as a matter of fact).

Of the ones I didn’t work on, one of my favorites is probably an essay on the quote, “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?” which is a line from a Superman comic from 1986 that wonderfully encompasses the textual and meta-textual knots we tend to tie ourselves in to make fictional stories “matter,” when we should really just appreciate them for the enjoyment they give us. In an age of Trekkies and Twi-hards and Potter-heads, that’s a lesson that could really stand to be learned.

Another essay I really enjoyed was a reflection on “Godwin’s Law,” which states that the longer an online conversation stretches, the greater the likelihood that someone will invoke Hitler — and thus all meaningful interaction has effectively ceased. One need only glance at the comments section under every news story to know how scarily true that is.

Which ones did you select and comment about in the book?

The way we parceled out the quotes was that we started with a pool of around fifty or so, and then the five co-authors (Stephen, myself, Eric San Juan, Genevieve Valentine, and Nora Jemisen) contributed more for the next week or so, which were then whittled down to the roughly-200 that made it in. We got to call “dibs” on whichever quotes we submitted, and the rest were assigned randomly, unless we REALLY wanted to do one.

What was both fun and challenging for me was taking lines from some of my favorite things like STAR WARS (which I did three entries on: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” “The Force will be with you.  Always.” “Fly casual!”), BACK TO THE FUTURE (“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”) and PLANET OF THE APES (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!”) and trying to find the philosophical wisdom underlying them. What is it saying? What is it trying to say? It was this ongoing process of peeling back the layers, and sometimes having to start over from scratch, that made this experience hugely frustrating and hugely rewarding all at the same time.

In a sense, each of the mini-essays presented different challenges, with the all-encompassing challenge being to say something meaningful about what we’d been given. As you can imagine, some quotes were easier than others to wax philosophic on. It wasn’t hard to find the “meat” (no pun intended) in Charlton Heston’s “Soylent Green is made out of people!” from 1973’s film SOYLENT GREEN, but figuring out what to say about “Oh, boy,” the trademark exclamation of the lead character in TV’s QUANTUM LEAP was a higher hurdle to overcome, as was divining wisdom from TRANSFORMERS’ Optimus Prime when he would say his trademark, “Transform and roll out!”

Another one of the quotes I wrote about is a line said by the character Sayid Jarrah on the TV show LOST, which I happened to have covered extensively in my Master’s Thesis for San Jose State University, which was about the portrayal of Muslims in media post-9/11. In that instance, the struggle was in figuring out how best to encompass the gist of my thesis while somehow boiling 80 pages down to 150 words.

There were some references to religious scriptures such as the Bible, Quran and the Bhagda vita in Geek Wisdom – Does this mean that “Geekdom” is universal and open to people of all faiths and religions (and no religion) even though most of the movies/comics/books featured in the book come from a Judeo-Christian (i.e. Mainstream American) perspective ?

I absolutely believe Geekdom is universal. I’ve long subscribed to the idea that you take your wisdom wherever you find it, and I think we do ourselves a huge disservice by dismissing these cultural artifacts out of hand as inherently devoid of merit simply because they have the word “pop” affixed in front of them. The fact is that our responses to these artifacts — be they film, television books, what-have-you — the resonance we find in them bespeaks their potential worth as, if not sources of wisdom themselves, then certainly as signposts to something bigger and deeper than us.

What do you think of people who put down “Jedi” or “Matrixism”, etc. as their religion on Census forms (Australia, etc.) ?  Is that taking their love of movies/comics too far?  Is there a line one crosses when people are over-zealous fans, etc.?

Well, just on a personal level, stuff like that tends to strike me as a little nutty, and maybe taking things a bit far. On the other hand, the mere fact that people take these fictional worlds/realms/universes seriously enough to do stuff like that highlights not only the important role these fictions have come to play in our societal tapestry, but also the religious/spiritual void that exists in people’s lives, such that they’re seeking answers from a George Lucas or a JK Rowling or whoever.

Do you consider yourself a Geek or a Nerd?  And Why?

Well, as someone who wears an Indiana Jones fedora as a regular part of his ensemble, and who knows far more about the various intricacies of the PLANET OF THE APES film series than I feel comfortable admitting in a public forum, the reflexive answer is yes. As to the why, that’s a harder one to puzzle out. In his book SUPERGODS, author Grant Morrison makes the point that, given the human capacity to weave myths that continue to spin long after their creators have shuffled off this coil — highlighting the immortal nature of the stories and the temporal nature of their creators — one starts to wonder what is the real and what is the imaginary. To some extent, I think that explains why we’re ALL geeks of some stripe or another. Whether that geekery be in service of the many iterations of the STAR TREK franchise, or the latest technological wizardry from Apple — we all have an innate desire to be a part of something that’s bigger than us, something to let us put our own small stamp of ownership on the great, unending stream of human myth-making.

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