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2013 CALS Spring Symposium presents: "Nerds, Wonks, and Neo-Cons"

When Apr 29, 2013
from 09:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Where 102 Kern Building and Foster Auditorium
Contact Name
Contact Phone 814-863-0968 / 814-863-1724

The symposium will begin at 9:00 a.m. in 102 Kern and run until 11:30 a.m.  This event is also part of the Comparative Literature Luncheon Series from 12:15 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.  It will then continue in Foster Auditorium at 2:00 p.m. and run until 5:00 p.m.

Is the modern world run by nerds?  Bill Gates is a nerd; Tina Fey is a nerd; Nathan Glazer and Paul Krugman are nerds; Al Gore probably is a nerd.

Washington may be swarming with glad-handing political animals, and Hollywood and Wall Street may be teeming with outsized egos, but their ranks are peopled with number-crunchers, statisticians, legal analysts, and policy wonks. The great irony of David Fincher’s recent film The Social Network (2010) is its attention to the anti-social tics and habits of its central figure, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook: not only is this great inventor of social media a nerd himself, but his own intense, involuted ways of dealing with people have since become the very means through which millions of people now communicate and socialize as well.

Wonks and nerds have always been with us, but these days we seem to be witnessing an explosion. Nerds are no longer just awkward boys, either, but powerful and eccentric girls and women: the popularity of fictional characters such as Hermione Granger and Willow Rosenberg has much to do with the prominence of writers such as Fey, J.K. Rowling, Sarah Vowell, and Amy Sedaris.

Rather than simply offering another derogatory word for power, the nerd has regularly reemerged throughout the decades as a stylistic icon. True to its cold-war origin as a bookish introvert, the nerd designates a style of intellectualism —as much as a deliberately unfashionable self-styling— that has as much to do with the intense concentration of interest characteristic of hipsters, locavores, and musicians as with the professional investiture of laboratory scientists and other “eggheads.”

What can such figures— in their powerful and public guises as well as in their more modest and particular incarnations— tell us about the past and future of intellectualism in the US, as well as throughout the world?  What might it mean to consider such unlikely figures as nerds, policy wonks, neo-conservatives, techies, and the aficionados of comics, sci-fi, RPGs, and other fixations as intellectuals, in an age in which bookishness and scholarly commitment already seem, to many, hopelessly unpopular and irrelevant?

“Nerds, Wonks, and Neo-Cons” is a one-day symposium that both explores and complicates the history of intellectualism in the contemporary US and elsewhere.  It looks beyond the scholarly tendency to idealize intellectual activity as the work of Zola-esque figures heroically wielding their pens in the face of corruption and intolerance in order to instead explore other models and practices of learnedness, reflection, knowledge production, and opinion circulation in the contemporary world. In an age marked by dramatic shifts in the media and institutions of knowledge, what kinds of intellectualism, and what kind of intellectuals, persist? As so-called public intellectuals and university scholars alike continue to struggle for mainstream visibility, what other forms of attention, excitement, and expertise have emerged alongside them, or as their de facto replacements? If the Zola-esque intellectual inhabits the progressive historical narrative of heroism, enlightenment, and justice, what other narratives and ideological structures frame intellectuality?

Featured speakers include:

Siobahn Carroll, University of Delaware.
Ed Comentale, University of Indiana.
Brian Glavey, University of South Carolina.
Jennifer Glazer, University of Cincinnati.
Nathan Grant, St. Louis University.
Aaron Jaffe, University of Louisville.
Warren Liu, Scripps College.
Bill Maxwell, Washington University.
Paul Narkunas, Johnn Jay College, CUNY.
Donald Pease, Dartmouth College.
James Braxton Peterson, Lehigh University.
Judith Roof, Rice University.
Jamie Taylor, Bryn Mawr College.