Role Models and Playing: Freaks and Geeks, part four

by zunguzungu

For the same reason that Role Models resolves by embracing the subcultural ethos of role playing games, the James Franco narrative in Freaks and Geeks ends with Daniel playing dungeons and dragons with the Geeks. I think it’s parallel evolution, and will surely write a post on Role Models eventually, but the key moment in Role Models for understanding the narrative significance of gaming is Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s effort to explain to Paul Rudd that LAIRE” doesn’t have to be real to have value: the point isn’t to escape reality, but to make a new reality with people you like. And what Rudd doesn’t understand, at this point, is symptomatic of who his character is: he can’t appreciate the value of socializing with people because he hates people.

Along similar lines, there’s a significant exchange in which the Geeks speculate about what Daniel’s joining them means: have they become cool people or has Daniel become a geek? The question doesn’t really resolve, even for them, but I think this sort of illustrates what they’ve missed: the very point of Daniel learning to inhabit the persona of “Carlos the dwarf” is not that it changes anything real, but that he’s finally found a socially productive way to be a poseur. Which is that instead of adapting to a pre-made role and using it to distance himself from others (becoming “James Dean,” for instance), he’s acquired the ability to live above and beyond that role, to play with roles, and to do so as a means of joining and creating community.

In this sense, Daniel discovers something in their game that they themselves weren’t aware of: the point is not to really become someone new, but to recognize that who you “are” is a social construct, and as such, subject to manipulation We aren’t the only people who manipulate our social roles, of course, and the show knows this. While we can to a certain extent choose who we will want to be, other people can also interpellate us as the people they want us to be, and superior social power can make these roles real. And so, because the Geeks are always on the receiving end (and no one cares much how they see themselves), they can only wonder how this new development has impacted their status: because they live on one side of an asymmetrical hierarchy, they are keenly aware that Daniel has the option to join their group, while they lack the option of joining his. Because he is more socially powerful than they are, he has the power to interpellate them (or himself) as geeks, but they don’t have the power to render themselves cool.

But, that said, one of the reasons people in this show are confined by their social roles is that they don’t realize they are social roles, and they mistake social interpellation for ontological fact; instead of seeing “roles” as the language by which we socialize, they see roles as the boxes which isolate us from others. And as canny as Daniel is in manipulating his persona in the early episodes (episodes which work to illustrate the artificiality of that James Dean persona), he makes himself as much a prisoner of that persona as he is its master, and is as lost as anyone else is in the show. This is what I take to be the significance of the “fake ID” sequence in whatever episode that was; there’s something quite genuine in Daniel’s interest in how Millie’s cousin uses technology to produce a new identity, and I suspect that this discovery, that you can be whoever you can get people to let you be, sets the stage for the Carlos the dwarf sequence. But becoming Carlos the dwarf takes also this discovery a step farther, for it shows him embracing new roles not merely as a means to an end (like getting into a concert and ordering beer) but as a positive expression of the social value of play.

Which is this: while the Geeks still believe that there is an empirical hierarchy (such that they can speculate on how “it” has changed), Daniel has come to see that there are ways of socializing that don’t inevitably reduce to hierarchical power games. The Geeks are structurally disinclined to see this, of course; their lives are nothing but the hierarchical power games they lack the social power to opt out of. But for people like Lindsay and (eventually) Daniel, the ability to opt out of those power games places before them a new dilemma: the ability to choose which role to occupy is empowering, but it deprives you of an important means of knowing what kind of desires you have. The Geeks know what they want because they are geeks, after all. But most of the show is Lindsay’s picaresque search for desire because she suddenly realizes she isn’t merely mathlete: once she’s learned that all roles are fictions, she no longer has the security of her role to tell her how to desire.

It’s interesting that Lindsay’s moment of transcendence occurs as a dance, but her journey is towards genuine interiority from a kind of excessive social embeddedness; hers is the problem of being universally loved and living through what she means to people, I think, which I’ll get to soon (until then, read Millicent’s account, from which I’m liberally stealing). Daniel’s, however, is the reverse: from the beginning, he has cultivated an intensely visible interiority as his only mode of social engagement, and he has to unlearn that. The school picture sequence at the start is a good example of what I mean – the pose of inscrutibility he adopts – but we see this just as clearly in his acknowledgement that he keeps Kim with him by pretending not to care, by posing as distant (it seems like this is more or less true, in fact: when he tries to open up and tell Kim his troubles in the final episode, she is repelled and leaves him).

Yet if role-playing games are nothing else, they are socializations of interiority, which is to say, they cause us to not only vomit up all sorts of multitudes we contain but never embody, but they translate this into a social setting. Psychoanalysis is an obvious metaphor, or dreams: not only do the Geeks each choose a character with the skills and attributes whose absences they feel most keenly (dexterity for Bill, size for Sam, and power for Neil), but this dream-work, I think, helps them articulate and come to terms with that pain. But while psychoanalysis and dreams are intensely solitary practices, role playing is about using that dream-work to build community. Daniel, after all, has been the iconic outsider throughout the entire run of the show, so it’s incredibly important that has, in saving the Princess, completed his first adventure and thus joined a subculture. In sharp contrast to the “punker” episode, in which the costume is shown to be everything but signifies nothing (looking like a punk is being a punk, but Daniel is easily replaced by any other punk) this one is a subculture in which real affective bonds form, and through play.