The Book Review as Conversation

By Tom Boellstorff—University of California, Irvine

The eight book reviews which will be published as a part of this series were written as final projects for the seminar “Digital Technologies, Culture, and Media,” which I taught from January to March 2015 at the University of California, Irvine, where I am Professor of Anthropology. The authors are primarily graduate students from a range of disciplines—anthropology, informatics, history, sociology. Most are Ph.D. students but one author is an M.A. student and one an undergraduate. The reviews have undergone revision since their original submission to me.

The “Digital Technologies, Culture, and Media” seminar built on my own background in the study of digital culture (see, for instance, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008; new edition, 2015). However, it also built on the knowledge and insights of the students participating in the course. We developed the syllabus together and throughout worked to track how scholarly knowledge production is built on collaboration, citation, and community. Indeed, as a form of conversation.

I have always considered the book review genre as a form of conversation in its own right. In my view book reviews are less interesting as forms of judgment or gatekeeping—of assessing a book as “worth reading,” or determining virtues and flaws. All this can happen in book reviews, of course, but I contend that book reviews are, at their best, tools for conversation. They place books in various historical and scholarly contexts. They provide succinct, synthetic overviews of a book’s argument, allowing busy scholars to learn the outlines of someone’s research. They thereby place that research into conversation with broader communities of intellectual practice.

These eight book reviews do a wonderful job of building on such conversations. Indirectly, they are in conversation with each other as well, since they were written at the same time by authors who know each other. They contribute to broader debates on some of the most important issues facing humanity today—the interfaces of technology and culture—and I hope you will find them as stimulating as I do.

Tom Boellstorff is an anthropologist based at the University of California, Irvine. In his career to date, his interests have included the anthropology of sexuality, the anthropology of globalization, the anthropology of virtual worlds, Southeast Asian studies, the anthropology of HIV/AIDS, and linguistic anthropology. He is the winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize given by the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists. He is the author of Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually HumanA Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia and The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia

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Transitional Justice: From Sam Raimi’s Spiderman to Netflix’s Daredevil

By Emma Louise Backe

It’s hard to imagine, but superheroes weren’t popular 15 years ago. The social baggage surrounding comic books and the “geeks” who read them was still largely stigmatized, even though many of the story lines were politically oriented. Ever since the 1940’s, comic books have steadily crafted an internal mythology, built on certain principles of American exceptionalism, ideological principles of morality and our place within the larger cosmos. The first movie to truly spark the shift toward the superhero inundated pop culture we currently inhabit was Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, released in 2002 not long after the Twin Towers fell and the Iraq War began. It seems to me far from coincidental that the cinematic depiction of superheroes and the resurgence of comic book figures were virtually contemporaneous with the attacks on 9/11 and America’s subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In the wake of police brutality and public demonstrations of institutionalized racism, Netflix has recently released Marvel’s newest television series Daredevil. The role and representation of superheroes from 2002 onwards has shifted along with our political and economic considerations as a nation, and Marvel’s Daredevil is evidence of a very different kind of superhero than the ones we greeted at the beginning of the century.

Captain America debuted in 1941 as a super-soldier against the Axis powers of World War II and a symbol of American nationalism. During the period of devastating conflict, “the mythical figure of Captain America may not be solely responsible for changing public opinion in favor of American military involvement in Europe, but it surely aided the shift. Superheroes like Captain American helped many understand the context and the events unfolding across the world and in the process helped in underscoring the sense of nationhood and identity” (Bryant 2010, 3, quoting from Dittmer 2007). Bryant goes on to note that historically, superheroes have historically been deployed during periods of national crisis in the United States to galvanize a sense of patriotism and unity. Throughout the 1900’s and early 2000’s, politics has increasingly figured into American comic books, with some real life politicians included as titular characters to the story lines. Comic books may have served as propaganda in the past, but writers, directors, artists and producers also use the medium to criticize, rather than bolster the American government. These political possibilities, often couched in meta-narratives about the tropes of comic books, can be seen in the reemergence of superheroes on the big screens.

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THE GEEKOUT- A series on The Geek Anthropologist blog

A Geek Anthropologist’s First Time: A Toronto ComiCon Experience

By Rayna Elizabeth

I have done many geeky things over the years. I’ve cosplayed, taken time off work to play Skyrim, joined anime clubs, and LARPed, but I have never attended a convention. A friend of mine presented me with an invitation to attend Toronto Comicon. Despite being a geek, I was hesitant at first. A part of me squealed with delight, excited about seeing celebrities whose characters I have enjoyed over the years. However, the anthropologist in me has always been quick to critique the excessive commodification that goes along with these events, which has kept me from attending in the past. First impressions were that I wondered if these events are just about making money. Do they cheapen the meanings behind my passions by encouraging me to buy things?  I also began negotiating my identity. By participating in these events, am I “selling out” by becoming a part of consumer culture without substance?

Needless to say, I went online to check out which personalities would be there and had a quick glance at the events. Much to my surprise, Terry Farrell who played Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, was listed as a guest and she is one of my favorites. Therefore, the decision to go was made at that moment and I purchased a ticket.

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Blogging for Anthropologists

Anthropology Blogging 101: The Rockstar Anthropologist

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Myeashea Alexander. I was born in Flagstaff, AZ, but raised in Brooklyn, NY and still live here in Brooklyn. I am a biological anthropology graduate student at CUNY Hunter College, and I have a BA from The New School in Culture and Media, and an Associate degree in International Relations. My focus areas include paleopathology and osteology.

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I am also interested in the human body and the future–how technologies will impact our relationship to our bodies, how we grow, heal, and define what it is to be human versus machine. This interest is very influenced by futurist Brian David Johnson.

Because of my background in culture, my current research topic is centered around the role of the skull in relation to race and social justice within the United States.

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Blogging for Anthropologists

A New Series! Anthropology Blogging 101

By Marie-Pierre Renaud

When I created The Geek Anthropologist (TGA) in September 2012, I started to familiarize myself with the small world of anthropology blogs. I was surprised by how little online visibility our discipline enjoyed. And yet, perhaps one of the reasons why that was and still is the case can be underlined in the very first sentence I wrote above: indeed, before I started my own anthropology blog, I had never thought to read one.

During my first year of blogging, I tried to recruit friends and colleagues to contribute to TGA and turn it into a community blog. I knew several people who had written anthropological papers or a thesis about topics related to geek culture. I was enthusiastic about the idea of publishing posts in both English in French, the latter being my mother tongue and the language other students in my department at Laval University, Quebec, speak.

At the time, however, I was not able to convince a single colleague to contribute to the blog. Everyone was either too busy, not interested or lacked the confidence to share their work on the world wide web. But at some point, I started to suspect there was another reason why recruiting contributors and co-editors was proving to be difficult: the relevance of anthropology blogging was not obvious to everyone.

In 2005, Lorenz Khazaleh of anthropology.info interviewed several anthropology bloggers. They also found that there weren’t enough anthropologists who blog and use the Internet as a platform to share their work and interact. According to Thomas Hylland Eriksen: ”The symbolic capital associated with the Internet and Internet publishing is fairly low. It should be a political cause for academics to heighten it, both through using the Internet for one’s own publications and by increasing the prestige of the Internet by using it actively.”

Indeed, I frequently have to explain to people why blogging is relevant, not only in light of my personal interests, but also for professional reasons.

Creating The Geek Anthropologist has helped me develop my writing skills, improve my mastery of English, learn how to (almost) use social media efficiently, fine-tune my editorial skills, network, keep up with relevant news and ongoing debates within our discipline, etc. Sharing one’s work on a blog isn’t only good for the ego: it also increases one’s visibility within networks of peers, creates discussions and can lead to interesting opportunities.

For instance, Nick Mizer and I ”met” in the comments section on the Savage Minds blog in 2013. It was there that I learned he was planning to put together a panel about geek culture at the 2013 American Anthropology Association (AAA) meeting. A few months later, we co-chaired this panel, played Dungeons and Dragons and met with other geek anthropologists in Chicago.

Clearly, there are other anthropologists and social scientists who see the relevance and usefulness of blogging. The people behind Savage Minds, Ethnography.com, Pop Anth and the AAA blog, to name a few examples of great anthropology blogs, are among them.

Recently, Mark Carrignan wrote in The value of blogging for part-time PhD students, a post about the usefulness of blogging in relation with his professional identity as a sociologist, skills, habits and creativity:

The process of using the blog in this way has also led to an increasing awareness of the types of use I make of it, reflected in an initially inchoate working taxonomy which has emerged in my own psyche as to the various tasks which are involved in the development of ideas and the production of academic work. The process of sustaining the blog as an ‘open notebook’ has inculcated a sensitivity to workflow and craft which I had previously lacked. The claim here is a straightforward one: a change of tools can provoke a greater awareness of the uses to which such tools can be put.

As I found out myself, blogging is also a great way to increase your work’s visibility. For instance, Alex Golub posted on Savage Minds about his piece The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic ”in order to get people to read it”. Self-promotion was not Golub’s only objective, however. He also wanted to draw attention to The Appendix, the journal in which the piece was published, and share with his readers ”how this article happened, and what the production process says about public anthropology and scholarly workflow”. In his post, Golub argues that anthropologists can and should ”make a popular version of their publication a regular part of their scholarly process.” He states:

(…) Most academics know someone who knows someone who runs a journal, website, or podcast that would be willing to feature our work. If we take the time to reach out and make our anthropology public,  then these forums will grow, and so will public anthropology.

In other words, blogging offers a medium to share the outcomes of our research with the public and to provide an anthropological perspective on current affairs. It can also help provide non-academics with a clearer understanding of what anthropology is actually about. Just imagine: we may yet create a world in which we won’t have to tell people that we don’t study insects or that our work has nothing to do with what one might see in the Indiana Jones movies.

After all, as Kristina Killgrove indicates in her post Is Blogging Really the Future of Public Anthropology?, academics are not the only ones who read anthropology blogs. On the contrary, she can tell from the comments and emails she receives that several of her posts are more popular with the general public. We have noticed the same thing here at TGA: our readers come in all shapes and sizes, and they walk different paths in life.

So Anthro Blogging is cool. But how does one go about Anthro Blogging?  

Killgrove highlights some important questions anthropologists face in relation to blogging:

So one of the questions we need to reflect on as anthropologists interested in engaging the public is: Who is our audience, and how can we best reach them?  Is blogging the key?  If so, what platform, what format, what language do we use?  Or should other social media avenues be explored?

Indeed, these are a few of the questions I asked myself as I started blogging, and I still occassionally dwell on them. In fact, the TGA editorial team has decided to conduct a reader survey this year in order to obtain some useful data which will help us improve this blog and increase dialogue and conversation within our community.

And while several posts about academic blogging are available on blogs such as Savage Minds and The Sociological Imagination, their authors generally take a more reflexive tone. They discuss the relevance of blogging for anthropologists and the importance of outreach and public anthropology, for instance.

The fact is, there is no how-to guide for anthropologists who wish to start blogging. 

Well, there is Chris Lysy’s illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers. (Thanks to The Sociological Imagination for sharing that one!) This advice was offered by various researchers who blog and the author created cartoons out of it.

There is also, evidently, a myriad of general blogging advice available. When I started out, I was inspired by an eclectic combination of blogs such as Design Love Fest, A Beautiful Mess, Colossal and Savage Minds. I read posts about how their editors run their blogs or the tools they use. And of course, WordPress.com is newbie-blogger heaven: the support pages are just perfect, the interface is simple to use, and the team of The Daily Post does a great job at providing writing challenges to bloggers. It’s even possible to enroll in Blogger University classes. In addition, Wordcamp events are organized in several major cities around the world: if you can attend one of these events, I strongly recommend it!

Yet, I often wonder about how other anthropology bloggers go about blogging, how and why they do it, what tools they use, what problems they face, etc. So I figured, why not ask them?

Hence, the Anthro Blogging series! With this series of posts and interviews, the TGA team wishes to bring together some of the most experienced anthro bloggers in order to provide you, the aspiring anthro or academic blogger, with a few pointers and ideas to get you started. Hopefully, experienced bloggers will also enjoy this series as an opportunity to reflect on their own practices.

In other words, with this series, we hope to :

  1.       Showcase anthropology blogs and the people who write them;
  2.       Give you a better understanding of anthro blogging, its advantages and problems;
  3.       Help you learn some of the basics of anthro blogging, discover useful tips, tactics and tools;
  4.       Improve connectivity between anthro bloggers

Finally, perhaps this series can serve as a retrospective. In the previously mentioned interview with anthro bloggers published on anthropology.info in 2005, Kerim Friedman, co-founder of Savage Minds, proposed interesting avenues of investigation :

I think it would be interesting to study why anthropologists (especially cultural anthropologists) are so far behind other disciplines in embracing these technologies as well as Open Access and blogging. Is it because anthropologists are insecure about putting their writings out before a wider audience? Is it gendered? (So many anthropologists are women.) Is it that anthropologists are more likely to be technophobes? Or is it that anthropologists actually like the security of traditional academic structures? It may be that these differences will disappear with the next generation of scholars, but there may also be forces within anthropology that are inherently resistant to such changes…

As far as I know, there is still very little consistent data to help us address these questions. Maybe our series can help us find some new relevant information.

Additionally, in the anthropology.info interviews, bloggers answer a particularly interesting question : ”what role will the internet play in anthropology in 10 years? What do you think?”. Well, it’s almost been 10 years since the publication of the anthropology.info interviews; it seems to me like right now is the perfect time to examine the anthro blogging scene and the changes it has gone through in the last decade.

That’s a lot of objectives for one little blogging series, I know. But hey, here’s my first blogging advice for you: just hit the publish button!