Anthropology in Outerspace

The Cool, the Nerdy and the Geeky: A Look at Personalities

This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar. 

Having examined a few examples of characters who are anthropologists and archaeologists in science-fiction, we can now pay attention to the depiction their personalities and how it may translate popular perception of our discipline.

Dr. Daniel Jackson, a Stargate SG-1 character frequently mentioned in this series and in previous TGA pieces, is depicted as a highly intelligent, highly knowledgeable person. He seems to know everything about human history, can apparently speak and read any language ever to have existed on Earth, and is the one who can figure out the way the Stargate system works in the Stargate movie. He seems empathic and willing to put himself in harm’s way to help others. He also speaks at a dangerous speed, often has his nose in a book, and suffers from intense allergies.

In other words, he’s a bit of a nerd, like most of the other very smart characters in the Stargate franchise, such as colonel Samantha Carter, Dr. Rodney MacKay and Dr. Radek Zelenka. Dr. Bill Lee, a scientist in the series, even plays World of Warcraft. The only exemption in the series I can think of is Colonel Shepard, who is apparently eligible to be a member of Mensa society, but is mocked by Daniel Jackson and Rodney MacKay who do not believe that he successfully took the I.Q. test. He is not depicted as a nerd despite his high level of intelligence.

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Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing bad about being nerdy or geeky (or an intellectual badass). And let’s not forget that while these smart characters are depicted as ”nerdy” in Stargate, they are also frequently presented as strong, brave, and not strictly as socially inept and cerebral.

The example of Jackson, and of his other smart colleagues, however, indicates that in popular culture, intelligence and knowledge is still closely associated with characteristics that are considered negative: being unfashionable, unsociable, untactful, obsessive, etc.

This is perhaps why Jackson and his smart counterparts, just like Dr. Norm Spellman and Dr. Grace Augustine (Avatar), discussed in my response to Rayna’s piece, are presented as sorts of sidekicks for a main character who is the official hero. In the case of both Stargate and Avatar, that hero is a white male with military training.

The example of Dr. Barron, lead anthropologist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation ”Who Watchers the Watchers (S3E4)” episode, is harder to figure out. He is seen through a large part of the episode as urging Captain Picard for assistance, first with technical problems and then with finding and helping he and his colleagues. Then, he suggests to Picard that since the Mintakans already mistake him for a supernatural being, he should provide them with guidelines by which their religion might develop. This goes against the Prime Directive, which we have discussed briefly in this series and previously on TGA. In essence, he seems comfortable with the prospect of playing God. Because his colleagues are injured or killed, little can be ascertained about their personalities.

Another Star Trek character provides a clearer personality to examine: Vash, a female archaeologist, travels across the galaxy pillaging ruins and selling artifacts to the highest bidder. She is very much a female Indiana Jones–adventurous, strong-minded and even more eager to make a profit. She is also a good liar and does not have strong morals. She and Q have a relationship that is oddly similar to that of the Doctor and a companion (Doctor Who), but that is a discussion for another time. While we are on the topic of Doctor Who, however, it should be noted that River Song, archaeologist, is a very similar character.

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What, then, do these examples and others examined in this series reveal about popular conceptions about anthropologists? First, I would state that in my opinion, archaeologists are perceived and presented as a distinct category of people. The examples we provided fit the Indiana Jones category: heroic, brave, adventurous (and as my colleague Emma points out, perhaps morally ambiguous). The work they accomplish, pillaging ruins for a profit or academic glory, is distinct from that of the anthropologists we mentioned. The latter are depicted as smart and knowledgeable, and as cultural experts. They are intellectuals, and in several cases empathic towards others. But they are not necessarily the main characters of the stories in which they appear, and are not heroic leaders. They have less control over their own lives than their archaeologists counterparts. Indeed, they do not travel where they wish freely, but execute their work under someone else’s authority.

Yet, perhaps this representation of anthropologists in science-fiction is not so revealing of popular conceptions of our discipline and the people who practice it as it is of intellectuals in general. Perhaps anthropologists, like other scientists, are thought of as nerds.

Except archaeologists, who are apparently considered, just like bow ties, as being cool.

 

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Weekly Geekout: Adventure Time

When I was a kid I used to love making forts with my best friend, carefully adding couch cushions, blankets, and pillows to make the biggest and coolest structure possible without making the whole thing fall over, kind of like a reverse game of Jenga.  As any dungeon master can tell you, World-building is a lot like that.  The bigger the world gets, the harder it is to keep the whole thing from spiraling out of control or collapsing in itself. The more I think about my own personal experience of geekdom, the more I think it has a lot to do with this pleasure of world-building, and one of my favorite worlds to watch unfold these days is Ooo, the post-apocalyptic science-fantasy version of Earth that Pendleton Ward and his band of merry world-builders play with in Adventure Time.

Image from “Puhoy.”

The first I heard of Adventure Time was through an discussion on a D&D forum where people were talking about how much it’s like D&D. Intrigued, I watched a few episodes, and didn’t really get what they were talking about at first. A twelve-year-old kid and his magic dog? That’s not in any of the sourcebooks I remember reading.  But that didn’t matter, because I was hooked from the moment the Gumball Guardians gave Finn a math test after he broke a “Royal Promise.  The more I watched, though, the more I understood.  There are some surface level connections, like the fact that Finn and Jake go on quests into dungeons and gather. There are also plenty of one-line references to gaming: “That’s just a rock.  A low-level enemy.” “Like on a scale of 1 to 100, how good are you at quietly throwing a tiny bit of fire at a rope 50 feet away?” But the gaming logics of Adventure Time go a lot deeper than that, down to the DNA of the entire show.

Pendleton Ward has described the writing process for the show as basically a free-form gaming session:

“What it is, is that we’re playing D&D while we’re writing it. We’re role-playing the characters as we’re writing them. So we’re having the same experience as you all are having as you’re watching it because we’re figuring it out as we go along.”

If you don’t think that’s awesome, it will probably take me a lot longer than these 500 words to show you why AT is so freaking cool. If you like that, though, then you’ll love this: “Continuity is important to me because I play D&D. I like having that loot. I want them to have that loot.” So watching Adventure Time is a lot like watching a D&D campaign unfold; one of the beautifully emergent sandbox-style games that, when in skilled hands, produce some amazingly inventive stuff. And P. Ward and company have the skills; the world has been developing steadily for six seasons now, and instead of collapsing in on itself or spiraling out of control, the fort just keeps getting, bigger, stranger and more Mathematical.

Haven’t seen it? The first two seasons are on Netflix. Go now!

Anthropology in Outerspace

Grokking and Going Native: Marie-Pierre’s Response

This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar. 

As Emma indicates, there are several scenarios in science-fiction in which the attitudes of the characters are reminiscent of those of anthropologists. While the characters at play in these stories may not be described as anthropologists, they exhibit behaviors and express ideas which remind anthropologists of the founders of our discipline as well as typical examples from anthropological fieldwork.

One such example is the Star Trek TNG episode ”Darmok” (S5E2), a fan favorite which has inspired an impressive amount of fan art and derived products (see exhibits A and B).

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra comic. Copyright Dave Kellett 2011.

Exhibit A: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra comic. Copyright Dave Kellett 2011.

Plot : captain Jean-Luc Picard is mandated by Starfleet to establish relations with the Tamarians, aliens who communicate in an manner incomprehensible to the crew of the Enterprise and their universal translator. After attempting to communicate over the viewscreens with no success, the Tamarians unexpectedly teleport Picard and their own captain, Dathon, on the uninhabited planet below their starships. There, Dathon offers Picard a dagger: believing he is being challenged to a dual, Picard refuses. Through the day and the night, the captains continue to attempt to communicate. When they are attacked by a giant invisible beast, they join forces to defend themselves. Picard eventually gains a better understanding of the manner in which Tamarians communicate: by using examples from their own history and literature. In the end, the Dathon dies from the injuries the beast caused him, but Picard is brought back to his ship where he communicates with the Tamarians. He now understands that Dathon had intended their common struggle against the beast to be the starting point of relations between Starfleet and his people.

Darmok T-shirt on LookHuman.

Exhibit B: Darmok T-shirt on LookHuman.

I have discussed this episode before when describing how my passion for science-fiction contributed to my choice to study anthropology. As a child, it inspired me to think about intercultural relations, their complexities and the value of perseverance and dedication when attempting to establish and maintain them. As a graduate student of anthropology, I now consider the episode in light of what I know about anthropological work: this is perhaps the Star Trek episode which comes closest to presenting how deep differences can run between peoples, and how they sometimes make it seem impossible for persons from different cultures to understand one another. (more…)

Anthropology in Outerspace

Grokking and Going Native: Rayna’s Response

This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar. 

Emma wrote a very creative piece linking the idea of “grokking” with sci-fi examples. A perfect, albeit almost comical, example of grokking that I can think of is the anthropologist character Isobel from the fantasy series The Vampire Diaries. Isobel’s character was a bit standoffish, ignoring those around her by continuously immersing herself in her research. She was investigating murders in her town and the evidence was piling up that vampires existed and that they were behind the murders. In the episode “Isobel” (S1E21), her character is shown further, not only as an anthropologist interested in vampires, but that she wanted to become one and saw vampires as being superior to humans. In this case, she actually became her research. Despite Geertz’s warning of losing professional objectivity, in this case it didn’t matter.

Isobel Flemming “Vampire Diaries”

Luckily, today, we don’t find many anthropologist turning into vampires. The slippery slope concept does comes into play here though and begs the question, at what point do anthropologists lose their detachment? Unfortunately for this question, human nature is complex and there is no one way to know that tipping point. If only there was a little bell that would ring to tell the researcher, “Ok, you’re too involved now, better step back!” In general though, this can happen to anyone. Some people are workaholics and work crazy hours at the expense of other aspects of their lives. I think any person could become immersed too far into their work, but typically anthropologists realize the need for a certain amount of objectivity and they learn about self-reflexivity to try to understand more about their own place within the research.

Emma also mentioned that once anthropologists became more reflexive and aware of how colonialism was influencing their work with indigenous cultures, anthropologists learned not to see certain cultures as bounded, discrete systems. Non-anthropologists however, tend not to fully comprehend this idea. Scientists and government agencies are working together to, and I say this intentionally, “harvest” indigenous people’s blood. Kim Tallbear has done extensive research on this and says, “The blood of indigenous peoples, understood as storehouses of unique genetic diversity due to their presumed long physical and cultural isolation, is highly sought after, and to be collected quickly” (2013:2). This idea falls in line with the idea of the “vanishing uncontacted tribes” that Marie-Pierre talks about in her commentary of the underdog post. I believe that science fiction can use anthropological knowledge in order to debunk some of the prevailing and harmful misconceptions that pervade our world regarding other cultures. Going forward, maybe all media companies should hire an anthropologist as a consultant.

References

Tallbear, Kimberly

2013 Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity. Social Studies of Science. 43(4):509-533.

 

Created using Balloons make you Happy. Copyright to Tim Hamilton.

TGA’S 2nd Anniversary: a Journey of Anthropology Blogging

On September 12th, 2012, I decided to act on an idea I had been reflecting upon for a long time: creating a blog where I could share my anthropological reflexions on all the geek things I love and geek culture itself. I explained my intention in my very first post, The Geek Anthropologist: What and Why?

My project was humble. I had no blogging skills, barely knew what the anthropology blogging scene was like, and rarely used social media.

One of the first things I learned when I started blogging is that it demands a lot of work.

Especially if one wants to do it well. There are many things to consider: the frequency of posting, the visual layout of the blog, the visual aspect of posts themselves, connecting with readers on different platforms, respecting copyright laws, backing up the contents of the blog, etc. and etc. and etc.

Luckily for me, WordPress.com is accessible to the newbiest of newbies and is powered by people who have a strong sense of community and cooperation. Using the forums and the support page, I found answers to my questions and solutions to my problems. Whenever I needed feedback from other bloggers, I headed to the Community Pool.

As is the cases with many other things, when blogging, there is always more to learn.

Recently, I was happy to partake in Blogging 101 and Blogging 201, online classes provided by the team of The Daily Post. In August, I attended WordCamp Montreal where I learned a great many new things and met wonderful people. WordCamp events are held in many areas of the world and bring together bloggers and web developers.

I read about writing and blogging, but I also consult several great blogs in order to find inspiration and improve my own skills. Although I blog mostly on The Geek Anthropologist, blogs which are completely unrelated to either anthropology of geek culture have been highly inspirational for me. Colossal, DESIGN LOVE FEST and Aunt Peaches are some of these.

Starting a blog while working on my master’s degree was perhaps not the most logical decision.

It took a lot of time and effort to make TGA what it is now. I now realize the goals I had set for myself when I started out were unrealistic. Rome wasn’t built in one day, neither were the great anthro blogs of this world. I still have a lot to learn and wish to continue improving The Geek Anthropologist with my colleagues who contribute to the blog, help manage and edit it.

Birthday Cake by Eliza Adam

Birthday Cake by Eliza Adam

Yet I am already immensely proud and happy of what has been achieved so far on TGA. The blog has become a group effort, a community of anthropologists who share a passion for the study of geek culture and geeky things. Nicholas Mizer and I have already co-chaired a panel at the 2013 meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and we hope to repeat this initiative at future AAA meetings or other conferences. My colleagues and I are working on papers for peer-reviewed journals, submitting proposals for a symposium, and have started blogging on other platforms. Our work was featured on startrek.com on a few occasions. (See The Study of Humanity and A Study of Geek Girls)

We may not have hit the 100 000 views yet (just over 59 000), but our posts are increasingly popular and we gain new followers at a steady pace. The blog was featured on Freshly Pressed, curated by WordPress editors, twice, and twice thanks to pieces by Emma L. Backe. Her very first piece on TGA, Confessions of an Anthropological Geek, was noticed by WordPress curators and so was her more recent Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women.

We’ve blogged about gaming, the fake geek girl debate, advice for students and science-fiction, among other things. Interestingly, the most popular post on the blog, by far, is one I wrote one week after creating the blog: Geeks and Nerds: A Terminological DebateBut every time a new post comes up on the blog, we attract more new readers and connect with other anthropologists, geeks, and geeky anthropologists who join the conversation and, occasionally, join our team!

So life is pretty good at TGA.

Not to mention that I have learned crazy skills and met wonderful colleagues while anthro blogging. The experience I have gained is definitely a plus on my CV and motivates me a great deal.

So in case you are an anthropology student, a professor or researcher with long years of experience, I absolutely recomment blogging. And if you investigate geek culture, remember that we are always looking for contributors at TGA!

 

The wonderful images used in this post were found in the Creative Commons on Flickr. The header image was created using Balloons Make You Happy, by Tim Hamilton. The second photo, Birthday Cake, is by Eliza Adam.