Just to Vex and Be Vexed in Return

I suppose it’s my turn to introduce myself.

My name is Nick Mizer, and I’m a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Texas A&M University, where I’m working on a dissertation analyzing the historical relationships between story, play, and imagined spaces in Dungeons & Dragons.  I’ve been studying D&D since my senior year as an undergraduate, when I came to the topic by way of studies in folklore and mythology. The parallels between ritual and myth on the one hand and play and narrative on the other are the first thing that caught my interest in D&D. Gaining a better understanding of those relationships has been the driving force behind a lot of my research since then.  Here on the blog I’ll probably be posting a lot about gaming, but also about other areas of geek culture too.

I think that geek culture has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends.  As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.  More specifically, the interpretive tradition represented by Clifford Geertz shapes my understanding of geek culture as a particular tradition of meanings, symbols, and readings.  When I look at D&D, I tend to draw strongly on phenomenologically oriented scholars like Erving GoffmanKatharine Young, and Edward Casey.  Weber’s ideas about disenchantment, especially through the lens of work on “re-enchantment” like Michael Saler’s, have been inspirational to my thinking about the role of geek culture within broader trends of modernity and postmodernity.

I’d like to say that I’ve been a geek for as long as I can remember, but that would only be partially true.  Don’t get me wrong, I grew up reading geek books, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and playing video games. My favorite games were Sierra point-and-click adventures (I have a special fondness for King’s Quest V) and RPGs like Phantasy Star (I was firmly on the Sega side of the console wars).   I devoured science fiction as a kid, especially Asimov’s Foundation series, but when I discovered Tolkien in seventh grade there was no turning back.  I remember sitting in my science class, completely oblivious to whatever Jacques Cousteau story our teacher was making up for us that day (oddly for a science teacher, Mr. Flores told us a lot of tall tales) and feverishly trying to decipher the runes on the cover of our library’s hardback edition of The Hobbit.  As far as these things go, I think my credentials are pretty solid.  But still, saying I’ve always been a geek seems a little off.

Revenge of the Nerds (see original images here and here).

I think the reason it seems a little off is that whatever it meant to be a fourth-grader reading 2010 in the early nineties, being a thirty-year-old excited about going to a sword and sorcery film festival in 2013 seems to be something different altogether.  That’s not a complaint or nostalgia. To quote, Clapton Davis from Joseph Kahn’s Detention: “Now’s all we got. That’s not cynicism; I think now’s pretty rad.”  In social theory jargon, the construction of geek identity is a continuous and rapidly changing dialectic process.  That is, what it means to call yourself or someone else a geek (or a nerd—possible distinctions between the two is a whole separate post) partially depends on what jumps to mind when people hear the term, and every time someone uses it, the meaning shifts, even if only a little.  To see that change, you can look at the difference between Curtis Armstrong and Robert Carradine’s 1984 Revenge of the Nerds and their 2013 reality TV show King of the Nerds. I won’t get into unpacking all of those differences here; that’s something I’ll probably be coming back to again and again on this blog and elsewhere.

But that’s why I’m excited about The Geek Anthropologist as a place where we can think together as a community about geek culture, anthropology, and how the two might illuminate each other.  The reason that’s exciting is that culture is a continuously moving target that we never get exactly right in the same way that Planck’s Law got cosmic microwave background radiation exactly right.  I side with Geertz in saying that’s just not how cultural analysis works:

Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.  And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is.  It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere in the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right….Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate.  What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other. (“Thick Description,” VIII)

I look forward to precisely vexing and being vexed by all of you.

About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

There are 6 comments

  1. Kevin

    Love this Nick. Thought of you this summer as I read through Hugh Howey’s new book. Hugh opened up the dystopian world he created to major fan fiction spin offs. The result is an ever evolving collective mythology of sorts. With digital publishing its been easy for smaller writers to publish digital books that add on to the bigger story. Wondered if you’d read any of the Wool or Silo books.


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