Scholarly Hipsters, Scholarly Geeks Part 3: The Baker Street Ethnographers

(Part 3 of a series on what it might look like to think of “geek” as a mode in which scholarly work can be done, and in particular a mode that anthropologists might benefit from adopting. Part One skectched out a working definition of “geek” vs. “hipster.” Part Two discussed how to geek out about our research. This installment compares ethnography to fan fiction.

As much as I enjoy Jason Tocci’s dissertation on geek cultures, the work that has most shaped my understanding of geek culture is Saler’s As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. There Saler traces a tactical tradition of “disenchanted enchantment” that I think has a lot of potential for application to how we think about the work of anthropology. Saler’s story begins with changes in early twentieth century fantastic fiction, which he calls the “New Romance.” This turn was associated with the inclusion of artifacts of modernity, particularly maps, in fantastic works, lending them an aura of reality. It wasn’t just maps, however, but a way of presenting fantastic worlds and their contents.

To take one example, the way that H.P. Lovecraft presented the Necronomicon in his works blended actual history, plausible sounding but fictional history, and fantasy, such that especially for a reader that didn’t have access to the Internet it wasn’t always easy to tell where the facts ended and the fiction began. In 1952, for example, the letters column of Weird Tales included a question from an R. Paulive asking whether the Necronomicon was real. Subsequent issues, of course, featured a number of people playing along with the game and offering stories of having seen the blasphemous tome. Similarly, the creators of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary podcast tell a story about going to the library to find the Necronomicon, only to find the L. Sprague de Camp version, which used the Arabic title of Al Azif (pun with Saler’s title duly noted here), locked up in the rare manuscripts section, seemingly confirming at least some of Lovecraft’s claims about the text.


Don't Read This. For Real Though.

A page from Al Azif.

Holmes was a real detective, Watson a real chronicler of his exploits, and Conan Doyle merely Watson’s literary agent.

On the other side of the coin we see the development of a tradition of reading these texts that shifts fluidly between belief and unbelief. Saler’s best example here is the Baker Street Irregulars, who as part of their Sherlock Holmes fandom played a sort of collective game where they pretended to believe that Holmes was a real detective, Watson a real chronicler of his exploits, and Conan Doyle merely Watson’s literary agent. This, according to Saler, is not Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” but a “willful activation of pretense” closer to what Tolkien described as secondary belief:

[The willing suspension of disbelief] does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “subcreator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it what he relates is true: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make• believe, or when trying … to find what virtue we can in the work of art that has for us failed. (qtd. in Saler, 32).

“We” were embarrassed and hurt, and maybe part of that hipster stance that Posecznick identified has been as much about not wanting to get hurt again as it has been about not wanting to cause harm.

It’s a subtle but powerful difference, and Saler (tellingly for the conversation at hand) calls the result “the ironic imagination,” comparing it not to dreaming but to lucid dreaming. So where does that leave us if we try to apply it to the work of anthropology? I think we might compare the modernist approach to anthropological texts to the “suspension of disbelief,” with [insert your favorite early 20th century anthropologists here] always knowing but never acknowledging that what they produced was at least as much fiction as fact. This is why it felt like such an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment when Writing Culture and other similar works started pointing out the fictional nature of our texts, and why the discipline was so confused for so long about what to do. “We” were embarrassed and hurt, and maybe part of that hipster stance that Posecznick identified has been as much about not wanting to get hurt again as it has been about not wanting to cause harm. There is, after all, a certain vulnerability required if we are to actually make enthusiastic claims about the people we study / study with. But only by making enthusiastic claims in ethnography can our work ever rise to the level of creating a Secondary World that others can enter into and share some of what we saw when we were “Being There.” If we’re ever going to share our enthusiasm we have to geek out. If we don’t experience any enthusiasm for what we’re studying, I admit to not being sure what the point is.

But I said I was going to talk about fan fiction, and so far I’ve only gotten to the point of ethnography as fantasy fiction. So here’s what I’ve got: in fan fiction we can talk about (at least) three layers: the “real” world of the fiction, the canonical text, and the fan text. So we have the “actual” Federation of Planets, which is not available for direct observation; we have the official media texts which offer the authorized but partial view into the Federation; and we have “A Fragment Out of Time.” If I apply this to my own work, I can conceive of the first level as the totality of all possible knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons, which I’ll just shorthand as REALITY here. At the second level is my “canonical” (at least for me) experience of REALITY; pretty accurate as far as I can tell, but certainly partial. Anything I write about Dungeons & Dragons, then, exists at the third level. It’s fan fiction about my canonical experiences.

I know that this idea of tertiary representations isn’t all that novel, but hopefully by combining it with the geeky “as if” stance that Saler describes I’ve helped to spark your own imagination about what ethnography can be. Because I, and a lot of geeks, already acknowledge the profound impact that virtual worlds can have on this one, I think that we can enthusiastically approach the writing and reading of ethnography this way, excited that we can produce something that rises to the level of virtual world.

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.

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