World Anthropology Day: Grokking as a Geek Anthropologist

In honor of World Anthropology Day 2017, we’re sharing the text from an AnthroTalk presentation on what it means to do geek anthropology, given at George Washington University in October 2016. 

I was a geek long before I was an anthropologist. I grew up on a steady diet of Ray Bradbury, anime and vampire lore—the science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, weird and speculative worlds I gravitated towards taught me to believe in the possibility and complexity of multiple worlds. These geeky books, video games, comics and animated series also trained me to flexibly consider how I approach communities or concepts different from my own. It wasn’t until I got to college and began to take anthropology classes, that I realized that these texts had cultivated an ethnographic sensibility in me and that the discipline itself took seriously questions of humanity, alienness and this strange dance of signification we call culture.

d1532f0df2390caa93a751c28b05b9c5Let us consider, for a moment, the story of Michael Valentine, Martian protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s opus Stranger in a Strange Land. As Valentine attempts to assimilate into human, earthling culture, he calls upon his ability to grok, an act through which the “observer interacts with observed through the process of observation. ‘Grok’ means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in a group experience’” (Heinlein 1961:213-214). To grok involves understanding at an experiential, empathic and emotional level, facilitated by interaction, participation and observation. To grok is perhaps one of the best ways I’ve found to encapsulate what it means to be an anthropologist. Grokking is also central to geek anthropology.

To be a geek anthropologist involves engaging in public anthropology through two interconnected poles. The first part concerns studying aspects of geek culture, broadly defined. This could encompass the performance and moral economy of cosplay at comic conventions; the soft power of Pokemon and anime in the assemblages of globalized imagination (Allison 2006, Condry 2013); or the digital communities like Second Life (Boellstorff 2008), Anonymous (Coleman 2014), or otherkin that proliferate in online spaces.  These subjects often involve consideration of the cultural other; indeed, the etymological evolution of the term geek has historically signified the “Other,” the aberration and social outsider whose identity is intrinsically linked with their ostensive marginality. While the original concept of the geek as a sideshow freak known for biting the heads off of chickens has progressed into a very different social and cultural configuration—the Dragon-Master, tech-savvy, Klingon-speaking modern geek stereotype—the term geek continues to constitute an identity and a group marked by difference. This alterity is an anthropologist’s bread and butter. Yet it is also the basis for our anthropological investment. We engage in digital ethnography, traverse life worlds and immerse ourselves in the enchantment involved in making the strange familiar within these geek communities. Under these conditions, one’s ability to grok is also partially enabled by the anthropologist’s own sense of geekery. These geek communities and subjects represent emergent areas of ethnographic inquiry and forms of deep hanging out that does not exclude the West from their subject of analysis. To study geek culture is also to recognize that what it means to be human is radically shifting.

The other crux of geek anthropology involves using geek culture as a pedagogical tool to make anthropology and its aims intelligible to a wider audience. There aren’t many good models of anthropologists in pop culture, but science fiction and fantasy, video games and graphic novels are brimming with alternative pasts, speculative futures, and massive models of worldbuilding. A convincing science fiction novel hinges upon the coherence of its fabricated cultures, the symmetries mapped between history, ecology and economy, the political ruptures and religious factions that inform the context of the plot. The philology of Lord of the Rings must be such that the cultures of elves, men, dwarves, hobbits and even Ents needs to cohere and make sense within the particularities of the Middle Earth context. Grokking involves a certain terraforming of the imagination and magical thinking that is necessary for critical ethnography. Geek culture can also be used to rectify the ways that anthropology has been appropriated and exploited. Perhaps the best example is the bastardization of social science by the History Channel show Ancient Aliens. The show feigns to employ anthropology, archaeology, folklore and religious studies to “prove” that extraterrestrials are responsible for the construction of technologically sophisticated ancient civilizations like Puma Punku. As much as I would like to be a part of the team responsible for making first contact with alien life, an extraterrestrial anthropologist, if you will, geek anthropology can also step in to indicate the ethnocentrism, interpretive biases and methodological inadequacies used by “Ancient Astronaut Theorists” on the show and give societies of the past their due as innovators in their own right.

Geek culture is populated by aliens, the ultimate Other—their plights and conditions are often written to provide social commentary and provide an incredible literary, cinematic or RPG lens through which to conceptualize ethnographic work and focalize anthropological theories. Ruth Benedict, one of the founders of modern sociocultural anthropology, stated that anthropology’s job is to make the world safe for human difference. If we still take this proclamation to be true, and I do, then the canon of geek culture is nothing if not a wealth of object lessons in difference that anthropologists can use, especially since discourse about “aliens” is increasingly salient in political conversations.

One of my favorite examples of geek media as thinly veiled anthropology is that of Ender Wiggin in Speaker for the Dead (as well as the larger Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card). After having inadvertently destroyed the entire Bugger race in the first book of the series, Ender dedicates himself to modeling new versions of humanity and humility as the conquering earthlings embark on extraterrestrial colonization. He is called to Lusitania after a well renowned scientist and would be anthropologist (called xenologist) is killed, or murdered by the piggie or pequenino race that initially inhabited the planet. After meeting with members of the piggie clan, Ender confronts the Lusitanian xenologists for refusing to reveal anything about their own culture to the piggies and only pretending to believe in the pequeninos totemic system. He states, “‘You’re cultural supremacists to the core. You’ll perform your Questionable Activities to help out the poor little piggies, but there isn’t a chance in the world you’ll notice when they have something to teach you.’” By investing in the relative truth of the pequenino spiritual system, Ender learns that the death of the piggie leads to the literal growth of a father tree that will shelter and sustain piggie offspring. This idea of the gift of death is what precipitated Ender’s initial call as Speaker for the Dead for the deceased xenologist. Through this process of cross-cultural understanding, Ender able to reconcile the Starwars Congress with the indigenous culture. And yet despite the fertile debates around sovereignty, non-interventionism, and the power that suffuses the participant-observation model, Ender still ends up recapitulating the white savior complex anthropology has fought so hard to distance itself from. The cultural richness, ethnographic quandaries and philosophical questions Speaker for the Dead raises are an eloquent and engaging entre into teaching anthropology.

As many stars as populate the skies above Tatooine or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are vignettes accessible to a general population interlaced with anthropological sensibilities. In cyberspace, deep space, hyperdrive or even Cyberdine, science fiction, fantasy, horror and speculative fiction not only provide models in popular culture to discuss and contextualize anthropology, but it also generates visions of alternative realities and cultural configurations. We can look to the complex political economy of dust in Frank Herbert’s Dune, the gender fluidity outlined in ethnographic fieldnotes in Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Left Hand of Darkness, the construction and dissolution of bioethics in the video game BioShock, the syncretic cultural overlaps and intermixing of Whedon’s Firefly Verse, even the linguistic thrill of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps because these models of geek culture are already familiar to us, we’re far more willing to invest in the imaginative, intellectual and empathic work of believing in the legitimacy of alternative universes and hence cultural relativism—these universes are just far enough away to appear strange, yet just close enough to seem familiar.

Books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, shows like Black Mirror and graphic novels like Bitch Planet have never felt more prescient, particularly when it comes to contemporary contestations over racial, sexual, gendered, economic and representational politics. While my love of science fiction and fantasy may have equipped me to identify some of the characteristics of a dystopian society and survive an incursion of the undead, the geek canon also provides us with examples of resistance, modes of engaging with the nefarious and the panoptic, and models of cooperation that go beyond defunct paradigms of ideal democracy. Sales for Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may have skyrocketed since the 2016 US election, but we can also look to other media like ethnographic texts to examine indigenous forms of defiance and learn from traditions of civil disobedience and community organizing that have led to substantive change. As anthropologists, we are primed to provide the context and methodological interventions necessary to cultivate a more empathic and critical public. We can teach others to grok the multifarious dimensions of humanity anthropologists are attuned to investigating, helping to model respectful relations with the alien or the subaltern.


Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London: Verson, 2014.

Condry, Ian. The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Duke University Press, 2013.

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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