From Hope-Punk to Speculative Fiction: TGA 2020 Round-Up

Believe it or not, we started 2020 with the proposition of Hope-Punk, the possibilities that could emerge through the disposition of hope. Throughout this year, we’ve explored how Dungeons and Dragons informs our anthropological research; what Westworld can teach us about cultural revitalization projects; representations of archaeological ethics in video games; what exactly it means to “do” digital anthropology; and the Zoomification of our personal and professional lives. We also launched our “Anthropological Speculative Fiction” section of the website (which is an ongoing initiative into 2021 and beyond). Since time felt like a flat circle this year, we thought we’d share the articles published in 2020–the longest, shortest year of our lives.

2019 in Review: Hope-Punk,” by Emma Louise Backe

“If the popularity of Baby Yoda is any indication, many of us are in desperate need of a little cuteness in our lives. Hopepunk is not necessarily a distraction from the difficulties we’ve faced over the last year, but rather a reframing of the conditions, an orientation towards the present and the future that begs a little more patience, a little more softness, and a little more tenderness with ourselves. We are allowed to unplug every so often. Perhaps hopepunk even allows us to recommit to the cause, reminding us both what we’re fighting for and that the fight can occur through a myriad of different strategies. I think a lot about a lyric from Harry and the Potters, the wizard rock band that distilled the entire message of the Harry Potter franchise into one sentence: “the weapon we have is love.” It’s a simple reminder that when a dark wizard attempted to create a regime premised on genetic hierarchies, the tactic that Harry and Ron and Hermione kept returning to is the power of friendship. Indeed, in the face of tragedy and hardship, perhaps the most radical response and rejection of fatalism is pleasure. Pleasure might actually be one of the most important forms of resistance, a form of activism we need in order to enact healing (brown 2019). Hopepunk reminds us to take pleasure in the small things, the opportunities of solidarity and community-building that make life not only tolerable but also help us to transcend the tonic immobility of trauma and despair. After all, they win by making us feel alone.”

Choosing Your Own Adventure: My Life as a Teenage Dungeon Master and How it Prepared Me to Become an Anthropologist,” By Holly Walters

“Where I get the most mileage out of my history with RPGs, though, is perhaps with the concept of growing up. I often hear justifications of childhood and adolescent sports as necessary for a kid’s future success, which is very often juxtaposed against video, online, and role-play gaming as anti-social, anti-fitness, or anti-wellness. This is usually because sports are said to teach such things as teamwork, playing by the rules, working mutually towards a goal, physical fitness and health, and so on and so forth. I’m not debating that this is true for a lot of students. But let me make a plug then for the other side; right along next to the theater nerds and the Knowledge Bowl competitors and the Chess Club. Let’s make a pitch for the D&D players! We, too, learned our lessons young and have gone on to become the next generations of teachers, scientists, lawyers, artists, and academics. Many of us are even today’s anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, and paleontologists. But whether or not you agree that role-playing games are actually any kind of preparation for a future in academia, I’ll take this time to note that, if nothing else, I have already succeeded in every role-player’s greatest dream.”

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Navigating the Maze: Models of Cultural Revitalization in HBO’s Westworld,” By Haley Bryant

“While Wallace’s revitalization movement framework helps us begin to parse Westworld’s story of the Ghost Nation, it is no longer seen as a useful or legitimate explanation for cultural change broadly speaking. Among other things, the framework assumes that cultures are bounded and remain static over periods of time between revitalization movements. It also assumes a model of cultural progress that is linear, random, and ahistorical (Harkin, 2004). In some ways, the formula for societal (and individual) change we’re presented with in Westworld is similarly reductive–in the real world there is no single, prescribed pathway to self-determination or societal change and failure to achieve self-determination doesn’t necessarily warrant a reset, more of a step sideways. Recognition and rights are gained unevenly and at varying paces by societies through the work of individuals. Where the show succeeds and Wallace does not is the acknowledgement of historical trauma as both a hindrance to and catalyst for cultural revitalization, and with its portrayal of cultural recuperation through the restoration of cultural heritage.”

So You Want to “Do” Digital Ethnography,” By Devin Proctor

“Studying the social from a distance is exactly not anthropology, right? I’m tempted to proclaim, with Boellstorff, that “we have always been virtual” (2008) and, with Horst & Miller, that we are “not one iota more mediated”(2012) by our ubiquitous Internet use. And I believe these sentiments to be true, but in a practical sense they do little to help the anthropologist who now sits in front of a screen wondering where the culture is to be found. If there is a here here, where is it, how do I get there, and what are people doing there? I’m glad you asked. This is what I do. I’m a digital anthropologist (or, rather, a cultural & linguistic anthropologists whose fieldwork is located in and concerned with matters of the digital). And the short answer to the question—how does one do digital ethnography?—is that you do the same thing you would do in traditional, place-based cultural anthropology, but attend in both pragmatic and theoretical ways to the differences you encounter. When I give that answer, people often follow up: but what about the concept of digital space, or the fact that we’re not really there? How do you overcome the issue of non-physical presence? And the answer to that one is that you don’t. You lean into it, expand it. ‘How do we interact without bodies?’ becomes ‘How are we using our bodies when we interact face-to-face?’ And ‘Can anyone fully describe the complexities of Being on an Internet platform?’ becomes ‘Can anyone fully describe the complexities of Being in any context?’ Both Heidegger and Boas think probably not.”

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The Poetics of Internet Memes,” By Kai Blevins

“This article, the first in a series, aims to fill in that gap and provide a basis for incorporating memes into anthropological research and teaching. First, let’s talk about poetics and why I think a poetic orientation is an important way to approach memes. Poetics draws attention to form and genre, focusing on the various resources it provides to creators and audiences (Culler 1997). It examines “the devices, conventions and strategies of literature, of the means by which literary works create their effects” (Culler 2002, vii). In other words, a poetic analysis asks how a text works and why, rather than analyzing the text to discover its meaning. Think Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) practice theory – where you look at the forces shaping actors and their social worlds (e.g., habitus, social capital, etc.) – versus Clifford Geertz’s (1973) interpretive anthropology – where you explore the ultimate meaning of a cultural practice (e.g., thick description).”

““I’m All I Wanna Be” – Video Self Presentation in the Age of COVID-19,” by Steven Dashiell

“What is of interest to me is the cultural construction of these online interactions and how these virtual spaces allow a window into the lives of the person living through the pandemic.I was talking to my friend a few days ago and remarking how many individuals seem to pose themselves in videoconferences with what I would call ‘affirming backgrounds’.  For example, I’ve seen a lot of academics online have bookcases as backdrops, while others choose particular items like plants, furniture, or bare walls to frame their digital conversation. I have come to wonder – how much of this setting choice is accidental and how much of it is deliberate? How much thought goes into this behavior? I, for example, just defended my doctoral dissertation via an online defense. I was extremely deliberate in my choices of location, dress, and my background. I chose a blank wall in my apartment, with a framed pop-art lithograph of the Golden Girls flanked by an African mask. My deliberate construction was about demonstrating my sexual orientation, my racial identity, and my love of popular culture in one visual statement. Is this common practice?”

Translating Truth: Heaven’s Vault and Its Message to Gamers,” by Catherine Hill

“To this end, the main point of the game, as I see it, isn’t to collect artifacts or even to find the missing Renba, but is in fact to learn the history of the nebula; just as an archaeologist’s goal isn’t merely to collect artifacts but to understand the past through the lens of specific cultures or time periods and to place discoveries in their historical context, learning from material culture rather than just collecting it. Artifacts and translations, therefore, serve merely as tools in both Heaven’s Vault and archaeological excavation to further the end goal of discovery and learning, rather than obtaining the objects being the goal itself, as is often the case in fictional representations of archaeologists such as Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. These representations are often created through a lens of antiquarianism — that is, the early 20th century practices of explorers and gentleman scholars who pursued individual objects for their inherent value. Heaven’s Vault, however, approaches the past much closer to the way a modern archaeologist does and emphasizes context, details, and research. This requires players to act like true archaeologists, rather than antiquarians, in order to get the most out of the game.”

“‘Burn Him’: Midsommar, Horror and Anthropology,” by Emma Louise Backe

“If “numbness is cooked into the discipline,” perhaps an anthropology of grief encourages more feeled work, a space where grief does not have to be individual and isolating. I believe many students are driven away from anthropology precisely because their discontent and discomfort with the discipline feels so personal and singular to them. What would it mean then to build different kinds of anthropological communities which did not induce these negative affects of anger, shame, sadness, and grief, and consign these feelings to be hidden? If anthropology is premised on embodied vulnerability (Friend 2020), how might we build space and solidarity that acknowledges the vulnerabilities we’ve caused while pursuing repair? A repair, I would also argue, that does not also demand performing that vulnerability for the sake of scholarship. Dani ultimately chooses to burn Christian precisely because his disposition of detached but “good boyfriend” never recognized or allowed space for her trauma. Her feelings were incidental to his story. But perhaps these feelings are now central to the new story of the anthropology we hope to build from the ashes of loss.”

 
Iron Dreams,” by Jake Ramos

“She wondered how Fingguy did it, or Dulay—how they worked tirelessly for hours in front of their looms, plucking away at each strand with such enviable ease. Only recently had she inherited something resembling her sisters’ talents. Where she was previously lacking in skills, she had recently gained in dreams. She did not believe it at first because the vision was so different from how her sisters described the experience. The woman that appeared in her dreams had short black hair, not the sweeping silver mane she had been led to believe. Nor did this woman inspire her with images of fanciful designs. The patterns she saw were largely geometric and infused with lightning. She would have disregarded this dream completely had she not woken up with the sudden urge to weave.”

“Iron Dreams” is the second release in our Anthropological Speculative Fiction series, with the first being the “Moon Monogamy” serial by Savannah Mandel.

Have a story you’d like to pitch? Check out our ongoing call for submisssions. -Nick

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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