Screen Memory, Social Distancing & Speculative Fiction: The Geek Anthropologist 2021 in Review

2021 wasn’t quite the year we anticipated, nor does the conclusion of the year feel like it does justice to the warped sense of time, distance, and stasis we have perhaps felt in the Longue durée of COVID-19. Yet 2021 also gave us new ways to think about virtual presence and digital connection through Minecraft; the role of a mediated and mediatized grief in Wandavision; the Marxist politics underlying GameStop stock; the ongoing importance of centering repatriation in the practice of archaeology; and the bureaucratic magic of Loki. At TGA, we’re thankful for all the authors that contributed to our geeky anthropological community, as well as the contributors we’re hoping to feature in 2022. We hope you enjoyed these pieces from 2021 and remember that you can always pitch us in the year to come, or apply to join our growing Editorial Team.

Anthropological Speculative Fiction: The Ice of Thalassis by Esther Stoppani

“Thirty years ago (3927 CE), astronomers discovered a solar system of five planets, one of which we now call Jasper. They named it the Vivos system after the Latin word for “life” because multiple planets appeared to be able to support life as we know it. Almost immediately, a ship was sent out on what was then an eight-year journey (we hadn’t fully perfected the art of traveling faster than lightspeed back then). The crew of 50 was placed in cryosleep and awoken when they reached the system. Their mission was to send probes down to each planet. The probes searched for signs of intelligent life and sent the results of the scans back to the ship for the dozens of botanists, biologists, and chemists to analyze. Back on Earth, we waited with bated breath for their discoveries.”

Burdened with Glorious Purpose: Loki and the Hidden, Occult Power of Bureaucracy by Emma Louise Backe

Loki is a story about the hidden power of bureaucracy, bureaucracy’s capacity to conjure new realities through its administrative processes and even rewrite the flow of time through its minute, arcane, and often inaccessible managerial processes. The gambit of the TVA is organizing the “proper flow of time,” a temporal propriety allegedly overseen by the illustrious Time Keepers. Agents of the TVA—essentially time cops—are alerted to incidents when timelines start to “branch,” indicating variance in the “sacred timeline.” The TVA then intervenes to “prune” these variants and restore the “natural” flow of time. Initially Loki is skeptical of the sacrosanct way the TVA treats time—not only because the TVA’s very existence seems to undermine the possibility of free will, but also because their logic of what is permissible and what is criminal within the sacred timeline seems completely arbitrary.”

Whedon, Fandom, and Cancel Culture by Alissa Whitmore

“Fans are still discussing whether to separate Whedon from his work, but the accusations by Fisher, Carpenter, Molina, and others provide a new lens – it is increasingly difficult to divide Whedon’s personal and professional lives. Whedon has noted that “my politics are all over my shows,” which frequently have themes of social (typically, gender) justice and feature a small group fighting against oppressive, evil, and unjust institutions (Iatropoulos & Woodall III 2017). But fans are grappling with the realization that Whedon’s behavior may align him more with these institutions than those fighting against them. People who helped create Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Justice League were harmed by Whedon during the process. Abuse and trauma were baked into these shows, and this knowledge should shift our perception of the creation and the creator, in a way that allegations of an artist’s infidelity may not have.”

Two Archaeologists Unscientifically Argue That Ethical Practice Is Anti-Science by April M. Beisaw

“Science should not occur without regard to the potential harm that research can cause. A 2009 article from the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics outlines the history of Institutional Review Boards, which were created to “avoid allowing the ends to justify the means” (Moon 2009:312). NAGPRA is a form of informed consent where archaeologists and museum professionals are required to ask those who are most closely related to the human remains under study to give permission for that study to take place.”

The Death of Outer Space Dreams: Hard Decisions and a War of Utopian Demands by Savannah Mandel

“What would it do to humankind’s collective psyche if we let the dreams of expanding human civilization into space go? On November 20, 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) was launched into space. The ISS has been inhabited for the majority of my life and before it, there were other space stations, such as Skylab and Mir. Each station is a space habitat, used primarily for unique research experiments which cannot be performed on Earth. My mother used to wake us up to go trace the ISS with our fingers as it passed above our home and I used to think, “there they are. People in space. Always watching. Always there. Always above us.” The astronauts up there were the only angels I ever had it in my heart to believe in. Now there’s talk of the ISS’s imminent demise- due to its age, the maintenance it requires, and its expensive upkeep – and its replacement with the Lunar Gateway, and though the prospect of its end shakes me, I’m left wondering what would happen if we didn’t replace it (NASA Artemis n.d.). What if, like any other bad, crumbling, expensive relationship… we let it go. And instead of jumping into another bad, crumbling, expensive relationship what if Mother Earth just stayed single for a while and focused on herself?”

Finance is Funds and Games Until It Stops (For Hedge Funds in New York) by Nazli Azergun

“While many do not imagine anthropologists as studying finance, Anthropology of Finance has been a thriving branch of the discipline since 1980s. It became all the more active and important following the 2008 Recession, which forced people to take account of finance’s relationship to society [5]. And anomalies like the GameStop short-squeeze open up a window into understanding contemporary financial capitalism as a political project based on a social convention around valuation of commodities, time, and risk. This social convention is not an impartial contract as many claim it to be but enacts a political agenda to reinforce the privileges of the few. Finance is actively made through seemingly neutral technologies such as short-sell, derivatives trading, or call options. Perhaps, by looking at this constellation through an anthropological perspective, we can push for ways in which technologies of finance are employed for redistribution rather than dispossession. Or maybe not.”

Wonder Woman – Leader, Superhero, Anthropologist by Astrid Willis Countee

“While it isn’t often that superheros double as anthropologists, it is a beacon that now is the time for anthropologists to make their mark. This past year has laid bare the limits of our technological and scientific achievements. Being human is more than the sum of our parts. Wonder Woman represents leadership with humanistic understanding. Although she is supremely powerful, she rarely uses her brawn to win a fight. Although she is highly intelligent, she rarely relies on her quick mind to carry her through problems. Instead, she relies on her ability to display compassion and her willingness to undergo deep understanding of the reasons why things are happening the way that they are.”

Screen Memories, Scarlet Witch & the Complex Grief of Wandavision by Emma Louise Backe

“We could read Wanda’s hesitancy to talk through Kubler Ross’s Stages of Grief, situating Wanda firmly in the “denial” stage. But Wanda’s grieving process is more complicated than a linear projection of how and when someone should grieve. Indeed, we could examine the dramaturgical elements of her show, and her process of remembering through Agatha’s theatrical guidance, as a critique of the ways that traumatic storytelling is often co-opted and highly managed for purposes other than the recovery of the victim or the survivor. As Michael Humphrey discusses in the context of commissions and tribunals in Chile and Argentina, “There is a whole industry of professionals that has grown up around making trauma visible, making victims visible to others and making victims conscious of themselves as victims. The media play a big role in making victims visible and generating discourses of victimhood” (2010, 39). The process of visualizing victimhood relies on how we produce traumatic stories—these stories must often be legible and chronological, something that can be easily recognized by commissioners or witnesses as “self-evidently” traumatic. This discursive framing does not leave a lot of space for the problematic lapses of traumatic memory, and the cognitive ruptures that can occur due to the neurological consequences of trauma.”

Teaching Digital Anthropology Through Minecraft by David Davies

“As we have discovered this past year, virtual spaces—especially gameworlds—have offered us the things lacking from our pandemic lives. Games are our revenge for the uncertainty and missing humanity of the pandemic. They give us virtual-world fixed rules when in our actual-world we know so little. They let us take chances in-world when we can’t adequately asses risk in real life. Games promise free movement when the pandemic has robbed us of so many everyday activities. They offer stimulation, novelty, and opportunities to safely satisfy our primate curiosities. But, most importantly, I think the best games have offered us a place to go either alone or with others. There are comforts in connecting our hands to a keyboard and mouse, suturing our consciousness to the eyes of an avatar, and heading elsewhere.”

About emmalouisebackeanthro

I am a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department of George Washington University, with an MA in Medical Anthropology. My research deals with the politics of care for survivors of gender-based violence in the United States and South Africa, and I do consulting work in international development and global health related to gender. I regularly tweet at @EmmaLouiseBacke.

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