I’ve yet to meet an academic who is not a geek. What it means to be either an academic or a geek is, by necessity, flexible and inconsistent, but I stand by this one data point, gleaned from a casual ethnography of my peers, colleagues, and mentors. Despite how many fellow D&D players, Trekkies, comic book fans and anime nerds I’ve come across in conference halls and classrooms, very few of them incorporate these interests into their academic work. Which is fine! Boundaries are important! There is no reason for the harsh, judgemental gaze of academia to turn its analytical and discursive capacities on my Fire Emblem fanfiction. Academia takes so much from us, takes us apart and forces us to kill our darlings in so many unexpected ways, that leaving some space that is just for ourselves in which we can foster passionate joy is good and necessary.
That being said, I think it is also important to make space in academia for us to be following our interests. When I began my PhD program, I had contorted myself and my project in such strange and uncomfortable ways so as to produce an attractive and important intervention that it looked nothing like what I was actually interested in. But gosh did it make a good statement of purpose! I realized quickly that I had developed my intended project backwards, starting with an intervention and a body of literature in which I could write and hoping that a passion and interest would come out along the way. Wrong! Or, wrong for me. I was totally transfixed by the possible other projects I could be doing that were in the back of my mind or that came out in conversations I was having with my geeky colleagues. These projects were way more *me*, but didn’t have such a clear possible intervention from the outset. I couldn’t imagine the dissertation, but I could imagine enjoying writing it. Which is how I ended up writing my dissertation in a religion department about scientists searching for aliens. I figured that if I’m going to be thinking and breathing my dissertation for the next however many years, it might as well be something that made me happy. Imagine, being happy in academia!
Truthfully, this is a lesson I’d learned once before, when I was an undergrad. I remember being cornered (in the most supportive and loving way) by a bunch of faculty at an end-of-year barbecue where they begged me to write my senior thesis on a television show they’d all watched together that they knew I loved–Battlestar Galactica. I told them I had no idea what I would be writing about, and that I’d rather do a pop culture/civil religion thing instead, something about football or Justin Beiber or whatever was in vogue in 2013. They kind of rolled their eyes at me, the message basically being, “Yeah, you could do that, but that might be a snooze. You could write a fine thesis, but we’re not super jazzed about reading it.” So I did what they advised me to do, did the work of finding how this precious piece of pop culture could fit into and contribute to religious studies, and they were absolutely right. I think they knew that a preexisting passion would produce a piece of writing that, at minimum, reduced the tedium for them of advising undergrad theses and, in a best-case scenario, would get me to do some really interesting thinking. I think I succeeded, but judge for yourself!
What is clear from this vantage is a set of problems I feel many early-career academics run the risk of falling into. We’re so focused on interventions and outcomes as a matter of professionalization–argue for these positions in as many fora as possible, cite enough of these specific people to either carry their banners or tear their ideas to shreds–that we may end up loading ourselves with preconceptions and predispositions that do not emerge from our research but rather condition a priori what is possible to learn from our research. Uh oh! Carts, horses, you get the picture. This isn’t groundbreaking, I am not cracking any kind of code here, and I know I sound like I’m carrying the banners of some folks who might claim that a pure academic endeavor is defined by objectivity and empiricism. Not everything needs to or should conform to the structures of the scientific method, in which hypotheses beget experimentation which begets theory, but it seems possible to me that academia’s fixation on the outcomes of research as a critical element in getting and keeping jobs could result in a situation in which passionate interests are suborned to desperate interventions.
Cool, so now that I’ve fixed the humanities, what does this have to do with geek anthropology? Well, I think that a geekier anthropology (and other fields) could be part of the solution. First, well, it might be a call to just have more fun in our work. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, really. What would it mean for us to shake off our academic regalia for a moment and get down and argue about notions of the human in the latest Cronenberg movie or the politics of Attack on Titan and not feel like we’re going to be laughed out of the department lounge by our supervisors or peers? We might just be setting ourselves up to be successful in the, you know, whole thing we’re in academia to do–thinking hard about important things–without limiting ourselves in advance by what we might imagine, or what we might be told, to be the expectations of our disciplines. Defining an academic project is always an ongoing conversation between a researcher and a body of norms that defines what a proper subject can and should be for a given discipline. So if you’re feeling that whatever sparks your analytical joy is not something you can pursue professionally–well, why not? Who decides that? Why do they have that power? Is that fun for them? What are the consequences of our conscious or unconscious exclusions? What regimes of epistemological ordering are we cosigning, or producing, by relegating our joy to the margins or after-hours? Maybe this is more of an issue in religious studies, where we’re constantly at war with each other over the very rubrics by which we define our discipline, than in anthropology, where perhaps culture is culture is culture. Even so, this is one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of TGA, and why I believe it is so valuable–us geeks deserve a forum to have our little chats, deserve an opportunity to claim some space in anthropology and beyond where we can celebrate our darlings (hopefully without simping too hard, but no promises from me), take ourselves as seriously as we want to be taken, and do the work of uncovering our own critical analyses when and where they occur.