Using The Force

I just got back from a week-long trip to Australia to attend the annual “Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania”:http://www.asao.org/ meetings. ASAO has always been my favorite annual conference to go to, with a great atmosphere, an international crowd, and an extremely focused set of ethnographic issues. This year it also provided me an opportunity to think further through the issues of rigor and quality in research that I have been exploring on this blog through the distinction between ‘cultural studies’ and ‘anthropology.’ So far we have discussed these issues as though the problem with cultural studies is that it is not ’empirical’ enough, but I think it is time to take the scare quotes off this term and begin to address Actually Existing cultural studies.

One of my discoveries surfing across Sydney bookstores was “Will Booker’s”:http://fass.kingston.ac.uk/staff/cv.php?staffnum=354 volume “Using The Force: Creativity, Community, and Star Wars Fans”:http://www.amazon.com/Using-Force-Creativity-Community-Updated/dp/0826414664/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1203359849&sr=1-1. This book was perfect for me as an author of Star Wars fan fiction and an adviser of a student working on fan communities. It is a good book and makes me excited to read more of Booker’s other work, but at the same time it is also palpably ‘not anthropology’ to me. Obviously, being ‘not anthropology’ is ‘not a bad thing’ — in fact in some circles I’m sure such a judgment might be considered a compliment! But what struck me about the book was not that it had too much ‘theory’ but that it had ‘too little’

Brooker clearly knows far more about Star Wars than I, and his work demonstrates not only an immersion in the wider Star Wars noosphere but a genuine attempt to base his discussion of Star Wars fans with genuine ‘data’ — transcripts of fans watching the series, email interviews, and so forth. He also does an admirable job of quoting extensively from his interview. The book can’t be slighted, then, on the basis of empirical grounds.

Instead, what I would have liked to have seen was more analysis. Brooker’s different chapters on fan fiction, fan films, issues of ‘canonicity’, arguing about what order the films ought be viewed in (IV, V, VI, I, II, III or just I-VI?) and so forth seem always to skirt with a more interesting and important topic: the elaboration of fantasy worlds or mythoses (mythoi?). There is not enough in the volume about how each of the individual chapters might be part of a larger analysis of how this happens and what the general dynamics of such intersubjective fantasy worlds might be.

We might need a general ‘theory’ of fantasy worlds to deal with this issue, and at some point some comparative work is definitely needed as well. But what seems to be missing here is not ‘theory’ or ‘cross cultural work’ but just plain ‘analysis’. As a piece of particularist focused research there is actually a lot more ‘ethnography’ in here than, say, Friction. This is good. As an anthropologist who studies video games, ‘cultural studies’ is actually my ‘area studies’, and I discuss video games and fantasy worlds with cultural studies folks in the same way that I discuss Melanesia with geographers or demographers.

At the same time, the thing that I think makes anthropology unique and (to me!) worthwhile is our ability not just to gather ethnographic data or to string together arguments about ‘theory’ but to analyze and generalize from our data in a rigorous, humanistic, and unique way. So as much as I enjoyed reading Using The Force dping so reminded me that I am, in fact, an anthropologist and what this meant was not necessarily demanding less theory and more fact, but trying to work the seam between them both.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Using The Force

  1. _I am, in fact, an anthropologist and what this meant was not necessarily demanding less theory and more fact, but trying to work the seam between them both._

    Precise, elegant, almost beautiful. (Drop the “both” at the end, and this becomes a statement that sings.)

  2. Certainly a good criticism, Rex. What I’m not sure about is whether it serves to elaborate on the distinction between cultural studies and anthropology, and not just the distinction between a good book and a really good book. Do we as anthropologists do a better job of articulating the theoretical/generalizable than those in cultural studies? I’m not saying we don’t, of course, but we should note that many see an insistence on particularities to the neglect of generalizable theory as a hallmark of anthropology.

    Somebody who is not me should do a lit review here. In this cultstuds/anthro discussion, we need a comprehensive survey of contemporary works in both fields that can evaluate both on their empiricism and their ‘working the seam.’

  3. John: Thanks!

    Adam: I think you’ve hit it right on the head. I wouldn’t say “using the force” is a _bad_ book, but what I am describing here could be glossed as the difference between a good book and a great book, not between cultural studies and anthropology. I blogged about this in regards to PA some time ago….

    I guess it brings up another issue, which I’d call the “Tolstoy Question” perhaps each discipline has work that is bad in its disciplinarily-specific way, but all good work is similar, regardless of the discipline :?)

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