Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Illustrated Man #10: The Vision

I first started blogging about anthropology and comic books back in 2012 in an occasional series titled Illustrated Man. It lasted for about nine posts before petering out as other projects demanded my attention, especially going back to grad school to pick up a Masters after completing my doctorate. While I stopped blogging about them I never stopped reading comics.

Now a professional librarian, my engagement with comics is changing again as I begin serving on a graphic novel book prize committee for my state professional association. It’s time to shake off the rust and get to writing again! So welcome to The Return of Illustrated Man. For our first installment I’ll be taking up a subject neglected in the original run, superheroes, with a review of The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast (2016).


Marvel fans know Vision as one of the oldest characters of the Avengers, his Silver Age origins dating back to 1968. Despite his longevity Vision is not a heavy hitter among the superstar Marvel heroes and is typically only seen in the context of the Avengers group. I mean, he’s no Wolverine or Spider-Man. Casual fans may recognize him as a supporting character from the recent blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Perhaps because of his status as a relatively minor character in the Marvel canon, Vision was ripe for a reimagining and his latest iteration, a twelve issue run from 2016 now collected in two trade paperbacks, is stellar.

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Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common

What’s the newest and weirdest sub-culture on the Internet, you ask? If you’re Vice Magazine, it’s apparently tulpamancers.

Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.

A tulpamancer’s portrait of his creation from Nathan Thompson’s 2014 Vice article (left). Many have noted the tulpamancer community’s overlap with Brony, anime, furry, and otherkin sub-cultures and have stereotyped tulpamancers as obsessive and socially-awkward nerds. While sub-cultural overlaps do exist, they are partial and shifting, and many tulpamancers object to being type-cast or being lumped with these other groups. Most of the tulpamancers that anthropologist Samuel Veissiere investigated were white, middle to upper-middle class, urban, and between the ages of 19 and 23. Men outnumbered women three-to-one, although roughly ten percent of the tulpamancers Veissiere surveyed identified as gender-fluid.

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Cinderella at the Big Dance

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week you might not have noticed that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is underway. My own fandom encompasses many different kinds of sports each for different reasons, but far and away the men’s tournament is the most entertaining televised event of the year. We’ll just have to set aside the irony of recognizing the problematic nature of elite-level college sports while enjoying it as faculty. Sorry! That’s a whole other post. Here I want to bring up a semiotic curiosity and get your feedback.

Non-sports fans, let me set the stage.

Over the course of the basketball season the teams play each other and develop reputations for their skill (or lack thereof), and the culmination of the season is a tournament in which only select teams are invited to play. There’s a lot of drama leading up to the tournament as a convoluted selection process decides which teams will play and in what order they will meet. As the anticipation builds and the media hype machine goes into overdrive we often hear the basketball tournament marketed as “the Dance” or “the Big Dance.” In this narrative the selection process is likened to a courtship ritual, with the teams as available women each of whom wants to make herself appear as desirable as possible in order to draw the most attention from suitors.

The selection process results in a numerical ranking for each team that represents their quality. The contest begins by pitting the weakest against the strongest. In theory this should give the strongest teams the best chance for advancing, but every year their are surprising upsets in which the underdog beats a heavily favored team.

If an underdog wins twice in row it is said to be a “Cinderella.” In this well known folktale, Cinderella, a girl in a structurally disadvantaged position in her family, undergoes a transformation in which she is revealed to be more beautiful and powerful than her mother (and sisters) who had previously tormented her. In the Disney version of this tale, the version most popular among young people in America, Cinderella goes to a dance with her identity masked and while she’s there she is courted by a Prince as her sisters and mother look on powerless to stop her.
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As I get older, I have less and less in common with my students and every fall I try to think back to movies or TV shows I’ve seen that might serve as a common reference point for us. I was walking to the library the other day wondering “What movies have I seen recently?” And the only thing that came to me was “Guardians of the Galaxy” And I was all like: “Ok, so how can I make Guardians of the Galaxy relate to anthropology?” And then I realized: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY IS ALREADY A TOTAL METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY.

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Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part II: Critiques from the Margins

In this guest blog series, the Savage Minds folks have been kind enough to provide a space for me to untangle and unpack some of my recent thoughts on anthropologists, hipsters and such. In my first post, I took the conventional path of defining my terms. In this second post, I focus on a common characteristic that is both productive and frustrating for anthropologists and hipsters alike: their position at the margins.

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Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part I: What is a Hipster?

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alex Posecznick.

I am an anthropologist. Four simple words, but they capture a complex process of becoming that was hardly simple. Despite the very human desire to impose order on chaos, the processes through which people become acquired by such categories are usually quite complex. Like many anthropologists, I’ve done my share of navel-gazing – reflecting both on the role I’ve come to inhabit and the process through which I’ve come to inhabit it.

I am not a hipster – at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either. Nonetheless, the parallels between anthropologists and hipsters have been on my mind. My observations are frankly exacerbated by my appointment in a School for Education, where my anthropological roots make me (at least in my own head) something of a “cool” kid. In contrast, in anthropological circles, my ties to education mark me as “uncool.” My present position in the structure as permanent and non-tenure further marginalizes me in any academic circle, pushing me to a periphery which some consider beneath notice at all. Can looking at the hipster tell us something about the anthropologist and the academy, I wonder? These observations about the social tension (and structural food chain) within academia naturally presuppose other critical questions: what precisely is a “hipster” and does it actually exist as a meaningful category?

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Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.   Continue reading

The Opportunistic Apocalypse

The third in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first two posts are here and here.

There are opportunities in the apocalypse.  The end of the world has been commodified.  A few are seriously investing in bunkers, boats, and survival supplies. Tourism is up, not only to Mayan archaeological sites, but also to places like Bugarach, France and Mt. Rtanj, Serbia.  But even those of us on a budget can afford at least a book, a T-shirt or a handbag.

There are opportunities here for academics, too. Many scholars have been quoted in the press lately saying that nothing will happen on Dec 21 , in addition to those who have written comprehensive books and articles discrediting the impending doom. Obviously publishing helps individual careers, and that does not detract from our collective responsibility to debunk ideas that might lead people to physical or financial harm.  But neither can we divorce our work from its larger social implications. Continue reading

2012, the movie we love to hate

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art. Continue reading

The Illustrated Man vs. Super-Graeber

In the comics industry, special issues that promise one hero “versus” another are usually long on gimmick and short on action. Keeping with that tradition my blog post promises an epic confrontation when in reality I’m not really engaging Graeber’s thought provoking essay “Super Position” in a substantial way. I’m going to use the author’s Freudian critique of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as catalyst to reflect on the anthropological study of popular culture.

As an aside I will say this about Graeber’s essay: he uses Roman numerals to demarcate thematic chunks of the essay, which allows him to write without transitions. Whenever I see this technique it always makes me think of Walter Benjamin, that patron saint of the Marxist critique of pop culture. To invoke Benjamin in an essay on Batman is like saying, “I’m very serious about playing around here.” Or, at least that’s what I’m thinking when I write essays with Roman numerals.

Graeber’s subject is Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman movies, which are themselves based on Frank Miller’s legendary characterization of the hero in “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), widely considered one of the greatest comic book stories of all time (and rightfully so). Miller’s book closed the door on the Silver Age version of the character and redefined the Gotham City universe as gritty and violent. Among the movie going public Miller is also known as the original author of Sin City and 300, while to the comics crowd he’s associated with legendary runs at Daredevil and Wolverine.

Miller himself is a reactionary ass and his slander of the Occupy movement as composed of “louts, thieves, and rapists” was only the latest salvo in a stream of proto-fascist dribble. So when Graeber pins down the The Dark Knight Rises as “anti-Occupy propaganda” he is pretty much on the money. A more patient man than I could probably connect the dots between the Reagan-era conservatism of “Returns” with Rises. Neoliberalism and the apocalypse, maybe. Revenge, definitely.

What are superhero movies all about? And why are they so popular right now? These are the questions that prompted me to think about how anthropology could actually forward such a project. How ought we compose a research agenda focused on mass media and popular culture? Personally, I find myself consistently disappointed in most everything academics have written about pop culture. I’d like to think that anthropology could do better. What Graeber is doing here is using history and critical theory to write a polemic in order to make a political point. That’s fine, but it’s only one way that anthropology might go about designing research about comic book super heroes. Continue reading

The Anthropologist in the Museum: The Museum as Community

BHoF Ribbon Cutting

In my last post, I defined a museum as “a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects.” I then spent quite a bit of time dealing with the implications and ramifications of the word “objects”. But there’s another important part of that definition, one which opens up a significantly different view of what a museum is, and that’s the part about a museum being a “social institution”.

Objects can be displayed in a lot of contexts. I have a bunch of artworks by local Las Vegas artists displayed throughout my home — but that doesn’t make my home a museum of Las Vegas art. Lots of people put together collections of images on Pinterest that communicate knowledge about themselves or topics that interest them, but Pinterest isn’t a museum either.

What makes a museum a museum is that it’s social, and that it’s an institution. As a social phenomenon, a museum is a point of connection for a community of visitors, researchers, curators and other staff, and even subjects. And as an institution, that connection, that web of social relationships, is a structured one.  Continue reading

The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is a Museum?

The Burlesque Hall of Fame

Believe it or not, there is no readily accepted definition of a museum. The American Alliance of Museums officially throws up its hands, stating in its handbook National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums that the term “museum” describes “an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition,” and continuing on to describe a “big tent” approach, saying that “If an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent.”

In other words, we many not be able to define what a museum is, but we know one when we see it.

Sure, there are other definitions of museums, legalistic jargon-laden definitions that serve to define museums in relation to tax codes, property law, fair use protections, and so on, but basically its a reflexive signifier. Museums are museums.

For me, a museum is a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects. Other things go on in museums — stories are told, texts are offered up, performances are… um, performed, and so on, but unless somewhere in the institution objects are being displayed to communicate knowledge, it’s not a museum. It’s a library, a theater, a performance art space, or something else, but not a museum.

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The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is Burlesque?

Photo of Burlesque Hall of Fame by Mimi Hyland

As Kerim noted a few weeks back, I am currently the director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum located in Las Vegas committed to preserving the history and legacy of burlesque as an artform and cultural phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago what direction I expected my career to develop in, I’d have never said “Museum Director.” Sure, I’d taken some museum studies courses in grad school and have worked in a couple of museums, but I always thought I’d help out with an exhibition here and there and that would be the extent of my involvement in museums.

Well, life, as they say, happens, and here I am today, responsible not just for an exhibition here and there but for a budget, a nation-wide volunteer network, a collection of 4,000+ artifacts, and a whole slew of legal, professional, and ethical concerns I’d barely even imagined 5 years ago. Since a) anthropology as we know it today grew out of museum practice, and b) the perspective of a museum worker has rarely been seen on Savage Minds, I thought I’d write up a few posts detailing some of the things that occupy my thoughts and time. I won’t be aiming for any grand theoretical statements here, just some musings on what constitutes life in the museum for this particular anthropologist.

And since it’s the question I deal with most, I thought I’d start with a discussion of what burlesque even is in the first place. Defining the field of study, so to speak. Easier said than done, I suppose — burlesque as an art form grades into and branches off from a lot of other theatrical traditions, and has been in a state of near-constant change for at least the last century-and-a-half.

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The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

(this entry is CC’d. If anyone wants to download some pictures, do a voice over, and throw this up on our Khan Academy for Anthropology, be my guest)

Anthropology is, in many ways, the art of taking implicit, taken-for-granted meanings and making them explicit. This is important because human beings cram a tremendous amount of meaning into everything we do, and yet much of the time we are only vaguely conscious of the meanings we surround ourselves with  — and if you are a cultural outsider, you may miss them entirely. Just as learning the grammar of a language will help you understand it and write clearly in it, learning to make cultural meanings explicit helps us understand and express ourselves to others. Take, for instance, the thinking woman’s crumpet.

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Mediating the Real I

Whenever I mention that one of my primary areas of anthropological research is media, the question I come across on a recurring basis is the following: How will you be able to pursue that through ethnographic fieldwork of everyday activities? My sense is that such a response comes from the view that media are disembodied and deterritorialized objects or processes, or that they operate at a pace that is difficult to engage through participant-observation. In response to such concerns much work in anthropology has sought to “ground” media by focusing on production or reception practices, or occasionally both. However, I consider this kind of question crucial to think through during my exploratory fieldwork and research design phase.

A similar issue has arisen in anthropological research on Muslims in North America. In the conclusion to Katherine Pratt Ewing’s edited volume, Being and Belonging (2008), Andrew Shryock called for greater attention to “the immediate and mediated worlds…articulated in everyday life” (206). So, how should one strike a balance between studying media and the everyday? One could study the everyday dimensions of production practices, or how the reception of media is incorporated into people’s everyday lives, or how and why media producers construct the everyday in certain ways. Continue reading