On the last day of my introduction to anthropology class, we watch scenes from the documentary Trekkies. Students grin at the sincere folks dressed as Starfleet officers and Borg members, raise their eyebrows at Klingon language camp, and outright laugh at the backyard celebration of Captain Kirk’s birthday, in which a member brags that “this year a girl came”. But they always sober up when people begin discussing why Star Trek is so important to them.
One group of women talks about how different they are in their lives and politics, yet they feel most at home and accepted when they are spending time together at the Star Trek conventions. Others talk about how Star Trek inspired careers in astrophysics or medicine. Most powerfully, perhaps, one woman describes how her father was raised in Nazi-occupied Poland. After he came to the United States and she was born, he would watch Star Trek with her, saying, “‘The things that they’re doing there is the right thing to think.’ The right things, you know, like treating people like they’re equals and treating people with respect.”
Of course we find inspiration in fiction and art, that’s not in question. But can we opt out of our own cultural practices in favor of immersing ourselves in another world that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t really exist?
The fact that someone would find a television show to be a viable alternative morality to the culture in which they were raised is understandable, but students still find the Star Trek fandom to be a little extreme.
Until I ask them which Hogwarts House they belong to.
Students sheepishly raise their hands when I call out “Ravenclaw” or “Griffindor”. We talk about how J.K. Rowling wrote the series as a way of speaking against xenophobia, using terms like “muggles” and “mudbloods” to talk about the ethics of racism and the folly of racial purity without actually discussing race at all. We talk about how fans of Harry Potter poll as more accepting of diversity, more inclusive, and more humanistic.
Clearly art draws from and impacts life. But is a fictional world really a culture?
Culture is notoriously hard to define. Sure, it includes language, religion, politics, technology, law, art, beliefs, morality, rituals, and both visible and invisible social rules. But it is even more than that. Describing it is, as the quote goes, like asking a fish to describe the water it swims in.
The one thing anthropologists generally tend to agree on is that culture is not nature. It builds off the natural or the physical, but is not the same thing. It is social artifice, often described more as a communal lens or way of seeing the world. No one person’s lens is the same as another, but we group together enough to share similarities.
Despite it being human-made, another aspect of culture is that it often feels natural. For example, we group people together based on surface phenotypic and historical characteristics, and we describe them as races, even though there is no genetic bases for those categories. We describe males and females as immutably different, despite the total lack of consensus around the world about how to characterize those differences.
So can Klingons and Hufflepuffs count as *real* cultural groups? Why not? Are they any more or less constructed than “Americans” or “Nigerians”? Legal anthropologists have long pointed out that the physical borders of a nation state, like the legal structures that declare the autonomy and authority of nation states, are as fictional as Hogwarts. The rather odd cultural idea that this-territory-has-concrete-lines-and-is-mine-not-yours is made to feel real because of the guns and courts and border agents that enforce the fiction.
Even languages are fictions. What makes Mandarin and Cantonese “dialects” of Chinese when they are as different from each other as French and Spanish? Max Weinreich once said that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” the point being that whether one form of speech is recognized as sufficiently unique depends not on the objective opinions of linguists, but on the ability of the language community to declare that it is a unique language. And that ability is backed up by the community’s ability to enforce its opinion against the opinions of the rest of the world. As a result, Italian = language because Italy is a bounded, armed, independent community; Yiddish = dialect because it was spoken by a Jewish diaspora spread throughout Europe without a specific, enforced homeland.
In other words, whether you’re talking about race or gender, law or language, All Culture is Fictional. Whether some cultural element is accepted as real without question often depends on how powerful the cultural group is, and how well they have been able to forget the element was fictitiously created.
Because some groups do have power and authority, though, we have to keep in mind that, even though All Culture is Fictional, Culture Still Matters.
Race may be a fictional concept with no basis in science, but the consequence of that fiction is that non-white versions of English are more likely to be dismissed as slang rather than dialect, and how you are categorized by your melanin and hair can determine the probability of whether you live or die at a routine traffic stop.
National borders may be arbitrary and invisible, but which side you happen to be born on can determine your future economic success, health, and safety.
What if you’re born into a community that you disagree with? That threatens your health and well-being? That reduces your ability to find prosperity? Can you opt into a different cultural group? If no actual cultural groups are open to you (often because of your skin tone or eye shape or religion or language), can you construct a new one? Of course. It happens all the time. So why not join a pre-existing fictional cultural group?
A student of mine came up to me after the class on Elective Culture and told me that she was a Slytherin. She had been homeschooled and felt very isolated and alone as a teenager. “The Slytherin group online WAS my community,” she said. It was a place where people of various ages and backgrounds were able to bond together and support one another. They felt a sympathy with the ambition and cunning of the fictional house and were able to see their traits as positive and worthwhile.
Other LGBTQ students, feeling crushed by their parents’ strict gender binaries and sexual moralities, find solace in the Steampunk world of Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate. Gathering at book clubs in Victorian technogarb to celebrate a diversity of three dimensional LGBTQ characters allows them to find (and invent) new cultural categories that help them feel a sense of self and belonging.
The world of Deb Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy is filled with fans of all ages but especially older women who are flooding Comicons bearing tattoos of the Bishop firedrake and the DeClermont oroboros. They debate whether they should be categorized as witch, daemon, or vampire. They form conventicles all over the world and share Samhain traditions and Saturnalia cards. But most of all they revel in the way the series presents an alternative way of being that is decidedly (and refreshingly) female-centric in its power.
Similarly, the Outlander phenomenon is marked by fans, particularly women, who, wearing Clan Fraser t-shirts and hand-knit shawls, converge by the thousands in conferences and tour groups and spend hours on fan websites talking about how surprised they are to find themselves so transformed by a fictional world. In a previous post I outlined what I felt when I connected with the Outlander series, and tens of thousands of others responded in kind. They find meaning in the characters’ struggles, love, and ability to survive in a way they have not found anywhere else in their lives.
Clearly these are more than hobbies or pasttimes. Maybe they are escapes, but we normally don’t tattoo minigolf clubs or yatzhee cubes on our wrists. There are deep meanings and unarticulated messages that people are bonding with here, alternative moralities and cultural categories that make life a little more bearable.
If Culture Matters, then our ability to embrace, reject, or alter cultural elements matters, too. Maybe we can’t live in Middle Earth, but it can become integrated into our language and values and signifiers. It can alter the way we see ourselves and others.
Are you a member of a fictional world? How has it altered you?