Navel-gazing in another universe

Anthropology gets in the way of this wander through the new virtual wonderland, finds Grant McCracken

September 4, 2008

In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is an ancient human practice. Many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems.

We are pretty good at saying how these things accomplish their transportation. The task for Boellstorff is to tell us what difference new media make. What happens when virtuality is individuals interacting in a machine space that exists online? I think Boellstorff fails us here. It's not his fault entirely. He is an anthropologist.

There is much to admire in this book. Boellstorff writes clearly, even gracefully. He is thoughtful, genuinely curious and quick-eyed. Where many of his colleagues insist on making a mystery of things that are straightforward (so to neglect mysteries real and pressing), Boellstorff is a likeable, generous, accessible voice.

But his anthropology makes for two problems. The first is that anthropology has largely neglected the study of its own culture. Most of the meanings of Second Life have been smuggled in from this culture. Thus when the Second Life inhabitant presents herself as an elf, a chipmunk or a flaming goddess, she is using cultural categories and understandings from "away".

It is easy enough to say: "Oh, but we all know what an elf, a chipmunk or a goddess is," but this is precisely where the anthropologist is supposed to be scrupulous (as we may expect a philosopher to be scrupulous about claims to knowledge or judgment). Boellstorff takes these and other importations at their face value, and as a result much of what ought to be the object of study disappears from view.

If anthropology isn't about its own culture - or increasingly, any culture - that's because it is increasingly about itself. This is Boellstorff's second problem. Anthropology is now an inquisition, ferreting out epistemological, moral and political error.

But Second Life is a florid place. Strange and wonderful things are to be found everywhere. The data are voluptuous, the opportunities for study extraordinary. And I can't help wondering whether this anthropologist was the one to send. Boellstorff is abstemious when what we want is a glutton.

Still, he is not quite as precious as his colleagues. This book, once it gets down to it, does truly offer a detailed and deeply interesting investigation of Second Life.

The best moments come when Boellstorff is puzzling out inhabitants puzzling out the meanings and new rules of social discourse. But here, too, there may be a little too much puzzling. Sometimes the reader thinks, "Pray, just get on with it."

Boellstorff never takes a step without casting a concept before him. This has the effect of actually making Second Life banal and his anthropology an apparent failure of the imagination or the nerve. It might have been better to follow the anthropological convention of entering a new world suspending, for the first moments, one's anthropology.

That Boellstorff is prepared to take up this topic at all tells us that anthropology is restless in its slumber, that it may be preparing for bigger things. But it also suggests that, in the short term, it must remain the captive of its self-absorption. Anthropology might have a second life, but I think it's clear we can't get there from here.

Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

By Tom Boellstorff

Princeton University Press

328pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780691135281

Published 30 May 2008

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