Toying with Our Teleologies: Anthropologists Read SF

“[A]nthropology is suspended in teleologies we ourselves have spun. Our versions of life now are inescapably inflected by how we think life is going to be.”

—Samuel Gerard Collins (pace Clifford Geertz)

“Just then, looking down streets with angles not as we’d have built them, which terminated or twisted in ways that still seemed almost playfully alien, toying with our teleologies …”

—China Miéville

There’s a long history to encounters between anthropology and sf (science fiction, “speculative fabulation,” or one of its other Harawayian permutations): from Isaac Asimov’s endorsement of “social science fiction” (as opposed to “adventure science fiction” or “gadget science fiction”); to the well-known kinships shaping Ursula Le Guin’s interrogations of variously gendered worlds, human and other-than-human diversity, or the oneiric allure of home and away; to a burgeoning anthropology of outer spaces and E.T. culture. The mutual influence (or might it be interference?) of sf and anthropology pops up again and again, including in our own reading habits. Anthropologists read sf all the time— joyously, interestedly, leisurely, rigorously, at home, in the office, and during research, with our students, our friends, our colleagues, and our interlocutors in the field. What would it mean for anthropologists to come clean about our sf critical fandoms? And if, as Samuel Gerard Collins has suggested, an earlier détente between sf and anthropology grew out of a particular understanding of difference—holistic, homogenous, homeostatic—then how might we reimagine and remake the interface between sf and anthropology?

This panel invites papers which respond to the provocations of sf, allowing us to parse our engagements with sf not simply as an object of theory, but as a medium for thinking and a tool with which we might world our work in the world. If, as Diane Nelson writes, “[a]nthropology as social science is the study of alien encounters,” then we must attend to the freight of those encounters and the messiness they carry—the structure and serendipity that produced them, their allure and repugnance, their transcultural and transhistorical implications. How might sf become, as with Donna Haraway’s “string figures,” a partner in this endeavor, this “game of relaying patterns,” one which allows co-makings that are variously experimental and staid, radical and conservative—but always risky, and always opportunities for both trouble and pleasure.

We are committed, in other words, to thinking through not just what kinds of stories anthropology and sf can tell together, but who can and should tell them, and how. We are also committed to thinking through how such a partnership might remake anthropology in and for a contemporary moment that calls on the discipline to “matter” again, in new ways. If we are after other futures, other worlds—after in both senses of the term: both in search of and already in the wake of—then this panel traces some of the practical and political resources offered at the intersections of anthropology and sf. The agencies at stake, we suggest, are compromised but nonetheless efficacious. The ambivalence is real. The present remains a tenuous proposition.

If you are interested in participating, please send a paper abstract to Taylor Nelms at by April 10th.