I have always wanted to check out one of the many Harry Potter conferences that take place each year and I have just finished participating in Infinitus 2010. They are a fascinating combination of academics and fans, with professors with advanced degrees given equal status with a very informed fan base that also presents their analyses and opinions on all things Harry Potter. I have previously criticized traditional academic conferences for their deadly boring presentations: someone will stand in front of an audience of their peers and read a paper to them while one slide sits on the screen for the whole time. This bizarre ritual has not changed in decades and fan conferences like Infinitus provide an alternative model, especially for anthropologists. At Infinitus, there is no “Other” as “informants” and “anthropologists” switch roles endlessly, seamlessly, and delightfully.
I am not necessarily suggesting that we bay at the moon that one presenter urged as she began her presentation on werewolves but that communal howling (which she led) did start us all off on a more equal paw. The point is that new models of the presentation of research, thought, analysis, and appreciation could be a great benefit to anthropology, and fan events could provide a dynamic model that anthropology always claims it wants to have but doesn’t want to be embarrassed trying.
The Infinitus conference took several years to prepare and the range of activities and experiences offered to audiences suggests why. Each component of Harry Potter fan culture was well represented and showed the variety of approaches people take to understanding the world spawned by the Harry Potter books. There were academic and fan talks on particular aspects of the books or movies (themes like friendship, fat, religion, failure, mentors, mothers, money, and bullying) as well as applications of the lessons from the wizarding world to everyday muggle teaching, political and social activism, the creation of art, and official and fan merchandising. There was a dance and a quidditch tournament and life-size wizard chess.
Fan-created literature, parodies, spoofs, and homages in the form of wizard rock bands, paintings and drawings, crafts, fanfiction, podcasts, videos, and musicals were abundant as were discussions and presentations about all these productions. Performances were large-scale (the premiere of a full-length parody movie as well as a musical) and intimate (coffeehouse-style performances by singers and comedians). One group put several of the characters on trial in a fascinating debate that determined the possibility of their ultimate redemption (an activity that could be directly applied, with interesting results, to the AAA meetings).
The point is, I learned more about the world of Harry Potter by seeing and hearing the many different approaches to engaging with the ideas, passions, and interests that these folks, academics and fas, wanted to share. And in order to truly share they had to cross over into each others’ worlds and be flexible and knowing about how to communicate. That was the magic of Infinitus and should be the magic found in anthropology conferences, but it is not.