It takes a scanner to appreciate a non-scanner (or, “Why I went looking for the best water-skier in Luxembourg”)
A guest blog post by sociologist and writer, Keith Kahn-Harris
As soon as I came across the term Scanner I felt enormous relief. Here at last was a way of describing who I was: curious about everything, always exploring new projects and new ideas, never settling permanently for one life direction. Over the last few years in particular I’ve felt buoyed aloft by the incredible range of creative possibilities inherent in our ever-more networked world.
Despite being a scanner, the focus of what I do has often been on people who aren’t scanners. As a sociologist I am interested in communities, scenes and subcultures. I am fascinated by the incredible single-minded dedication that their members show to their cause or passion. In my work on extreme heavy metal music scenes and on the British Jewish community , I have examined what it means to be a member of something, what it is to join in. And I have joined in myself – as both a Jew and a metalhead, these scenes and communities are part of my world.
Not everyone in the communities and scenes I’ve researched and written about are non-scanners. There are plenty of Jews who flit in and out of Jewish communal involvement; there are plenty of metallers who are also something else. But the non-scanners (or ‘Divers’ as Barbara Sher terms them) are essential to the mix. Jewish communities would be nothing without those who attend synagogue week after week. Metal music scenes would be nothing without underground bands who toil in obscurity for years.
My latest project is a tribute to such unsung heroes. The book I am working on, The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds, may sound like a joke, but it has a serious purpose. I set myself the challenge of choosing some small worlds, semi-randomly, and going to meet the key people in them. Last December I travelled to Luxembourg and met the best water skiers in the country. On a small strip of the Moselle river bordering Germany, the 7 Luxembourgoise water ski clubs attract a small but fanatical following.
In the coming months I hope to meet other big fish in small ponds: the most powerful politician on Alderney, Malta’s favourite soft drink, the Icelandic special forces, the top novelist in Suriname and the best heavy metal band in Botswana.
The project came about in a very scannerish way: I used to joke that while I was a top sociologist of Anglo-Jewry and of heavy metal, there was little ‘competition’, so I was like the best water skier in Luxembourg. In spring 2011 the idea leapt into my head – let’s go and meet the best water skier in Luxembourg! I quickly realised that the Luxembourg water ski scene could be part of a book about big fish in small ponds.
To my surprise, I managed to convince the lovely people at Unbound, the recently launched crowd-funded publishing company for books, to take on the project. Within a few months I’d funded the Luxembourg chapter and now I am raising funds for the rest of the book. Apologies for the plug but I need your support!
Perhaps the wider lesson of the book, from the research I have done so far, is that you can find heroic, committed individuals almost anywhere – pick a small world at random (as I have done) and you will find them. Their mulish stubbornness and their loyalty to a single cause is what gives solidity to the overlapping worlds that constitutes the bigger world.
But you also need scanners too. Those of us who can never quite settle for one small world, one activity, are able to translate non-scanners experiences outside the communities and scenes of which they are a part. I suppose my life’s work – if you can call the disparate projects I’ve worked on a life’s work – is to be this kind of translator.
And maybe there’s a hint of envy in this work. The life of a scanner is exciting, but it’s also bewildering, lonely and insecure sometimes. Part of me wants to have the security that comes with monomaniacal commitment. I guess then, there’s always going to be a certain amount of yearning in my work for those who dedicate their lives to one small world.