I think that the only thing left for me on Saturday was the panel I was most excited about:
What do we mean when we talk about class? Is it about how much money we have? How much education? How we grew up? Our position with respect to a global capitalist world system? There have been a lot of WisCon panels in the past focused on speculative fiction that "does class well" — but how can we know whether something's being done well if we don't even know what it is? This panel brings together WisCongoers with expertise and experience in talking about class to hammer out (if not actually decide upon) some definitions.
M: Jess Adams, Chris Wrdnrd, BC Holmes, Alexis Lothian
I didn't take notes because I was on the panel, but I was pretty happy with the way it turned out -- I really do think that you get a different conversation when you know the other panelists well enough to know what they're going to say and you can really have a conversation that deepens each other's points. Anyway, firecat has a pretty good write-up of the panel with more details about who said what.
I think I might have monopolized too much of the conversation, though. Bad me. I'm also kind of in awe about some of the amazingly good and insightful stuff that Alexis said. For example, her discussion about consensus models versus conflict models of class. A consensus model might be, for example, the view that we're all playing different roles in an enterprise (labourers, managers, etc.) for the collective good -- she quickly suggested, though, that this is a bit of an idealized view of the class system. She also really simply and coherently talked about the way some people (who we're not going to name) misread Marx when they say "it's all class" -- instead the capitalist system constructs classes of people with an eye to answering the basic question, "who does the work?" And in some cases, that "class" is "women" or what have you. She was absolutely excellent about articulating this so clearly.
After the panel, I went to a room party and had a good time until I could feel my eyelids openly rebelling against me. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
Immediately after the WisConDB panel, I headed up to the green room to catch up with my other panelists for:
Who Owns the Spoons?
How appropriate is it for able-bodied people to use the metaphor of "spoons"? Does anyone (trans people, people of color, etc.) own the concept of "passing"? What happens when terminology used by one minority gets adopted by a wider audience?
M: BC Holmes, Andrea Chandler, Magenta Griffith, Criss Moody, Keith Willenson
I confess that I was a bit nervous about the panel. We hadn't managed to get much conversation going in email beforehand, so I wasn't sure what it was that we were going to say. For my part, I was interested in the "meta" conversation -- the conversation about exploring when it's okay or not okay to cyberpunk terminology (can the street find its own use for metaphors and labels?) For my part, I certainly haven't run into conflict on the discussion of passing, so I wasn't sure what I could meaningfully say, there.
In the end, we spent most of our time talking about the spoons metaphor, about invisible versus visible disabilities and a little bit about passing. I was okay with this, and I decided to just play the role of traffic cop in the discussion, keeping track of who wanted to talk and whatnot. There was a lively discussion and I think it turned out okay. jesse_the_k kicked off a good, initial question about why we need something like a spoons metaphor? What's wrong with "I'm too tired" or "I'm in too much pain"?
Keith did an exercise where he brought out cold, very hard ice cream and gave it to the panelists. Some people got able-bodied spoons (nice, metal spoons) and the rest of us got plastic spoons. I thought it was cute (and delicious), but I think that the exercise's depth was eluding me.
There was an interesting contrast about trans passing and passing as able-bodied. One panelist talked about trans passing as "being seen for who you really are" whereas passing as able-bodied often results in people expecting that you can do certain things that you can't. I tried to problematize this view of passing in trans communities. Passing is the closet at the other end of the rainbow, and all that.
After that, it was off to:
You Got Race On My Class! You Got Class On My Race!!
Race and class are two identities that exist in tandem, one never really trumping the other. What are the ways they intersect, diverge, conflict? What happens when our internal race/class state differs from an external race/class assignment—and what factors go into forming internal/external states in the first place? This panel will look at the realities of how we exist within and negotiate race and class without privileging either concept.
Saladin Ahmed, Eileen Gunn, Nisi Shawl, Chris Wrdnrd
lcohen made the comment that this panel lacked a moderator and that it showed. I think that she's right. The discussion bounced around a lot, and seemed to lack focus. I really liked Saladin's comments that his class background stays with him. That because he grew up as a kid in a working-class, Arab-American community with relatives involved in legally-sketchy stuff, everything he sees and reacts to is as that kid. The idea wasn't new, but he captured the essence of it so nicely.
Someone (I don't remember who) made the comment that if you don't know what class you are, you're probably middle-class. Chris told a good anecdote about how her co-workers expect her to share a sense of humour about certain things that she doesn't think are funny. There was also a comment about how Facebook is way more class diverse than either Twitter or Google+.
After that, some of the best contributions came from the audience. Isabel Schechter made some interesting comments which she elaborated on in the "Passing Privilege" panel later in the con.
The last panel I caught before dinner was:
Intersectionalism: It's Not the Oppression Olympics
Many of us experience discrimination and oppression of many kinds, often concurrently. These create unique circumstances that can put individuals and allies in oppressed communities at odds with the goals and experiences of their comrades. Intersectionalism seeks to create awareness of how different oppressions inform each other and how we can seek broader understanding of them. Greater solidarity would be the ideal outcome, avoiding the pitfalls of factionalism and fragmentation. If time allows, discussion of SF that reflects intersectional awareness can provide useful investigations.
M: Ian K. Hagemann, Keffy R.M. Kehrli, Beth Plutchak, Julia Rios, Vanessa Vega
By this point, I'd been in panels pretty-much non-stop, and didn't take any notes. I remember a few items from the panel. First, this was the interesting panel in which Beth talked about daytime talk shows that hype books that discuss the "conflict" between working women and stay-at-home mothers. She suggested that these conflicts are largely manufactured. In truth, the books don't really have large sales. It's as if the media wants people to focus on rifts between communities of women, rather than, say, on rifts between rich white cis guys and anyone else.
This is also the first panel where I heard Keffy and Julia, and I though both of them had interesting things to say. I particularly liked Julia's understated way of making her points.
I do remember a lot of talk about "liberals" and feeling my now-usual annoyance about the way leftists use "liberal" as a synonym for "left wing" or "progressive". Gyan made the comment that "liberal" doesn't mean "open minded". There's something annoying about the whole binary view of the political spectrum. Grrr. Me, I like Phil Ochs' line: "Ten degrees to the left of centre at the best of times; ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally."
Luke McGuff has a longer review of this panel.
After that is was off to the Trans and Genderqueer dinner.
I got out of bed around 8, and I went to breakfast in the hotel restaurant. After breakfast, I arrived at one of the early morning panels, already in progress. I think the panel was about half-done by the time I got there, but I got some notes:
The Feeding and Proper Care of Your Underclass: How a Society Maintains Poverty
We all say that we want to abolish poverty. But we all know that our society works very hard to maintain its poverty class. Let's talk about some of the practices that are inherent to Western society that keep the poverty class poor and hopeless. And since this is WisCon, let's talk about the books/stories that examine this issue.
M: Beth Plutchak, L J Geoffrion, Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey, Karon Crow Rilling
At the time I arrived, there was a conversation going on about moral hazard w.r.t. notions of debt relief. The argument that the panelists were parroting was the idea that providing relief to people in debt might lead to people not working. A number of months ago, I quoted a report the suggested that Canadians would rather spend twice as much money on services for the poor than it would cost to just give poor people enough money to raise them above the poverty line. I think this is related.
Shortly after that, Beth talked about an interesting contrast between state universities and private universities. She said that when she was a first-year student, she was told by her professors to look left and then to look right and that one of the three people involved in that looking exercise wouldn't finish the program. By contrast, she said that her partner (I think?) went to a private, Ivy-league university and was told to look left and look right and that they were the people who would rule the nation.
After that, the conversation bounced around a lot -- because I missed the beginning, I'm not sure how a lot of these points fit together, but they were all roughly tackling the nature of wealth and poverty. There were a number of book recommendations, including Gladwell's Outliers and a documentary called Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders. Someone referred to an Elizabeth Warren quotation that suggested that the average person who declares bankruptcy already owes 3 times the amount that was originally borrowed and they've already paid back the originally borrowed amount.
One last point the I thought was interesting: Beth referenced the Women Don't Ask thing and talked about the way that the media fixated on the finding of the original study that women didn't negotiate higher salaries (which provided a neat explanation for why women earn less than men). What was almost-never reported, she said, was that the other finding was that, in the few instances when women did ask for higher salaries, they were invariably viewed as "trouble" and were slapped down for asking, in contrast to the men who were just negotiated with. As Beth pointed out, if you have no resources, you can't afford to be slapped down.
Like I say, it was hard to get a coherent picture of the whole panel, given that I missed about half of it. After that it was on to:
Imagining Radical Democracy
The General Assembly has become a familiar practice since the growth of Occupy Wall Street. Anarchistic and radically democratic organizing processes have a much longer history, though, including the Zapatistas, the Spanish student movement, and movements in the history of feminism. For WisCon members, a familiar feeling might have bubbled up in watching, reading about, or participating in Occupy: wasn't this a bit like what they did on Le Guin's Anarres, or in DuChamp's Free Zones? This panel will discuss the possible growth of a kind of democracy other than our current party-based political systems, using the ways it has been prefigured and imagined in feminist science fiction to help make sense of radical histories and futures.
M: Alexis Lothian, Timmi Duchamp, Andrea Hairston, Liz Henry
Wow. This was my favourite panel from the entire WisCon, and I doubt that I can capture its full awesomeness. There is, however, a really good transcript of the panel. It was one of the first panels that broke from the WisCon-standard format of "first the panelists are going to talk for about forty minutes, and then we'll take questions." In the end, the panelists spoke for most of the allotted time, and I was okay with that because the panelists were awesome!
Timmi introduced herself, referring to The Marq'ssan Cycle, and the key thing that she used the writing process to teach herself was that utopia was a process. She also talked about being disillusioned by working with NOW -- that all of the hierarchical organizing just seemed to feed a fundraising process. She also went on to say that bad experiences create low expectations and that results in political apathy. Her last point was a bit subtle: that the kind of political apathy she's describing isn't a passive thing. That there's an active form of opting out.
Later in the panel, she recapped her experience being arrested and going to trial -- a bit of a circus of a trial in which she and 17 other people had to defend themselves (most of them declined public defenders) and how she responded to this as "an oceanic merging with the universe" and really understood through that process why people throw themselves into civil disobedience.
Then Liz introduced herself and described talking to a variety of journalists regarding the occupy movement. The point she stressed was that these journalists were incapable of writing about a movement that wasn't hierarchical and had no leader. She argued that something like occupy can't really be reported on from the outside, and yet the media is kinda constrained in the way it can conduct journalism. She also related this to the Riot Grrl movement and their idea of killing all the rock stars: we don't need rock stars to have a revolution.
Later, she talked about working in hackerspaces, and the sometimes difficult relationship between her hackerspace and occupy. She also referred to her article about using pattern language to talk to computer types about sexism in geek spaces. Some of this stuff went by really fast, but it's nonetheless full of awesome.
Then Andrea provided her intro, talking about how her family was full of organizers -- union organizers, civil rights organizers, etc. -- and that she was a much more artsy person. But she said, "I could organize -- I was just slower" and that her style of organizing had always had art woven in. She also told a story about the Igbo people and how the women had this form of performance/protest called "women's war" in which they would object to something. They'd perform their anger, insult the men, demand change, threaten to leave with the babies (leaving the men to take care of other childcare), and strip down. This kind of performance/protest was well-understood in the community and it could powerfully effect change, but when the British colonized, their way of reading this behaviour was that the men didn't have their women under control. At times, this would end with the British firing upon the Igbo women. She also talked about how colonialism fundamentally stamps out these narratives, replacing them with Victorian standards of behaviour.
She continued to talk about the narrative of anarchy as relying on metaphors and language such as chaos and disorder, but never as ecosystems or biological or diversity. Or even, for that matter, fun.
At one point, Liz was talking about Internet Drama and Andrea (a theatre person) wanted to know what "drama" was describing. She ultimately offered "melodrama" as a replacement term. Much of her conversation was about the relationship between art/performance and activism. She said "the fascists get the trains running on time, but the trains don't go anywhere." They're just rules.
In contrast, she says, theatre is about preparing you to be ready in the moment. She talked about the experience of things going wrong during a theatre performance and she said that audience loves it when you solve the problem. She didn't quite use these words but I think it was clear that she felt that these are great tools for anachistic activists. She finally ended with the idea that "social drama" is essential to humanity, and that that's fundamentally a slow process. And many activists seem to want fast processes. "Slow money. Slow food. I think we need to have slow anarchy -- enough change to develop new processes/ideas."
A great, great panel, full of many, many, many nuggets of gold.
After that, I was off to a panel about the database project, but I didn't have much to contribute:
Open Source WisCon DB
WisCon continues to develop and refine an open-source application to handle convention programming, registration, and administrative tasks. We're just finishing year 4 of the effort and getting ready to work on the list of tasks we have for year 5. Want to talk to the developers? Find out what's behind the code? Get involved in improving the User Interface? See if you can use it to plan your convention? Come talk to us! We need your feedback. Suggestions for new features, questions about existing ones, and offers to write documentation, test, q/a, manage(!) or join the coding team are all very welcome. You can look at our source code and see our issues (bugs & new features) list at http://code.google.com/p/wiscondb/ for a preview of under the hood. Pizza will be served.
Piglet, Jim Hudson, Emily Jones, BC Holmes
It was mostly a talk about code I didn't touch, so I didn't have much to say. There was some "compare and contrast" with other tools used by other cons. And we ate the weirdest flavours of pizza.
I really only caught one panel on Friday:
"I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and all I got was this chip on my shoulder": Uplift, Downsizing, and Other Changes of Class
In the US, everyone is expected to want to move up in class—but if we do, we are likely to find that we can't leave our former experiences behind and we might not want to. Similarly, many formerly well-off people have slipped down the class ladder in the economic downturn, but may not realize the kinds of privilege they maintain or the kinds of survival knowledge they lack. In this panel, we'll talk about the challenges we've experienced in changing class in any direction, and work to build narratives that fit our lives better than the standard ones.
LothienLothian, Julie Hayes, Kiini Salaam, Fred Schepartz, Vanessa Vega
Earlier in the day, I'd had lunch with Alexis and Jess and Chris, and we talked about our own class panel the next night. So my mind was full of thinky thoughts about class. This panel ended up being more of a "telling our stories" panel than a structural analysis panel. At some level I was disappointed in that, but Alexis quite rightly tsk-tsked me, reminding me that the panel description clearly situated it in people's experience.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting ideas that came out of the panel: I think it was Julie who raised the idea of three types of capital:
- People/Social capital -- who you know, informal support networks, etc.
- Cultural capital -- specific knowledge or skills that can assist you: anything from reading to knowing which side of the plate the fork goes on
- Economic capital -- moolah.
Julie also raised comments about hipster classism, talking about colleagues who'd say things like "My brother is in jail -- oh, of course I meant Yale." Julie commented that these people would act like it was obviously a bit of a joke, but she knew people who had relatives in jail, and it didn't seem funny to her.
Kiini also raised a number of good comments, remarking that class is, in many cases a weapon (in the sense of "which drugs do people go to jail for", etc). Toward the end of the panel, she also talked about the Freedom Riders, and phenomenon of people coming from the north to help register voters of colour in the south. Her comment was about how people would take these actions to help the people who were "down" but not really work to stop the "down-ness". (I liked this comment because it reminded me of that Dom Hélder Câmara quotation I'm fond of: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.")
Fred, sadly, tended to drift off-topic a bit, or would raise certain comments that didn't seem, to me, to be grounded in lived experience. Alexis was good at reining him in, though.
I also enjoyed Alexis' comments about the cluelessness of white Marxists in the academy, and how she tends to avoid having certain types of class discussions with them. It was kinda clear to me that she didn't say that every person who is white and Marxist is clueless, but I'm not sure that that was clear to everyone in the audience :-)
This was the first panel of the weekend where the quotation came up that "America's new favourite pasttime is judging." There was also an audience comment in which one woman mentioned how some of her class history stays with her -- that, for example, although she started out poor, and did manage to make her way into middle class, she's still incapable of throwing away leftovers. Julie made a similar comment about being obsessive about having a fully stocked pantry (the_siobhan has made similar statements in the past, relating it to her time as a street kid).
There was also talk about different attitudes about social safety nets in different states. Julie talked about how, if she lost her job in Massachusetts, there were better support systems than if she lost her job in Wisconsin. orangemike commented, wistfully, that Wisconsin used to have those, but that Republicans were systemically disassembling them. And this brought us around to the crucial (and yet, unsurprising) point that this stuff isn't an accident. That social safety nets, and the public education system, and all these other things are under attack because rich people have no interest in more equitable wealth distribution.
Other comments: Diantha mentioned, from the audience, that you have to have boots to pull yourself up. Alexis also talked about the changing meaning of her accent when she moved from Scotland to the States. In the U.S., her accent marks her with "white privilege plus," giving her special cool points, whereas in Scotland... kinda not.
A good panel; I probably undervalued it at the time, but re-reading my notes, I think a lot of interesting stuff came out of it.
This con has been everything I've been wanting it to be. It's a great change of pace for me after months of too much work; I've felt really great about the panels I've been on; and I've loved most of the panels I've attended. I've welcomed the opportunity to reconnect with people I only see every year, and I feel like there are a lot of friendships that grow deeper with each WisCon.
Our guests this year are great: I really valued the way that Andrea Hairston discussed the relationship between theatre and radical democracy -- that's an angle on the conversation that really illuminated some lightbulbs in my head. And Debbie Notkin's whole life resonates with the kind of generosity and support that her marvelous acceptance speech could only describe the contours of.
Wow. What a great con!