My Own Private WisCon

WisCon 38Even more than most conventions, WisCon is not the same experience for everyone. This was brought home to me on the last day of this year’s convention when I mentioned to a couple of writers I know that a friend of mine was agitating to get WisCon to invite Donna Haraway as a future guest of honor.

The first one asked, “Who’s she?” The second one acknowledged that they’d only heard of her because of a story they’d read recently.

I was stunned, because I’d just spent the convention going to panels that focused on Haraway’s work, particularly on her essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and her ideas about feminist science and feminist science fiction.

I hasten to add that these were smart and talented writers. I mention this because it exemplifies just how many different experiences one can have at WisCon.

My personal experience focused on cyborgs and Haraway (and a lot of readings). But there were so many other options. Lots of panels on TV shows – Elementary, Sherlock, Sleepy Hollow, Doctor Who, Orphan Black. Any number addressing LGBT issues, race and SF, class, and – of course – feminism and gender.

Some panels offered advice to writers. Some delved into the work of particular authors. Steampunk showed up. And there were numerous and diverse readings – something for every taste and then some.

This year’s range of possibilities was expanded because the convention was presented jointly with the annual conference of the Science Fiction Research Association. While WisCon always attracts a number of academics, there were more of them present than usual.

Here’s the other thing I noticed at this year’s WisCon: the discussions at the panels I attended were smart and complex. These programs were not Feminist Science Fiction 101; in fact, they were a lot closer to graduate school seminars.

I’m not just talking about the panelists, though all the ones I saw did excellent jobs. I’m also talking about the audiences. People asked good questions, raised good points, and generally moved the discussion along. No one put on an ego display; everyone who spoke was excited by the subject and looking to either contribute something to the discussion or learn something new.

I saw this most clearly on a panel I did entitled “Rethink the Zombie Apocalypse.” I was worried about this panel. First of all, we lost our moderator at the last minute and one panelist did not show up, leaving us with three people. And the room overflowed with people even though the panel was at 8:30 AM.

The panel was intended to discuss whether the current fixation on zombies was distracting us from the serious work we need to do to address the real problems we face, like climate change. I will confess that I wanted to be on it for that reason. I’m not much for zombie stories. I don’t read them and have only seen Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. Fortunately, one of our panelists had been using zombie apocalypse memes to teach people about pandemics, which got us started on a discussion of the places in which those stories may be useful.

And the audience was fantastic. They chimed in with books and programs that reworked the zombie idea. One woman spoke of her discussions on zombie-related online groups with people who believed strongly in the use of guns to keep themselves safe. In those discussions, even the strongest gun advocates began to realize that there were other important issues. “You can’t eat bullets,” one of them said, according to her report.

The end result was a wonderful discussion among 60+ people, all approaching the subject with thought and consideration.

Our panel on “S/he and Other Inadequate Solutions: Solving Gender Neutrality” focused on the many issues related to the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English, from the struggles of those who don’t fit or feel comfortable in the binary gender system to the complaints that the gender of a character is not always relevant to a story. Again, this discussion managed a thoughtful discussion of both the importance of the issue and the different ways of approaching it. One audience member – and the panelists later shared their regret that they didn’t get her name – suggested that if we use singular “they,” we can create an appropriate plural with “they all,” riffing, of course, on the southern use of you in the singular and you all in the plural.

I should mention that I worked Haraway into the gender panel, quoting her observation, in the midst of a discussion of pronouns, “Grammar is politics by other means.”

My main take-away from the panel “Cyborg Identities 2: The Cyborgs Return” was the idea that digital technology is not something separate from our “real” selves, but rather an extension of ourselves. I found myself thinking that I have significant online communication and relationships, especially since my close friends are spread all over the place. Emailing, Skyping, texting – all keep me in touch with people who don’t live next door. And I occasionally have serious conversations on social media.

I did also realize that I rarely try to do both things at the same time. I like to concentrate on my communication and that involves paying attention to the people I’m talking to, whether  I’m emailing or talking in person. Which is also why you don’t see pictures on this post.

By the way, Haraway’s ideas showed up in that panel, too. Though they were most prominently on display on the last panel I attended: “A Manifesto for Feminist Science (Fiction) Studies.” The panelists were academics who insist that their students read Haraway.

Among the topics of discussion: how feminist science fiction enables criticism of technoscience without throwing the scientific baby out with the anti-science water. My notes are scattered, but I did write down two phrases the panelists suggested in their ideas for a manifesto:

  • Partial but potent.
  • Dead and not dead.

I came away confused and inspired to do more reading and study. (I consider confused an excellent response to new ideas and new approaches.)

I have said time and time again that I go to WisCon for the ideas. This year I harvested a bumper crop.



My Own Private WisCon — 9 Comments

  1. Is it possible to distill the central concept of “A Cyborg Manifesto” into a couple of sentences so we can see why it is so important?

    Love, C.

    • The best starting place I know is in Helen Merrick’s book, The Secret Feminist Cabal, which, although it focuses a great deal on women and feminism in fandom, also discusses the intersection of feminist science and feminist science fiction, which is part of what Haraway is talking about. Merrick also has a new book on Haraway’s work, co-authored with Margret Grebowicz, Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway.

      Andrea Hairston says we’ve always been cyborgs because we started as tool-using creatures. She’s coming at that from Haraway and possibly a little Lynn Margulis. Digital tech is just the latest tool.

      That’s probably not much help, but it’s about the best I can do right now. I’m embarking on a period of study and will hopefully write about it more down the road.

      • Crows and elephants and otters (among many others) are tool-using creatures too. I wonder how they would fit into that definition of cyborg. Is there a place for them too in the Cyborg Manifesto?

        Off to the library now to hunt down Merrick and Haraway. Fascinating stuff (although, at first glance, I do find Haraway’s writing style to be unnecessarily oblique…).