WisCon, fanacademia and internet drama

Last weekend I attended WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention with an academic track. Immediately after the convention I flew to London (after first flying back to LA, and yes, I know that makes no sense), where I am currently reuniting with family and friends and feeling jetlagged, and most of my online time since I got back has been taken up with futile attempts to catch up on the deluge of post-con discussion. I’ve been longing to attend WisCon since I first read about its beginnings and the Tiptree award, and a couple of years ago I began to follow its proceedings in the feminist science fiction blogosphere. Getting to be there in person was as much like coming home as going someplace you’ve never been can be.

I participated in two panels at WisCon. In the academic track, I gave a paper titled “Utopia, Fiction and Fandom: Community, Conflict and ‘Queer Female Space,'” which reframed the analysis of slash fandom, queerness and race I wrote for Console-ing Passions in terms of the utopian discourses and critiques of feminist science fiction. In the main track of the con, I moderated a panel called “Can Internet Drama Change the World?” which featured K. Tempest Bradford Woodrow Hill, Julia Starkey and K. Joyce Tsai. Coffeeandink posted a great transcript of the panel. Both went very well and sparked interesting discussions which seem relevant to post-WisCon online events. I’m not sure my brain is up to writing that would approach a complete essay on the connections, but I’d like to throw a few thoughts out there at least.

Several of the questions asked about my paper focused on the intersections between academia and different kinds of fandom. Do media fans read feminist science fiction? (Yes.) Do fans agree that their practices can be described using the jargon of activism and cultural theory? (Sometimes.) Various conversations at and around WisCon made me think about the differences between doing theory in and out of the institution — how fandom, like any subculture, has its own modes of knowledge production that conflict as well as overlap with academic ones. I felt exceptionally welcome as an academic at WisCon, though. I missed the panel on how WisCon’s acatrack could be better integrated with the rest of the con because I was at another, fannish panel; I would have liked to spend more time at the academic part of the convention but I was too excited about the rest of it, and there seemed to be plenty of other graduate students and academics outside of the designated academic programming room.

To my knowledge I was the only institutionally located scholar on the internet drama panel (and I was the moderator, aiming to facilitate discussion more than put my own views across) but everyone there was and is a theorist. The panelists connected different aspects of their experiences on and offline; their and the audience’s observations came together to show how ‘internet drama’ has profound political effects on personal and interpersonal levels. I was so pleased that I had the courage to participate here and not only in the academic track at WisCon, because if I had ever been in danger of reinforcing the binary that ‘theory’ happens in academe and ‘action’ happens outside it, this would have cured me. What I love about activist internet drama is the way that events and the analysis of events become the same thing.

To argue that this is ‘theory’ is not to say that everyone needs to be able to compare their own thoughts on intersectionality to the homonationalist assemblages of Jasbir Puar — that’s a theoretical connection I cut from my WisCon paper because I wasn’t sure I had room to fully explain it. The very phrases ‘homonationalism’ and ‘terrorist assemblage’ might appear as evidence of academia’s unintelligible jargon, to people inclined to read it that way, no matter how hard the likes of me might explain that the phrases embody important interventions that show how terrorism is constituted in media and culture and how certain kinds of privileged queerness (like marriage) are enfolded into the mainstream by casting others into abjection. Sometimes the exclusionary and privileged locations associated with certain kinds of language makes the language unintelligible — and much as I’d love to have everyone read the books I read and talk about them, I wouldn’t want to make it a prerequisite for having a meaningful conversation.

L. Timmel Duchamp gave a keynote speech at WisCon on the theme of intelligibility, talking about how her experiences of being sexually harrassed in the 1970s were unintelligible even to her until history and politics gave her hindsight and stories to tell about it. She argued for the need for new stories to make new social landscapes and radical politics intelligible, and I agree enormously with her that this is an important role for science fiction. But it also made me think about intelligibility in terms of how to make ideas intelligible across communities. Academic theory remains important because its specialized language and the intense analyses it performs allow things to be said and thought succinctly in ways that can synthesize years of less formal discussions while adding to those discussions and moving them on. That’s my hope for what I can do, and also the reason I think it’s important that I make the academic theory I perform around fanstuff and online stuff available and public if I can.

Since WisCon I have spent a lot of time travelling and every spare minute online catching up on the convention’s drama. For those who don’t share my online communities, someone took photos of WisCon participants without their permission and posted them to an online mockery forum with transphobic, homophobic, racist and fatphobic commentary: some of the extensive documentation. Her actions are clearly inexcusable, but they’ve also been making me think about intelligibility. One of the most interesting things to me has been the recursive quotation involved as words and images have passed across different parts of the internet. Participants at the forum where Moss’s tirade was reposted without her permission are copying and pasting every comment (including my one brief remark in comments to someone on my LJ friendslist) made by WisCon folk without even discussing them, while the actions of the forum-ites are dissected in minute and complex detail by feminist science fiction fans. In the context of the forum culture of mocking and flaming, every expression of solidarity with the subjects in the images becomes ‘fat dyke’ stupidity. The internet drama which my paper and my panel were about, the serious and activist drama that is closely tied to politics and to ‘real’ life, is intelligible to this community only as a failure to understand what the internet is for (too much SRS BIZNESS); the world of the forum is intelligible to my blogosphere only as something pathological and distressing.

At the internet drama panel I raised the question of the way other blogospheres might have very different modes of online practice-theory, of whether and how ‘we’ should think of and deal with that. But I know even less where to place forum goons who think racism, homophobia and visceral disgust at women’s and transfolks’ bodies is hilarious in my critically-utopian daydreams of world-changing . internet drama. I generally prefer to ignore them — but it’s the same internet, after all, and the words and images of my friends that carry these meanings we might wish were wholly unintelligible to us.

As the dust settles and the blog posts move into reflective analysis mode, I’m pleased and impressed by the extent to which the blog and LJ-sphere I know best is using this attack to do what it does best, which is to build a sense of queer, feminist community across time and space. Like Tempest, when I scrolled through the forum pages, I was excited to see pictures of the many gorgeous people I met at WisCon. To reappropriate the images approprited by hate was the easiest thing in the world. If I hadn’t been there, it would still have functioned more as enticement than as warning.

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4 thoughts on “WisCon, fanacademia and internet drama

  1. Tamora Pierce

    I’m with you and Tempest. I don’t even know most of the women in these pictures, and yet before long I was smiling as I scrolled, and the comments lowered to the distant screaming of some raucous birds in my mind. These were people who were having fun; they were being silly and spontaneous in really creative ways; no two looked alike; no two wore look-alike clothes from Major Brand Names, and they were all caught up in the place and in each other’s company. They were full of the energy of the con and the kinship I saw everywhere. Compared to those pictures, the SASS bunch and Rachel Moss aren’t worth a plugged nickel.

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