Before I get any further into this piece, let me state this clearly: If I met you at WisCon and chatted and connected with you, or shook your hand and said, “it has been great to meet you,” or had a meal with you, or invited you to email me or connect on Twitter… thank you. This post is not reflective of my feelings towards the many individuals who I am truly pleased and honoured to have met. I hope that if we connected, you can still trust that my interest and excitement in getting to know you – even if it was only for a twenty minute hallway conversation – was sincere. I always aim to present myself honestly, so my pleasure in meeting you was not performance. I hope that we can continue to get to know one another in our new varied relationships even if we disagree about the WisCon experience.
I will not be returning to WisCon next year. I might go back in the future, after sufficient time has passed and I have gathered other experiences and established myself further in the broader SF community. I have left my first WisCon with a mixed bag of feelings … and great trepidation in expressing those that are not positive. Since WisCon is a community that promotes honest discussion from all of its members – no matter how marginal they might be – I am going ahead with this post. It has been a long time since I was this nervous about publicly airing my thoughts on a topic (seriously, I feel like I did when I was criticizing grad school for the first time!).
I’m nervous because I feel that the expectation from the WisCon community is to love WisCon. But I just didn’t. It’s hard to articulate exactly what I experienced, so the closest I can come to it (and what I tried expressing to others when they asked), is that I felt welcomed but not invited. I think that many people coming into a new community for the first time feel like they are on the edges of it, and that is certainly how I felt for the whole con. Whereas I have always felt like there is a place for me in other con or SF-centric communities, I didn’t get that sense at WisCon. It’s entirely possible that this is my own social anxiety speaking or I’m being too quick to judge, nevertheless, my sense of “outsiderness” didn’t dissipate.
I don’t know, I’m having an incredibly hard time writing about my WisCon experience. Part of it is that I don’t want to offend or hurt the people that I met and connected with – it was individuals who made my trip to Madison worth it – but I just didn’t mesh with the larger community. There are several experiences that deeply upset me during WisCon, where I witnessed members being silenced, marginalized, or simply ignored. I can’t write about those incidents, however, without having to speak for others, and I don’t have their permission to do so. What made WisCon so frustrating for me is that the community-line is equality and accessibility for all (at least that’s the message I heard), so when I saw incidents where that ethic failed, it was, in many ways, more egregious.
I suspect that some people will want to respond to me: “Well, all communities have their problems. You should have spoken up. Volunteer to make WisCon better for next year!” But the issues I have with the con cannot be solved by my volunteering or lone voice. Hell, I can’t even openly write about the problems that I have with the con! No one has the power to fix the ways people are (un)intentionally dismissive to others who they read as different (even when they promote inclusiveness). I can’t re-adjust established personalities or restructure larger modes of community identity.
Ultimately, I don’t think I fit in at WisCon. At least, not in the way that I want to and not right now. What I’m looking to get out of a con is not what WisCon is offering at the present moment. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to. A con can’t be all things to all people. I guess that I’m sad that WisCon is not the place for me – and I am startled by the depth of that sadness. I wanted to step into a place where I instantly felt like I belonged. I’ve been searching for community for so long, that to feel uninvited – uncared for and unchallenged – at a feminist SF convention is heartbreaking.
I don’t feel good about having to write this post and it is incomplete and terribly vague. I might write more about my WisCon experience at a later date, but it is also likely that I will leave this half-articulated statement as it is. Despite the obvious shortcomings of this reflection piece, I’m still going to publish it, because I want all the awesome people I met at WisCon to know that my dissatisfaction is not with them or anything that they did. There were positives to my time at the con: I discovered a few new writers and had good conversations (and reconnected) with some cool and intelligent people. Those individuals made my trip worth it. I don’t regret attending WisCon, but I am incredibly disappointed that I don’t want to go back.
With ICFA now behind me, I'm already looking forward to attending WisCon at the end of May. I will be presenting a paper as part of WisCon's academic track and I am hoping to get a conversation started about vulnerability in feminist SF. This paper actually heralds in the first stage of my next major research project. Even though I'm still putting together Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction, I'm already starting to plan out a solo, book-length exploration of vulnerability (in science/science fiction). I have been thinking critically about vulnerability - in all contexts of the word - since I first picked up Margrit Shildrick's Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2002) during my doctoral research. Shildrick's evocation of the vulnerable self - and the measures we take to cover it up - became a guiding theoretical framework for my thesis.
But even after writing my dissertation, the complexity of vulnerability - in terms of ontology, epistemology, and corporeality - has persisted in my imagination. It bleeds into all of my academic thinking. I encounter it, suddenly and unexpectedly, in my daily life. Vulnerability refuses to be ignored. No theory, word, or concept has ever taken such deep root in my conscious before. I find it - both the word and its presence in my awareness - unsettling and inspiring. And like with most things we find troubling, I'm eager to examine and contain it. I can't say yet what the book will look like or how fast I will write it, but I know that it is coming.
Below is the abstract for the paper (still to be written) I will be presenting at WisCon. A (tiny) sneak peek into my on-going obsession with vulnerability:
Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist Science Fiction
As the pace of advancements in prosthetic and other computerized assisted-living technologies quickens, we, as a culture, find ourselves faced with new possibilities for (dis)abled bodies and embodiments. In this paper, I want to explore the concept of vulnerability in feminist SF and begin articulating the ways that vulnerability of the body can open up new ways of understanding human being (both materially and ontologically). Drawing on both disability studies and feminist theory, I want to expand on the notion of vulnerability as theorized by Margrit Shildrick in Embodying the Monster (2002). Shildrick proposes that while “we are already without boundaries, already vulnerable” (6), normative subjectivity elides its own vulnerability by repositioning it as a quality of the monstrous other (68). Much traditionally masculine oriented SF (from the books of Isaac Asimov to Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series) rejects vulnerability in favour of the technologically-fortified posthuman. Technology is positioned as a way in which to overcome the physical or mental limitations of the human body, but the quest to transcend the body ignores the lived realities of labouring, feeling, and suffering bodies.
I suggest that, regardless of the distractions and promises offered by technology, the body matters. Elizabeth Grosz reminds us that: “If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency” (Volatile Bodies, 1994, xi). It is those unquantifiable qualities – perspective, insight, reflection, desire, and agency – that uniquely define embodied vulnerable being. They are qualities that technology cannot reproduce or replace. By taking examples from feminist SF works (from writers such as Octavia Butler, Misha, Larissa Lai, and Nalo Hopkinson), I want create an open discussion about the ways that the genre stresses the importance of the body (both abled and disabled), asking us to recognize the shared vulnerability that defines human being.