WISCON 34: System Failure

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Heh, I think I must be predictable, because two of the panelists from the activism panel were also panelists at the System Failure panel. <3

Ian K. Hagemann began by recommending the Daniel Quinn books. BC Holmes pointed out that Quinn’s narrative was/is really Eurocentric, and Jessica Kaiser followed up by asking, “Is it possible to end systemic violence without ending capitalism?”

Moondancer Drake asked, “When the animals around you become property, how soon before the people around you become property?” in terms of linking domestication, ideas of ownership, and oppression.

JK was all, “I think the real shift is from cooperation to competition,” and then went on to connect a fetishization of the natural state (what Quinn was doing) to arguments used to obstruct reproductive freedom. Go Jess — some of us don’t WANT to be “natural,” thank you very much.

BC Holmes followed up by saying, “The key problem with competition is its emphasis on compartmentalization,” and JK agreed, highlighting that not all competition is inherently bad.  IKH suggested that competition and its frenzy is about resources, and JK immediately built on this, suggesting that it’s not JUST about resources, but is presented as being about resources. BCH said, and I think this is totes brilliant, “We’ve internalized this discourse on scarcity to the point that it colors all our conversations.” It’s like a cultural panic attack — we get short of breath at the idea of systems of power failing because then we might have nothing.

IKH then asked, “Is Othering inevitable?”

BCH said, “Yes, under the present system,” and then talked about the cost of a t-shirt vs. the cost of labor. “What does it mean to have someone in Haiti provide a kind of labor value to maintain our quality of life?” She connected this back to MD’s point about owning — what it means to own a person, an animal, a thing, and what that owned laborer’s work isworth. I’m mentally linking that to Spivak’s of In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, where she talks about the Greeks’ naming of the hiearchy of tools — a tool that speaks (a slave), a tool that sorta speaks (a beast of burden), and a non-speaking tool (something like a hoe). Unvalued bodies are only useful for their potential productivity.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

JK said, “As long as the idea of individual scarcity keeps moving, we have to have Others in order to keep creating exploitable labor.”

BCH also said that people need to see themselves as separate from the function of the system. Who benefits from cooperations? Not the individual, certainly.

I then asked, “How does a communally based model, by definition, disrupt these -isms? Plus, how does labor fit into this? What are the affective, emotional labors necessary to create community?”

MD immediately said, “Teachers!” since feeling valued needs to start early. “How we educate our children is a core part of this vision.”

IKH said, “Having a workable teaching world is a core part of this,” and talked about how in our present educational system in the US, it’s often parents and admin who are the issue, not the kids themselves. He then brought up the hierarchy of needs, joking that since he was an SF/F, one couldn’t assume that there’s clean air. He then said, “Safety is particularly important. Until I feel safe, I can’t talk about my early childhood wounding. The resource of compassion is our only truly limited resource.”

JK then asked, “Who should do this labor?” She then reflected a little about teaching and power. “As the person in the room with power, the teacher, I have to trust my students to not abuse the power I share. That’s when my students can trust me.” I’d just seen Becky Thompson’s “Toward a Pedagogy of Tenderness,” and was just floored by how much that point still resonated with me. Below’s a clip from that lecture.

Someone in the audience then asked, “How do you reconcile community rights with individual, human rights?”

MD immediately said, “These are NOT contradictory!”

IKH said, “These rights are the rights you have as a result of existence.”

BCH connected the 1804 Haitian constitution to Enlightenment era thought, but highlighted that this constitution was radical and awesome, not centered on whiteness. She said, “Enlightenment conversations [on "human" rights] had to be kept apart from conversations about plantations.” This connects nicely to MD’s point earlier about ownership, and tools that speak. JK really furthered this conversation by offering an anti-racist history of Enlightenment, and concluded by saying that “human rights” as a concept is about genuinely respecting individuals, “but listing out rights shows that you still don’t have a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human…. The thing is, no one is winning [under this present system], not even Bill Gates! As long as we are playing a zero-sum game, at any point you can lose everything.

BCH concluded by saying that as activists, we have to ask, “Whose interests are being served by this discursive phenomenon?”

Audience members then begin sharing conceptual resources, like Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriachy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Riki Wilchin’s Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, and Resource Generation.

While we were having this conversation, an environmental disaster struck in the Gulf. Days afterwards, I was still thinking about BCH’s early point — under the present system, it’s not the individual that benefits. It’s the corporation.

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