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Wiscon panel report: Untangling Class

Untangling Class
Tracks: Power, Privilege, and Oppression (Feminism and Other Social Change Movements)

Description:
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.

Panelists (and key to my notes):
JA—Moderator: Jess Adams
BC—BC Holmes
AL—Alexis Lothian
CW—Chris Wrdnrd

[Firecat's note: Going to this panel was like walking in on an ongoing discussion, because the panelists have been discussing class together for a while, and some of the audience appeared to have been in on the discussion as well.]

[My notes aren't a complete transcription and may represent my own language rather than the actual words of the panelists. There are parts I definitely didn't catch or came out garbled, still trying to get used to my tablet's onscreen keyboard. I welcome corrections. I did not identify audience commenters by name. If you said something I paraphrased here and want your name to be used, please comment or send me a private message.]

BC: I'm a socialist. In a panel last year, definition of class not well addressed. Gnawed at me. I wrote article in this year's WisCon Chronicles [The WisCon Chronicles: Futures of Feminism and Fandom, Vol. 6 edited by Alexis Lothian (Aqueduct Press, June 2012)]. Class kept reminding me of trans* conversations. Multiple axes of class like multiple axes of gender. My interest in class started in Haiti activism, which opened my eyes about how far poverty can go. In North America, poverty is defined as "making less than $10k per year," in 3d world it's "less than two dollars a day." My Haiti activism brought me into contact with anti-imperialist commie activists. At every event someone would do a commercial for their socialist group, I said "stop" at first, then began to see the point: See the capitalism.

AL: Class is how I experience the world, I have moved thru various ones. Scholarship on race, gender, structural inequality. At WisCon I see processes, we develop more language for thinking about this stuff, except not class, we perceive ourselves as all middle class. What if we talk about it?

JA: Chris and I wrote an article in the WisCon Chronicles. We wanted to develop, steer conversation to avoid anxiety we have experienced. One panel enraged and saddened me.

CW: The title had "trailer trash" in it.

JA: I had a middle class upbringing, but dad was lower middle, mom working Appalachian, they said "we came here so you could be better." Grandmother lived in trailer, I spent a lot of time there, realized my background was nuanced, and conversations weren't. Why are they difficult? Because in American culture there is no model/ language for class, there's an illusion of classless society. This not accurate but don't have words to describe the reality. On one [previous year] panel, there was reluctance to define class. We can't come up with a single, easy definition, but I hope we will talk about paths and lenses to discuss class. Well talk about some definitions and deconstruct them as we go.

AL: In the panel on changing class earlier in the con ["I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and all I got was this chip on my shoulder": Uplift, Downsizing, and Other Changes of Class"] we discussed capital as "what you have". Economic capital, income levels, also social and cultural capital. I'm a cultural theory person. Intangibles mark your status as you move thru world. Knowing how to behave, certain educational things. In Britain accent is a marker, it's almost marked on the body—are you football or ballet. Here there is an aspirational aspect. Social capital is who you know, cultural is what you know. They are linked. They intersect with race and nationality.

There are consensus models and conflict models of class. In the consensus model, people agree what their classes are and accept it. "We have our role to play." In the conflict model, the interests of the workers and owners are opposed. I think it's common sense that conflict model is more true, but we subconsciously use the consensus model.

I have issues with term classism, because it implies the consensus model. In the conflict model you want to get rid of class so why would you care if someone treats you as if you belong to a different class than you do?

We might want to unlink class but we have to honor our experience.

BC: If we say the definition of class is too complicated, we imply there could be one true definition. Many conversations have that as a goal; if you talk about the complexities people get nervous. They want the class markers definitions to line up; if they don't, the system is broken. How much money, what kind of work do you do? Both are viewed on a spectrum from bad to good. But people get angry if money doesn't line up with the goodness of the job. My partner is salaried but makes a low wage. Bus drivers are considered greedy money grabbers. People say "it has to be fixed." The anger about noncongruence feels like being a trans* person. Or like when people can't tell what your gender is. The gender world has more language about this. Genderfuck is normal. In class world...we are flailing. There is such a rich history of talking about class, but it has been suppressed. Other intriguing areas: Ruby Payne [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_K._Payne] in A Framework for Understanding Poverty [http://www.ahaprocess.com/store/Family_Framework.html] writes about rules among classes, hidden subconscious notions about how to react to certain things. People in poverty think education is good in an abstract sense but don't know how to evaluate schools. Middle class considers education crucial for climbing the career ladder. Upper class considers education to be for maintaining social connections.

JA: Unequal Childhoods was an ethnographic study by Annette Lareau [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unequal_Childhoods] about moving thru school in different classes. The study found what BC said: People from different backgrounds had different understandings how to navigate the educational system. For example how do you identify a problem and when does it make sense to raise a ruckus to change it?

In another panel the point was made that class markers are related to how we define/understand. Expand to modes of thinking about markers [That's what I wrote down, but I'm not sure what it means.][ETA: See [personal profile] raanve's comment.]

BC: This is an anecdote. I drive from Toronto, stop in Sarnia where I grew up. It's a chemical plant town, most have blue collar jobs. My fantasies when living there were about escape to glamourous world I saw on TV. I deliberately changed my accent. On this visit I met my cousin for the first time in a long time. I realized they all have this weird accent, but this was the Sarnia accent. They use grammar differently. Eg "I seen him." I embraced the idea that this is a negative class marker.

JA: My mom grew up in Appalachia Ohio, with Appalachian parents, but doesn't sound like that. [ETA: See [personal profile] raanve's comment.] Kids would make fun of her saying that she sounded like "the girl in the Shake 'n Bake commercials" [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POI5aMgxYFk] so she stopped.

AL: accent is massive in Scotland. Grandmother keen I would speak properly, not common. In grammar school I was made fun of because I sounded English. I also escaped from my class background; there is a narrative that you get away and raise yourself above. You become an alien. You move to where the markers don't line up.

There was free education in England for a while. "The scholarship boy." [Eta: See [personal profile] futuransky's comment.] Education is acquiring cultural capital; that means you don't fit in again, you lose something profound. But incongruity is more normalized, mass media is taking away local culture.

We create a narrative and break it.

JA: A lot to unpack there. Does spec fic do this well or not? In fantasy the common scullery child who was the king for real, in some respect it's about class struggle, but if you were just born that person...

AL: it's the plot of many novels, class transition. Shift scale, writing full of personal alienation and transition, spec fic can link to global structures. Samuel Delaney is a good thinker about how the system shape peoples. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stars_in_My_Pocket_Like_Grains_of_Sand] there was job 1 job 2, you are forced to think about your own situation.

We need to widen our scales. Internal, personal, family, small community...global is hard, SF can help

JA: We need to talk and deconstruct systemically.

BC: A panel at a socialism convention did an analysis of 2d wave feminism, aspects of woman's gender role, drawing on Friedrich Engels' [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engels] writings about the construction of the family. Prior to 1200 AD there was gender division of labor but the meaning was different. When you had serfs, men worked the field and women took care of babies, both types of work were respected. There was a crash in 1250 and suddenly the lords changed their attitudes about the work. The men's work became more important because it brought in wealth directly. Attitudes about gender became defined in relation to economic usefulness.

At another socialism convention, a guy said we all agree what the evils of society are, but socialists don't think they come from nowhere.

Different isms are connected. We've forgotten how to see it.

In the Oppression Olympics panel ["Intersectionalism: It's Not the Oppression Olympics"] earlier at this year's WisCon, framed as no class isn't more important than class. [Obviously I wrote this down wrong; does anyone remember what BC actually said?] But we don't analyze the connections. There are relationships between different forms of identifications.

AL: "But it's all class"—he's [e.g. W*ll Sh*tt*rly] not the only one who says it. There's a knee-jerk response against Marxism because of this perception [that Marxists reject any analysis of oppression other than a class analysis?]. It's a misunderstanding of Marxist analysis. [Missed something here] [Eta: See [personal profile] futuransky's comment.] We should think of race and class together, how race was constructed to represent a class of people, which was a way of creating wealth.

Audience comment: How do we remind ourselves, when we have the privilege in a post industrial society to think of ourselves as individuals?

AL: Not recognizing larger contexts is why it's hard to talk about class in US. Some conversation is appearing. Old forms of collective existing. UK more collective but still can't talk about class. Read live blog of earlier panel. [I think this referred to the "Imagining Radical Democracy" panel, which is live-blogged here: http://laceblade.dreamwidth.org/577612.html]

JA: How we think intersects with who we are, how do we separate. In the US we are encouraged to think in terms of individuality, so we might apply it to others and make assumptions. [Definitely not sure I paraphrased this right.] [ETA: See [personal profile] raanve's comment.]

BC: How do I as an individual make individual choices to view myself as part of a collective? Join political groups, have conversations about how to think differently. Students in Montreal are on strike. This was unthinkable a short time ago.

AL: Lots of political ferment now.

Audience comment: I considered my family "upper lower class": we knew we were going to go to college.

Audience comment: Joanna Russ said "Homophobia isn't there to keep homosexuals in line. Homophobia is there to keep everyone else in line." Humans are complicated; complexities of class are part of being human. People who are 4-6 paychecks from catastrophe, whether they make a lot of money or a little, have a lot in common if it's drawn to their attention.

Audience comment: There's a thing in the US where class is distorted in politics. E.g., George Bush claiming "I'm a country farmer."

CW: Mitt Romney claims he is middle class and knows what it is like to live in poverty [because "I lived in France in an apartment with no toilet": http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/02/16/1065555/-Mitt-Romney-s-empathy-for-poor-people-is-because-of-lousy-French-toilets] People say "That person can't be lower class because they have a cell phone." Class marker shift causes class panic.

JA: http://friendsofdennis.org/ will be up soon. Continues this conversation. [ETA: http://friendsofdennis.org/ is up!]

CW: Dennis was the peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. [http://www.lexrex.com/enlightened/writings/being_repressed.htm] We've been talking for 4 years. The web site will keep track of panels and panel write ups.

Resource note: BC had a book with her: Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker by Joanna Kadi (http://www.southendpress.org/2004/items/ThinkingClass)

This entry was originally posted at http://firecat.dreamwidth.org/776430.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
auntysocial
Jun. 3rd, 2012 08:38 pm (UTC)
Well, class is certainly an issue that needs to be untangled. I can't follow the discussion you've posted because my head is too full of my own thoughts. Then I get interrupted by my beloved and have to start all over again, with a whole new set of thoughts. One of the reasons I got so tangled up in the discussion of racial privilege was because I was imagining an educated black person from one of the nicer black neighborhoods talking to a marginally employed white person from one of the distant suburbs that are still mostly white. It just seemed cruel.

There is one's class of origin, and then there's one's actual current socio-economic status. If one person rises, does that mean that somewhere else, another person has to fall? Does everyone have to be ambitious, in order to be considered worthwhile?

I think this is about as much as my head can handle right now. I'm off to play in Photoshop.
firecat
Jun. 3rd, 2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons I got so tangled up in the discussion of racial privilege was because I was imagining an educated black person from one of the nicer black neighborhoods talking to a marginally employed white person from one of the distant suburbs that are still mostly white.

Yeah, there isn't a lot of lay language for how to talk about that sort of thing. And individual experience doesn't always line up with systemic tendencies, etc.

If one person rises, does that mean that somewhere else, another person has to fall?

If you believe in a zero-sum-game world. And/or if there are limited resources and one person is taking so many that others don't have enough.

Does everyone have to be ambitious, in order to be considered worthwhile?

A panelist on another one of the panels I wrote up (http://firecat.livejournal.com/767544.html) addressed this very well; she has lived in several countries and she said that ambition and aspiration and class climbing are not valued in every culture.
auntysocial
Jun. 4th, 2012 03:09 am (UTC)
I don't believe a zero sum game world is the only world possible, but American capitalism as we've seen it in the last 40 years or so certainly is. I have to remind myself that whatever crackpot theories I have are influenced by the fact that I'm mad as hell at how things have gone politically since the conservative Republican takeover in 1980. The powers that be have promoted the scarcity model to the degree where we act like we are collectively starving while we are actually very rich. Things that would normally be done by government can't be done because we theoretically can't afford it. If health care weren't doled out like a scarce commodity, but given generously to those in need of it, there would be a lot more healthy people adding to the collective wealth, for example.


While there's more to class than money, money is still a big part of it. Having money, or not having money, affects the way people think!

But anyway, I don't like to think of class as upper-middle-lower, or God forbid, the underclass that was once the cover of Time magazine some years ago. I think there are conference-attending classes, and computer-using classes. It's not entirely a matter of money, but.... well, there are homeless people with blogs, now, but at sometime in their lives, they had places where they learned how to use computers. Im going to try to catch up on your previous entries in the next few days. I feel like I have a lot of opinions, but I'm not sure how civilized I can be....there's a reason I call myself AuntySocial.
firecat
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:24 am (UTC)
The powers that be have promoted the scarcity model to the degree where we act like we are collectively starving while we are actually very rich

Yes, that! That really pisses me off.

If health care weren't doled out like a scarce commodity, but given generously to those in need of it, there would be a lot more healthy people adding to the collective wealth, for example.

Yep. And all the means testing people want to add lest social services go to "the undeserving" costs a lot.

When you say you don't like "upper-middle-lower" is that because the words imply worth?
auntysocial
Jun. 4th, 2012 07:24 pm (UTC)
Upper-middle-lower seems to simple. People divide the classes further by saying upper-middle and stuff like that, but I think of classes as overlapping. And yes, the words imply worth. It's hard to talk about lower class without sounding like a snob. Was snobbery also part of the discussion? Class is somewhat like weight, in that we are supposed to be able to change it, but our efforts don't necessarily work. America is supposed to offer upward mobility, but there's a lot of downward mobility too, offering wonderful opportunities for victim-blaming.

Anyway, it sounds like a very interesting series of discussions and I appreciate your thought-provoking posting. If I'd been there, I would have thought of many things to say, but I don't know how well I could have said them.
firecat
Jun. 4th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
Upper-middle-lower seems to simple.

Definitely.

Was snobbery also part of the discussion?

That word wasn't used but people looking down on other people because of what they do or how they sound, etc., was discussed, certainly.

Class is somewhat like weight, in that we are supposed to be able to change it, but our efforts don't necessarily work. America is supposed to offer upward mobility

Those are part of mainstream American fantasies about class, definitely. One thing I like about these discussions is that they offer an opportunity to look at how the fantasies differ from the reality.

but there's a lot of downward mobility too, offering wonderful opportunities for victim-blaming.

Absolutely. That's part of how the class structures are maintained, the fantasies about how class doesn't exist and it's all about individual effort.
pocochina
Jun. 4th, 2012 01:37 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for doing these panel reports, they've been a pleasure to read.
firecat
Jun. 4th, 2012 04:25 am (UTC)
Glad you like them. Love the icon!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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