Notes: Garlough, Christine L., Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances

Garlough, Christine L. (2013). Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Summary:

Garlough discusses, through case studies of cultural performances, South Asian American grassroots activism, highlighting the ways in which calls for acknowledgement operate in their diasporic rhetorical practices.

Keywords: diasporic rhetorics, social histories

Quotations:

“In performing a desire for acknowledgment and by making claims of vulnerability, a petition for future relations and a stake in one’s own being is made. These diasporic performances by South Asian American women—what I will call diasporic performances—keep trauma visible and testify to the suffering of others” (p. 15).

“Of course, not everyone wants to hear this story or feel her pain. She is performing as a parrhesiastes—speaking at great risk, in front of an audience where power relations are unbalanced, freely confessing the truth of her experience, although the threat of retribution is quite real” (p. 128).

Reflection:

One of the things I’m thinking quite a bit about, probably because I’m steeping in this project is the ways that her conception of “passionate acknowledgement” (p. 174) and her discussion of recognition/acknowledgement throughout the text is activism in the ‘AIDS Crisis’ and particularly the activism of ACT UP.

When she discusses Roopa’s performance and the rhetorical moves being made that center around call and response and that ask for and give welcome, I’m thinking of the relationship that this establishes between a ‘rhetor’ and an ‘audience.’ For one, the construction of recognition and acknowledgment itself troubles such a boundary: here we have two possible rhetorical actions the audience can make—which is to say that the audience is agentive here. This troubles boundaries of rhetorical subjects and questions or performs in many ways who has agency within a rhetorical situation—by constructing the audience as having agency that influences the trajectory of the performance, not only is the audience moved (perhaps in both senses of the word moved) into the subject role that experiences the suffering of the performer, but the audience is also questioned as to who actually has agency in this situation. The performer’s agency is acknowledged here as conferred to her by her audience. We can see this running through each of her case studies.

What we don’t necessarily have an answer to is what the boundaries or effects of acknowledgement are. Acknowledgement and recognition both are modes of response that position the audience as having different power, privileged locations, but to what extent does this have to be confronted in order to constitute one response or the other?

This is what brings me to late 80’s AIDS activism. When ACT UP occupied streets in New York to call attention to the crisis, they were giving a call for acknowledgement. They needed governments, institutions, and people to acknowledge the crisis, to acknowledge AIDS, to acknowledge gay people as people, to acknowledge that people were dying. However, their zaps, or their protests—though a performance—was not made to make others experience suffering. The appeals were not made to have the general public feel them but to hear them: their work was an active refusal of systems designed to silence queer people and AIDS. In this way, agency was something held hostage in the same way that the queer community was held hostage. This is not to say that pathos didn’t operate at all—the act of disruption is a felt experience—but that something in the power, reciprocity, and purpose behind how Garlough discusses acknowledgment seems different than these performances.

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