Rhetorics of Survivance

You may not be who you think you are.

Enter the trickster, Gerald Vizenor, the originator of “survivance”.

Deborah L. Madsen writes in Understanding Gerald Vizenor:

In opposition to terminal creeds, Vizenor seeks in his writing to promote the concept of “survivance.” He tells Isernhagen: “if we have dominance — in other words, a condition that’s recognizable as a world view — then surely we have survivance, we have a condition of not being a victim.”55 Like his understanding of postmodernism, survivance is for Vizenor a condition and not an object. It is a way of thinking and acting in the world that refuses domination and the position of the victim. In Fugitive Poses (1998) Vizenor writes: “[S]urvivance, in the sense of native survivance, is more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories of survivance are an active presence… .”56 Survivance is not passive survival but active resistance as well; it is the refusal of the insistence upon tribal people as “Vanished,” or as tragic victims, or as ig/noble savages caught in an unchanging past, or as the vanguard of an idealized New Age future. Chris Lalonde points out that “with his fictions [Vizenor] does what Foucault argues is what makes one insane in the eyes of the community: he crosses the boundaries of the dominant bourgeois culture in order to reveal the lies upon which it is based.”57

For Vizenor, survivance carries the implication of an ongoing, changing process, rather than the simple continuance of old ways into the modern world.

Malea Powell’s article Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing speaks of an exigency for us to begin “reimagining ourselves—reflecting, rethinking, revisting, and revising the stories that create who we are”.

She points to the transformative potential of stories to construct “new histories and theories”. While Powell articulates the language of survivance to comment on how “Indians” refigured their identities in the face of colonialism, it can also apply to any individual who wants to shift from an object-status, to a subject status.

She goes on to explain that survivance utilizes rhetoric as a tactic to “insinuate” oneself into the hegemonic systems in which they are caught.  In this way, the individual uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, “or at least make laudable efforts in the attempt.”  We can “reimagine ourselves, our pedagogies, our scholarship, our discipline in relation to a long and sordid history of American imperialism”

Rhetorics of Survivance

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