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Diva Citizenship

2010 January 13
by sizeoftheocean

Well, this blog has been rather quiet lately.  Mostly because I’m not a very regular blogger to begin with, but also because of been off doing Epic Productivity (TM) on my actual thesis.  Theoretically, that should feed in here, but I have thousands of words of notes towards a chapter rather than a nice concise little five hundred word post.

Anyway, instead of a ‘proper’ post, I thought I’d share an extended quote from a book I’ve just started reading, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship by Lauren Berlant.  There is a chapter that talks a little bit about fat, but the book is more concerned with the race and sexuality in America. I want to make it clear that I think caution is needed in not appropriating wholesale the arguments and terminology of other struggles (I wouldn’t claim ‘subaltern’ for white fat acceptance, for example), but I think this passage says some really useful and interesting things about privilege, activism, speaking, visibility, and the necessity for faith in other people.

Moments of optimism for the transformation of…political and social culture abound in the stories of subordinated peoples… A member of a stigmatized population testifies reluctantly to a hostile public the muted and anxious history of her imperiled citizenship.  Her witnessing turns into a scene of teaching and an act of heroic pedagogy, in which the subordinated person feels compelled to recognize the privileged ones, to believe in their capacity to learn and to change; to trust their desire to not be inhuman; and trust their innocence of the degree to which their obliviousness has supported a system of political subjugation.  These moments are acts of strange intimacy between subaltern peoples and those who have benefited by their subordination.  These acts of risky dramatic persuasion are based on a belief that the privileged persons of national culture will respond to the sublimity of reason.

I call these moments acts of Diva Citizenship.  Diva Citizenship does not change the world.  It is a moment of emergence that marks unrealised potentials for subaltern political activity.  Diva Citizenship occurs when a person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege.  Flashing up and startling the public, she puts the dominant story into suspended animation; as though recording and estranging voice-over to a film we have all already see, she re-narrates the dominant history as one that the abjected people have once lived sotto voce, but no more; and challenges her audience to identify with the enormity of the suffering she has narrated and the courage she has had to produce, calling on people to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent.

Diva Citizenship has a genealogy that is only now beginning to be written; the fate of its time- and space-saturating gesture has been mostly to pass and to dissolve into nostalgia, followed by sentences like “Remember that moment, just a second ago, when X made everything so politically intense that it looked like sustained change for good would happen?”  The centrality of publicity to Diva Citizenship cannot be underestimated, for it tends to emerge in moments of such extraordinary political paralysis that acts of language can feel like explosives that shake the ground of collective existence.  Yet in remaking the scene of public life into a spectacle of subjectivity, it can lead to a confusion of wilful and memorable rhetorical performances with sustained social change itself.

Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, p222-223

I can think of a few examples of Fat Diva Citizenship – Beth Ditto’s whole public persona, for one.  The profile of Lezley Kinzel being herself in the Boston Globe.  Everyone who posts pictures to Fatshionista (livejournal or flickr) or Deathfatties.  The whole damn fatosphere in general, and any time “when a [fat] person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege.”

The claims of these moments of Fat Diva Citizenship tend to get co-opted by mainstream commercial interests in order to sell more magazines, but then, I wonder – is that a sign of some sort of sustained social change, even if it’s not the sort of change that upsets – or even challenges – the system in any real way?

4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 13, 2010

    I love this concept. <3

  2. January 13, 2010

    “Diva Citizenship does not change the world.”

    I have a problem with this idea becasue it suggests my purpose in life is fruitless. That presenting my opposing opinions in the form of the written word DOESN’T affect the world around me.

    The empirical evidence I’ve gathered suggests this not to be true. I’ve had people tell me that my words made them think of the world in a way they didn’t previously.

    But I also believe in the pluralistic nature of our society.

    Small, grass roots movements may not be able to inform public policy directly or immediately, but through the push and pull of ideas, we can slowly change public opinion.

    When I say slowly, I’m talking about decades. So slow it sometimes seems like we’re doing nothing.

    But, then again, I need to believe these things. I’m a fat activist. If I didn’t have hope that I was making a difference, albeit slowly, I wouldn’t even be trying.

  3. sizeoftheocean
    January 13, 2010

    Elizebeth – I don’t think what Berlant is suggests that the act of speaking doesn’t affect the world, quite the opposite. I think that by “Diva Citizenship does not change the world” she means that the moment of speaking up and speaking out is not change itself. But she spends the rest of the passage talking about its importance in affecting change in the world – “calling on people to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent”.

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