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Moving Words, Managing Freedom: The Performance of Authority in Malagasy Slam Poetry


Through an analysis of slam poetry performance in Madagascar, where poets are encouraged to express themselves freely but also to “manage” this freedom, this dissertation illuminates how speakers determine what kinds of speech are possible and appropriate in various contexts, how they perform authority, and how they anticipate and manage the consequences of their speech. Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has become a popular literary and social movement around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context that includes pre-colonial genres of verbal art that are central to everyday life and to politics. In many of these genres, and especially in kabary—a form of oratory that ceremonializes major social and political events—public speech has long been reserved for elder men. Slam’s insistence on “free expression” thus constitutes a radical break from long-standing notions of the social roles and risks associated with public speech. As slam poets and audiences navigate the terrain of “managed freedom” in live events as well as videos that circulate online, they forge an entirely novel mode of authoritative public discourse on the slam stage and the Facebook page in a plurilingual and rapidly urbanizing postcolonial context.

This research, based on a total of twenty-two months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in multiple cities across Madagascar and in Paris, France, advances scholarly debates on performance, aesthetics, media, embodiment, and politics. It is also a timely intervention into the fierce debates currently raging around the possibilities and limitations of liberal framings of “free speech.” This dissertation treats the concept of free speech as historically and contextually specific rather than abstract and generalizable, and illuminates how speakers balance liberal discourses of individual freedoms with notions of responsibility and accountability, dialogic authority, and embodied relationality.

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