Sacks, Susanna

  • Susanna Sacks
  • English Department, Northwestern University
  • Abstract Title: The Aesthetics of Agency: International Art Festivals and the Limits of the Cosmopolitan Imagination

Abstract: Over the past decade, performance poetry – whose relative brevity makes it especially suited to the scroll of information online – has flourished online. These new channels of poetic distribution have heightened youth engagement with poetry, and especially performance forms like slam and hip hop. However, the rise of digitally-mediated, ostensibly “global” works online has paradoxical effects on African literature, where cosmopolitan audiences seek an imagined “authentic” performance. To investigate the tension between digital universalism and local specificity, this talk examines audience-artist interactions at two international art festivals based in Malawi, each of which stages anxieties about authenticity, agency, and aesthetics in the digital age. At Lake of Stars, audiences from around the world gather on the shores of Lake Malawi to see the best Malawi has to offer – implicitly conscripted to perform their Malawianness for international audiences. In contrast, the Tumaini Festival in Malawi’s Dzaleka Refugee Camp offers the refugee-artists who perform the opportunity to tell their diverse stories to an audience of Malawians.  At each festival, I argue that the imagined cosmopolitanism of the contemporary poet comes into tension with the international audience’s expectations of an “authentic” performance, a tension through which youth poets perform and enact Afro-centric cosmopolitanism.


Bio: Susanna Sacks is a doctoral candidate in English and African studies at Northwestern University, where she is a Graduate Writing Fellow and coordinator of the Graduate Digital Humanities Pedagogy Workshop. Her dissertation project investigates the relationship between digital media publication, poetic form, and aesthetic networks in southeastern Africa. Building on eighteen months of archival and ethnographic research, the project draws on anglophone, Chichewa, and isiXhosa literary traditions to map the interactions between embodied and digital literary performances, institutions, and aesthetic forms. Her research is forthcoming with Research in African Literatures and in the volume Digital Technology and Languages in African Communities and Classrooms: Innovations and Opportunities.