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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Law, Justice, Society at the Margins of Asian States
1: Dangerous Play: Sensors, Censors, and the Poetics of Subversion in Postwar Vietnam
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Yale University, United States
In 2016, a group of artists marched across the former imperial capital of Hue in a silent procession paying homage to a dead fish. In 2017, at an underground poetry festival in the political capital Hanoi a writer read a poem about a prisoner whose sole language (tongue) draws on (is tied to) words from a dictionary in his prison cell. These two events render an aesthetic of the political in late-socialist Vietnam, where the law silences free speech and punishes criticism against the party-state. Under conditions of censorship, Vietnamese citizens employ obfuscated speech to perform a poetics of the meek that undercut the prevarication of the mighty. The environmental disaster caused by the Formosa Company in 2016 provided fertile ground for citizen activism. Yet when tongues are forcefully tied by censors, the inanimate becomes a medium for Aesopian critique. In the absence of laws that protect people against commercial damages, dead fish come to speak for humans and the dictionary ventriloquizes the prisoner’s gagged existence in a series of carnivalesque chronicles that expose the lawlessness of the state. This essay illuminates the embodied practices of everyday actors who test the limits of censorship through “dangerous play,” a tactic of elocution that conveys to sensing audiences the urgency of legal reform and transparency. In an arena where state interests collude with corporate greed, I argue that this subversive poetics foreshadows the mass social movement in 2018 when people take to the street to protest against the Special Economic Zones Act.