I came across the word survivance today; I don’t recall ever having come across it before. It is in use in Native American Studies, in academia, and appears to mean something like active survival. That is, where survival connotes a certain passivity, or been-done-to status, survivance is meant to center attention on the person (or culture, or thing) that is doing the work of… survivancing? I haven’t read the literature, and I don’t know how it is actually used. Further study may be fruitful.

Two things pop out at me about the term. First of all, taken even slightly out of the context of Native American Studies, even in to the wider academy it looks like a usage error. It’s jargon, which means that it fills a need among the people who need it, and that need is assumed not to spread outside those people. It often does spread outside those people, and then the word shows up and causes trouble. I’m pro-jargon, in its narrow sense, but its positives don’t come without cost.

And the other thing, not entirely unconnected, is whether the term has potential for being useful in wider circles. I have had some awkward moment, recently, attempting to phrase some things I’ve had to say about people to whom some dreadful things were done. To refer to Bill Cosby’s victims seems to define them by what Bill Cosby did, for instance, and not by their own selves. To refer to the survivors of the murderous attack in Parkland seems almost incoherent, honestly. Obviously, referring to people by name is the best way to recognize their individual agency, but that isn’t always the best way to write a short essay, and in conversation I often can’t remember anybody’s name, not limited to the subject of the conversation or indeed the person I am addressing. At any rate, my point is just that it’s possible that a word that connotes both victim and advocate seems like it would come in handy these days, alas. So referring to someone as a survivant rather than a survivor has a certain appeal, if only I could somehow make sure that everyone else knows what I intend to connote by it. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that yoinking the term away from Native American Studies is ideal, either. Ah, well.


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