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DemCP colloquium - JOHANNES VOELZ (Frankfurt): "Contemporary Populism and the Aesthetics of Polarization"

When:We 19-02-2020 16:00 - 18:00
Where:Room 06 PAO, Turftorenstraat


Contemporary right-wing populism, particularly in the United States, has emerged from within a larger politico-cultural dynamic most often described as polarization. Political scientists have begun to notice that polarization can no longer be gauged by charting the electorate’s diverging positions on particular political issues. Instead, they are recognizing that polarization involves the electorate’s affective identification with a given political camp.

Johannes Voelz argues that the affective dimension of polarization calls for analyses which require the methods of cultural and literary studies, rather than those of the empirical political sciences. From the perspective he develops in his talk, polarization is a tendency endemic to democracy because it grows out of the democratic norm of equality and its violation by actually existing inequality.

From the classical democracies of Greece and Rome to those of the present day, democratic inequality has tended to bring forth constellations of affective polarization. But affective polarization doesn’t just mean that people strongly identify with their camp. Affective polarization rather structures a politico-cultural divide through the opposing affects of resentment and indignation, each of which reacts to the infraction of the norm of equality from a particular position in the social hierarchy.

Popular politico-cultural forms such as the political rally and late-night television suggest that this structure of polarizing affects finds expression in aesthetic repertoires tied to resentment and indignation, respectively. Populism thus needs to be understood as an element and symptom of a cultural dynamic that takes the form of an aesthetics of polarization.

About the speaker

Johannes Voelz is Heisenberg-Professor of American Studies, Democracy, and Aesthetics at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany. He is the author of The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) and Transcendental Resistance: The New Americanists and Emerson’s Challenge (Hanover: University Press of New England).

Most recently, he co-edited an issue of the Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature (REAL) on The Return of the Aesthetic in American Studies (2019). Currently, he is at work on two monographs, provisionally titled “The Aesthetics of Populism” and “Postliberal Privacies: Surveillance, Sincerity, and Self-Display in Contemporary American Literature.”