CfP: ‘Against the elites’: The cultural politics of anti-elitism in the current conjuncture 26-27.10, Göttingen

Call for papers
 
‘Against the elites’: The cultural politics of anti-elitism in the current conjuncture 
 
Conference, 26/27.10.2018 at the University of Göttingen
 
The current moment, with all the instability and openness characteristic of an interregnum, displays certain themes and contradictions repeatedly and frequently. These themes can be taken as entry points for an transdisciplinary analysis that seeks to disentangle the current conjuncture and its contradictions. One such theme is anti-elitism.
 
Having long been identified as a hallmark of political populism, anti-elitism can also be seen as a broader cultural and social pattern. It colours large parts of pop culture and media, such as the adulation of establishment-defying folk heroes and negative portrayals of authorities, rulers and ruling classes in film, comedy or music – the corrupt, flamboyant elites that stage the “Hunger Games” being just one prominent example. In the domain of cultural production and reception, anti-elitism is not only a matter of the content and form of representations, it is also connected to media technology and an ongoing re-distribution of power on that level. In recent decades, for example, rating and review systems on the internet have eroded much of the authority – and the material means – of “elite” or “elitist” culture journalism and programming in institutions such as public service broadcasting. In the crises of expert and scientific knowledge that are routinely diagnosed, and in calls for ever-widening participation, similar anti-elitist dynamics are at play.
 
In politics proper, however, it is especially parties and movements of the hard right that shape the contemporary situation through anti-elitist articulations: calls to “drain the swamp” in the U.S., anti-E.U./-Brussels rhetoric in Europe, attacks on “liberal elites” and intellectuals that are said to have lost touch with the population’s ways of life, or even conspiracy theories about plans by hidden elites to “replace” the European population with Muslim migrants. At the same time, democratic anti-elitism is part of the political left’s reason for being, and left-wing movements dissatisfied with Third Way social democracy muster a lot of their energies from agitating against the establishment, “the caste”, “the few”, the “one percent” et cetera.
 
Going from strength to strength, these iterations of the anti-elitist theme are re-configuring politics, knowledge and our understandings of the popular, in new and politically highly ambivalent ways. The conference aims to explore these dynamics in relation to on-going crises – usually labelled cultural, political and economic – and asks about their interaction, resonance and articulation. What, then, is characteristic of current anti-elitist rhetoric, idioms, affects, narratives and imagery in specific case studies? In what ways are elites, authorities and leaders being imagined, caricatured and criticized, and how are the popular and the common being positioned against it? How can we make sense of the cultural politics of anti-elitist articulations?
 
Inspired by classic and more recent work in conjunctural analysis, we are also interested in the ways in which anti-elitist articulations are related to collective experiences in various fields, such as experiences in educational and other state institutions, experiences of precarity and re-configurations of the workplace, of consumption practices, or of electronically mediated communication and other technologies. Qualitative and especially ethnographic research that takes into account the discursive and imaginary mediation of experience and avoids facile cause-effect assumptions seems particularly important in this context.
 
Rendering the ambivalences and ruptures in this theme visible, the conference asks about the meanings of anti-elitism in conditions that have been described as post-political, marked by a “disaffected consent” to “capitalist realism” – but which by now may have moved on to different paradigms. In focusing on anti-elitism, we seek to better understand the implications and effects of these phenomena, and also to inquire about the role of academic research and critical theory, which are often the target of anti-elitist polemics as well.
 
In a normative register, quite obviously, the dangers and the democratic potentials of anti-elitist articulations are difficult to evaluate. As the Frankfurt School argued decades ago, authoritarian, antisemitic and ethnic-nationalist implications of anti-elitist tropes are in many cases far from coincidental. On the other hand, cultural studies and hegemony theorists have often stressed the emancipatory nature of ‘popular-democratic’ sentiments and movements. In what ways and in which situations are these framings helpful today, and what other concepts and perspectives are needed?   
 
While the primary interest of the conference is in current conjunctures, historical approaches that shed light on these questions are also of interest. Possible paper topics may include, but are not limited to:
  • ethnographies of anti-elite sentiments and articulations in a variety of settings
  • anti-elitist figurations in contemporary pop culture, questions of narration, visuality, and sound (including film and music, from rap/hiphop to country)
  • anti-elite rhetoric in political ‘populism’ (parties, movements) and its implications and backgrounds
  • anti-intellectualism: academic knowledge as a problem; crises of knowledge, representation, authorities, experts
  • residual/conservative gender politics and their project of “natural” gender/sexuality orders (vs. “artificial” elites?)
  • the history of anti-elitism as a reservoir of progressive movements, subcultures etc. (including queer anti-elitist aesthetics and politics)
  • spatial anti-elitism: periphery vs. centre; country vs. city; local vs. global
  • established and new media; campaigns against “elitist” public service broadcasting
  • the anti-elite theme in critiques of cultural policy and funding decision-making in the arts
  • aesthetic populism and pop cultural representations of the vulgar as gestures of rebellion against taste elites in fields like fashion, architecture etc. 
  • sports (fandom) and anti-elitism
  • anti-elitist critiques of corruption, waste, inefficiency
Confirmed speakers include John Clarke (Open University) and Rebecca Bramall (London College of Communication).
 
Please submit presentation proposals (about 500 words) by 30 May 2018 via email to Johannes Springer at johannes.springer@ uni-goettingen.de. Questions and expressions of interest can be addressed to Johannes Springer or Moritz Ege (mege@ uni-goettingen.de).
 
Conference conveners: Moritz Ege, Johannes Springer (University of Göttingen, Institute for Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology); in cooperation with the Bonn/Göttingen/Kassel/Lüneburg network “Thinking (in) conjunctures”. Funded by the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony.
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