Illiberal populism, an ideology representing backlash against liberalism, is a symptom of multiple crises which put the future of liberal democracy at stake. It consists of disparate, yet, overlapping cultural practices, aesthetics, and discursive struggles – from anti-gender and anti-migration to climate change denial and anti-vaccination - which oppose progressive egalitarian mobilization including antiracism, gender equality and climate politics labeling them as elitist and detached from the interest of “common people”. Illiberal discourses can be understood as antagonistic and contradictory - they stick together seemingly irreconcilable values, such as secular individualism and religious collectivism; trust in science and belief in conspiracy theories; simultaneous appeal to feelings and rationality through “cherry picking” methodology and a strong confirmation bias. They are popular among authoritarian populist leaders who use these discourses to make a populist appeal to “people” to either raise the support among voters or to cement anti-egalitarian violent politics. Using a rich arsenal of theories and methods in humanities, researchers in the Graduate School study cultural, aesthetical, and discursive embodiments of illiberal populism.
The research collaboration within the Graduate School will fill theoretical and methodological gaps in the current scholarship on illiberal populism. FUDEM’s synergic competence in such disciplines as cultural studies, ethnology, gender studies, and musicology provides a unique opportunity to push forward this research area with themes that only start attracting scholarly attention or remain unnoticed. We provide the tentative list of these themes based on participating researchers’ disciplinary background and competencies:
1) Production of affect and meaning via visual and sonic peculiarities of cultural production related to illiberal populism. Concepts and methods from semiotics, musicology, soundtrack- and multimodal studies shed light on the aesthetic and audiovisual dimension of illiberal populist discourses. Such discourses are increasingly underpinned by sophisticated audiovisual rhetoric, as evidenced for example by densely soundtracked political propaganda films, disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theoretical documentaries spread via the internet. They are also communicated through musical genres such as white power music and, especially in the Scandinavian countries, by nationalistically colored cultural politics relating to folk music and domestically produced popular and classical music.
2) Intersectional analysis of illiberal populism. The gender cleavage between supporters and critiques of illiberal populist discourses is conspicuous, and men visibly dominate among them. What does this say about the ideas of gender and sexuality that populist discourses engage with and enable? How do these ideas intersect with the notions of nation, ethnicity, and class? The concepts and methods from gender studies are required for such an analysis.
3) Through conjunctural analysis we also shed light on the last decades of transformation in socio-economic structures and the way how class is lived and experienced. Illiberal populism and culture war discourses are often imbued by presumed and/or experienced class conflicts. Class differences and class struggles are used as a resource and fuel in a polarizing debate, but they are at the same time obscured and simplified. How this is done, what consequences this has but also what kind of resistance and alternative expressions, occurrences and movements can be identified are among issues that the Graduate School engages with through theories and methods of ethnology.
4) Illiberal populism is often described in terms of “crisis” – crisis of democracy, modernity, liberalism. But what is crisis as a cultural phenomenon? How does it reveal itself through cultural (over)production, re-evaluation of meaning, the shifts in symbolic structures? And what response/resistance to the “culture of illiberal populism” we observe? These are the questions that Graduate School’s expertise in cultural studies helps to answer.
5) Finally, what are the epistemic limits of the concept ‘illiberal populism’? What remains invisible at its background? While illiberal populism is our point of departure, the interdisciplinary dialogue that this School encourages enables participants to search for new, more novel and precise, concepts and ideas to describe the cultural conjunctures of our times.