Populist Aesthetics in Cultural Perspectives: Truthmaking, Faking, and the Politics of Affect in (Digital) Media

International Workshop

Populist Aesthetics in Cultural Perspectives: Truthmaking, Faking, and the Politics of Affect in (Digital) Media

10.-11. March 2022 at the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS, Heidelberg University)

Organised by: Cathrine Bublatzky (HCTS) and Simone Pfeifer (Mainz/Cologne)

Click here for further information on programme, abstracts and bios of the participants.

Funded by the Thyssen Foundation, co-financed by the Baden Wuerttemberg Foundation and the project Contemporary Photography as a Cultural Practice by Diasporic Iranians in Europe (HCTS, University Heidelberg), and with support by the project Jihadism on the Internet: Images and Videos, their Appropriation and Dissemination at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. 

Abstract: The workshop Populist Aesthetics in Cultural Perspectives: Truthmaking, Faking, and the Politics of Affect in (Digital) Media brings together researchers from anthropology and related disciplines to reflect on aesthetic dynamics in populist movements and how sensory perception and affective media practices shape understandings of the world and political subjectivities in particular ways.



In recent years, anthropologists have studied populist movements in very different geographical settings, focusing on subjective perspectives and everyday practices in various societal settings, e. g. in European, North, and Latin American or Southeast Asian contexts (Ahmad 2019; Hann 2019; Mazzarella 2019; Gusterson 2017; Kalb und Halmai 2011; Samet 2017, Seo 2019). Although the importance of social media, digital practices, and aesthetics as an inherent part or even amplifier of populist currents has been repeatedly emphasized (e.g., Postill 2018), there is a lack of comparative empirical and ethnographic perspectives to examine the complex contexts, modes of action (affect), and popularity of populist movements, as well as the digital dynamics and aesthetic practices in everyday life worlds. The workshop Populist Aesthetics in Cultural Perspectives: Truthmaking, Faking, and the Politics of Affect in (Digital) Media takes this observation as its starting point to bring together case studies in a regional and cultural comparative perspective.


The only common denominator of these different phenomena seems to be the reference to “‘the people’ as a moral authority against perceived oppressors“ (Hann 2019: 1; Brubaker 2017) and thus to a generalized understanding of ‘the people’. With reference to a political science perspective, the term populism is often used as a normative framework to refer to a political group, an ideology, or certain political strategies and forms of communication (Mazzarella 2019: 47). The term ‘populist’ is thus often used as a descriptive as well as a normative framework to delimit a field or phenomenon, rather than as a self-designation, as it is often primarily used to defame others (Comaroff 2011). For an anthropological perspective it is especially interesting to look at the sometimes very different everyday practices of activists and supporters of these movements with a special focus on subjective perspectives and practices in a societal context. Recently, the field of “anthropology of populism” (Mazzarella 2919, Hann 2019) has been established with a focus on cultural contexts, actors, and identity politics and the influences of these movements on societies. As Mazzarella (2019: 50), among others, notes, supporters of populist movements not only challenge existing institutions and authorities but strive for an immediate and bodily-affective experience and presence of the political. According to our observations, it is precisely this presence of the political that is shaped by a specific aesthetic of mediation (cf. Bublatzky 2020 and Pfeifer et. al. 2020).


The concept of aesthetics is particularly fruitful here in order to consider various forms of mediations of populism. We understand aesthetics in relation to populism “in the sense of aisthesis, which refers to humans’ capacity to perceive the world with their five senses and to interpret it through these perceptions” (Meyer 2011: 747), as a central element of sensory knowledge and its dissemination. With our interest in related alternative epistemologies, we ask about the central connections between populism and aesthetics. Must they be considered distinct domains, or should aesthetics, in the sense of Jacques Rancière’s Politics of Aesthetics (2004), be seen as an indispensable part of populisms and their dissemination?


Based on Ernesto Laclau’s definition of populism as a “political logic” (2005), and related to this, its rhetoric as an ontological [and aesthetic] production of the social itself, and not [solely] of a particular social group or ideology (2005, 117), we further ask ourselves about the power and effectiveness of populist movements: Why do populist rhetoric and forms of representation have such a strong impact on listeners and viewers? How is this received by viewers and listeners in very different ways? Why do populist actions and views have this effect of discursive identifications, at least for parts of societies (Sutherland 2012)?


The affective transformations that can currently be observed in many political and social contexts point to developments and processes that Brian Massumi describes as the “Politics of Affect” (2015). Massumi makes clear, “affect is the power to affect and to be affected” (ix). Once again highlighting the close link between the world and the individual, or as Gregg and Seigworth (2011) argue, “affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters or; a world’s belonging to a body of encounters” (2011, 2).


The reference to affect and body or embodiment also points to specific social contexts such as those of protest movements, the performative act, or with Guy Debord, the spectacle (1967/2013). It turns out that populist rhetoric is just one figuration of the social that goes hand in hand with many other forms of representation, competing for hegemony, and that “aesthetic relations of the popular spectacle themselves constantly reproduce this rhetoric on their own terms” (Sutherland 2012: 342). In this tension between aesthetics – populism – spectacle, we understand aesthetics with Jacques Rancière as a “system of a priori [and thus unexamined] forms that determines what presents itself to sensory experience (2004: 13): ‘It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience’” (ibid.). Experiences here are mostly emotional, where we understand emotions with Sara Ahmed (2014) as a form of “cultural politics or world making” (12). By playing a role in their relationality and sociality rather than their privacy (10), affects and emotions do not represent individual but shared feelings (7).

Aim and Organisation: The workshop Populist Aesthetics in Cultural Perspectives aims to bring together case studies in a regional and cultural comparative perspective that will point beyond the Euro-American focus. The four panels 1. Populist Aesthetics, Affect, and Emotions; 2. Populist Activism & Spectacle, 3. Image Politics, Fake News, and Trust and 4. Populist Digital Encounters & Media promise to illuminate the complex digital, audiovisual, and textual mediations of populist movements. With our goal to connecting scholars from different career stages and different disciplines, we aim to establish a long-term collaboration on an international scale. The workshop will serve as a forum for discussion and preparation for a special issue on the topic. Participants are invited to submit extended abstracts or first ideas of their papers two weeks before the workshop until 23rd of February 2022.  

We invite interested researchers with a particular regional focus on Africa or (South)Asia to complement the already rich program and to send an abstract (300 words) and short bio (150 words) until 6th of December 2021 to bublatzky@hcts.uni-heidelberg.de and s.pfeifer@uni-koeln.de.

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