Under suspicion of populism. Political storytelling under the banner of the post-political

The essay project compares two French and two German novels regarding their political storytelling under the banner of the post-political. Even though Michel Houellebecq would strongly reject the accusation of pop-cultural self-marketing, fiction and public enactment are barely separable with him. The author and his novels both came under suspicion of populism even before „Submission“ (2015). The political in Houellebecqs novels manifests itself less in right-wing populist narratives than in the critique of a by now merely commodified liberalism. The staging of trivial everyday practices, of sex and mass consumption, however, proves to be explicitly political in its politically apathetic decadence. Against the theoretical frame of a critique of capitalism, Houellebecq’s novelistic work appears to be spiked with fears of competition and displacement, which he invokes just as much in his speeches and interviews. Entirely different the feminist writer Virginie Despentes: With „Vernon Subutex“ (2015-2017) she presented a trilogy of novels that, even though it tells a story of decline in a similar unadorned-vulgar manner, is not a monotonous swansong to pluralism as Houellebecq supposes it, but a social panorama that combines populism and protest in a polyphonous way. In that same field of tension between ‚left‘ and ‚right‘ social criticism raised by Houellebecq and Despentes, Juli Zeh’s „Empty Hearts“ (2017) and Monika Maron’s „Munin oder Chaos im Kopf“ (2018) can be located. Both authors are criticized for supposedly subordinating their literature to their moral (Zeh) or anti-democratic (Maron) messages. But do the lines between artistic creation and political agitation really blur here or is it rather that sociopolitical dynamics are observed and (satirically) brought to light? Do Houellebecq and Maron simply refuse to give their literature a moral message or is their realist storytelling put into service of a reactionary moral criticism? And in which way could Despentes’s and Zeh’s novels present an alternative reading of post-political societies?


From ‚urban legend‘ to conspiracy rumor. The politics of modern myth formation

The essay project wants to question the subject matter of established urban legends regarding their sociopolitical relevance. To that end, their narratological and media sociological operating mechanisms are examined in equivalence to currently circulating „Verschwörungsgerüchten“ (Butter 2018) in social networks. Since the 1930s, urban legends have been a much-discussed object of folk narrative research, despite, or precisely because, they not only exhibit ontological problems of truth but also ontological problems of structure. On the one hand, they spread like rumors in accordance to the so called FOAF-Model (friend of a friend), which, firstly, worsens the source situation and, secondly, emphasizes the ‚audience effect‘, i. e. the audience’s significance. On the other hand, in this genre of modern myth the real is blended with elements of the collective unconscious (Petzoldt 2002). Urban legends deal with the present in the mode of the past; on one side by referring back to handed down (lack of) knowledge, on the other side by updating their subject matter thematically and formally to the new crises and media of the present. By mainly narrating experiences of loss, erecting dichotomies and mobilizing affects, modern myths are culturally fabricated expressions of fear, too. This is mostly expressed by xenophobic narratives („The foreign neighbors have eaten my pet!“), homophobic AIDS-rumors („AIDS-Mary,“ deliberately placed AIDS-pathogens in food and public commodities) and conspirative stories of contaminations of all sorts (contaminated drinking water, chemtrails etc.). In spite of that, a decidedly political positioning has so far stood behind their mediatization as a pop-cultural phenomenon, which could have contributed to the popularization and normalization of racist, antisemitic and sexist positions. The essay project wants to closer examine these issues.



University of Basel
Lea Liese
Department of German Studies
Nadelberg 4
4051 Basel