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Guest Lecture - "Crowds and Democracy: Understanding the Shapelessness of German Collectives"

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
5:00 AM
Modern Language Building 3308

A part of the Department's Graduate Studies Colloquium series

It is commonly held that the 1920s was the era of the crowd. While this is certainly true, it is usually not recognized that crowds were of differing kinds. The study of interwar ideas of ‘the masses’ has often been reduced to a study of fascism, just as fascism has often been explained as a crowd phenomenon. But to enter the cultural landscape of interwar Germany and Austria is to encounter competing representations of the people and the masses, and this indicates a lack of consensus concerning the right way to represent the social body. No single system of representation enjoys broad legitimacy. Hence the uncanny ambiguity of the Weimar masses. They are present in every pore of society but lack Gestalt. An understanding of this phenomenon cannot limit itself to the explicit theories of crowd behavior and mass society formulated in the period. Rather, it must mine the cultural and aesthetic sphere, in which the masses were addressed through the new ”mass media,” and new forms of art, cinema, architecture, literature, and theater. This talk will propose a concept of representation (first developed in my previous book A Brief History of the Masses) that relates aesthetic representations of society to political ones. Such a perspective will demonstrate that ‘the masses’ reveal the eternal problem of democracy, as pertinent today as it was in interwar Europe. Buried inside each idea of the mass is not necessarily a fascist, communist, or totalitarian kernel, but simply an idea on how to represent society, how to channel socially significant passions into adequate political, cultural, and aesthetic forms. Some final remarks will relate this history to current emergences of democratic mass movements and social unrest.

About the speaker:

Stefan Jonsson is a writer and critic and professor of ethnic studies at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), Linköping University, Sweden. He has written extensively on European modernity and modernism, colonial history and postcolonial theory, racism, multiculturalism and globalization. Crowds and Democracy: The Idea and Image of the Masses from Revolution to Fascism is just published by Columbia University Press, following his A Brief History of the Masses: Three Revolutions (2008). He was a visiting professor at University of Michigan’s department of Germanic languages and literatures in 2006.