Populism as Non-Narrative: Theorizing the Poetics of Post-Narrative Politics

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This research project, funded by the VolkswagenStiftung and housed at American Studies Leipzig, explores a new, counter-intuitive perspective on contemporary populist rhetoric: It aims to theorize the poetics of contemporary populism as fueled by decidedly non-narrative symbolic logics.

This entails two provocative propositions:

  1. Populism can and should be approached via its poetics, i.e. from a disciplinary perspective invested in ‘form.’
  2. Contemporary populism does not traffic in the symbolic form of narrative. It does not operate by providing ‘simple’ or ‘closed’ narratives. Rather, it uses the complex symbolic logics of play, spectacle, and database.

In focusing on the poetics of populism, and in focusing on their non-narrative dimension, this project counters the dominant view in journalism, punditry, and academia alike. This view, if it asks for the rhetoric of populism at all, holds that narrative—a form characterized by coherence, by teleological progression, by narrative necessity, and by an ability to order the world into cause-and-effect patterns—is central to political world building. Populism, in this view, uses simplified and simplifying narratives to appeal to its audience.

In shifting perspectives and focusing on non-narrative symbolic forms instead, this project aims to help better understand the appeal and the rhetorical power of populism. In doing so, it works toward a model of what one might call post-narrative politics.