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Julia Brühne

Mainz, Germany
The Humanities and Popular Culture. Means to Measure Crisis
Monday, 11th September | 10:45 – 11:35

The  Humanities  are  the  discipline which  is  committed  to  explaining  how societies, cultures, discourses, or political  systems emerged and developed the way  they  did.  As  a  scholar  of  Cultural  and  Literature  Studies,  the  changing  of language standards  and  discourses  and  the emotions  attached  to them  seems, for  me,  to be  one of  the key  questions  the Humanities  should  deal  with  today. By  dealing  with  language,  myths,  rituals,  and  the  social  imaginary  and  with both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, the Humanities provide an important means to  analyze  current  changes  or  crises  within  a  society.  Literature  and  visual culture,  especially  cinema  and  TV,  including  advertisement,  not  only  mirror society’s  unconscious  anxieties,  but  may  as  well  foreshadow  sociopolitical developments  that  have  not  yet  reached  the  surface.  Hence,  literature  and popular culture can be a measurement for the state of a society: they display, to put  it  in  Raymond  Williams’  words,  not  only  the  dominant,  but  also  the residual and the emergent –or the yet to emerge – discourses within a nation (cf. Williams 1977). In   my   proposed   speech,   I   would   like   to   explore   the   relations   between contemporary discourse on power relations, sovereignty, hegemony, and art. I would  argue  that  contemporary  French  or  French  American  literature  and cinema   (for   example   Michel   Houellebecq, Yasmina   Reza,   Philippe   de Chauveron,  Roman  Polanski)  can  be  regarded  as  mirrors  of  a  subliminal political anxiety that is not yet fully visible. They reflect and question ‘residual’ as  well  as ‘emergent’  ideas  and  ideologies.  By  examining  what  different  kinds of  language  and  affect  those  works  apply,  subvert,  or  parody,  the  Cultural Studies  theorist  may  deconstruct  the  myths  (in  the  sense  of  Roland  Barthes1957)  that  surround  contemporary  capitalist  society  and  politics. In  a  second step,  I  will  turn  to  new  formats  of  contemporary  popular  culture  like  the relatively  recent  print  products Flow or Beef  and  ask  what  kind  of  society  is imagined,  reproduced,  and  encouraged  here.  Do  such  magazines  compensate for  the  loss  of  democratic  popular  sovereignty?  Do  they  offer  compensations for   the   ever   more   difficult   and   fragile   relations   between   the   sexes   in contemporary Western societies? By   combining   literature,   cinema,   and   magazines,   offering   a   comparative analysis  based  on  Literature  and  Cultural  Studies  theories,  I  intend  to  show that  the  Humanities  are  essential  to  examine  and  analyze  discourses  and –visible  or  invisible –  power  structures  in  contemporary  societies –  especially within  the  dos  and  don’ts  of  the  digital  age,  or,  as  Marshall  McLuhan  would put    it,    in    the ‘global    village’.    The    Humanities    can    be    misused    or misinterpretated    as    elitist    tools    to    sustain    and    reproduce    hegemonic discourses. But they can be ‘used’ much better to question those discourses and the  people  and  institutions  that  make  them.  Humanities  are  at  their  best whenever they question not only their environment, but also themselves. They are,  thus,  the  one  discipline  that  constantly  reinvents  itself –  that’s  why  we need them so much.