Behind the Shields of Fantasy: The Populist Aesthetics of Status Loss

Seminars and Colloquia

The talk explored the potential of relational sociology for the study of populism and particularly its aesthetic dimension. In complementary ways, the works of Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu offer a theoretical foundation to further develop existing approaches to populism that focus on aesthetics and performativity.

Following Elias and Bourdieu, populism can be deciphered as a political struggle over status. Populist status struggles take place in a sociocultural sphere in which politics becomes culturalized and culture becomes politicized. While Bourdieu is particularly helpful for understanding the synchronous dimension of the ways in which populism politicizes cultural styles, Elias emphasizes the diachronic dimension of the status struggles between “the established and the outsiders.” The aesthetics of populism performatively creates the “true” or “real” people. Groups that perceive their dominance to be slipping away use such a fiction of the people to shore up their sense of status. The aesthetics of populism thus stands in the service of creating and maintaining what Elias calls a “fantasy shield.”

Johannes VölzHeisenberg-Professor of American Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt; Board Member, Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften Bad Homburg, and Guest of the IWM. 

IWM Permanent Fellow Ludger Hagedorn opened the colloquium.

Adam Sitze, John E. Kirkpatrick Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, Amherst College, and Guest of the IWM, provided commentary.


Fellows Colloquia are internal events for the IWM Visiting Fellows and Guests.