Looking at ‘Culture and Populism: The Crisis of the Humanities and the Crisis of Western Liberalism,’ Professor Joep Leerssen delivered the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture this week.
Exploring the key characteristics of ‘illiberalism’, Professor Leersson, Chair of European Studies and Modern European Literature, University of Amsterdam, made reference to the autocratic strongman leadership we have seen in the rise of leaders such as Trump and Orbán, arguing further that ‘illiberalism’ in political life has also been accompanied by the decline of the liberal arts and the humanities in academic life, and new media landscape, leading us to what he described as the humanities’ ‘most urgent challenge’.
The humanities, he said, are the “academic extension of cultural production and cultural reflection”, but have been “downgraded and downsized” by the state for the past forty years.
The Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture was instituted by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute to contribute to reflection on and advocacy for the humanities.
He said, “this political crisis gives a fresh urgency to skills and expertise that are the particular domain of the humanities, and that the humanities have both the opportunity and the responsibility to develop a new public role.”
Providing a fascinating history of the humanities, both its highpoints and later decline, he asked “what is the relationship between the present state of the humanities and the present state of the public sphere, between culture and anarchy?”
Describing culture as a sort of ‘empathy machine’, Professor Leersson said it “allows us to envisage the world, not as it is, but as it might be, to formulate Utopias - another term derived from literature. And it allows us to see the world from an imaginative point of view that differs from our real one.”
“When we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Jane Eyre, or Primo Levi, or when we look at Picasso’s Guernica, we sense what it must have been like to be a slave or a Victorian governess, or a concentration camp inmate, or the victim of an aerial bombardment”, he said.
Commenting on the current political landscape, Professor Leersson said that “ethno populism profits from a realignment of the political spectrum. Old divisions, between labour and wealth, or between progressive and conservative, have increasingly been overtaken by a division between the highly educated and the poorly educated.”
Speaking of the European context, Professor Leersson said, “Nigel Farage is having a bromance with Donald Trump; Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others present a Europe-wide political alliance which means that their common ideological base is far more important, transnationally, than their nationalist appeal and tactics would indicate.”
The media or new media is also an ongoing feature of strongman leadership across the world, he said: “The power base of Margaret Thatcher was reached through the red-top press; that of Silvio Berlusconi through commercial television; that of Donald Trump and Geert Wilders through their Twitter following.”
During his talk, however, Professor Leersson did not shy away from criticising both spectrums of the political landscape and what he described as “political correctness gone mad.”
“The left is saddled with a moralistic identity politics and the right with conspiracy theories.”