The Launch of a New mdw Event Series with Birgit Sauer and Julia Roth

It was even before the Ibiza Affair—that is, under a different Austrian government and political situation—that we first formed the idea for a series of events on populist politics and their critique by scholars and artists. Our aim was to bring together the social engagement that exists in various fields of the mdw. This series is accordingly as much a collective as a cross-disciplinary initiative, which is increasingly drawing the participation of more and more colleagues with significantly different political positions and institutional affiliations. In addition to Gerda Müller, Vice Rector for Organizational Development, Gender & Diversity, these include Ralf von Appen (popular music), Sarah Chaker (music sociology), Andrea Glauser (cultural studies), Therese Kaufmann (Office of Research Support), Dagny Schreiner (Human Resources Development), Claudia Walkensteiner-Preschl (Film Academy), Mariama Diagne, and Evelyn Annuß (both gender studies). Since then, a broad alliance at the mdw has taken shape and has been working since last year towards designing a diverse programme with events ranging from academic lectures to practical workshops, panel discussions, and artistic research formats. In addition, Criticising Populism is now also cooperating internationally with the Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin via joint online lectures—because gender issues are crucial starting points for understanding populist politics.

Accordingly, the renowned political scientist Birgit Sauer (University of Vienna) kicked off the new series shortly before the new year with a lecture on “Right-Wing Populism and Masculinist Identity Politics”. Her contribution focused on a comparative analysis of government policies of right-wing extremists and their gendering in Austria and Germany. Sauer is not only the recipient of numerous state and academic prizes but also a scholar for whom gender research has remained a decidedly political matter.

Birgit Sauer © Otto Penz

With 150 registrations, the inaugural event—moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic—was a great success. The discussion continued for one and a half hours after the presentation. In view of the US election, this discussion took place not least under the impression that right-wing populist regimes could be voted out of office. The presentation can be viewed online.

From the outset, our series of events has been driven by the need to deal with the rightward shift that has occurred in recent years under the circumstances of contemporary media, and to give space to various perspectives and differing formats. Since 2019, the political omens have of course changed in Austria, as well. And yet this series of events is more relevant today than ever. At the latest since the attack that took place in Vienna in November 2020, affects have again been increasingly mobilised and resentments stirred up in the name of “the people”. This was made clear immediately before Sauer’s lecture in the planned anti-terror package which proposed, among other things, indefinite preventative detention for crimes of opinion in addition to loss of citizenship—measures, in other words, which would institute political strategies similar to states of exception. Instead of dealing with the failures of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism and of communication between government agencies, public reaction especially targeted young Muslim migrant men. One conclusion of the discussion following Sauer’s lecture was that gender studies cannot limit itself to the critique of antifeminist opinion-making when dealing with populist politics.

The online lecture “Gender as Affect Bridge and as Arena” by Julia Roth, a scholar in American studies at Bielefeld University, also examined this topic at the beginning of this year. Organized by the Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, this lecture, too, saw around 150 people from a number of countries log on to analze the “right-wing populist complex”—as Roth calls it—not only as a phenomenon of retraditionalisation, but as a genuinely modern phenomenon under neoliberal conditions. The discussion honed in not least on the right’s appropriation of the victim position and on intersections with nationalist positions in feminist discourse.

The lecture by Julia Roth (at lower left in the Zoom window) © zur Verfügung gestellt

The series will be continued on 25 March 2021 with a lecture at the mdw by Julia Roth and Gabriele Dietze, among others, who will emphasise further aspects of gender. This will be followed by the workshop “Arguing against the Right” by Martin Reisigl; a panel discussion on the culture industry with Katalin Erdödi, Peter Laudenbach, Rachel Mader, and Monika Mokre; and a focus event on pop music and populism with Emilia Barna, Ágnes Patakfalvi-Czirják, André Doehring, Kai Ginkel, Mario Dunkel, and Anna Schwenck. A lecture performance with Reinhardt Seminar-alumnus Arne Vogelgesang and a film series in the new mdw cinema are also planned. Further lectures are planned in cooperation with Freie Universität Berlin.

This event series quite naturally does not stand alone, at the mdw or elsewhere, in its commitment against right-wing populism. It aligns with efforts such as an initiative of the Rectorate that invited Ruth Wodak, a discourse studies scholar and author of the widely read work The Politics of Fear, to last year’s Human Rights Day. In the area of research, for its part, a corresponding focus on aesthetics, performative practices, and politics is presently emerging in the humanities and in cultural studies. For example, Silke Felber has been recruited as a senior scholar with a research project on the politics of Austrian discourse on the coronavirus (“Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak”) that has been made possible by FWF Urgent Funding. And in the future, the mdw will continue to be engaged on various levels with critiques of populism and with how populist politics stages itself in public. Stay tuned!

Translation: Michael Taylor

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