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The resilience of crowds

Public Seminar reports on the convulsions in the US;
La Revue Nouvelle rejects prevailing nostrums;
Wespennest anatomizes the bourgeoisie;
Baggrund historicizes hygiene;
and Culture & Démocratie prescribes the narrative cure.

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Public Seminar
May–June 2020


Public Seminar reports on the convulsions in the US

Our US associate Public Seminar provides analysis of what looks to be the most significant social unrest since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Insult to injury: Claims that the protests have been incited by the radical left have a history, writes Natasha Lennard: ‘The suggestion that oppressed black communities cannot and would not themselves rise up is as racist now as it was when the Ku Klux Klan blamed communists for inciting black people’s organized revolts against white supremacy.’ The uprising is ‘both exhilarating and inspiring,’ writes Lennard, ‘the most energetic and potent social eruption I’ve experienced, which shows no signs of stopping’.

Liberal racism: If Donald Trump’s tweet about Antifa was intended to polarize the conflict even further, then it had the desired effect. But, as Musa al-Gharbi writes, white liberals need to be aware of a more insidious form of racism. ‘Moral credentialing’ — in this case, explicitly denouncing racism — can increase the likelihood of white people acting ‘in ways that favour other whites’, al-Gharbi argues.

‘These exercises in ritual purification do precious little to help people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups. They don’t even meaningfully raise awareness, as they circulate primarily among those who are already the most “aware”. More than anything else, these campaigns are a form of catharsis for white elites. With each op-ed and retweet, they reassure themselves that they are “different” from those other whites, the ones who are ignorant, unenlightened, fearful of diversity.’

Race and gender: In an excerpt from his book The Making of Black Lives Matter, political philosopher Christopher Lebron details the deaths of two black women as a result of police violence, in order to make a broader point about the ‘historically and socially complicated relationship between race and gender’.

Endorse or not? After Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, the Democratic Socialists of America resolved not to endorse Joe Biden. In a special issue, Public Seminar airs both sides of the argument. DSA activist Andrew Sernatinger, who submitted the non-endorsement motion, explains the strategic rationale. And Robert J. S. Ross, founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1960 and organizer of An Open Letter to the New New Left from the Old New Left, explains why supporters of the Sanders Campaign need to join ‘the Anti-Trump Front’.

More articles from Public Seminar in Eurozine; Public Seminar’s website

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La Revue nouvelle


La Revue nouvelle rejects prevailing nostrums

In La Revue Nouvelle, Olivier Klein offers a brief history of mass psychology, dissecting stock definitions of ‘crowds’, ‘panic’, ‘infection’ and ‘irrationality’. Outmoded psychological theory is not only inadequate for describing the current phenomena, he argues, but can lead to misguided responses, including over-centralized and repressive policy decisions.

Contemporary news media’s ‘repeated use of shots of empty supermarket shelves’ perpetuates the problem. However, the increasing significance of social media and the nurturing of collective identities are proving key in producing and sustaining an alternative model: ‘the resilience of crowds’.

Lesson in humility: Experience of reporting on the coronavirus crisis prompts Arnaud Ruyssen to revisit the genesis of the story. ‘The cacophony of experts’ offering widely differing views poses huge intellectual and ethical challenges — a reflection of how belatedly the scale of the problem was understood.

New and intense engagement with the public via social media has highlighted novel facets of the eternal issues facing media professionals: the reliability of sources and the responsibility of the press toward the public. When ‘being a journalist in a major news organization provides no guarantee that the public will trust you’, and ‘rights and freedoms are already on hold’, how can the press best function as the ‘guardians of democracy’?

Corona recession:
Xavier Dupret takes a historical perspective to explain how the disease ‘has exposed the profound structural weaknesses at the heart of our economies’. Deriding the ‘ideological blindness of the neoclassical school’ and ‘fables about exogenous shocks’, he argues that this ‘supply side crisis’ will be different.

Wage stagnation, oil-price fluctuations, structural debt levels and US federal reserve policy all point to strong deflationary pressure, leading to a retraction of over-extended global supply lines and value chains. Mainstream economic theory and business practice have left our economies vulnerable. As in 2008–9, central banks alone will not be able to save us; however, state intervention and even nationalization may help mitigate the worst.

More articles from La Revue nouvelle in Eurozine; La Revue nouvelle’s website

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178 (2020)


Wespennest anatomizes the bourgeoisie

Entitled ‘New old bourgeoisie’, Wespennest’s new issue offers sociological, historical, political and aesthetic perspectives on the transformation of the middle class.

Inequality: Stefan Hradil looks at German sociological discourse on the middle class since 1945 and its relation to real social-economic change. Post-war, Hradil writes, the middle class and its values — autonomy, ambition, responsibility, moderation — were seen both as ‘normal’ as well as ‘normative’. This changed with the liberal zeitgeist of ’68. Differences in language, lifestyle and taste came to be seen as relative, even if upward mobility continued to depend on knowing how to act middle-class.

As inequality increased during the 1980s and 1990s, so did the sense that rewards bore little relation to performance. Paradoxically, this legitimized the market as ‘productive force’. In the face of mass unemployment and de-industrialization, concerns for individual prosperity overrode those of social justice — a fact mirrored in the decline of left politics.

Since the 2000s, demands for equal opportunities have become louder. Could this be because, as a result of demographic change, upward mobility no longer endangers middle-class careers? At the same time, worries have emerged about the middle class. The AfD, writes Hradil, caters to those whose ‘cultural expectations’ risk being rendered obsolete by globalization, pluralization and individualization.

Communism: In her account of the historical development of the Romanian middle class, novelist Gabriela Adameșteanu dwells on the emergence of a ‘red bourgeoisie’ during communism and the political repression of the ‘class enemy’. ‘Anyone who got out of prison fell into poverty and was exposed to further persecution, gradually went to ground and left their children nothing but the fond dream of emigration.’

Patriarchy: Philosopher Cornelia Klinger equates the transformation of the ‘old bourgeoisie’ with the ‘privatization of the patriarchy’. ‘Love as basis of the family as social agency: that is perhaps the boldest idea that the bourgeoisie is capable of.’

Biography: From a lower middle-class childhood in a Viennese social housing block to the upper echelons of the Swiss bourgeoisie, historian Valentin Groebner tells his own story — part humorous, part rueful — of social ascent. ‘Class affiliation’, he concludes, ‘is what one complains about. Particularly in the case of those whom one suspects of having the same affiliation.’

More articles from Wespennest in Eurozine; Wespennest’s website

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March–May 2020


Baggrund historicizes hygiene

In Danish online journal Baggrund, a new partner in the Eurozine network, Tanne Schlosser Søndertoft provides a history of hand soap — an object that has saved millions of lives.

Soap had been used for centuries for cleaning clothes and kitchen utensils before its benefits to public health were discovered. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did Ignác Semmelweis introduce it into the maternity ward of Vienna’s general hospital. Washing hands proved to be not only a hygienic revolution, but also a cultural one, ‘accelerating work on sewers in cities, the installation of water taps, flush toilets and in-home baths’.

History of vaccination: Smallpox outbreaks recurred every 4 to 7 years in eighteenth-century Copenhagen, primarily affecting children, writes Martin Kristensen. English medicine student Edward Jenner was the first to dare to experiment with vaccination, deliberately infecting a child with cowpox. Not all authorities approved: ‘Religious anti-vaccination groups protested against such pagan conduct as using a cattle disease to cure a human being.’ However, as early as 1810, Copenhagen made the smallpox vaccine obligatory and the illness was never seen again.

Anthropology of bathing: Anders Norge Lauridsen tracks bathing rituals in Madagascar and the different ways in which they serve to ‘purify’. Indonesian, East African and Islamic influences, as well as those of French colonialism, show up in Madagascan bathing rituals, writes Lauridsen. Accounting for these intercultural connections requires that the local vocabulary for concepts such as ‘purity’ be taken into account.

More articles from Baggrund in Eurozine; Baggrund’s website

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Culture & Démocratie
51 (2020)


Culture & Démocratie prescribes the narrative cure

The new issue of Culture & Démocratie, entitled ‘Folktales and society’, looks into the polyphonic uses of folktales and their weaving together of tradition and invention. Folktales are being reinvented in the context of a globalized system of entertainment and the decline of orality, in what anthropologist Anna Angelopoulos describes as a ‘new social reality ruled by cinema and television’. So what power do folktales still have?

Therapy: Folktales are able to mediate mental life, serving as a ‘therapeutic tool for sufferers whose inner world is no longer sufficiently structured’, writes Angelopoulos. When traumatic events cause subjectivity and imagination to collapse, folktales retain a ‘magic power’ to generate creativity and the ability to symbolize experience, be it personal or collective. Folktales can produce ‘shareable images in extreme situations’.

Critique: Folktales mirror our ‘western patriarchal tradition’, argues Aline Fernande from the Belgian association ‘Les Dimanches du Conte’. But if they can structure our imagination for the worse, folktales can also ‘deconstruct and open our imaginary’. Through oral transmission, ‘folktales convey images directly to the unconscious’, initiating artistic and political reflection.

Pedagogy: The art of storytelling may be as old as humanity itself, but its worth has often been disputed. ‘For the rationalist and positivist minds of the nineteenth century, folktales were a form of obscurantism’, writes Thibault Scohier. Nowadays, storytelling is recognized by educators as ‘as a way to transmit collective knowledge and self-understanding’. However, we should beware of their institutionalization for pedagogic purposes. ‘Folktales are a vernacular art’ specific to cultural, geographical and collective experience.

More articles from Culture & Démocratie in Eurozine; Culture & Démocratie’s website

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