Public lectures Ravenstein Winter School: Literature, (Neo)liberalism, and Public Culture

19 – 21 January 2021 | University of Amsterdam

The keynotes during the Ravenstein Winter School: Literature, (Neo)liberalism, and Public Culture will be open to public. Please register for the individual keynotes via the links below.


Wednesday, 19 January 2022 | 19:00 – 20:15

Rachel Greenwald Smith (Saint Louis University)
Compromise: The Aesthetics of Liberalism and Liberal Aesthetic

Early in his political career, U.S. President Barack Obama made the following comparison between politics and aesthetics: “A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence. Or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it.” This paper uses Obama’s analogy as a jumping off point for an inquiry into the aestheticization of politics in center-left discourse at the turn of the twenty-first century. What does it mean to say that political policy should resonate like a work of art? How does liberal aestheticization of politics differ or relate to the aestheticization of politics that Walter Benjamin famously connected to fascism? And what can an examination of contemporary literary aesthetics contribute to an understanding of the aesthetics of contemporary liberalism?

Rachel Greenwald Smith is an Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University. She is the author of On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal (Graywolf Press, 2021) and Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She has edited two volumes of scholarship: American Literature in Transition: 2000-2010 (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture, with Mitchum Huehls (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Her works has appeared in American Literature, Post45, The Yale Review, VQR, Mediations, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and elsewhere.

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Thursday, 20 January 2022 | 13:15 – 14:30    

Pieter Vermeulen (KU Leuven)
Swarms, Trees, Fungi, Markets, and Other Fictions of Spontaneous Order

Since the turn of the millennium, materialist and ecological strands of critical thought have complemented the decentering of the human subject that was dominant in poststructuralism with an increasing attention to the material realities of nonhuman assemblages. In the fields of theory, art, and literature, assemblages such as swarms, networks, trees, and fungi have inspired formal innovation and ethico-political reflection. Still, while critical scholarship has begun to argue that the poststructuralist decentering of the subject is often complicit with the neoliberalism it officially opposes (Benn Michaels), the environmental imagination of swarms, trees, and fungi is still overwhelmingly read as offering an alternative to neoliberalism (Nixon). This presentation takes inspiration from recent revisionary accounts of neoliberalism that stress its difference from classical liberalism (Slobodian; Konings; Mirowski; Kotsko) to reassess the relation between environmental imaginaries and neoliberalism. I discuss Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which is organized around the relations between human agents and tree-fungi-collectives, as a novel that dramatizes the tensions between the more classical liberalism to which the novel genre has traditionally been beholden and a neoliberalism that, I argue, is fueled rather than challenged by the kind of collective agency the novel imagines.

Pieter Vermeulen is an associate professor of American and Comparative Literature at the University of Leuven. He is the author of Romanticism After the Holocaust (2010), Contemporary Literature and the End of the Novel: Creature, Affect, Form (2015), and Literature and the Anthropocene (2020), and a co-editor of, most recently, Institutions of World Literature: Writing, Translation, Markets (2015), Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies (2017), and a double special issue of LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory on contemporary literature and/as archive (2020). His current writing project investigates the relation between the “Americanization” of world literature and the notion of world literary value.

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Thursday, 20 January 2022 | 16:30 – 17:45

Sarah de Mul (Open University)
Feminist and Postcolonial Artistic Responses to Burnout Culture

Burnout is widely recognised as a major public health problem, which has been explicitly linked to the modern urban environments and lifestyles of late capitalist culture (e.g. Han, Chabot). It has plagued the modern workplace for decades and is nowdays carefully monitored across Europe. In the face of the unprecedented challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising numbers of burnout have been reported, which arguably signal a parallel mental health pandemic, affecting women and minorities in particular (Dzau et al. 2020).

In this lecture, I will discuss the notion of burnout culture from gender and diversity perspectives. In particular, I will ask what, and if so how, (postcolonial) feminist theorizations and artistic imaginations could contribute to the scholarship on the self-sufficient entrepreneurial individual in our postmodern society, in particular, his or her exhaustion and other related mental and affective states. Analysing a number of recent artistic and literary imaginations of millenial women and millenial work, I hope to bring into view how ideas of  care (work) and capitalism’s care crisis which have thus far been largely sidelined, or not properly been considered, could add to current scholarship of contemporary burnout culture.

Sarah De Mul is Professor of Literature, Culture and Diversity at the Open University in the Netherlands. Her research interests are situated at the intersection of literary and cultural criticism and comparative postcolonial and gender studies with a particular focus on literatures in Dutch and English. Publications include Colonial Memory (Amsterdam University Press, 2011), Commitment and Complicity in Cultural Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ed. with B. O. Firat and S. van Wichelen), The Postcolonial Low Countries (Lexington Books, 2012, with E. Boehmer), the Dutch language memoir Retour San Sebastian. Opgroeien met een vaderland in de verte (De Bezige Bij, 2017). She is currently exploring the role of art, care and resilience in the age of stress and burn-out, particularly in relation to their gendered, racial and ecological dimensions.

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Friday 21 January 2022 | 11:30 – 12:45 

Johannes Voelz (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main)
The Post-Liberal Aesthetic, or: Can Literary Studies Help Unsettle Polarization?

In this talk, I make a plea to revisit, reevaluate, and reformulate the tradition of liberalism in order to recover its democratic resources. With liberalism having degraded into neoliberalism, these resources have become difficult to tap into. Yet, in the democratic crisis that marks the contemporary moment, they may be more crucial than ever. Perhaps surprisingly, I suggest that literary studies has a role to play in the broader response to that crisis. My focus will be on the United States, where a key characteristic of contemporary democracy is particularly pronounced: While American democracy faces multiple crises, current levels of polarization make it impossible to effectively address any of them. In this situation, literary studies confronts a dual challenge: it must, firstly, come to terms with its own contribution to the dynamics of polarization and, secondly, consider whether it can help undo it. Adopting a cultural-sociological perspective, I identify literary studies as an institution that consolidates the politico-cultural identity of the “new middle class” and contributes to the culturalization of politics underlying contemporary polarization. However, I suggest that (American) literary studies has the capacity to help revive democratic culture if it nurtures reading practices that unsettle fixed identities. To that end, I single out various recent theories of reading whose democratic potential is grounded in their shared premise that literature is a communicative act. In interpreting these models of criticism as a potential way out of the malaise of polarization, I aim to identify a critical “practice of liberty” (John Gray) attuned to what I call the “post-liberal aesthetic.”

Johannes Voelz is Heisenberg Professor of American Studies, Democracy, and Aesthetics at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany. He is the author of The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (Cambridge UP, 2018) and Transcendental Resistance: The New Americanists and Emerson’s Challenge (UP of New England, 2010). He is an editor of WestEnd. Neue Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the journal of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, as well as of REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature. He has also edited numerous essay collections and special issues, among them “Security and Liberalism” for the journal Telos (2015). He is a PI in the interdisciplinary research project “ConTrust: Trust in Conflict – Political Life under Conditions of Uncertainty” at the University of Frankfurt and moreover directs the research project “American Literature and the Transformation of Privacy,” funded by the German Research Foundation.

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