Zoë Roth

Assistant Professor of French, Durham University

Denise Grollmus

University of Washington

Scholars in the humanities have for several decades now been expected to justify their value in the face of a neoliberal, market-led approach to higher education, dating back to the 1980s, but having a particularly acute effect in the current climate of fiscal austerity. In an age where big data and calculable returns on investment have become privileged forms of information, humanities disciplines appear stranded on the wrong side of the values continuum. The study of literature (not least literatures written in languages other than the national language of the scholar’s own society) has been one area of scholarship whose social relevance has been particularly difficult to quantify. Modern languages have, during this period, had to continually renegotiate whether the study of literature should remain at the centre of its disciplinary aims.

Yet if it was uncertain what good the humanities in general, and literary studies in particular, served before ‘The Age of Trump’, it is now becoming increasingly clear that the critical attitudes they foster, the analytical strategies they deploy, and the interpretative insights they generate are, in fact, greatly needed in our present political moment—the era marked by the victories of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit camp in the UK, and exceptionally strong performances of far-right parties across Europe, as well as an unfettered rise of anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant discourses throughout the Western world.

It was in recognition of this that Jonathan Freedman of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and I convened the symposium titled ‘World Literatures and the New Totalitarianism’—a two-day event which took place at Senate House in London on the 15th and 16th of May of this year. The symposium, funded by the Institute for Modern Languages Research, Durham University and the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community OWRI project, assembled scholars from a variety of departments (French, English, Comparative Literature, Jewish, and Slavic Studies), all working on ‘world literatures’, understood broadly as texts transcending the boundaries of nation-states. What we focused on specifically was how, as literary scholars and critics, we can think through and respond to the present global political shift to the far right—to include not just the rise of various new breeds of nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance, but also, and especially, a resurgence of what Hannah Arendt has identified and analysed as inherently totalitarian social forms.

One of the key questions that we posed in our call for papers was: ‘What is the role of the humanities in resisting totalizing forces?’ What seemed compelling was how, in the current political environment, our vocation and expertise—as those who teach people ‘how to read’ and whose lives are spent in the service of ‘thinking critically’—can provide strategies for reading and interpreting the current political landscape. What we sought to explore in our symposium were specific tools of vigilance and resistance that literary scholars are able to offer in the face of the spectre of ‘new totalitarianism’ that is currently sweeping the globe. Most concerning to us were the means by which this new totalitarianism challenges narratives of progressive cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and open borders, while giving legitimacy to discourses of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, and anti-intellectualism.

Of the various dimensions that define new totalitarianism as a social form, speed is particularly prominent. The relentlessness with which this political paradigm assaults our senses with troubling ‘breaking news’; the alacrity with which, for instance, the Trump administration purges the US government of any person, and any norms, that stand in its way; the pace with which ‘fake news’ propagates through social media—all reminded us of that ‘perpetual motion mania of totalitarian movements which can remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything in motion’, which Hannah Arendt spoke of in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Indeed, many of us at the symposium commented that we found ourselves continually updating our papers to catch up with the latest political situation. This was a slightly surreal experience for a group of people who normally write and think over long stretches of time about objects which, materially, do not change all that much. It seemed as though literary analysis may not, after all, be such an efficient tool to respond to the swiftness of the current political moment.

And yet, in my own paper, titled ‘Forms of Totalitarianism and the Totality of Form: Arendt, Aesthetics, and the State of Emergency’, I suggested that the plodding process of literary criticism and interpretation provides a form of resistance to the strategic accelerations of totalitarian forms. I began by unpacking the formal qualities of totalitarianism through a reading of Arendt that points to a way of understanding our current political situation. This situation has emerged rapidly and, for some, shockingly, and has made the world incoherent by inverting established logics. It thrives by showcasing an ‘image of omnipotence’, rather than reflecting power as such. One of the problems with resisting this political form is that we become complicit in it, specifically vis-à-vis its temporality, if and when we respond to it as a state of emergency. And this means that our resistance to it—to ‘Trump’, to the surging populist right, but also to other ‘totalizing forces’, including those of neoliberalism that have transformed the institutional structures of our own profession—must be informed not only by a resistance to the content of their politics, but also their form, including, especially, their temporalities.

Denise Grollmus, in her paper ‘Illiberal Readers and the Crisis of Free Speech: Blood Libel, Pizzagate, and the Rise of Ethnonationalism’, also considered the role that speed plays in the rise of the far right, focusing on the incredible rate at which fake news is disseminated and reinforced online. Not only did she consider how this speed makes engaging in critical reading practices difficult for even the most astute readers, she also examined the way such rapid spread of unchecked information instigates both symbolic and physical violence. She offered a telling comparison of the present situation with the explosion of print culture and the popular press at the turn of the 20th century—a development that stimulated juridical and scientific re-articulations of the blood libel myth throughout Europe, leading to a surge in the pogroms of Jews which lasted well into the century. Grollmus argued, moreover, that the discourses of lies and hate currently circulating against minorities cannot be protected by Western liberal free-speech laws when these laws are predicated on the public’s ability to critically read and interpret texts. Indeed, without the cultivation and implementation of such reading practices, and in the face of the speed at which misinformation is being spread, history shows that the only logical outcome of uncritical engagement with such information is violence on a mass scale.

Acceleration is not, of course, the only discursive weapon of ‘new totalitarianism’, nor is deceleration the only means we have to resist it. Other participants in the symposium also used strategies of literary analysis and interpretation to deconstruct different aspects of ‘new totalitarianism’ as a socio-cultural form. For instance, Benjamin Schreier of Penn State University focused on a different dimension of totalitarianism’s temporality – not its velocity, but its teleology. He argued that we cannot treat claims made by the contemporary far right as descriptive of what either was or is, but should always take them as future-oriented declarations about a world that they intend to construct, or rather as (highly disconcerting) statements of intent. Jonathan Freedman of the University of Michigan discussed how xenophobia, antisemitism, racism, and misogyny are currently seeping into civic life in a fundamentally ambivalent ‘alternative alternative public sphere’, dominated by new media platforms that stimulate the remarkable, technologically innovative, proliferations of extreme far-right views, while at the same time facilitating the rise of militant ‘resistance movements’ to them. Yet this play of simultaneous enablement and denunciation of reactionary values in social media can have profound, transformative effects on the discursive field as a whole, resulting in a disturbing normalisation of these views and values. This is, yet again, shown to have parallels in history, such as the case of the ‘internalization’ of antisemitism by Viennese Jews at the turn of the 20th century, as demonstrated in the paper presented by Lisa Silverman of the University of Wisconsin.

Examining a variety of different examples, other speakers at the symposium offered complementary messages about the ways in which reading fiction provides important moments of defamiliarization which encourage readers to look at their present reality in ways that challenge precisely those assumptions that make resistance to totalizing forces so difficult. For instance, Nasia Anam of Princeton University considered the inverted logic of contemporary dystopian novels that represent Middle Eastern migrants as colonists, showing how the Western concept of utopia—so tied to the colonial project—is always caught up in a project of ‘re-purification’ in which genocide appears logical and necessary as a tool for self-improvement and a counter to civilizational degradation.

Max Silverman of the University of Leeds offered a reading of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as a text that exemplifies ‘concentrationary art’—representations of the everyday, such as life in modern French housing estates, as resembling life in Nazi concentration camps (particularly the transit camps that existed in France, rather than the death camps typical of Poland). Such art defamiliarizes the reality we live in by drawing attention to its ‘concentrationariness’. It engages the viewer in an experience of what Arendt would describe as ‘the banality of evil’, the fundamental ordinariness which played such a crucial role in the ability of Nazi Germany to carry out the Holocaust, and which masks the extraordinary violence that continues to plague our present world.

Sasha Senderovich of the University of Washington considered how a variety of cultural artefacts—from the novels, journalism and art of Russian émigrés based in the US to the contemporary television show The Americans—use the topos of late Soviet socialism as a dystopian moment through which to understand, describe, and satirize autocracy and stagnation in contemporary America. Bryan Cheyette of the University of Reading focused, in his turn, on Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to highlight what is involved when we read counter-factual narratives as anticipating or explaining the current moment, specifically the revalorization of nationalism and sovereignty in Trump’s United States, but echoing related political and cultural phenomena found elsewhere in the world today.

London proved to be an ideal location at which to begin this crucial conversation given the city’s importance as a bastion of precisely the values under attack. We came out of the symposium with a strong sense that, on the one hand, we will, as Arendt has noted, always live in dark times; but that, on the other, the current moment may still lead to new imaginative strategies for responding to what we have dubbed ‘new totalitarianism’. Most importantly, our discussions have convinced us that, if we wish to seek a return to the politics of tolerance and openness, it is vital to foster a politics of reading and resistance—to analyse and understand the socio-cultural forms of present-day totalitarianism and to identify both new and old structures of imaginative response to them. The unique contributions that modern languages scholars can bring to this mission—their openness to and understanding of linguistic and cultural difference, as well as their transnational and comparative perspective on totalitarianisms, past and present—places upon them a particular burden of responsibility. That responsibility must not be shirked.