Populism as Non-Narrative: Theorizing the Poetics of Post-Narrative Politics

Research project by Sebastian M. Herrmann

Funded by the VW Stiftung, this project sets out to explore a new, counter-intuitive perspective on contemporary populist rhetoric. Its goal is to theorize the poetics of contemporary populism as marked by decidedly non-narrative symbolic logics. This entails two provocative propositions: One, that populism can and should be approached via its poetics, i.e. from a disciplinary perspective invested in ‘form’; and two, that contemporary populism traffics not in the symbolic form of narrative, that it does not operate by providing ‘simple’ or ‘closed’ narratives, but that it uses the complex symbolic logics of play, spectacle, and database instead. This perspective goes against the dominant view in journalism, punditry, and academia alike, a view that holds that narrative—a form characterized by coherence, by teleological progression, by narrative necessity, and by an ability to order the world into cause-and-effect patterns—is central to political world building. Populism, this view holds, uses simplified and simplifying narratives to appeal to its audience. In shifting perspectives and focusing on non-narrative symbolic forms instead, I hope to work toward a model of what I think of as post-narrative politics.