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Denmark 's future: your country – your choice. The cover of the controversial book by Denmark 's People's Party (DPP). The DPP is the far-right, anti-immigrants, populist party of Denmark . The book is organized in two sections. The first section textually and visually describes Muslim immigrants as the greatest threat to Danish nation. The second part draws an idyllic picture of Denmark that will be restored to its original state through DPP's policies.
Many of the pictures in the first section of the book depict Muslim women with headscarf.
These images are contrasted to the modern-looking, emancipated Danish women.
The cultural contrast is not limited to DPP's discourse. The image above is from the “immigrants friendly” daily newspaper Politiken. This is the most common way of understanding immigrants. Needles to say that the visual contrast is created through selective framing of the street life.
Election poster by the Liberal Party in 2001. Immigration debate has moved into the center of political discourse. The picture depicts young immigrants outside a courtroom after having been convicted of ‘gang rape' of a young Danish woman. The only text on the poster reads: Time for Change.
My research is concerned with social change and populist rhetoric. I am particularly interested in analyzing how discursive resources such as nationalism, ethnicity, racism, religion, and culture are politically mobilized to create and institutionalize social divisions. I am also interested in more theoretical questions such as hegemony, the nature of meaning, reality-mind relationship, and how to analyze them.
Dissertation (for a summary, click here)
In my dissertation research (based on data from Denmark), I examine how a society that understood itself as divided between social classes slowly turned into a society that now conceives itself as an organic (ethnic/cultural) unity; and how that unity is produced by excluding who are deemed culturally alien. Old class-based divisions (politically expressed in left-right distinctions) functioned as a magnetic center that aligned other types of struggles along a left-right fracture. The new vision, in turn, fractures and reconfigures social identities (e.g. feminists, gays, human rights activist etc.) along a new dividing line based on cultural distinctions, pushing the entire discourse to the right. My argument is that cultural distinctions are not given but produced in discourse through politically orchestrated moral panics that maintain cultural distinctions as the focal point in political discourse. This is the work of far right populist movements.
My dissertation is about the successful rhetorical interventions by far right, racist-nationalist populist movements in Europe , based on content analysis of Danish newspapers, ethnographic observations in newsrooms, and in-depth interviews with ordinary Danes. Focusing on a particular moment of the populist intervention (the mid-‘80s), I examine the rhetorical strategies that enabled populist leaders to place themselves at the heart of immigration debate as one of the principle voices. The far right populist movement was so successful in framing the immigration debate in cultural terms (Muslim immigrants were presented the greatest cultural threat to European civilization) that we now seem to have forgotten that the cultural dimension of immigration was only one among many ways of talking about immigration in ‘60s and ‘70s. More importantly, they succeeded in making immigration and culture the central issues for the mainstream parties' appeal to the voters (thus causing deep crises for social democratic parties whose political identities were class-based). By pushing the immigration debate into the center of public discourse, they seized the entire political discourse.
The long term effect of this discursive intervention is the culturalization of the entire political discourse (beyond immigration). As the controversy over the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten (one of the newspapers that I study) or the latest French elections (where Sarkozy won the presidency on an explicitly anti-immigration campaign), it is clear that politics of immigration and cultural difference has moved into the center of European discourse. It means that society is now basically envisioned in ethnic and cultural terms, and issues that were traditionally not related to immigration are now discussed as matters of ethnic and cultural differences rather than as a matter of class differences (e.g., the redistribution of resources and the future of the welfare state).
One important implication of this study is that social change cannot solely be understood as the result of demographic, structural or discursive changes as if structures or discourses have their own dynamics independent of political struggles. Rather, social change is the result of hegemonic interventions in discourse. Successful hegemonic interventions erase their traces and present current understandings of the political, social and cultural as common sense. One way of erasing traces is to project the new ontology of the social back into the past as if society has always been imagined this way. As a result, we have come to talk about clashes between cultures (or civilizations) as if these entities have independent agencies with internally consistent logics.
I also believe that my line of analysis contributes to a more embedded, operationalized understanding of hegemony theory. Firstly, it integrates different theoretical and analytical approaches through a hands-on analysis of hegemony.
One basic premise for my analysis is that discourse is inherently rhetorical (action oriented rather than an expression of mindset). It means that language use is full of inconsistencies and contradictions and thus does not provide an inventory of stable ideological patterns. This understanding of discourse as slippery seemingly contradicts classical understandings of hegemony, which presumes some kind of stability of meaning. Here, I demonstrate that the stability of categories is secured not so much by ideology but by rendering them empty of content, thus making it possible to treat them as categories of common sense. It is the empty quality of categories that enables them to serve as ontological categories of the social (e.g., Europeans vs. Muslim immigrants), upon which social, economic, cultural and political demands are based. In other words, what fixes the meaning of social categories is not ideology as such but the distinctions between categories, which signify the presence of the categories rather than any positive content in them.
Secondly, this type of analysis operationalizes categories which had so far belonged to a more abstract world of philosophy. For instance, the notion of empty signifier does not have to be an abstract concept whose intellectual validity relies upon the internal consistency of the theory. Through analysis of actual discourse, it is possible to show that concepts and categories are used in flexible ways that makes it difficult to pinpoint the essential moment of signification, unless they are emptied of content and used to signify the presence of the categories rather than their content.
The third aspect of this study's contribution to hegemony theory is its concrete, detailed account of the hegemonic shift that is taking place in Europe , a shift that often goes unnoticed because culture talk itself has become normalized. I question the persistent focus on cultural aspects of subjects in public/political discourse and argue for the re-politicization of the study of culture where power struggle, not the culture itself, is in focus.
My future research will focus on the production of culture through particular issues that constitute immigrant (Muslim) culture such as ‘authoritarian thinking' (e.g. disrespect for freedom of speech), ‘honor killings', ‘forced marriages' and ‘gang rapes'. I will look at how these phenomena are produced by associating disparate acts of killing or rape and juxtaposing these acts with the ontological category of immigrants. It is my argument that once a criminal act is culturalized, it becomes more than a simple criminal act: it becomes a signifier of a cultural category of immigrants; it marks the limits of society and contributes to the construction of immigrants as a threat to the cohesive unity of society.
Another direction for future research will be the exploration of the relationship between global/international politics (e.g. “cold war,” “war on terrorism”) and national/local political identities.
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