The Arts of Democratization: Stylizing Political Sensibilities in Postwar West Germany

24th Biennial St. Louis Symposium on German Literature and Culture

"The Arts of Democratization," co-organized by Jennifer Kapczynski and Caroline Kita, explores the relationship between the historical processes of democratization in postwar West Germany and their representation in the arts, media, and public discourse. This international, interdisciplinary event takes up the case of West Germany in order to explore what insights it can offer for salvaging and sustaining democracy in its contemporary forms. Bringing together scholars from the fields of German Studies, History, Film Studies, and Political Science, the conference asks how the arts, media, and public discourse cultivated and contested the processes of democratization in the postwar Federal Republic. Specifically, participants will explore how postwar thinkers and artists sought to conceptualize and render legible West German political transformation. How, in the wake of fascism and occupation, did postwar intellectuals imagine democracy? How did they picture democracy as both a political and cultural system? What forms did they envision democratic subjectivity taking, and how did they believe that democratic feeling might be nurtured and protected?

Scholars of democracy have long looked to the Federal Republic of Germany as a model for how to transition from a violent, authoritarian regime to a peaceable nation of rights. Although this account has been contested since its inception, the transformations spurred by unification and its aftermath have posed a particular challenge to the narrative of West Germany’s “happy ending.” In particular, the current rise of right-wing political movements, along with growing cultural unease regarding refugee policies, have awakened old concerns about the populace’s commitment to democratic principles. Broader developments across Europe — from numerous electoral successes of nationalist politicians to the ongoing “Brexit” — and, across the Atlantic, ever deepening fissures in the U.S. political system have produced a climate in which the future of Western democracy appears critically at risk. This sense of emergency is amplified by contemporary political theorists, who term our own era “post-democratic” and argue that today’s neoliberalism is in the process of literally “undoing the demos,” such that precarity has become part of state policy.

Any speculation about the coming end of democracy demands that we examine its potential beginnings as well as its possible futures. At the heart of this endeavor to probe both dead ends and paths forward is the question of dissent. Are there limits to the plurality of opinion that a democracy can or should permit? How do we address the emergence of political movements and protest cultures that seem to threaten the foundational principles of modern democracy? And what role can artists and intellectuals play in thinking beyond our current political and cultural impasses?