Liane Ströbel

„Dumpster Fire“: International Discourses of Populism, 2015-2018

Organizers & Presiders: Ludwig Deringer, Liane Stroebel


Today populism in its manifold manifestations no doubt figures as one of the most controversial phenomena worldwide, impacting political discourses in Europe and the United States in particular. The situation of the refugees in Europe, the 2016-17 election campaigns in the United States, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, as well as Great Britain’s “Brexit”, are cases in point. The American Dialect Society voted “dumpster fire” the Word of the Year 2016, as denoting “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation” and “as best representing the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year” ( Thus, the presiders and presenters of this Special Session argue, innovative scholarship is called for that is interdisciplinary and multilingual, one reason being that “English Is Not Enough” (Catherine Porter, 2009). Obviously, pertinent scholarship will work from the angles of linguistics, classical and contemporary rhetoric, as well as political and cultural history. The Session is directed toward students and scholars from a variety of disciplines but is nevertheless coherent in its aims and structure. One of the main aims is to clarify the distinctiveness of populism in these three countries, and to define similarities, constants, or even types of populist discourse in general. Issues and problems of content and methodology will likely make for a productive discussion. All the presiders and presenters are experienced conference co-/organizers who highly value stimulating debate, and will therefore painstakingly observe time limits.

This Session is scheduled to have two presiders for two reasons: (1) While the foci of the three papers are on Belgium, France, and Spain, the international approach calls for experts in a spectrum ranging from Romance Studies to American Studies. (2) Since the audience will likely include many native speakers from the Romania, one presider should be a specialist in Romance languages and cultures. In our perception, the discussion will benefit from this rationale. Therefore, Ludwig Deringer will moderate the presentations (18 mins. each) and enforce time limits, whereas Liane Ströbel will be leading the ensuing discussion (16 mins.). Since the three papers highlight European developments, the discussion period could function as an exchange of ideas from a Transatlantic viewpoint, exploring the applicability of European scenarios to (North) America along comparative lines. Can the various „dumpster fires“ be quenched in the foreseeable future?

Opening the Session, Julien Perrez will attempt a definition of the key term in his paper “Who Wants to Be a Populist? A Linguistic Analysis of the Use of the Lexemes ‘Populist’ and ‘Populism’ in Belgian Media Discourse”. Researchers agree on some defining characteristics of ‘populism’, such as resistance to the intellectual elite, and of ‘populist rhetoric’, such as the deictics of exclusion (De Landtsheer et al. 2016). Yet the exact meaning of ‘populism’ seems to vary according to the contexts in which it is used, thereby confirming the perception of Reineman et al. that the term is characterized by “conceptual ambiguity” (2017:12). Against this background, this paper aims (1) at unraveling the multiple meanings of ‘populism’, e.g. determining in what contexts it is used and with respect to what thematic issues, and (2) at identifying which political actors are explicitly labeled as ‘populist’ and by whom. To meet these aims, this presentation will be based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the occurrences of the lexemes ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in a representative Belgian press corpus, covering the period from September 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. The data is currently under analysis and will be presented during the Session.

Looking at Belgium’s neighboring country to the south, Aline Wieders-Lohéac will tackle “‘Enemies of the People’: Discursive Strategies of Populist Movements in the 2017 French Presidential Election Campaign”. Most modern-day populists in Western democracies, she argues, have identified two main “enemies of the people”: (illegal) immigrants and the (political) establishment (that welcomed them). Claiming that the democratically elected politicians do not represent the people’s will any longer, they challenge the political elite to react to such attacks. Consequently, two major questions arise: (1) What strategies do populist movements use to  construct an ‘us’ group and differentiate it from a ‘them’ group?; (2) How does the so-challenged elite react to this attack? The situation in France is particularly interesting since the political elite is under attack not only from a right-wing party led by presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, but also from the new movement En Marche founded by the “lost son of the establishment”, Emmanuel Macron, who advocates far leftist positions.The corpus consists of speeches by the leaders of the  movements, and by President Francois Hollande. Moreover, it contains extracts from various party programs. To elicit the typical argumentative structures, the topoi, this paper uses an approach from Wengeler (2003, 2007), based on Aristotle’s definition of topos. Furthermore, with the linguistic program SketchEngine, Wieders-Lohéac will analyze typical keywords and co-occurrences, so as to determine the typical structures of different levels, and to compare them to each other.

Turning south once more, Sandra Issel-Dombert examines “Populism and Crisis: The Rise of Podemos in Spain”. The aim of this contribution is to analyze the rise of the leftist “Podemos” party in Spain following the financial and banking crisis of 2008. This paper also suggests an empirical method using a press corpus compiled via the  LexisNexis program. Based on the hypothesis that a linguistic point of view can provide reliable insight into the workings of a crisis discourse, this contribution will employ a data-driven approach, combining three different linguistic methods: topos analysis, keywords, and  metaphors. The method of topos analysis – in the tradition of Aristotle – concerns the revelation of more or less implicit arguments in discourse. Keywords occur with a (statistically) high frequency in texts and on this basis are able to delineate characteristics of a specific period. Since Lakoff/Johnson (1980) at the very latest, metaphors have been regarded as a fruitful concept to analyze political discourse because of their ability to indicate patterns of meaning. This triangulation allows us to describe the specific “anatomy” of the crisis discourse in Spain.

Genre, Theory, Method: Rhetoric and Rhetorical Theory

Information on panelists’ and presiders’ scholarship, particularly scholarship that directly relates to the session topic

Sandra Issel-Dombert is an instructor and a doctoral candidate in Romance Linguistics at the University of Kassel. She studied French, Spanish, German and Education Studies at the University of Kassel and at Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). She earned a Teacher Diploma (Staatsexamen) and is currently at work on her doctoral dissertation in diachronic French linguistics about the linguistics of complaint as exemplified in the Cahiers de doléances. She has been the recipient of several excellence awards and scholarships. She has organized or co-organized several workshops and conferences, and presented 23 conference papers at various European universities, including University College London, the University of Stockholm, and Universidad de València. Many of her presentations were invited papers. Among her areas of research and teaching are the history of French and of Spanish, political discourse in times of populism, immigration, and terrorism, as well as the rhetoric of election campaigns. Among her forthcoming publications is an article (with Marie Serwe) on the party platform of the right-wing Front National in France under Marine Le Pen.

Aline Wieders-Lohéac also is an instructor and a doctoral candidate in  Romance Linguistics at the University of Kassel. She studied Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Universidade Nova in Lisbon and at Sorbonne Nouvelle 3 in Paris. She earned her Teacher Diploma (Staatsexamen) in 2014 and is currently at work on her doctoral dissertation about the speeches of French politicians in reaction to terrorism („Le discours contre la terreur“). With Sandra Issel-Dombert, she presented several papers on political discourses in France and Spain, including populism, migration, and elections, and in November 2016 they organized an interdisciplinary conference on presidential election campaigns (publication of conference proceedings in progress). Aline Wieders-Lohéac has received several scholarships and excellence awards from organizations such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Notably, she was a Fellow of the German National Merit Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes).

Julien Perrez is associate professor of Dutch Linguistics at Université de Liège. His areas of research include language typology (French-Dutch), cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphors, as well as interfaces of language and politics. In the wake of this interdisciplinary research, he has developed since 2011, with political scientist Prof. Dr. Min Reuchamps (Université Catholique de Louvain), the research group “Langue(s) & Politique(s)”, gathering 70 Belgian and international scholars from a broad range of disciplines, sponsored by the Fonds National de la Recherche scientific (FNRS). This resulted in the organization of two international conferences on political metaphors (2014, 2016). In 2015, they obtained a four-year FNRS grant in the amount of 398,000 Euros for a research project entitled “A Discursive Approach to the Paradox of Federalism in Linguistically Divided Democracies,” which has resulted in several publications co-authored by Professor Perrez since 2015. These include “Deliberate Metaphors in Political Discourse: The Case of Citizen Discourse,”Metaphorik 25 (2014): 7-41, and “Constructing Quebec and Wallonia”, in: Minority Nations in Multinational Federations, ed. M. Reuchamps (London: Routledge, 2015), 49-81. Professor Perrez has also published, with Professor Maarten Lemmens (Université Lille 3), in international peer-reviewed journals such as Cognitive Linguistics.

Liane Ströbel is Acting Chair of the Romance Languages Division in the Department of English, American and Romance Studies at RWTH Aachen University, one of eleven universities in the Federal Excellence Initiative of the Federal Republic of Germany. As a postdoctoral researcher she worked at Collaborative Research Center 991, “The Structure of Representation in Language, Cognition, and Science”, of the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/DFG) and at the DFG Research Group FOR 600, “Functional Concepts and Frames”, at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf. She gained her teaching experience (nearly 100 courses to date) in four universities: RWTH Aachen University, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg, and Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg. She authored and edited books and articles on language change, language variation, and language evolution. She is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, and is currently at work (with Michel Favre) on a book about linguistic change in French rhetoric in the aftermath of terror attacks. Her main fields of interest are Cognitive Linguistics and Discourse Analysis. Her four most recent articles deal with the role of sound symbolism and sensorimotor concepts during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaign, the current French Presidential campaign, as well as the upcoming German federal elections.

Ludwig Deringer is University Professor Emeritus of American and Canadian Studies at RWTH Aachen University. His research and teaching areas include American and Canadian literature and culture, American and Canadian political rhetoric (colonial to contemporary), North American English, American-German literary and cultural interrelations, and Willa Cather. His work has appeared, for example, in the monograph series ‘Transatlantic Perspectives’ (vol. 5/1996), in the essay collection Aspects of Interculturality: Canada and the United States (2002), and in the journal American Speech. In 1985-86, he was an American Council of Learned Societies Research Fellow at the University of Washington—Seattle and the University of Oregon—Eugene. In 2004, he was an Invited Research Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. He also has received publication awards and travel grants from the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), among other institutions. Ludwig Deringer has been a frequent presenter at conferences in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and a visiting researcher at libraries and archives such as the Houghton Library of Harvard University and the National Library of Australia in Canberra.


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