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Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures

VOX POP: Locating and Constructing the "Voice of the People"

Building from a millennia-old maxim--the voice of the people is the voice of God--the desire to locate, fabricate, and appropriate the vox populi has been especially pervasive for at least the last two centuries. What defines this voice of the people? Is it a voice charged with lore from the ancient past or one as new as today's poll numbers? How is it mediated: who speaks on behalf of the "grass roots," "the American people," the "Arab street"? The concept can challenge authority, promoting populist subversions of hierarchy (carnival, protest, revolution), yet it also feeds an age-old temptation to construct a monologic Voice of a monolithic People, silencing heterogeneous, dialogic voices. Whether sought in man-on-the-street interviews, the "voices of the People in song" (for Herder these included everyone from Homer, to Shakespeare, to Ossian), or contemporary advertising trends, the consensus of popular sentiment remains as elusive (and deceptive) an ideal as ever.

26-28 February, 2004

The VOX POP conference will consider the multitudes of peoples and voices that have come under the heading of vox populi, from the ancient populus or hoi polloi to the various "Peoples" of modern nationalism (das Volk, le peuple, narod), and from folksong to political discourse to "the writing on the wall." The conference invites a wide-ranging interrogation of the idea of the voice of the people by scholars from a range of fields.

A few possible points of orientation and approaches:

  • populisms: literary, political, religious, etc.
  • lines of transmission: "through the grapevine," via writers, politicians, and prophets, or--if the voice is silent/silenced--through transformations into other forms of expression (literature "written for the drawer," graffiti, visual arts, etc.)
  • national and ethnic identity; heritage as tradition or invention
  • issues of (dis)enfranchisement, literature and democracy, representation in government
  • questions of power and authority: what gives the vox pop legitimacy?
  • information technologies and the ways they have inflected ideas of popular expression
  • relations between ideas of "gender" and "the people"
  • "pop," folk, and country music, jazz and blues, "world" music, etc.
  • modalities/tone/intonation of the vox pop: appealing, commanding, mythopoetic, imperative
  • orality/literacy, national epics (authentic or fabricated)

    Keynote Speaker:
    Russell Berman
     (Stanford), "Literacy, Literature, and Democracy"
    Russell A. Berman is Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University (German Studies and Comparative Literature). He specializes in the study of German literary history and cultural politics and is the author of numerous articles and award-winning books, including Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture; The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma; and Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation and Nationhood.

    Plenary Speaker:
    Debra Castillo
     (Cornell), "Who Knows? Thoughts on Postcoloniality and Latin American Literary Culture"
    Debra A. Castillo is Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Romance Studies and Comparative Literature at Cornell University, where she has also directed Latin American Studies. She specializes in contemporary narrative of the Americas, Women's Studies, and post-colonial literary theory. Among her recent books are Talking Back: Strategies for a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism; Easy Women: Sex and Gender in Modern Mexican Fiction; Border Women: Writing from La Frontera (co-author); and Latin American Literature and Mass Media (co-editor).

    Plenary Speaker:
    Morag Shiach 
    (University of London), "Modernism and Linguistic Authenticity: Constructing the Voice of the People, 1910-1935"
    Morag Shiach is Professor of Cultural History in the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London. Her research is interdisciplinary, drawing on theoretical approaches and research methodologies from literary studies, cultural studies, history, and political theory. Her publications include Modern Labour: Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture, 1890-1930; Hélène Cixous: A Politics of Writing; Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender and History in Cultural Analysis 1730 to the Present; several edited volumes; and numerous articles.

    Affiliated Roundtable:
    Charles Bierbauer
     (South Carolina), moderator, "The Voice of the People in the American Political Process"
    Charles Bierbauer is Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. A distinguished broadcast journalist, Bierbauer was for twenty years a correspondent for CNN in Washington, where he covered the Supreme Court, the Bush and Reagan administrations and the presidential campaigns from 1984-96. From 1977-81, he was an overseas correspondent for ABC News, first as Moscow Bureau Chief and later as the Bonn Bureau chief.

    Abstracts: Please send one-page abstracts for twenty-minute papers to the conference organizers, Judith Kalb and Alexander Ogden, Comparative Literature Program, Humanities Building, Columbia, SC 29208, or e-mail them to Broadly interdisciplinary presentations are encouraged. We plan to publish a volume of selected papers from the conference. Updated conference information will be available on the web at

    Deadline for proposals: 31 October 2003


We gratefully acknowledge the generous sponsorship of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; the College of Liberal Arts; the Program in Comparative Literature; McKissick Museum; the Walker Institute of International Studies; the Program in Latin American Studies; the South Carolina Honors College; and the Women's Studies Program.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.