- Pact with the People? Popular Genres, Public Concerns, and the Politics of Representation
Recent resurgences of "populist" parties, from the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany to the National Rally in France, haunt political debates. 1While theorists like Chantal Mouffe present leftwing populism as a necessary strategy against the Right, 2Éric Fassin declares such a strategy ineffective, 3and Jan-Werner Müller even considers it a threat to democracy itself. 4What unites the divergent positions is the claim that there are no people as such preceding the populists' evocation. Rather, there exist "diverse and even antagonistic images of the people," 5as Jacques Rancière puts it. Drawing on the insight that these images are fabricated by popular media and forms, Ethel Matala de Mazza's study The Popular Pact: Negotiations of Modernity between Operetta and Feuilleton(my translation) traces the sociocultural emergence of the elusive foundation [End Page 203]of modern democracy: the common folk. At stake in Matala de Mazza's history of these "small forms" and their investment in popular concerns is thus a critique of political instrumentalizations of the people and the excavation of a media archive that fosters democratic participation today.
While Germanophone literary studies rarely joins forces with political and social theories—one exception is Albrecht Koschorke's seminal work on the formative qualities of narration 6—Matala de Mazza intervenes in current debates by reframing questions of political representation: What if the constitution of the people as a political agent is reflected in or even dependent on acts of aesthetic representation afforded by the operetta and feuilleton? With a focus on metropolitan sites of entertainment in Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, Matala de Mazza illuminates a sphere of ordinary people, notorious nonreaders, who have shaped the very meaning of the words publicand political. This constitutes a major turn against an intellectual tradition, ranging from Immanuel Kant to Jürgen Habermas, that attributes the constitution of the modern public sphere solely to the exchange between men of letters. 7In the spirit of Siegfried Kracauer, German film and media scholars have opened a more inclusive perspective on public life; two examples, among others, are Hermann Kappelhoff's work on melodrama and Markus Krajewski's history of the server. 8Combining a media studies lens with profound knowledge in literary history, Matala de Mazza sheds new light on the contexts of Kracauer's Salaried Masses(1930) and his operetta-book Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time(1936), works that provide both methodological inspiration and major cornerstones for her study. Matala de Mazza's book is more than a piece of Kracauer scholarship, however: it is the first work to connect key moments in the history of popular genres. Spanning roughly the period from the French Revolution to the Nazi takeover in Germany, The Popular Pactfollows the process in which the masses become visible in the public, develop a sense of self, and thus constitute a political power that has to be reckoned with.
The title, The Popular Pact, proves most evocative and contains three major layers. First, the pact concerns aesthetic attempts to win the favor of the people, who appear in the double role of [End Page 204]audience and agent of social transformations. Second, the title refers to implicit pacts between the people and political power, a dimension most prevalent in the chapter on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Third, Matala de Mazza investigates the pact between the people and the public intellectuals who claim to speak on their behalf. Within this contested field, operetta and feuilleton assume different functions: whereas the musical genre addresses the masses with catchy tunes and danceable rhythms, the small newspaper form mainly registers shifts in the public sphere, of which the rise of the operetta is but one example. Despite the obvious differences between operetta and feuilleton, Matala de Mazza takes Kracauer's investment in the two genres seriously and makes the compelling argument that they are conceptually intertwined...