Profanum Vulgus: Imagining Masses in Discourse and Culture

deadline for submissions: 
October 31, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Jibu Mathew George, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India

Call for Papers

Profanum Vulgus: Imagining Masses in Discourse and Culture

What are masses? And how do they behave? If masses are primarily a “practical fiction,” in Michael Warner’s suggestive description, whose determining features vary from period to period, how are they identified across history as masses? Is the category of mass an empty nominalization? Can one draw sharp distinctions between masses, crowds, and public? How do societies enable the formation of masses? If masses are simply produced by social processes specific to historical periods, what role does culture play in organizing, sustaining, and legitimizing the identity and function of masses? The key to answering these questions lies in viewing masses not as a standalone and isolated category but as a phenomenon that is closely linked to the mechanisms of social legitimation and power.

Masses, crowds, and public are among the peculiar social forms of modern life. Masses assemble and disperse; they are amorphous and are not held together by any natural unity, and they are often collections of individuals united by some communicative form—a text for instance in a limited sense, or discourse in an enlarged sense. Democracy in the modern sense, in its representative forms, becomes impossible without masses and their avatars. In spite of their patently modern forms, masses were an inexpungible part of the history of all organized societies. Social communication presupposes masses of one kind or another. From the times of Athenian democracy to the age of Shakespeare, and from medieval India to the nineteenth-century America and from the mass-culture-imbued fin-de-siècle Europe of Decadence and Modernism to the twenty-first-century information society, masses were an inalienable part of the social fabric, and hence its cultural matrix.

At a cultural level, the category of the masses is shot through with a range of social and evaluative distinctions. Masses are frequently contrasted with elites and are invariably associated with the common, the ordinary, the lowly, the disorderly and rebellious, the plebian, the secular and profane, and the subordinated and subjugated. As Mikhail Bakhtin had showed in Rabelais and his World, throughout the known history, the culture of the masses is rarely a mirror image of the dominant culture; it was frequently a recurring counter-project of revolt and inversion to the effects of domination which always sharply brought into focus the need for the social legitimation of dominant culture. In sum, in spite of democracies valorizing masses, the mass agency is always suspected and particularly delegitimized in the cultural sphere. This is partly because the inner dynamics of the masses are rarely understood in the fullness of their being and action; and partly because masses come to be known only as they are imagined to exist in certain contexts of communication and exchange. Benedict Anderson’s work adequately established this point. Culture in general and literature and representative arts in particular offer significant insights about how masses emerged and functioned contextually across history in different societies.  

Even as the question of masses is largely undertheorised, there are, however, important works of scholarship that in the last several decades have brought the masses into sharp focus. Erich Auerbach’s Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and Middle Ages is an early study from a comparative philologist’s standpoint. Auerbach concentrates on the style and genre exhibited by a range of texts in Latin and vernaculars across a period of thousand years to map the changing assumptions of public in the Western world. Jürgen Habermasplayed a pivotal role in steering the debate about masses through his important and widely discussed book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas’s reflections on the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere spawned a range of theoretical and empirical studies on the character of masses, frequently challenging Habermas’s position: Nancy Fraser’s feminist critique of the liberal public sphere, Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, and Sandria Freitag’s extensive work on the construction of public in colonial South Asia are an essential few to directly trace their influence to Habermas. William Mazzarella’s more recent work on mass publicity in The Mana of Mass Society is an instructive example of a theoretically informed anthropological work on masses. In addition, John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, a close study of the modernist artist’s infamous attitudes towards masses, Christian Novetzke’s The Quotidian Revolution, a pioneering study of the devotional publics in medieval India, Mary Ryan’s work of meticulous historical scholarship Women in Public, Lawrence Levine’s cultural history Highbrow Lowbrow,and Raymond Geuss’s penetrating inquiry, in his Public Goods, Private Goods,into the validity of the private/public distinction are a few notable works of scholarship to explicitly thematize the question of masses.

Despite extensive research, masses remain obscure both in terms of their ontology and function. A fruitful way of addressing this lacuna is to examine the way discourse brings masses and culture into one fold. Any object, linguistic or otherwise, infused with human intentions, derives a part of its significance from the context created by discourse. Social discourse inscribes masses into texts—literary, visual, or other varieties, not always directly as depictions and representations, but as products of discourse formed at the intersection of language, ideology, power, and social practice. Masses hence become inseparably implicated in different ways in the production of textuality. Whereas there have been important specialist and localized studies from different disciplinary vantage points, a project which raises and problematizes the question of masses from the point of view of discourse and power, even as it places masses in a comparative framework across history and cultures, is the need of the hour. Such a study would undoubtedly break new ground and create an interdisciplinary focus for studying a range of issues related to masses in fostering the social legitimacy for dominant culture.

This call for papers for the volume to be edited as Profanum Vulgus: Imagining Masses in Discourse and Culture aims to motivate scholars from across disciplines to reflect on masses as a discursive phenomenon of culture, particularly with reference to how textuality engages, and is implicated by, the masses. Contributions are welcome from scholars across the board whose interests and expertise resonate with the question of masses in view of its complex and layered relationship with culture and power. Scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds—anthropology, history, sociology, literary studies, classics, rhetoric, media and communication studies, political theory, film studies, religious studies, and cultural studies—are invited to make contributions. The CfP particularly encourages original research articles which contest and expand the established horizons of knowledge and shall broadly focus on the following four thematic clusters. The sub-topics included, suggestive though not limiting/exclusive, indicate the range and scope of each cluster.

1. Masses across Epochs of Literary History:

Style, genre, and audience; literary elites, intellectuals, and masses; highbrow/lowbrow cultures; literary communities; popular literature and entertainment; literary publishing, print cultures, and market place; textual representation of masses; the reading public

 2. Theoretical Approaches to Masses/Public: 

The public sphere and democracy; public/private distinction; phenomenological approaches to masses; reception theory; critical theory and mass culture; pleasure in mass societies; crowds and power; the rhetoric of speech and political theory

 3. Public Culture and Masses:

Sociology of masses; mass culture; rhetoric and public communication; vernacularization and forms of community; visual culture; commodity fetishism and consumption; political communication; urban cultures; mass societies; religious cultures; language and public; social movements; television; information society and public sphere

 4. Historical Publics:

Social history of publics; texts and communities; historical approaches to public sphere; nations, publics, and communities

Submissions should not exceed 8000 words and are expected to adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition), Author-Date format. They should be sent as email attachments, along with 5-6 keywords, abstracts of around 150-200 words, and bio notes (with details of institutional affiliation) of about 150 words on or before 31 October 2020 to:

 Dr Jibu Mathew George, School of Literary Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad 500 007, India ( and

 Dr Bharani Kollipara, Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar 382 007, India (

 All correspondence in this regard should carry the subject heading “Profanum Vulgus.”