Demographic fantasies and fever dreams: taco trucks, burkini bans, and the “basket of deplorables”

In September 2016, we sent out a call for papers to explore the role of demographic fever dreams and fantasies in political life. This was sparked by the odd specificity of some of the US campaign rhetoric – an imaginary that called to life a deluge of dreams and fantasies: that migration would result in an epidemic of “taco trucks on every corner” and that an Obama-sponsored invasion of lesbian farmers would undermine red state agricultural strongholds, as well as Clinton’s description of a “basket of deplorables” containing half of all Trump voters. We discussed these as fever dreams because of their vivid specificity and seeming detachment from demographic data with a simultaneous obsession with demography.

We describe these as fever dreams and fantasies because of their strikingly specific and dream-state features that leap from numerical measures and policy into a surreal and multivalent landscape of threat…or delight. We find parallels with other forms of demographic fantasies that lead to bans on shariah law, on the burkini, or on certain forms of hijab, even in places where these are a remote possibility or a rare practice. Recent survey research demonstrates that residents of the European Union greatly overstate the Muslim population residing in the UE – for instance, residents of France estimated that 31% of the French population is Muslim, when research suggests the population is actually at 7.5%. How does this imagined demography play into concern about burkinis, hijab, and minarets? In the time since the election in the United States, we have again been taken by the new ways that a demographic imaginary of the “white working class,” becomes a fetishized explanation for a range of complex processes, as residents and observers of US electoral politics search for a demographic explanation. We could perhaps add phenomenon such as “Pantsuit nation,” which imagines or perhaps even materializes a subterranean world of feminists, existing, surviving, and resisting Trump’s America.

With this paper session, we build on a session to be convened at AAG in collaboration with Joshua Inwood and Carolyn Gallaher. Following recent calls for critical and feminist human geographers to take demographic change seriously, we are inviting submissions about demographic fever dreams and fantasies. We’re interested in the work that they do, the danger that they pose to building solidarity across difference, but also the potential for play and subversion that is embedded in their vivid specificity. Traditionally, critical human geography has overlooked or ignored demographic change, and yet global demographic shifts are animating and inspiring political movements worldwide. Often, these shifts are mobilized in political discourses through specific demographic fantasies to instill anxiety and fear of perceived threats to the success of nations.

These fantasies rely on normative ideas of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious difference, but also invent compelling narrative justifications for those ideas and a means for them to mutate and multiply. Demographic fantasies are not uniform across contexts – for instance, while in the US context we find fear-based fantasies of demographic decline or resurgence, in Turkey we note a demographic fantasy of young pious economic and cultural resurgence. Both these tropes rely on a common rhetoric of marginalization: that “we” are the majority but the political elite has not listened, that after “we” have been oppressed for years, it is now time to rise. As we consider the political purpose of these demographic fantasies, the fears underlying them, and how the vivid imagery ties into fears of white masculine decline and panic, we wonder how we can unravel these oddly specific imaginaries. In each of these instances, a vivid and fantastic fiction is used by figures with political power to amplify, imagine, and obscure demographic patterns of migration, birth, or mortality to consolidate political power or to dismiss or undermine class tensions and create fictions communities of homogeneity.

While it is easy to be smugly dismissive of fears about an unlikely takeover by “others,” here we hope to more carefully consider the content, deployment, and mechanisms of these vivid demographic imaginaries of threat. In so doing, we hope to build on, but also disrupt and complicate theoretical explorations in feminist political geography, which evoke the embodied life of territory and borders and the political life of demography.

We invite papers exploring demographic fantasies through political speech, popular culture, government policy, or other venues, and engaging with questions such as the following (but not limited to these):

  • What political and cultural work do demographic fantasies do, and how do they do it?
  • What role do gendered, sexualized, and racialized body politics play in demographic fantasies?
  • What are effective responses to demographic fantasies? What is the potential for play and subversion (e.g., the social media responses to taco trucks on every corner, and the “basket of adorables”)?
  • How might we combat the violence these nationalist fantasies engender, particularly in a “post-fact” media context?
  • How do demographic fever dreams travel across contexts and political lines?
  • How do demographic fantasies explicitly or implicitly engage with temporal and metanarratives and geographic imaginaries (such as the dangerous and uncertain future, and porous borders)?
  • How might we respond to or understand the flights of demographic fantasy that emerge from rumors, exaggerations, or denials of seemingly incontestable truths? Especially when drawing attention to the fallacy only fuels the fantasy?

Please send abstracts to Sara Smith (shsmith1@email.unc.edu), Banu Gökarıksel (banug@email.unc.edu), and Chris Neubert (neubertc@live.unc.edu), by January 31st, 2017.

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