In this episode of High Theory, Jed Esty talks about the Rhetoric of Decline. Declinism names the contradictory political narrative that America will always be the greatest country in the world, yet is in constant danger of losing its place in the global pecking order. Studying this rhetorical log-jam reveals its prominence on both the left and the right, and its toxic effects on our national discourse. But comparing the end of America’s empire to Britain’s imperial decline in the twentieth century can help us muddle out of this mess.
The basis of our conversation is Jed’s recent book The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits (Stanford UP, 2022). It’s a cool short book with an x-ray spaceman on the cover. You should read it, even if this isn’t usually your cup of tea.
Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches and writes about Anglophone literature after 1850, with special interests in modernism, critical theory, history and theory of the novel, colonial and postcolonial studies, the Victorian novel, and post-45 U.S. culture. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford 2012) and A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton 2004).
This week’s image was made by Saronik Bosu in June of 2023.