Liam Mayes

Liam Mayes is a Lecturer in the School of Humanities at Rice University and Assistant Director of the Center for Transcultural Studies (Chicago and New York).

At Rice, Dr. Mayes teaches courses on political theory, media studies, and poverty studies in the interdiscplinary programs of Politics, Law and Social Thought (PLST) and Cimena and Media Studies.

His current research project sits at the intersection of political theory and sociology, within a growing corpus of works that examine the changing dynamics of social movements, protests, and riots in affluent democratic societies. In a forthcoming article, Dr. Mayes focuses on the case of the 2022 Freedom Convoy protests, which took place on Canadian highways and in front of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. This project asks three main questions: what is the relationship between social mobilization and democracy? Do loosely networked local protests in disparate contexts share a global anatomy? When are social mobilizations a threat to democracy and when are they the foundation of its renewal? So far, scholarship on the Freedom Convoy has tended to focus almost exclusively on its populist and right-wing elements. But according to several national opinion surveys conducted at the height of the protest, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of Canadians expressed at least some degree of sympathy for the protestors. Rather than represent a vocal and extreme right-wing minority, these protests show how social movements, protests, and riots index social, political, cultural, and economic crises that democratic governments have somehow failed to adequately address. By reframing these protests through a focus on primary sources, resituating them within a broader social context, and drawing connections to other social movements in North America and Europe, he aims to complicate this dominant account of the Freedom Convoy and ultimately contribute to a more nuanced cultural understanding of our current socio-political conjuncture.

Parallel to this project, Dr. Mayes is working on a book titled The Broken Hermeneutics of American Poverty, which examines poverty in the context of twentieth and twenty-first century ethnographies that attempt to describe and explain American poverty. The book engages such works as well as current scholarship on poverty and economic inequality in communication studies, sociology, and anthropology to make three interconnected arguments. First, through a rhetoric of deferral, vivid and gripping descriptions of poverty and the poor obscure socio-historical explanations of why poverty continues to exist amid so much American prosperity. This deferral is important because it reinforces the illusion that, in the absence of convincing and rigorous explanation, poverty is a one-dimensional problem. Second, a sentimental idiom and a narrative focus on emotional and psychological interiority turn poverty from a societal problem into an individual problem. While the sentimental idiom facilitates sympathy, it becomes very difficult to understand poverty in anything other than limited individualistic terms. Third, the emergence of the American affluent society in the twentieth century shifted the foundations on which poverty, inequality, and the divisions between rich and poor and between elites and non-elites are understood. Together, these three arguments show the shape of poverty’s broken hermeneutics, whose main consequence is the seamless reconciliation of the acceleration of American affluence with the intensification of American inequality.

Dr. Mayes has organized over 50 national and international conferences and symposia, most recently coordinating and teaching graduate courses at the 2023 It Takes a Movement summer school at the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary). In 2024, he is coordinating and teaching at the Democracy and Inequality: The Challenge of a Society of Equals summer school. In addition, his multidisciplinary artwork has been exhibited in the U.S. and Germany.

Prior to joining Rice, Dr. Mayes was Professor of Practice in English and Visiting Assistant Professor in Communication and English at Tulane University. He earned his Ph.D. in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program at Northwestern University, where he was awarded the Best Graduate Dissertation Award and was the inaugural recipient of the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award by the School of Communication. He also holds an M.A. in Art History and Communication Studies and a B.A. in Women's Studies and History from McGill University.

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