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 Research Projects 

American Studies Leipzig has a wide range of research projects that share common traits: They are interdisciplinary, international, and integrated into the classroom, thus allowing for many forms of invidual participation by students.

Research projects at American Studies Leipzig reflect the diversity of the United States and its place in the world. Themes incude consumption culture, notions of Americanization, literature and society, ethnicity and identity, citizenship and immigration, and contemporary transatlantic relations.

Below you will find a brief overview of ongoing research projects at American Studies Leipzig.

 

Current Research Projects

Constructions of Agency in Selected Writings by Octavia Butler
(Florian Bast, MA)

My doctoral research project looks at the works of the first major African American female author of science fiction literature, Octavia Estelle Butler. In particular, I am interested in how her novels and short stories conceptualize agency, i.e. the ability to make a decision about oneself and implement it in (narrative) reality. This philosophical category has been, in very different ways, a core concern of three different literary traditions on whose intersection Butler's narratives situated themselves—science fiction, African American literature, and feminist literature—and it constitutes an underresearched aspect of her generally widely discussed oeuvre. Focusing on the ways in which the texts engage with central traditions of African American literature and re-imagine them through science-fiction and other tropes, my project looks especially at the ways in which Butler's writings conceptualize agency as embodied, at the ways in which they construct it as a potential realized in a relational/communal context, and the ways in which they depict first-person narration as an inherently agential act. Interpreting a number of different texts within Butler's oeuvre, I am also working to unfold in detail how some of them engage in an intra-oeuvre dialogue about these philosophical concerns, how one, for example, contradicts another, approaches a dynamic from a different perspective, amends points made in a different text or takes them to an extreme to show their dangers.
 

Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency
(Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann)

This (completed) dissertation project is currently being prepared for publication. It investigates the cultural work done by the notion of unreality in the US presidency. Looking at a variety of texts—novels, movies, nonfiction books, newspaper articles, etc—it diagnoses a widespread cultural concern that the US presidency might be the product or source of postmodern cultural unreality, that the American president might be unreal, fictitious, or that he might produce unreal realities, lies, fictions; narratives or images that overpower reality.

What appears to be a political problem at first, then, turns out to be at least as much of a cultural one. Indeed, beginning in the late 1960s American culture, the dissertation argues, uses the presidency as a "focal point of [...] cultural angst" (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles) to discuss the more fundamental postmodern "crisis of representation" (Jameson) in broad, even 'popular,' form and to position it as a problem that is not simply of academic interest but of immediate political relevance. By looking at 'presidential unreality' not as an actual problem that may or may not exists but as a discursive motive that does particular cultural work, the dissertation dialogs literary studies, cultural studies, political science and media studies in a project that interrogates the postmodernization of US-American cultural notions of textuality, truth, authority, and the public sphere.

The project is part of the Dresden-Leipzig Research Initiative Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen.

 

Joint Research Initiative Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen
(Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann, Dr. Frank Usbeck, Alice Hofmann, Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler)

This joint research initiative, pursued in collaboration between Dresden and Leipzig, explores a significant phenomenon in contemporary American literature and culture identified as an overlapping of textual and social self-confidence and self-consciousness ('Selbst-Bewusstsein').

In the past few decades, a notable number of fictional and non-fictional narratives across a broad spectrum of media, genres, themes and cultural registers have reflected on their own narrative textuality and its socio-cultural effects and meanings. This self-reflection is marked by an interplay between self-confidence and self-consciousness, which simultaneously target the texts' narrative mechanics and their socio-cultural referentiality and relevance. In contrast to 'classical' postmodernism, then, this new self-confidence/-consciousness does not playfully disavow extra-textual referentiality, it rather explores ways in which texts after the postmodern turn can still negotiate social realities, experiences, and values. And while postmodern self-reflexivity has been theorized as characterizing a small body of experimental literature, this new self-confidence/-consciousness is a much broader cultural phenomenon.

Seeking to appreciate this breadth and diversity, the joint research initiative interrogates this phenomenon in currently four case studies. They revolve around two thematic fields in which this new self-confidence/-consciousness manifests itself with particular prominence: one, discussions of traumatic experience, its representation and social relevance, in soldier blogs and in trauma narratives; and, two, discussions of politics and law as institutions that create social realities.

 

Mail Order Catalogs, Consumption, and the Construction of American Identity
(Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen)

Consumerism, based on mass production and standardization, emerged in the US in the first decades of the 20th century. One of the effects of consumerism has been identified as homogenization in the social sphere. That process of homogenization contributed to nation-building and was perceived as both democratizing (levelling, for example, class markers in dress) and desirable. Mail order (especially the most successful company, Sears Roebuck) was the most important media of homogenization for the rural population: it provided the rural population with an access to consumerism (and thus prevented an already starting exodus from the country, as Postmaster General Wanamaker stated when reforming the postal service with the explicit aim to facilitate the mail-order companies’ business); it helped to "civilize" the still underdeveloped regions on the frontier, helping them join the rest of the US. In addition, it served as a primer and as a venue of buying for immigrants (who were consciously targeted as customers) who not only used to catalogs to learn to read and write, but also to achieve cultural literacy; and, as research has demonstrated, helped at least some African-Americans to be customers without having to suffer repression - mail order was color blind at a time when the US was mostly segregated. As a result, mail order served to "standardize" various groups into "Americans," enabling them join modernization. Consumption thus contributed in a major way to create a national identity in the US.


Animal Studies (Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen)

Farm Animals and Supermarket Pastoral

In the transition from subsistence farming to industrial farming at the beginning of the 20th century, American farmers had to be educated into thinking of their animals as "machines." Roughly a century later, in contemporary US culture, "farm animals?" feature less as real creatures than kitschy representations for children, part of a general trend (like "monkids") to sentimentalize (certain) animals. Real "farm animals," however, are still largely condemned to an abysmal (mass) existence in the industrial animal farm. This project, situated in the field of animal studies and popular culture, investigates the historical dimension and current manifestations of the grotesque split between popular representation and mass production.

Impossible Narrators: The Silencing and Representation of Animals

The issues of silencing and being able to speak with one’s own voice have been at the center of minority discourses and gender discussions about the construction and representation of "otherness." Because animals constitute the ultimate other, silencing and speaking acquire different meanings: even in the case of those few species that have successfully been taught to use some sign language, we (human animals) know that there are strict and insurmountable limits to communication. How then do writers solve that dilemma in their attempts to represent animals?

 

Post-Revolutionary American Identity Formation in a Trans-National Context (Dr. Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez)

This project explores the emergence of a national identity in the literature produced in the decades after the American Revolution from a transnational perspective. I argue that post-revolutionary identity was formed not only as a result of developments within the United States and against Europe, but also in reaction to the relations that the United States had with other regions, specifically with the Caribbean, Latin America, and the parts of North Africa called "the Orient". The study aims to revise existing research in two important aspects. First, it situates the USA within a hemispheric and circum-Atlantic transnational context and thus modifies approaches which regard Europe and particularly England as sole /exclusive reference points of an emerging U.S. American identity. Second, it moves away from the still predominant "inward" view which takes the nation-form as an umbrella and views U.S. American identity formation predominantly as a negotiation of inner national differences and traditions.

 

 

Contesting Transatlantic Spaces (Prof. Crister S. Garrett)

This research project explores how members of the transatlantic community (especially the United States, Germany, France, and Sweden) are struggling to create cultures of change that permit their societies to adapt to the multiple challenges of globalization and the emergence of the post-industrial or information economy. This can be especially seen in domestic and international (transatlantic) debates about how to innovate in the "cornerstones" of a confident and dynamic community: citizenship policy, education policy, economic policy, and security policy. As America and Europe struggle via democratic processes and open societies to construct new forms of consensus to allow broad and deep reforms to be pursued, we see a contested transatlantic space where notions of the “West” come under closer scrutiny, and where transatlantic discourse becomes increasingly a transatlantic debate in a global context.

Funding for this research has been provided so far by the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Hertie Foundation, and the DAAD.

 

 

Ambivalent Americanizations: Popular and Consumer Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.

The project explores the complex dynamics involved in the 'Americanization' of popular and consumer cultures across Europe with a focus on the years 1945-89. A central concern is to advance scholarship on 'Americanization' by asking for the experience of Central and Eastern Europe. Here 'Americanization' figured within a political, cultural, and economic context that defined itself in sharp contrast to 'America.' This perspective provides for a concept of 'Americanization' as a set of complex processes of cultural mixing and practices of cultural appropriation, underscoring the various ambivalences of boundaries, parameters and modes of engagement.

Participants: Zoe Kusmierz, Dr. Katja Kanzler, Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen, Sebastian Hermann, Leonard Schmieding

 

  

"Fellow Peoples" - German Affinity for American Indians and German Nazi Propaganda among American Indians 1933-1945
(Dr. Frank Usbeck)

There is some reference in the literature on Native Americans and their World War II experience to National Socialist propaganda. Why did German leaders regard the poorest and one of the smallest minority groups in the US a suitable target for propaganda? Who in the Nazi government initiated and sponsored such a campaign? Were the goals just general destabilization of US society, or did the Nazis hope to use Native Americans as fifth column in the event of invasion? Apparently, Germans must have had an understanding of the history of U.S. Indian policy and relations. By playing the anti-colonial card, the Nazis attempted to drive a wedge between the U.S. government and its Indian "wards." This very specific aspect of World War II history exemplifies the state of German-American relations at that time and gives some insight in the skewed German perceptions of how American society works and deals with its heterogeneity.

 

Science and Literature as Fact and Fiction: the Contemporary American Crime Novel (Dr. Katja Schmieder

In my dissertation project, I explore the manifold relations between literature and science with a special focus on forensic science as a constituting element of contemporary American crime fiction. I start out assuming that the ongoing dialog between scientific and literary discourses is restructured and redefined by a triangular constellation "criminal – victim – investigator" in current crime fiction. Being aware of the problematic gender aspects within this constellation, I argue that crime novels – such as Patricia Cornwell's and Kathy Reichs's page-turners – popularize, functionalize, and even distort scientific disciplines via a synthesis of fact and fiction.

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