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Fun in Postbellum American Culture

Postdoctoral Project by
Sophie Spieler

The United States can be described, without running the risk of controversy, as a nation that for the better part of the twentieth century has privileged, demanded, and celebrated ‘fun’ in its cultural self-performances. I want to propose, however, that the conditions for this triumphant proliferation of ‘fun’ were created during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The aim of this project, then, is to investigate the emergence of a culture of fun in Postbellum America, by examining nascent infrastructures and discourses of fun along with their larger implications for American self-conceptualizations during and after that period. My approach is grounded in discourse theory and aims at including a diverse range of sources, for instance memoirs and diaries, literary texts, newspaper articles and trade journals, and advertisements.

A number of factors shaped the institutionalization and solidification of fun as a cultural imperative and will thus serve as analytical axes of my inquiry: the emergence of industrial capitalism and the concomitant consolidation of a market-driven economy; the rise of a mass culture of consumers along with the technological innovations that enabled it; and the unprecedented levels of immigration that, in addition to the trauma of the Civil War, informed national anxieties as well as attempts to alleviate them by generating collective understandings of Americanness.

I assume that ‘fun’ is distinct from, though always related to, semantically similar concepts such as leisure, recreation, play, and entertainment. Contrasted alternately with boredom, seriousness, work, or compulsion, fun is a multidimensional category that can be conceptualized as a social and affective experience as well as a practice or performance. Fun can also, in some contexts, be understood as political action: a form of protest or resistance. Regardless of the specifics, fun is furthermore always embedded in and informed by social hierarchies and the opportunities and restrictions they create—what kind of fun is had, in which contexts, and with what consequences depends on the particularities of the gendered, racialized, and classed body that experiences it. In this multiplicity, fun offers a diverse and productive, yet nevertheless distinctive point of departure to engage with late-nineteenth century cultural history.

We Out of Many - First-Person Plural Narration in 21st-Century American Novels

Dissertation Project by
Michaela Beck

My PhD project focuses on what has been described as the ‘rise’ of the ‘we’ narrator in recent U.S. literature (Maxey 2015, Cf. Costello 2012) – that is, the use of the first-person plural narrator in a growing body of short and longer narrative fiction, including Kate Walbert's Our Kind (2005), Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End (2007), Hannah Pittard's The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011), and TaraShea Nesbit's The Wives of Los Alamos (2014), among others. 

More specifically, my dissertation examines this ‘we’, or communal narrator in a selection of six 21st-century (post-postmodern) U.S. American novels with a decided focus on its cultural work. Drawing on New Formalist approaches (Olson and Copland 2016, Levine 2015), I aim to conjoin two (hitherto discrete) strands of research in my project: For one, I employ formalist-narratological discussions of the ‘we’ narrator – particularly approaches by Margolin, Bekhta, Marcus, Fludernik, and Richardson – for a precise discussion of the framing and narrative use of the first-person plural pronoun in the primary texts. Importantly, in doing so, I seek to detach the formal discussion of the ‘we’ narrator in my project from the ‘unnatural’ versus natural narrative debate (Cf. Richardson 2006, 2015), and I read the communal narrator as a textual form whose meta- and/or extratextual implications necessarily depend on its specific aesthetic as well as socio-cultural frames of reference.

At the same time, my project aims to enquire into these implications by focusing specifically on the interaction between the affordances of this form and socio-cultural, economic, or political discourses or ‘forms’ (Cf. Levine 2015) in a contemporary U.S. American context. As such, the individual textual analyses within my project zoom in on the inter-relation between the different form(ulation)s of the communal narrator and the discussion of the following socio-political and cultural paradigms in the primary material: first, the conceptualization of U.S. national society as a complex, yet bounded ‘whole’; second, the proposition of attached notions of civic collectivity and national belonging which are premised on both cognitive and affective ties; and third, the idealized understanding of the American (post-postmodern) novel as a prestigious and most vital medium and forum for negotiating these paradigms in and for U.S. culture.

The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television: Sitcoms

Dissertation Project by
Katja Schulze

In my thesis, I want to analyze the formal principles, media-specific realizations, and social andpoliticalresonances of invectivity in contemporary situation comedies.Through a comparative analysis and close reading of a broad corpus of materials (e.g. Parks and Recreation, The Comeback, Life in Pieces, 30 Rock, etc.), I hope to be able to see larger patterns of invective strategies and certain conventions that define the dynamism of the comedic genre and its developments. For this, I will focus on where the poetics of the material rely on moments of invectives, formally describe them in their bandwidth of symbolic abuse, as well as examine their social connotations. Another crucial point will be the affective rhythms and the role of laughter in the comedic audiovisual material. Humor strategies that largely depend on a discourse of superiority and embarrassment will be of particular interest. Following Thomas Hobbes’ deliberations that “laughter is always antagonistic and conflictual [and establishes] a hierarchy at the moment of pleasure” (Scott 127),[1] comedy and laughter can be seen as a means to demarcate and exert power. This, again, leads the way to a thorough analysis of group formation processes and their dynamics on the basis of normative discourses of identity (race, class, gender). By answering these questions, I hope to contribute to comedic research in general, our sub-project’s aims in popular culture, and to the CRC’s large-scale theory of invectivity.

The Kitchen and the Factory: Spaces of Women's Work and the Negotiation of Social Difference in Antebellum American Literature

This book asks for the cultural work that spaces of feminine labor do in antebellum texts from a variety of literary and ‘para-literary’ contexts. Singling out the kitchen and the factory, it argues that sites of women’s work serve as key textual microcosms in which antebellum culture negotiates the discourses of social difference whose relevance skyrockets in this period, especially the discourses of gender, class, ‘race,’ and nationhood.

Kanzler, Katja. The Kitchen and the Factory: Spaces of Women's Work and the Negotiation of Social Difference in Antebellum American Literature. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016.

Poetics of Politics: Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture

Herrmann, Sebastian M., Carolin Alice Hofmann, Katja Kanzler, Stefan Schubert, and Frank Usbeck, eds. Poetics of Politics: Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture. Heidelberg: Winter, 2015. Print. American Studies - A Monograph Ser. 258.

Spatial Fictions - Antebellum South

Research Project by
Deniz Bozkurt

My (ongoing) dissertation project Spatial Fictions in Antebellum American Writings about the Southern Peripheries of the United States focuses on spatial imaginations regarding the Southern peripheries of the US in the nineteen-century fictional and non-fictional literature. Laden with controversies such as discussions on slavery and abolition, territorial expansion and annexation, sectionalism, secessionism and unionism, industrialization and agricultural reforms, the literature on the nineteenth-century South a wide range of diverse spatial projections than the canonical spatial metanarratives, which evolve around concepts like Manifest Destiny, Errand into the Wilderness, and the Frontier, offer. While these metanarratives often contradicted the lived-realities of the region, the South was located in “the national imagery” that they constructed as the peripheral “internal other” to the US.

The main objective of this dissertation is, thus, to create a more heterogeneous and complex representation of spatial imagination regarding the American South in an era where the nation consolidation was accompanied and complicated by geographical expansion. Concentrating on the narratives about important events and debates of the era for the South like filibustering expeditions to Cuba and Nicaragua, and Southern independence and slavery, the first discursive complex of this projects aims at exploring geographical imaginations that envision the South as the center of a Southern empire that extends beyond the presumed borders of the South and reaches as far as Brazil. In the second part, texts by African-American and abolitionist authors who established invisible networks in space and time that spread from the Southern US to as far as Africa through shared experiences and expectations in their works will be read to draw an alternative landscape of spatial imaginations that is distinct from the texts that will be explored in the first discursive complex.

To Tell a Story to the American People

Throughout the 2012 presidential election, ‘narrative’ stood out as a dominant paradigm in discussions of contemporary politics: Countless commentators asserted the importance of competing narratives, pointing out the extent to which electoral success depended on the president’s (and the contenders’) ability to tell compelling stories of themselves and of the nation. Put differently, then, one of the most dominant narratives of the 2012 election cycle was that of the importance of ‘narrative’ in politics.

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “‘To Tell a Story to the American People:’ Elections, Postmodernism, and Popular Narratology.” Electoral Cultures: American Democracy and Choice. Ed. Georgiana Banita and Sascha Pöhlmann. Heidelberg: Winter, 2015. 323-39. Print.

Wrestling With the Real

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “Wrestling with the Real: Politics, Journalism, History in Frost/Nixon, and the Complex Realism of Kayfabe.” Amerikastudien – American Studies 61.1 (2016): 11-31. Print.

Participating Audiences, Imagined Public Spheres

Herrmann, Sebastian M., Carolin Alice Hofmann, Katja Kanzler, and Frank Usbeck: Participating Audiences, Imagined Public Spheres: The Cultural Work of Contemporary American(ized) Narratives. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2012. Print.

Presidential Unrealities

Herrmann, Sebastian M. Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency. Heidelberg: Winter, 2014. Print. American Studies - A Monograph Series.

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