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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.

Narrative Instability in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation project by
Stefan Schubert

This (ongoing) project investigates contemporary US popular culture for what it terms ‘narrative instability.’ The project identifies a narrative trend since the 1990s among popular media to engage in instability in their narration: Such texts obfuscate and hinder narrative comprehension through fragmented, distorted, or unreliable narrations that complicate—and thus draw attention to—the process of (re)constructing a text’s storyworld. Significantly, unlike novels of ‘high’ postmodernism, which serve as the forebears of this trend, these contemporary unstable texts have attained widespread commercial popularity among different media. The project thus examines this phenomenon as a transmedia trend by looking particularly at contemporary films (e.g., Fight Club, Inception), TV series (e.g., Westworld), and video games (e.g., Alan Wake, BioShock Infinite), while also pointing to contemporary novels that work similarly and have, in turn, been influenced by these ‘newer’ media (e.g., House of Leaves, People of Paper).

The 19th-Century US Data Imaginary

Postdoctoral Project by
Sebastian M. Herrmann

Diagram and Statistical Record of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (J. C. Power, 1858)This ongoing postdoctoral project is interested in the ‘data imaginary’ of the nineteenth century. It asks how ‘data’ came to be an important cultural (social, political, textual) category; how something as abstract as the notion of presumably ‘pure,’ discontinuous, discrete, often numerical, and quantifiable information came to be imagined as a ‘thing’ that can be created, bought, sold, regulated, or used for all manner of interactions and socio-political negotiations; how data came to be imagined as something with social and political valencies; and, most importantly, how this new ‘thing’ gained cultural presence not simply as a tool but as a way of thinking about the world.

Literary and cultural studies have stressed the role of narrative for the emergence of national identity, for the negotiation of cultural and social difference, and for navigating the transformations of modernity. Thinking about the culturalization of data and the rise of the data imaginary complements this perspective by asking for the role that emphatically nonnarrative symbolic forms—and the textual practices they entail—have played in this.

For more information, please see the project webpage at www.data-imaginary.de.

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

Project by
Dr. Sebastian Hermann
Dr. Katja Kanzler
Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen
Dr. Zoë Antonia Kusmierz
Dr. Leonard Schmieding
 

The (completed) 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.

 

 

Animal Studies

Completed Projects by
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?

Mail Order Catalogs, Consumption, and the Construction of American Identity

Project by
Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen

This (completed) project focuses on consumerism based on mass production and standardization that 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.

Spatial Fictions - Florida

​Research Project by
Dr. Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez
 

This (ongoing) project, Spatial Fictions: (Re)Imaginations of Nationality in the Southern and Western Peripheries of 19th Century America, is part of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition. It examines the imagination of space in nineteenth-century American cultural and literary discourses. Canonized patterns of spatialization in American national history are linked to central spatial concepts such as the frontier and the “errand into the wilderness” (i.e. the settlement and civilization of the American continent on an east-west geographical axis). However, the geographical imagination in the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War was much more diverse. The consolidation and expansion of the nation during the nineteenth century were accompanied by different and conflicting imaginations of spatial formats that often contradicted the official rhetoric of “Manifest Destiny”. Particularly in the yet unstable and mobile southern and western peripheries of the nation, the ideology of  Manifest Destiny collided with the topographical, social, economic, and cultural realities of the border zones, producing alternative “spatial fictions” that often pointed to commercial, political, or other entanglements with regions beyond the nation’s boundaries.

The project comprises two dissertation projects (see project description by Steffen Wöll and Deniz Bozkurt) as well as a unit on the spatial construction of Florida in the early 19th century. This part explores Florida as a space that in the period between its successive acquisition from Spain and its permanent settlement by Americans generated widely varying spatial narratives. The divergent representations that the peninsula experienced in travel narratives, novels, captivity tales, and historical writings by American writers reveal how it became a foil of projection for quite different agendas. The geographical imagination of their authors about Florida reveals that as a spatial nexus of the domestic and the foreign, situated between the U.S. and the Caribbean, the peninsula played a crucial role in the debates about nationhood, expansionism, and slavery, and in the conflict between centrifugal and centripetal forces, i.e. those forces endorsing the consolidation of the nation v. those arguing for further expansion.

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