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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.

Spatial Fictions - American West

Dissertation Project by
Steffen A. Wöll

 

My (ongoing) dissertation project on "Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Antebellum US Literature" examines spatial imaginations of the Western American peripheries and their representation in US literature during the nineteenth century, comprising both fictional and non-fictional literary accounts of the Western peripheries, including travel narratives, diaries, exploration reports, as well as (pseudo-)scientific geographical and anthropological texts. Taking into consideration both populist and elitist views, female and male perspectives, racialist and philanthropist ideologies, I put focus on the intertextual dynamics that result in the discursive construction, affirmation, contestation, deconstruction, hierarchization, as well as synthetic and antithetic negotiations of imagined and actual spatial formats and orders. Without ignoring the Turnerian and New Western History’s approaches to the American West and concepts like frontier and borderlands, my intention is nevertheless to take a step back. This seems necessarily especially in the light of current, often highly politicized discourses that view the West as yet another stage on which to transplant personal expectations and enact political agendas, resulting in presentism and ahistorical epistemic conceptualizations.

The Contemporary American Small-Town Gothic

Dissertation Project by
Thorsten Burkhardt
 

This (ongoing) dissertation project examines contemporary novels in terms of how they make use of the gothic to represent a cultural moment of crisis. Drawing on the observation that the post-postmodern moment manifests as a resurgence of political realism in American fiction, this project reads the contemporary gothic as a predominantly realist endeavor that explicitly foregrounds the political. The focus on fictions that take place in a rural or small-town setting narrows down the project by focusing on a place that traditionally embodies the conflict between an American national political mythology and the American gothic.

This project argues that contemporary realist texts regularly make use of gothic tropes to represent the rural space as burdened by both political neglect, as well as by a lack of self-reflection that makes social institutions facilitate gothic events and manifestations, like gothic doublings, hauntings and abject violence. So while the gothic does today what is has always done in American culture, question national narratives, the explicit political nature of the contemporary realist gothic locates the reasons why the rural must be represented as gothic in harsh political and social realities instead of offering the more abstract enlightenment critique of the traditional gothic. The contemporary realist gothic, this project argues, is not so much characterized by a traditional dark existentialism but by a failure of institutions, like the government, the police, the small-town community. It anchors crises of national ideology and literal as well as metaphorical hauntings in the material and political reality of the everyday. Here the gothic fully unfolds its political potential in recent post-9/11 realist texts. In the context of this project, the term "contemporary gothic" does not necessarily mean how the gothic changes but how literature and culture change and use the gothic as a vocabulary to articulate it.

In terms of its corpus, this project theorizes the realist gothic by means of the canonical gothic work of Stephen King and focuses on novels by Cara Hoffman and Julia Keller as exemplary in how they (quite differently) use the gothic mode for political realism.

Joint Research Initiative Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen

Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann
Alice Hofmann
Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler
Dr. Frank Usbeck

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

Presidential Unrealities

Dissertation by
Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann

This (completed) dissertation project investigated 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, fakes; 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.

After the comparatively 'sober' Obama years, the problem of unreality returned with a vengeance with the election of the reality TV star Donald Trump in 2016, an election and presidency frequently cast as the result of fake news and a presumed post-factual turn. The book Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency is available via Universitätsverlag Winter (as well as amazon and google books).

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

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