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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.

Narrative Liminality and/in the Formation of American Modernities

This DFG-funded network proposes the notion of "narrative liminality" as a category for the study of US American culture.

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.

Objectivism, Narrative Agency, and the Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock

Schubert, Stefan. "Objectivism, Narrative Agency, and the Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock." Poetics of Politics: Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture. Ed. Sebastian M. Herrmann et al. Heidelberg: Winter, 2015. 271-89. Print.

'Lose Yourself': Narrative Instability and Unstable Identities in Black Swan

Schubert, Stefan. "'Lose Yourself': Narrative Instability and Unstable Identities in Black Swan." COPAS 14.1 (2013): 1-17. Web.

The Unpopular Profession

This paper discusses a genre of essay writing that advises students not to pursue a career in academia and that has recently enjoyed increased popularity. Focusing on one such “Thesis Hatement,” it argues that these texts are marked by inner contradictions and that these contradictions are indicative of the cultural work they do. Emphatically rejecting academia, these texts typically fail to convince their audience and, in a curious split between denotation and pragmatics, open up a position from which to embrace a graduate career.

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “The Unpopular Profession? Graduate Studies in the Humanities and the Genre of the ‘Thesis Hatement.’” Unpopular Culture. Eds. Martin Lüthe and Sascha Pöhlmann. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2016. 313-36. Print.

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.

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