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(Re)Constructing the Fifties: Self-Reflexivity, Melodrama, and Nostalgia in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation project by
Eleonora Ravizza

This (ongoing) dissertation project explores the contemporary interpretation and representation of the fifties in American popular culture. Both in film and television, the last fifteen years have witnessed a renewed interest in the fifties as a setting, as is visible in texts like Mad Men (2007-15), Far from Heaven (2002), Revolutionary Road (2008), and A Single Man (2009), among others. Often accused of unabated nostalgic longing for the fifties, these texts do not simply replicate the past as it was, trying to recapture the reality of a long-lost decade. Rather, they approach the subject by drawing from the fictional representations of the time.

Reading the fifties as a privileged site to discuss notions of self-reflexivity, artificiality, intertextuality, and performativity, this project analyzes contemporary popular texts by looking at how they recreate the fifties as intentionally fictional in order to foreground the pleasures that this construction evokes. Influenced by a postmodern inclination, the texts considered in this project move away from a traditional, more ‘realistic’ portrayal of the past and rather embrace ambivalence, ambiguity, and the lack of one ‘real,’ historical fifties.

However, by often availing themselves of genre markers typical of the melodramatic mode, the texts in question cannot escape the traditionalist and conservative conventions of a genre so strongly intertwined with the fifties. While recognizing the texts’ attempts at (post-)modernizing the fifties by looking at less represented narratives and characters, this project aims to uncover the intrinsically conservative nature of a fifties setting, which cannot help but hinder any impulse to rethink, rework, or re-historicize the fifties.

 

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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