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'We Don't Want Life to Look Difficult, Do We?': Representations of the Fifties and Self-Reflexive Nostalgia in Mad Men

Ravizza, Eleonora. "'We Don't Want Life to Look Difficult, Do We?': Representations of the Fifties and Self-Reflexive Nostalgia in Mad Men." COPAS 14.1 (2013): 1-14. Web.

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.

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.

(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.

 

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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