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 Americanization 

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.

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.

 

 

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