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Narrative Instability in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation project by
Stefan Schubert

This (ongoing) project investigates contemporary US popular culture for what it terms ‘narrative instability.’ The project identifies a narrative trend since the 1990s among popular media to engage in instability in their narration: Such texts obfuscate and hinder narrative comprehension through fragmented, distorted, or unreliable narrations that complicate—and thus draw attention to—the process of (re)constructing a text’s storyworld. Significantly, unlike novels of ‘high’ postmodernism, which serve as the forebears of this trend, these contemporary unstable texts have attained widespread commercial popularity among different media. The project thus examines this phenomenon as a transmedia trend by looking particularly at contemporary films (e.g., Fight Club, Inception), TV series (e.g., Westworld), and video games (e.g., Alan Wake, BioShock Infinite), while also pointing to contemporary novels that work similarly and have, in turn, been influenced by these ‘newer’ media (e.g., House of Leaves, People of Paper).

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.

Fellow Tribesmen: German “Indianthusiasm,” Nationalism, and Nazi Ideology

Dissertation by
Frank Usbeck

This (completed) project analyzes the role of Germans' fascination with Native Americans for the construction of national identity in the 19th century and, eventually, for Nazi ideology and propaganda. It scrutinizes the interrelation of typical manifestations of “Indian” imagery, such as the noble savage or the vanishing race, with ideas, cultural practices, and images in German culture since c. 1800. This interrelation promoted an essentialist construction of German group identity as well as the notion of German exceptionalism. Comparing the colonial conquest of the Americas with the resistance of ancient Germanic tribes against the encroaching Roman empire, nationalists portrayed Germans as the “Indians” of Europe. The Nazis' eventual perception and representation of Native Americans in Nazi-controlled media built on these traditions of German “Indianthusiasm,” interweaving Romantic notions, cultural despair, conservative nationalism, and racial ideology.

Based on comprehensive research in German periodicals (newspapers, academic journals, and magazines) as well as academic monographs and political treatises published 1925-45, the project identifies two major motifs through which these Native American references served nationalists and Nazis to postulate German Indigeneity: The “Fellow Tribesmen” motif argued that Germans had retained elements of tribal culture from their ancestors and shared inheritable character traits with Native Americans, suggesting cultural and mental ties between both groups. This argument was interlaced with a dose of antimodernism and antiliberalism in German nationalist thinking. The “Common Enemy” motif deepened this sense of alienation from the 'West' by constructing German-'Indian' parallels, referring to the experience of resistance against foreign invasion and cultural imperialism, invoking ancient Rome, the French “arch enemy,” and British and US imperialism and threats to German (and Native American) culture. The Nazis, thus, utilized a mixture of primitivism, exoticism and racial thought to harness German “Indianthusiasm” for propaganda against the Western Allies.

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