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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.

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.

The Kitchen and the Factory: Spaces of Women's Work and the Negotiation of Social Difference in Antebellum American Literature

This book asks for the cultural work that spaces of feminine labor do in antebellum texts from a variety of literary and ‘para-literary’ contexts. Singling out the kitchen and the factory, it argues that sites of women’s work serve as key textual microcosms in which antebellum culture negotiates the discourses of social difference whose relevance skyrockets in this period, especially the discourses of gender, class, ‘race,’ and nationhood.

Kanzler, Katja. The Kitchen and the Factory: Spaces of Women's Work and the Negotiation of Social Difference in Antebellum American Literature. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016.

The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television

Vituperation, (self-)debasement, mockery, humiliation, embarrassment — representations and performances of disparagement abound in American popular culture, to such an extent that they seem foundational for several popular genres, e.g. of comedy or of contemporary reality tv. While disparagement culture appears to enjoy a particular currency at the contemporary moment, it looks back on a substantial history in the US-American context.

This project is interested in the form(s) that disparagement takes in American popular culture and in the cultural work that it does. It proposes to conceptualize disparagement as a distinct mode of popular communication — an invective mode which is marked by its own repertoire of representational strategies, its own affective regime, its own historical resonances and political valencies. This invective mode has played a key (and yet unexamined) role in the development of American popular culture — its media, its genres, its aesthetics, its social functionalities. In its first phase, the project's work will focus on the invective mode in contemporary American television culture.

This project is connected with two dissertation projects, by Anne Krenz and Katja Schulze. It is part of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 1285 “Invectivity: Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement.” [www.invectivity.com]

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.

Narrative Instability in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation project by
Stefan Schubert

This (completed) dissertation 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.

(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.

 

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