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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 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]

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).

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