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 21st century 

The Unpopular Profession

This paper discusses a genre of essay writing that advises students not to pursue a career in academia and that has recently enjoyed increased popularity. Focusing on one such “Thesis Hatement,” it argues that these texts are marked by inner contradictions and that these contradictions are indicative of the cultural work they do. Emphatically rejecting academia, these texts typically fail to convince their audience and, in a curious split between denotation and pragmatics, open up a position from which to embrace a graduate career.

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “The Unpopular Profession? Graduate Studies in the Humanities and the Genre of the ‘Thesis Hatement.’” Unpopular Culture. Eds. Martin Lüthe and Sascha Pöhlmann. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2016. 313-36. Print.

To Tell a Story to the American People

Throughout the 2012 presidential election, ‘narrative’ stood out as a dominant paradigm in discussions of contemporary politics: Countless commentators asserted the importance of competing narratives, pointing out the extent to which electoral success depended on the president’s (and the contenders’) ability to tell compelling stories of themselves and of the nation. Put differently, then, one of the most dominant narratives of the 2012 election cycle was that of the importance of ‘narrative’ in politics.

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “‘To Tell a Story to the American People:’ Elections, Postmodernism, and Popular Narratology.” Electoral Cultures: American Democracy and Choice. Ed. Georgiana Banita and Sascha Pöhlmann. Heidelberg: Winter, 2015. 323-39. Print.

Wrestling With the Real

Herrmann, Sebastian M. “Wrestling with the Real: Politics, Journalism, History in Frost/Nixon, and the Complex Realism of Kayfabe.” Amerikastudien – American Studies 61.1 (2016): 11-31. Print.

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.

Presidential Unrealities

Herrmann, Sebastian M. Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency. Heidelberg: Winter, 2014. Print. American Studies - A Monograph Series.

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).

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?

(Re)Constructing the Fifties: Self-Reflexivity, Melodrama, and Nostalgia in US Contemporary 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.

 

The Contemporary American Small-Town Gothic

Dissertation Project by
Thorsten Burkhardt
 

This (ongoing) dissertation project examines contemporary novels in terms of how they make use of the gothic to represent a cultural moment of crisis. Drawing on the observation that the post-postmodern moment manifests as a resurgence of political realism in American fiction, this project reads the contemporary gothic as a predominantly realist endeavor that explicitly foregrounds the political. The focus on fictions that take place in a rural or small-town setting narrows down the project by focusing on a place that traditionally embodies the conflict between an American national political mythology and the American gothic.

This project argues that contemporary realist texts regularly make use of gothic tropes to represent the rural space as burdened by both political neglect, as well as by a lack of self-reflection that makes social institutions facilitate gothic events and manifestations, like gothic doublings, hauntings and abject violence. So while the gothic does today what is has always done in American culture, question national narratives, the explicit political nature of the contemporary realist gothic locates the reasons why the rural must be represented as gothic in harsh political and social realities instead of offering the more abstract enlightenment critique of the traditional gothic. The contemporary realist gothic, this project argues, is not so much characterized by a traditional dark existentialism but by a failure of institutions, like the government, the police, the small-town community. It anchors crises of national ideology and literal as well as metaphorical hauntings in the material and political reality of the everyday. Here the gothic fully unfolds its political potential in recent post-9/11 realist texts. In the context of this project, the term "contemporary gothic" does not necessarily mean how the gothic changes but how literature and culture change and use the gothic as a vocabulary to articulate it.

In terms of its corpus, this project theorizes the realist gothic by means of the canonical gothic work of Stephen King and focuses on novels by Cara Hoffman and Julia Keller as exemplary in how they (quite differently) use the gothic mode for political realism.

Joint Research Initiative Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen

Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann
Alice Hofmann
Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler
Dr. Frank Usbeck

This (completed) joint research initiative, pursued in collaboration between Dresden and Leipzig, explored a significant phenomenon in contemporary American literature and culture identified as an overlapping of textual and social self-confidence and self-consciousness ('Selbst-Bewusstsein').

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