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 21st century 

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 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.

 

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').

Presidential Unrealities

Dissertation by
Dr. Sebastian M. Herrmann

This (completed) dissertation project investigated the cultural work done by the notion of unreality in the US presidency. Looking at a variety of texts—novels, movies, nonfiction books, newspaper articles, etc—it diagnoses a widespread cultural concern that the US presidency might be the product or source of postmodern cultural unreality, that the American president might be unreal, fictitious, or that he might produce unreal realities, lies, fictions, fakes; narratives or images that overpower reality.

What appears to be a political problem at first, then, turns out to be at least as much of a cultural one. Indeed, beginning in the late 1960s American culture, the dissertation argues, uses the presidency as a "focal point of [...] cultural angst" (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles) to discuss the more fundamental postmodern "crisis of representation" (Jameson) in broad, even 'popular,' form and to position it as a problem that is not simply of academic interest but of immediate political relevance. By looking at 'presidential unreality' not as an actual problem that may or may not exists but as a discursive motive that does particular cultural work, the dissertation dialogs literary studies, cultural studies, political science and media studies in a project that interrogates the postmodernization of US-American cultural notions of textuality, truth, authority, and the public sphere.

After the comparatively 'sober' Obama years, the problem of unreality returned with a vengeance with the election of the reality TV star Donald Trump in 2016, an election and presidency frequently cast as the result of fake news and a presumed post-factual turn. The book Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency is available via Universitätsverlag Winter (as well as amazon and google books).

The project is part of the Dresden-Leipzig Research Initiative Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen.

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