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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.

Narrative Liminality and/in the Formation of American Modernities

This DFG-funded network proposes the notion of "narrative liminality" as a category for the study of US American culture.

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.

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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