Research Projects

American Studies Leipzig has a wide range of research projects that share common traits: They are interdisciplinary, international, and integrated into the classroom, thus allowing for many forms of individual participation by students.

Research projects at American Studies Leipzig reflect the diversity of the United States and its place in the world. Themes include popular culture, literature and society, ethnicity and identity, citizenship and immigration, and contemporary transatlantic relations. The list below gives you a better sense of what some of the ongoing research looks like.

To get an even more comprehensive sense of the volume and the topical spread of research interests pursued at ASL, also check out the archive of completed projects.




An Aesthetics of Excess: Theorizing Form in the American Postwar Novel

Dissertation Project by Annika Schadewaldt

The years following World War II have long been considered a crucial social and cultural threshold for the United States. The aftermath of the war not only saw the United States’ emergence as a new global superpower but also marked the beginnings of a fundamental change in its social structure and culture, a crucial development still unfolding to this day. Up until recently, scholars have largely perceived the American postwar years as a single monolithic moment, often described as a cold war culture characterized by narratives of containment heavily reflected in the literature and culture of the time. The last ten years, however, have seen a growing number of studies attempting to reevaluate this perspective on the American post-1945 literature and culture by, on the one hand, understanding post-45 literature as a continuation of modernism and, on the other hand, giving a more particularized account of its sub-movements. Despite this important work on the culture of the period as such, scholars have not yet adequately addressed the changing aesthetics of the literature of the two decades following WWII. My project out to remedy this gap by identifying and analyzing a larger narrative trend in postwar American literature toward an aesthetic of excess, that is, a surplus of activity, description, and other conventional elements of realist novel writing, resulting in what could be described generally as overactive prose.

Drawing on recent work at the interstices of affect theory and aesthetics as well as American studies’ central notion of cultural work, my project will examine this narrative trend by proposing to theorize this aesthetic of excess as a specific instance of zaniness, an aesthetic category I argue to be uniquely able to grasp the conundrum of form in this time. In contrast, earlier attempts of categorizing these narratives under adjacent yet decidedly different concepts, such as absurd literature or weird fiction, have respectively obscured varying elements of these texts, thus standing in the way of seeing these texts’ shared concerns. Understanding these texts as zany, in contrast, allows us, I suggest, both to analyze more adequately the unique ambivalent affective mix of identification and repulsion underwriting these narratives and the narratives’ continuing strict adherence to realism, that is, their creation of a comic larger-than-life effect without, in fact, ever breaching its boundaries. Close reading, among others, the works of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov, my project’s central hypothesis is that zaniness allows these writers, on the one hand, to engage with what was then perceived as a crisis of realist novel writing in the aftermath of World War II and, on the other hand, to narrate a specific concern with the performance of identity and belonging. This concern that is traceable on the level of both content and form in these novels, dramatizing the performative nature of these categories at a time of unprecedented change in the understanding of American national identity as such.

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(Un)Veiling Privilege in Late-Nineteenth-Century US Literature and Culture

Postdoctoral Project by Stefan Schubert


This (ongoing) project investigates the               ‘invention’ of privilege in the nineteenth century. It theorizes privilege with insights from contemporary (mostly sociological) privilege studies but sets out to trace an emerging discourse around privilege already in the late-nineteenth-century United States. Specifically, it proposes that negotiations of privilege can be pursued and analyzed in postbellum US literature, some of which engages in processes of ‘unveiling’ privilege as an oppressive social dynamic, while other texts attempt to ‘veil’ and conceal its systemic power—and yet others display a notable ambivalence toward their awareness and problematization of patterns of privilege in US society.

Still in its early stages, the project proposes to operationalize privilege as an analytic category by conceptualizing it as an unearned advantage conferred to an individual based on her or his perceived affiliation to a specific social group. It attempts to make visible and draw attention to dynamics and contradictions in nineteenth-century culture that related concepts like inequality, oppression, or supremacy cannot fully grasp. While mapping the role literature played in negotiations of privilege, the project pursues an interest in both the ‘politics’ and the ‘poetics’ of privilege in literary works, such as stories of passing, local-color writing, or conman narratives.

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The Cultural Image of the Fat Poor in Contemporary American Literature and Culture

Dissertation Project by Claudia Müller

In this (ongoing) dissertation project I describe and analyze the cultural image of the fat poor, a stereotypical idea which emerged at the intersection of the discourses on poverty and on ‘obesity’ within the last decades and which contributed/s to the individualization and culturalization of poverty. This new phenomenon also marks a historical shift away from imaging the poor as thin and starving (and therefore deserving society’s support) and instead envisions them as ‘fat’ (which in that logic signals overabundance and questions the need for support). My thesis explores major cultural dynamics and figurations of fat poor by analyzing pop-cultural texts (literature, film, television) from the 1990s and early 21th century.

The cultural image of the fat poor contributes to both a culturalization of poverty, especially in its causes, and an individualization of poverty, regarding its causes and especially its overcoming. The discourses on poverty and on ‘obesity’ share several similarities in how poor and large-bodied people are imagined. Both conditions are primarily understood as consequences of certain characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors, which include laziness and immobility, consumption without productivity, and a lack of willpower and self-discipline. With the merging of the two discourses, poverty is presented as an individual hardship primarily, and not as a systemic, societal, and political matter. In the logic of fat poor, it is the individual’s responsibility to overcome poverty via a change of attitude and behavior and via internalizing a specific set of ideals.

The dissertation discusses two major dynamics of fat poor—the culturalization of poverty and the individualization of poverty—and several figurations of fat poor, such as the fat poor welfare mother/queen, the loser/winner figuration, fat poor as freak, and fat poor as outcast. Looking at these different figurations helps to describe various cultural functions of othering and marginalizing the poor and conceptualizing them as threat, spectacle, unknown, or failed self, and to recognize fat poor’s connections to other stereotypes on poverty—such as Welfare Mother, Welfare Queen, and White Trash.

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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.

 

[1] Scott, Andrew. Comedy. Routledge, 2004.

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We Out of Many - First-Person Plural Narration in 21st-Century American Novels

Dissertation Project by
Michaela Beck

My PhD project focuses on what has been described as the ‘rise’ of the ‘we’ narrator in recent U.S. literature (Maxey 2015, Cf. Costello 2012) – that is, the use of the first-person plural narrator in a growing body of short and longer narrative fiction, including Kate Walbert’s Our Kind (2005), Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007), Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011), and TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos (2014), among others. 

More specifically, my dissertation examines this ‘we’, or communal narrator in a selection of six 21st-century (post-postmodern) U.S. American novels with a decided focus on its cultural work. Drawing on New Formalist approaches (Olson and Copland 2016, Levine 2015), I aim to conjoin two (hitherto discrete) strands of research in my project: For one, I employ formalist-narratological discussions of the ‘we’ narrator – particularly approaches by Margolin, Bekhta, Marcus, Fludernik, and Richardson – for a precise discussion of the framing and narrative use of the first-person plural pronoun in the primary texts. Importantly, in doing so, I seek to detach the formal discussion of the ‘we’ narrator in my project from the ‘unnatural’ versus natural narrative debate (Cf. Richardson 2006, 2015), and I read the communal narrator as a textual form whose meta- and/or extratextual implications necessarily depend on its specific aesthetic as well as socio-cultural frames of reference.

At the same time, my project aims to enquire into these implications by focusing specifically on the interaction between the affordances of this form and socio-cultural, economic, or political discourses or ‘forms’ (Cf. Levine 2015) in a contemporary U.S. American context. As such, the individual textual analyses within my project zoom in on the inter-relation between the different form(ulation)s of the communal narrator and the discussion of the following socio-political and cultural paradigms in the primary material: first, the conceptualization of U.S. national society as a complex, yet bounded ‘whole’; second, the proposition of attached notions of civic collectivity and national belonging which are premised on both cognitive and affective ties; and third, the idealized understanding of the American (post-postmodern) novel as a prestigious and most vital medium and forum for negotiating these paradigms in and for U.S. culture.

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The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television

Research Project by Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler

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]

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The 19th-Century US Data Imaginary

Postdoctoral Project by
Sebastian M. Herrmann

Diagram and Statistical Record of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (J. C. Power, 1858)This ongoing postdoctoral project is interested in the ‘data imaginary’ of the nineteenth century. It asks how ‘data’ came to be an important cultural (social, political, textual) category; how something as abstract as the notion of presumably ‘pure,’ discontinuous, discrete, often numerical, and quantifiable information came to be imagined as a ‘thing’ that can be created, bought, sold, regulated, or used for all manner of interactions and socio-political negotiations; how data came to be imagined as something with social and political valencies; and, most importantly, how this new ‘thing’ gained cultural presence not simply as a tool but as a way of thinking about the world.

Literary and cultural studies have stressed the role of narrative for the emergence of national identity, for the negotiation of cultural and social difference, and for navigating the transformations of modernity. Thinking about the culturalization of data and the rise of the data imaginary complements this perspective by asking for the role that emphatically nonnarrative symbolic forms—and the textual practices they entail—have played in this.

For more information, please see the project webpage at www.data-imaginary.de.

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Transmedial Negotiations of Sexual Violence in Contemporary US-American Literature and Culture

Dissertation Project by Mascha Helene Lange

This ongoing PhD-project aims to critically investigate the transmedial spread of representations of gender-based violence through an analysis of selected cultural artifacts across various media. It is based on the conviction that the meaning of sexual violence for the collective is negotiated, not solely but decisively, in fictional representations mediated through both more ‘traditional arts’ such as literature, and more recent media such as film, TV, photography, and a multiplicity of digital media. In other words: understandings of sexual violence are socially and culturally constructed through various media, and hence constantly undergo shifts in meaning. This constant re-construction is centrally determined by conceptions of a number of identity markers, including but not limited to gender, race, and class.

The aim of this project is to critically evaluate the intersections between current transmedial articulations of gendered violence and negotiations of different subject positions in contemporary US-American society. In particular, this project investigates the framing of victims/survivors and perpetrators of gender-based violence and conceptualizations of agency and vulnerability, as well as associated constructions of femininity and masculinity. The project is furthermore interested in how current transmedial narratives invest in social norms, such as justice, truth, and shame, along the matrices of named categories of gender, race, and class. Following from that, the question at the core of this dissertation project reads: How are transmedial representations of sexual violence used in contemporary US-American literature and culture in order to establish, question or re-evaluate societal norms and regulate individual subject positions?

Texts that thus far have been analyzed in the project include Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix mini-series When They See Us, as well as the 2016 memoir/TED-talk “South of Forgiveness/Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation” by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger.

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti for The New Yorker.

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Spatial Fictions - Antebellum South

Research Project by
Deniz Bozkurt

My (ongoing) dissertation project Spatial Fictions in Antebellum American Writings about the Southern Peripheries of the United States focuses on spatial imaginations regarding the Southern peripheries of the US in the nineteen-century fictional and non-fictional literature. Laden with controversies such as discussions on slavery and abolition, territorial expansion and annexation, sectionalism, secessionism and unionism, industrialization and agricultural reforms, the literature on the nineteenth-century South a wide range of diverse spatial projections than the canonical spatial metanarratives, which evolve around concepts like Manifest Destiny, Errand into the Wilderness, and the Frontier, offer. While these metanarratives often contradicted the lived-realities of the region, the South was located in “the national imagery” that they constructed as the peripheral “internal other” to the US.

The main objective of this dissertation is, thus, to create a more heterogeneous and complex representation of spatial imagination regarding the American South in an era where the nation consolidation was accompanied and complicated by geographical expansion. Concentrating on the narratives about important events and debates of the era for the South like filibustering expeditions to Cuba and Nicaragua, and Southern independence and slavery, the first discursive complex of this projects aims at exploring geographical imaginations that envision the South as the center of a Southern empire that extends beyond the presumed borders of the South and reaches as far as Brazil. In the second part, texts by African-American and abolitionist authors who established invisible networks in space and time that spread from the Southern US to as far as Africa through shared experiences and expectations in their works will be read to draw an alternative landscape of spatial imaginations that is distinct from the texts that will be explored in the first discursive complex.

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Spatial Fictions - Florida

​Research Project by
Dr. Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez

This (ongoing) project, Spatial Fictions: (Re)Imaginations of Nationality in the Southern and Western Peripheries of 19th Century America, is part of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition. It examines the imagination of space in nineteenth-century American cultural and literary discourses. Canonized patterns of spatialization in American national history are linked to central spatial concepts such as the frontier and the “errand into the wilderness” (i.e. the settlement and civilization of the American continent on an east-west geographical axis). However, the geographical imagination in the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War was much more diverse. The consolidation and expansion of the nation during the nineteenth century were accompanied by different and conflicting imaginations of spatial formats that often contradicted the official rhetoric of “Manifest Destiny”. Particularly in the yet unstable and mobile southern and western peripheries of the nation, the ideology of  Manifest Destiny collided with the topographical, social, economic, and cultural realities of the border zones, producing alternative “spatial fictions” that often pointed to commercial, political, or other entanglements with regions beyond the nation’s boundaries.

The project comprises two dissertation projects (see project description by Steffen Wöll and Deniz Bozkurt) as well as a unit on the spatial construction of Florida in the early 19th century. This part explores Florida as a space that in the period between its successive acquisition from Spain and its permanent settlement by Americans generated widely varying spatial narratives. The divergent representations that the peninsula experienced in travel narratives, novels, captivity tales, and historical writings by American writers reveal how it became a foil of projection for quite different agendas. The geographical imagination of their authors about Florida reveals that as a spatial nexus of the domestic and the foreign, situated between the U.S. and the Caribbean, the peninsula played a crucial role in the debates about nationhood, expansionism, and slavery, and in the conflict between centrifugal and centripetal forces, i.e. those forces endorsing the consolidation of the nation v. those arguing for further expansion.

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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. Taking its cues, on the one hand, from recent cultural-studies interests in the concept of symbolic forms and, on the other hand, from an overwhelming focus on the symbolic form of narrative in the wake of the “narrative turn” that has informed much recent American studies scholarship, the network asks for the cultural processes and negotiations that take place at the fringes and outside of the narrative symbolic form. It proposes to focus on the cultural dynamics of what we call “narrative liminality”—a property of discourses and practices that are not yet or not anymore (only) narrative; of discourses and practices whose symbolic forms entail some extent of narrativity or that are culturalized as archives or reservoirs for potential narratives. Such narrative liminality, we suggest, marks the formal dynamics and cultural work of forms such as the database, play, or ritual. Proceeding from the hypothesis that narrative liminality gains particular cultural currency in contexts of sociocultural transformation, dynamization, and self-reflection, the network aims to explore how narrative liminality has served as a key idiom in the negotiation of American modernities.

For more information, please refer to the project webpate at: www.narrative-liminality.de.

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A New Social Contract: The Debate on Planning and Freedom in American Exile during the 1930s

Dissertation Project by
Eric W. Fraunholz

This dissertation project retraces the intellectual history of the University in Exile (UiE) at the New School of Social Research and the Institute for Social Research (IfS) at Columbia University in New York City during the 1930’s. The UiE and IfS not only share the experience of persecution in Germany and exile in the New York City during the New Deal era, both were also influenced by an undogmatic Western Marxism and promoted the focus on individual freedom in classical liberalism in their theories—albeit with different conclusions. Nevertheless, scholars have characterized both schools as mutally exclusive Denkräume. The study questions this assumption and traces points of contact as well as productive synergies and incompatibilities that will help to paint a clearer picture of the political economy and shifts in émigré scholars’ understanding of statist control and individual freedom in the United States during the adoption of New Deal policies in the 1930’s.

The study follows two basic questions: How did the experience of humanitarian and economic crisis and the New Deal influence the political economy of the UiE and the IfS? How was freedom as well as economic and social planning in a democratic society debated at the UiE and the IfS during their exile in New York City? I am expecting to find that the experience of the New Deal complicated fundamental theoretical and political dispositions in the UiE and the IfS. The UiE and the IfS, I argue, cannot be regarded as independent institutional actors but have to be analyzed in their historical and socio-political discourse and in dialogue with each other. Considering the UiE and the IfS in dialogue rather than in separated intellectual spheres reveals new perspectives on the political economy of both institutions.

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The Space Between Oceans: Mobilizing America’s Transhemispheric Empire.

Habilitation Project by Dr. Steffen Wöll

What David Armitage termed the “Atlantic world” was, from an American perspective, imagined through a multitude of narrative lenses that embraced a variety of different spatial spatial formats and orders: First, as a colonial frontier of Western civilization that succeeded the Mediterranean as the cradle of European civilization and philosophy. Second, as a maritime network that mobilized the exchange of peoples (including explorers, migrants, and slaves), goods, and novel ideas. And third, as a realm of colonial oppression, revolution, and political selfdetermination. The imperial age eventually adjoined the Atlantic to the Pacific, shifting gears towards envisioning America’s bordering oceans as a transhemispheric sphere of national interests that entailed racial and religious ‘burdens’ of intervention. Utilizing contemporary sources ranging from novels to diaries, the project examines literary, cultural, and other space-making vectors that mobilized or resisted the imperial linkage between Atlantic and Pacific, complicating existing and shedding light on understudied transoceanic imaginations and their impact on spatialization processes past and present.

 

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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.

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