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 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.




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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Spatial Fictions - American West

Dissertation Project by
Steffen A. Wöll

 

My (ongoing) dissertation project on "Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Antebellum US Literature" examines spatial imaginations of the Western American peripheries and their representation in US literature during the nineteenth century, comprising both fictional and non-fictional literary accounts of the Western peripheries, including travel narratives, diaries, exploration reports, as well as (pseudo-)scientific geographical and anthropological texts. Taking into consideration both populist and elitist views, female and male perspectives, racialist and philanthropist ideologies, I put focus on the intertextual dynamics that result in the discursive construction, affirmation, contestation, deconstruction, hierarchization, as well as synthetic and antithetic negotiations of imagined and actual spatial formats and orders. Without ignoring the Turnerian and New Western History’s approaches to the American West and concepts like frontier and borderlands, my intention is nevertheless to take a step back. This seems necessarily especially in the light of current, often highly politicized discourses that view the West as yet another stage on which to transplant personal expectations and enact political agendas, resulting in presentism and ahistorical epistemic conceptualizations.


Furthermore, this intent of ‘re-historicizing’ the West through the use of primary sources is based in the conviction that the West was factually spatialized during the nineteenth century as a part of the American nation; this process of imagining, making-real or ‘worlding’ involved its physical appropriation, federal organization, national bordering, and oncurrent manifestation in texts, images, ideas, identities, symbols, and archetypes, many of which remain influential until today. In fact, engaging with nineteenth-century sources reveals a surprisingly high degree of alternative visions which often undermine or complicate the unified visions proposed by the Frontier Thesis and Manifest Destiny, yet also that of some New Western Historians, thus prompting questions about the reasons behind the narrowing of this imaginational diversity and suggesting a more synthetic reappraisal of the American West as a real-and-imagined space.

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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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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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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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(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.

 

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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).

By subsuming these texts from diverse genres, media, and subject matters under a common textual trend, this project strives to analyze commonalities in their cultural work. It argues that these texts’ formal experiments are best understood as self-conscious attempts at drawing attention to their own narration, not to break immersion (or only momentarily) but to negotiate questions of narrativity and textuality with contemporary audiences that seek such ‘narrative complexity’ and that take pleasure in these texts as ‘amateur narratologists,’ in Jason Mittell’s words. This ‘popularization’ of narrative form and discourse also connects to popularized depictions of cultural, scientific, and philosophical concerns and concepts within these texts’ storyworld (e.g., psychoanalysis, many-worlds theory, and objectivism). In addition, this project interrogates these texts for their representational practices, as their unstable storytelling concerns and centers around predominantly white male middle-class protagonists. Overall, this investigation of narrative instability thus sheds light on a particularly prolific and popular part of contemporary postmodern US culture, positions these cultural artifacts within discussions of the contemporary moment as ‘post-postmodern’ (variously understood), and relates questions of self-reflexive narration and representation to core concerns of American studies in particular.

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