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

For more detailed information on the specific research interests of the ASL faculty, please see everybody's individual faculty page.

Current Research Projects

enlarge the image: I Love Lucy, Image Credit: CBS
I Love Lucy, Image Credit: CBS

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.

Research Interests: 20th century, aesthetics, affect, form, identity, literature, performance, zany

enlarge the image: The Cultural Image of the Fat Poor, Image Credit: Claudia Müller
The Cultural Image of the Fat Poor, Image Credit: Claudia Müller

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.

Research Interests: 20th century, 21st century, capitalism, class, fatness, film, gender, intersectionality, literature, marginalization, popular culture, poverty, race, stereotypes, TV

enlarge the image: 'Freak show' in 1941, Image Credit: public domain
'Freak show' in 1941, Image Credit: public domain

Enfreakment as an Invective Mode in US-American Popular Culture

This DFG-funded project aims to (re-)conceptualize enfreakment as a longstanding, malleable, and powerful practice in US-American popular culture. It proceeds from the assumption that the processes of enfreakment, i.e. the processes by which figures of the ‘freak’ are constructed and staged, can be understood as one particularly powerful formation of an invective popular culture—of a commercial mass culture that generates popular appeal out of performances of disparagement and debasement, whose invective valences are constantly reflected on in the culture itself. Approaching enfreakment in the context of such invective practices promises new insights both into the extensive, multifaceted culture of freakery and into invective traditions and dynamics in US-American popular culture.

Against this backdrop, the project addresses enfreakment as a process that can be observed in several genres, media, and historical constellations. It approaches these processes as performative procedures that construct as deviant certain, always historically situated instances of bodily non-normativity, and that sensationalize this ‘deviance’ and charge it with societal meanings. Drawing on a cultural concept of disparagement, the project wants to interrogate the performativity of enfreakment, its reflexivity, and its ties to broader societal negotiations of social norms and normativity.

Research Interests: popular culture, media, diversity, affectivity

enlarge the image: Imagining the Isthmus – the Panama Canal Zone in American Writings, Image Credit: Willis John Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose (1913)
Imagining the Isthmus – the Panama Canal Zone in American Writings, Image Credit: Willis John Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose (1913)

Imagining the Isthmus – the Panama Canal Zone in American Writings

The project, part of the Collaborative Research Center 1199: Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition, focuses on spatial representations of the Panama Canal Zone in the period of the construction of the Panama Canal. The canal was designed as an „interoceanic highway“ designed to protect US interests in the hemisphere and to facilitate trade. Moreover, it created a geostrategic link between the islands that the US had acquired or controlled in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Cuba) and in the Pacific (Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and other islands). The investigation includes popular texts about the Canal and the “American tropics,” travel books and writings by Americans residing in the Zone (“Zonians”) as well as texts dramatizing the lives and experiences of migrant workers from the Caribbean who did most of the hard work digging the canal. It explores the spatial imaginations, meta-geographies and critical counter-geographies in representations of the Zone and the canal that exemplify the visible and invisible links connecting the zone to other territories on the continent and the globe.

Research Interests: 19th century, 20th century, migration, expansionism, literature, transnational, space

The Poetics and Politics of the Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television: The Makeover Show

Dissertation Project by Anne Krenz

Ranging from frequently utilizing verbal insults or displaying their participants’ reactions of shame in an exaggerating manner to establishing visual excesses of disgust, makeover shows (Queer Eye, What Not to Wear, Kitchen Nightmares, Dog Whisperer) have developed a formulaic repertoire of invective phenomena. It seems that throughout a thematically varied corpus invective structures are closely linked to the genre’s highly formulaic transformation stories, and, thus, to its discussion of US-American conceptions of the self.  

My dissertation project is centered around the systematic examination of various forms of disparagement within this well-established reality TV genre - and asks about its invective poetics and politics. Tracing the textual patterns of the invective will include aspects like exploring the spectrum of dramatized invective forms, describing their performative dynamics as well as analyzing how they are intertwined with the narrative structure and realized through the means of the specific audiovisual medium. In addition to this, I am particularly interested in the affective dimension of the makeover’s invective dynamics. Although the shows follow a very carefully orchestrated grammar that seems to oscillate between the calculated release, escalation and control of affects, its invective moments bear the potential to irritate. Moreover, the study addresses how its invective dynamics shape the cultural work of the genre and inform the way the makeover offers opportunities for identification, negotiates social norms and handles socio-cultural differences in terms of categories like class, race, ethnicity and gender.

Research Interests: class, culture, gender, identity, media, narrative, popular culture, race, sexuality/LGBTQ, TV

enlarge the image: Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 276, Image Credit: public domain
Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 276, Image Credit: public domain

Modernity in Motion – Visualizing Athletic Bodies, 1890s – 1930s

Research Project by Olaf Stieglitz

In 1917, the U.S. magazine "Vanity Fair" published an article with the headline "Moving Pictures for Golfers”. This was nothing unusual, because sports was one of the topics that appealed to the mostly white, urban, educated audience of this lifestyle magazine. The article was written by Walter Camp, who, as one of the leading sports experts, ideally met the criteria that the editors set for their authors: Well-known, with expertise and credibility. The two series of pictures that illustrated the article were unusual - consisting of 22 individual photos each, they showed two golfers hitting the ball. The stopwatch and the grid against which the swings were made were striking.

With an expert's eye, Camp analyzed the movements of the two athletes in the text. He did not say a word about the special photographic technique. Only the subtitle of the article gave brief information: "Illustrated with movie picture reels by Frank B. Gilbreth". For most readers of "Vanity Fair," Gilbreth was no stranger at this time; along with Frederick Winslow Taylor, he was (together with his wife Lillian) the leading representative of Scientific Management and the one who had made the photographic and cinematic visualization of a scientific optimization of motion sequences in everyday working life his task. But the photographs were not limited to work processes; the Gilbreths also repeatedly produced photos and films of sports - where, if not with athletic bodies in motion, could the potential of motion studies be better demonstrated than in sports, which for ever larger segments of the U.S. population became an important part of their lives, whether active or passive. And so it is not surprising that we encounter the two golfers from Walter Camp's article again elsewhere: Roger Hovey and Gilbert Nichols were popular motifs for the Gilbreths, and the photographic and filmic bases from which the series of pictures in "Vanity Fair" emerged can be found in their archive.

It is documents like these that form the starting point for the project to visualize "modern" athletes' bodies. They point to three closely interwoven cultural developments in the U.S. (and beyond) in the period roughly between 1890 and 1940: first, to the immensely increasing popularity of sports as part of a commercialized leisure culture; second, to the "revolution" in the field of visual media, characterized by the rise of illustrated magazines and books as well as the widespread use of film; and third, to the conflict-laden debates over the meaning of "modernity" for a society in accelerated change. The depiction of athletic "bodies in motion" - according to the central starting thesis of the project - offers a surface on which these three cultural developments are bundled and which can thus serve as a lens for analyzing sociocultural negotiation processes around "modernity."

The sheer number of different images of athletic bodies during this period is an indicator of their relevance. And beyond this quantitative observation, large media spaces were occupied by these representations, from newspapers, magazines, and books, to advertising posters, trading cards, and art, to educational films, newsreels, and feature films. The project addresses these sources as an explicitly transnational cultural history of the United States; it asks how and by whom playing sports (in a broad understanding of the term) was perceived as a quintessentially "modern" practice and, in this sense, charged with meaning. It illuminates a period in which "modernity" in the United States and beyond was celebrated on the one hand for its promises of "progress" and participation, but also antagonized on the other for its capacity to challenge stable certainties. Against this backdrop, it examines the place of sporting bodies in this mix. As a body history, the project argues that gendered, racialized, sexualized, or otherwise marked bodies became significant media in these contestations. It asks how they were subject to particular processes of making visible or invisible in sport, which helped negotiate what "modern" bodies should look like and perform.

Because of its prioritized analysis of visual sources, the project sees itself as part of a visual history that takes photography, film, and other visual materials as significant actants in both marking bodies as widely visible, consumable, and desirable, and in rejecting them as deviant, dangerous, or unproductive. Visual media designed new body ideals, familiarized consumers with them, and allowed their meaning-bearing evaluations; they represented achievement, health, pleasure, and "progress," but equally-and often simultaneously-failure, pain, and "disability." The media development of photography and film was always related back to these sporting representations: The development of high-speed photography or even slow motion are good examples of how the world of sports with its ever faster moving bodies on the one hand and the sector of media technology with its ever more sophisticated techniques refer to each other. The project thus develops a visual body and cultural history of sport that takes the sporting bodies and their visual representations seriously and places them at the center of its interest.

Research Interests: 19th century, 20th century, bodies, consumerism, disability, film, gender, history, media, modernities, photography, race, sexualitz, sports, transnational, visual culture

Populism as Non-Narrative: Theorizing the Poetics of Post-Narrative Politics

Research Project by Sebastian M. Herrmann

Funded by the VW Stiftung, this project sets out to explore a new, counter-intuitive perspective on contemporary populist rhetoric. Its goal is to theorize the poetics of contemporary populism as marked by decidedly non-narrative symbolic logics. This entails two provocative propositions: One, that populism can and should be approached via its poetics, i.e. from a disciplinary perspective invested in ‘form’; and two, that contemporary populism traffics not in the symbolic form of narrative, that it does not operate by providing ‘simple’ or ‘closed’ narratives, but that it uses the complex symbolic logics of play, spectacle, and database instead. This perspective goes against the dominant view in journalism, punditry, and academia alike, a view that holds that narrative—a form characterized by coherence, by teleological progression, by narrative necessity, and by an ability to order the world into cause-and-effect patterns—is central to political world building. Populism, this view holds, uses simplified and simplifying narratives to appeal to its audience. In shifting perspectives and focusing on non-narrative symbolic forms instead, I hope to work toward a model of what I think of as post-narrative politics.

For more information, please cf. the project webpage at www.postnarrative-politics.de.

Research Interests: 21st century, aesthetics, affect, Americanization, culture, form, German-American relations, media, narrative, new media, politics, popular culture, populism, postmodernism, textuality, theory, transnational

enlarge the image: Platform SHRIMP_PODS and Project Logo, Image Credit: Claudia Müller
Platform SHRIMP_PODS and Project Logo, Image Credit: Claudia Müller

SHRIMP_PODS: Social Hypertext as Digital Educational Resource

Research Project by Sebastian M. Herrmann

SHRIMP_PODS is a new learning and teaching platform optimized for use in the humanities. It is currently tried out in a prototype version in higher education classrooms at Leipzig University, will be integrated into the emerging German national education infrastructure (“Nationale Bildungsplattform”), but will also be available as a stand-alone solution.

On SHRIMP_PODS, instructors can build individual learning resources, called “Pods,” composed of PDF files—a format they and their students are well-versed in. This also allows them to continue using texts they have used in the past. SHRIMP_PODS augments these regular PDFs by adding an interactive layer that allows instructors and learners to add private annotations, public comments, emoticon reactions, tags, or links. Links can either point to the WWW or to other PDFs inside the same Pod. These internal links connect one passage in one PDF with another passage in another PDF, and they typically contain a short explanation on how these passages relate. They create meaningful connections within the material and help readers cognitively map the concepts at stake.

By augmenting regular PDF files with an interactive layer, SHRIMP_PODS turns these files into a richly interactive resource, which invites students to move from passive reading to an (inter-)active, critical exploration of the material. While annotations are only visible to the person applying them, comments and reactions afford exchange, invite emotional investment, and turn reading from a solitary to a social experience. Instructors can use comments to ask guiding Reading Questions, and students can use the feature to ask questions while they are reading. Doing so directly inside the text encourages closer reading. By using tags, groups of students can collaborate to classify content. They can practice recognizing concepts, and they can discover and document connections between different readings. Tags also allow instructors to pre-structure the reading, or to highlight concepts that the students may otherwise overlook.

All of SHRIMP_PODS’ interactive features can be used live in the classroom, e.g. during group work, or they can be used ahead of time to prepare the readings as homework to facilitate flipped classroom settings or other learning arrangements. Each Pod—a limited corpus of texts along with links, tags, reading questions, etc.—forms a self-contained learning resource. This allows instructors to duplicate and reuse Pods, or to share them with colleagues.

Research Interests: education, learning, teaching, learning platform, social hypertext, digital skills, augmented textuality, close reading, text seminar, digitalization, interactive learning, collaborative learning

enlarge the image: His 128th Birthday, 1904, public domain
His 128th Birthday, 1904, public domain

The Space Between Oceans: Mobilizing America’s Transhemispheric Empire

Habilitation Project by 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.

Research Interests: 19th century, 20th century, Americanization, critical regionalism, history, literature, migration and border studies, space(s), transnational

enlarge the image: #MeToo, Image Credit: Eleni Kalorkoti for The New Yorker
#MeToo, Image Credit: Eleni Kalorkoti for The New Yorker

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.

Research Interests: 21st century, class, culture, gender, identity, intersectionality, race, transmedial, violence

enlarge the image: Illustration from Pudd'nhead Wilson, public domain
Illustration from Pudd'nhead Wilson, public domain

(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.

Research Interests: 19th century, class, culture, difference, gender, intersectionality, literature, narrative, race, realism, romanticism, theory

Completed Research Projects

Over the past decades, numerous smaller and larger research projects have been completed at ASL, by current as well as former faculty and (post)doctoral candidates. The below list is meant to provide only a glimpse of the different kind of projects completed at the institute in the past.

The Contemporary American Small-Town Gothic

Dissertation Project by Thorsten Burkhardt

This 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.

Research Interests: politics, literature, 21st century, gothic

enlarge the image: Power, John Carroll. Diagram and Statistical Record of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. P.S. Duval & Son, Philadelphia, 1858. Image Credit: Catalog Record #481119, Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.
Power, John Carroll. Diagram and Statistical Record of the Signers of the Declarationof Independence. P.S. Duval & Son, Philadelphia, 1858. Image Credit: Catalog Record #481119,Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian…

Data Imaginary: Literature and Data in Nineteenth-Century US Culture

Postdoctoral Project by Sebastian M. Herrmann

This completed postdoctoral project inquires into the role that the nineteenth century’s emerging ‘data imaginary’ has played in the formation of US (national) literature. It proceeds from the observation that nineteenth-century US culture was deeply fascinated by the then-new symbolic form of data and, not least, with the presumed ‘democratic’ qualities of this way of textualizing the world. In the young republic, data thus quickly, and long before the advent of electronic computers, emerged as a privileged representational practice. As such, it served as a critical foil in discussions of national literature and in negotiating US culture’s desire for a national literature that was at democratic in an egalitarian sense while, at the same time, being as refined as the ‘aristocratic’ literatures of Europe. Data, and the data imaginary, thus played a crucial role in the emergence of literature and literariness as social and cultural institutions.

The project was concluded in April 2020. The resulting manuscript has been accepted for publication by Winter’s Amerikastudien/American Studies series.

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

Research Interests: 19th century, culture, history, literature, media, modernities, narrative, new media, realism, romanticism, textuality

enlarge the image: United States Slave Trade, 1830, public domain
United States Slave Trade, 1830, public domain

Imagining Southern Spaces: Hemispheric and Transatlantic Souths in Antebellum US Writings

Dissertation by Deniz Bozkurt-Pekár

This (completed) dissertation identifies the antebellum US as a transitional spatiotemporal setting under both globalization processes experienced in the world and national consolidation processes accompanied by expansionist movements in the US during the long-nineteenth century. In addition to these conditions, the slaveholding southern region of the country underwent a particularly intense period of (re)spatialization due to the intensifying debates on the abolition of slavery. Diverse actors with proslavery or abolitionist opinions (re)imagined the South according to their convictions and interests reaffirming or challenging the existing and dominant spatial configurations and spatialization patterns surrounding them. In doing so, they positioned the South within or outside of different (trans)regional, (trans)national, or imperial spaces or in economic, political, and cultural entanglements in hemispheric, circumcaribbean, and circumatlantic contexts.

Investigating spatialization processes through analyses of spatial imaginations about the South, this dissertation takes the question of slavery and its abolition as a factor that shaped the reactions of different antebellum actors mainly to the expansionist movements and to the national consolidation processes, but also to other (re)spatialization patterns of the era. To explore these reactions, it studies spatial imaginations of different antebellum actors about the South in the abolitionist and proslavery literature of the era. To this end, it analyses primarily five antebellum texts for the diverse spatial imaginations that they generate. These texts are William Gilmore Simms’s Southward Ho! (1855), Lucy Holcombe Pickens’s The Free Flag of Cuba (1855), William Wells Brown’s St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and Its Patriots (1854), Elizabeth D. Livermore’s Zoë, or the Quadroon’s Triumph (1855), and Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1859-61). Through close-readings of these texts and their contextualization among other literary productions as well as socio-political and cultural developments of the era, the work does not only point to a multitude of diverse Souths that various actors imagined but also challenges monolithic and provincial representations of the South as a provincial region distinct from the rest of the country.

The findings of this dissertation contribute to a new spatial semantics developed at the Collaborative Research Centre 1199: “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition,” by employing the concepts of spatial formats and orders as theoretical underpinnings and focusing on the emergence, functioning, and performances of different spatial configurations. Therefore, the work constitutes a step toward developing a better understanding of spatialization processes and carries methods and foci of cultural and literary studies into a pivotal position in this theoretical development.

Research Interests: 19th century, critical regionalism, culture, history, literature, space(s)

enlarge the image: The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television, public domain
The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television, public domain

The Invective Mode in Contemporary US-American Television

Research Project by 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]

Research Interests: 21st century, class, culture, gender, intersectionality, media, popular culture, race, TV

enlarge the image: Sitcoms, Image Credit: NBC, CBS
Sitcoms, Image Credit: NBC, CBS

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), 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.

Research Interest: literature, culture, narrative, textuality, popular culture, race, class, gender, sexuality/LGBTQ, intersectionality, difference, identity, African American studies, Latina/o studies, film, TV, 21st century

enlarge the image: Cover of Narrative Instability - Destabilizing Identities, Realities, and Textualities in Contemporary American Popular Culture, Image Credit: Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg.
Cover of Narrative Instability - Destabilizing Identities, Realities, and Textualities in Contemporary American Popular Culture, Image Credit: Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg.

Narrative Instability in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation Project by Stefan Schubert

This (completed) dissertation 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.

Research Interests: 20th century, 21st century, class, culture, film, games, gender, intersectionality, literature, media, narrative, popular culture, postmodernism, race, textuality, transmedial, TV

enlarge the image: Beyond Narrative: Literature, Culture, and the Borderlines of Narrativity, Image Credit: ASL.
Beyond Narrative: Literature, Culture, and the Borderlines of Narrativity, Image Credit: ASL.

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 webpage at: www.narrative-liminality.de.

Research Interests: culture, narrative, textuality, popular culture, modernities, transmedial, new media, 21st century, 20th century, 19th century, theory

enlarge the image: Cover of Presidential Unrealities - Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency, Image Credit: Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg.
Cover of Presidential Unrealities - Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency, Image Credit: Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg.

Presidential Unrealities

Dissertation by 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.

Research Interests: postmodernism, politics, literature, culture, media, cultural history, narrative, textuality, popular culture, consumerism, film, TV, non-fiction, 21st century, 20th century, theory

enlarge the image: Cover of Revisiting and Revising the Fifties in Contemporary US Popular Culture Self-Reflexivity, Melodrama, and Nostalgia in Film and Television, Image Credit: J.B. Metzler.
Cover of Revisiting and Revising the Fifties in Contemporary US Popular Culture Self-Reflexivity, Melodrama, and Nostalgia in Film and Television, Image Credit: J.B. Metzler.

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

Dissertation Project by Eleonora Ravizza

This (completed) 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.

Research Interests: 20th century, 21st century, class, consumerism, cultural history, culture, film, gender, genre (theory), media, popular culture, postmodernism, race, sexuality/LGBTQ, TV

enlarge the image: Cover of The West and the Word - Imagining, Formatting, and Ordering the American West in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Discourse, Image Credit: Berlin: de Gruyter.
Cover of The West and the Word - Imagining, Formatting, and Ordering the American West in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Discourse, Image Credit: Berlin: de Gruyter.

Spatial Fictions - American West

Dissertation Project by Steffen Wöll

My (completed) 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.

Research Interests: 19th century, critical regionalism, culture, history, literature, space(s)

Spatial Fictions - Florida

​Research Project by 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.

Research Interests: literature, inter-American relations, critical regionalism, 19th century, space(s)

Related Information

ASL Research Profile

Read more

Scholarship Published by ASL Members

Read more

Conferences Organized at ASL

Read more

(Post)Doctoral Fellows

Read more

Leipzig University Research Portal

Read more