Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp.
Feb18

Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp.

Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   This volume edited by Alfred Hornung includes the five keynote lectures plus twenty-four workshop presentations from the 2012 DGfA annual conference on “American Lives” held at the University of Mainz. The collection delves into the myriad variations of American (auto-) biography with its complex, multi-layered modes of story-telling, its various forms and functions, its conceptual frames and narrative strategies to produce authenticity and credibility. And it does so with a vast historical reach, from indigenous and colonial texts to contemporary life writing across genres and media.  E-lives, blogs and other social media formats are considered as well as film, photography and graphic story-telling. The first part of the book presents the keynote lectures of the conference. Sidonie Smith offers a compelling account of how Hillary Clinton’s bestseller Living History (2003) shapes a convincing political persona of representative American-ness by drawing on variants of the Bildungsroman, the conventional First Lady Memoir, the buddy story, the celebrity confession and the war memoir. Thomas Bender examines recent biographies about public intellectuals Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch with a focus on intellectual creativity: the formations and transformations that ideas undergo before they appear in print. The contributions by Craig Howes and Birgit Däwes share an interest in Native American life writing. Howes explores nineteenth-century indigenous Hawaiian self-representations as responses to colonization and missionary endeavors while Däwes probes into the emancipatory potential of staged Native American biography. Finally, Siri Hustvedt ventures into the borderlands between life writing and life science where she discusses how the “hard” and “soft” truths of science and art are affected by the choice of first, second or third person narrative.   The following section has a focus on historical variants of (auto-) biographical writing. Patrick Erben traces how the anniversary poems of Francis Daniel Pastorius can be read as a form of immigrant autobiography which deliberately seeks to establish religious community and personal affiliation in a colonial setting. The uneasy relations between Christian ethics and slavery are discussed by Carsten Junker who reads Samuel West’s unpublished memoirs in dialog with letters from the author’s brother. Kirsten Twelbeck and Hannah Spahn both discuss how life writings help us understand race relations in the context of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The diary of Esther Hill Hawks, a white doctor, and the autobiography of Eliza Potter, an Afroamerican hairdresser, offer intriguing insights into the resonances of race and gender, the public and the private, as well as of national identity, social activism and the ambivalences of recognition. This section of...

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Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp.
Feb18

Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp.

Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The field of autobiography studies, as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have proposed, has taken on “virtually intergalactic” proportions in the past few decades (ix), enlivened by the growing recognition of the interdependencies and fragmentations of writing subjects through fields such as postcolonial studies,[1] ecocriticism, and disability studies. Alexandra Wagner’s Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten adds to this ever expanding field by examining the interconnections between literature and knowledge through the genre of autobiography. In her elegant study, Wagner investigates the ways in which the genre shapes the production and representation of knowledge, considering autobiography as a specific knowledge system characterized by a poetics of knowledge (as developed by Jacques Rancière and Joseph Vogl) situated between fact and fiction (3). The book is organized into five main sections. Following an introduction and general overview of the role of narrative and knowledge in autobiography (section II), Wagner theorizes narrative points of view, motivations, the role of the addressee, and temporal and spatial dimensions of autobiographical writing (section III). In section IV, which takes up about half of the study, Wagner pursues close readings of (mostly) American autobiographical texts to exhibit the various orders of knowledge in the genre. She closes with an exemplary reading of Dave Eggers’s What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Deng. A Novel (2007)as a contemporary example of the fusion between fact and fiction in autobiographical writing that serves to recap some of her study’s major claims. Genre, according to Wagner, goes beyond mere classification of texts, providing frames and formulas for the organization and production of knowledge (22). An investigation of poetic knowledge construction in autobiography, as she asserts, not only offers insights into autobiographical narrative as a practice of self-assurance but may also shed light on the possibilities, limitations, and formations of knowledge systems in general (11). Wagner’s emphasis on the poetic dimensions of autobiography aims to serve as a corrective to the more common linkage of the genre in popular perception with facticity rather than fictional creation (23). This focus, as she seeks to demonstrate, opens up new avenues toward understanding autobiographical texts: setting aside dichotomies of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, she instead concentrates on genre specific modes of (re)presentations of autobiographical knowledge through an analysis of narrative structures (24). Narrative has a mediating function in the production, dissemination, and communication of meaning (20), and it is shaped by a tension between knowing and non-knowing and the...

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Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp.
Feb18

Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp.

Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   A serious, comprehensive consideration of “race” in US American Naturalism is long overdue. Mita Banerjee’s study Color Me White addresses the issue squarely in a manner that is both original and insightful, contributing towards filling this lacuna in earlier research. Yet, the innovative character of her book is not limited to its subject matter; it resides at least as much in its fresh, transdisciplinary approach to the topic. Taking her cue from the court’s verdict in In re Ah Yup (1878) that resorted to “the literature of the country” for determining the meaning of the term “white person, ” Banerjee reads legal and literary discourses as mutually illuminating projects seeking to ascertain which racial and ethnic groups should be considered “white,” thus gaining the right to own property (including land) as well as the right to marry white persons. Around 1900, these considerations were triangulated by yet another discipline: medicine, in particular hygiene. Both legal and literary inquiries into matters of “race” thus inspect not only the petitioners’ hands and teeth, but also their food, their kitchens and living rooms, as well as their clothing. Curiously, from today’s perspective, the question of the claimants’ proficiency in English appeared much less important. But this is in fact one of the central points Color Me White makes: racialization is a historical, as well as a regional, specific practice. What might matter in one case—in addition to the instances already cited, “beauty” and religion, for example—might be dismissed in another. Neither is the “whiteness” or “non-whiteness” of specific ethnic or national groups a foregone conclusion.  Thus, Syrian, Indian, and Japanese individuals were granted whiteness at some times and in some places, but not in others. Such “de-racing” and “re-racing” processes are by no means historically unidirectional, as the re-racialization of Arab Americans after 9/11 attests. Color Me White discusses the canonical texts of literary Naturalism ranging from Stephen Crane’s Maggie to Frank Norris’s and Upton Sinclair’s works. In these novels, the whiteness of some ethnic communities, such as Lithuanian Americans in The Jungle, is established through their distinction from other, similarly situated social groups, here Irish Americans, who are portrayed as lacking in terms of hygiene as well as morality. Interestingly, the verdict of naturalist fiction does not always tally with that of contemporary courts. Where Irish Americans were well on their way to whiteness around 1900, partly as a result of their decision to distance themselves from African Americans, as Ignatiev and Jacobson among others have shown, they are re-raced in Sinclair’s...

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Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp.
Feb18

Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp.

Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   This intellectually ambitious and intelligently provocative study puts into analytical practice what its authors call a “spatial turn in literary theory.”  They situate their book at the “intersection of geography, literary criticism, and cultural criticism” (2-3), and, in doing so, display not only considerable expertise in a wide spectrum of contemporary theory (from Giorgio Agamben to Slavoj Zizek), but are also able to make literary texts speak theoretically and politically. In addition, they show the aesthetic implications of much contemporary political thought and the practice of recent political movements. Re-thinking “space” and its function thus provides the link between the widely different spheres of their inquiry, creating a field of discourse in which political theory, literary text(s) and the actual experience of the historical moment interrelate and interact. Who owns or occupies what space in times like ours, marked by the dynamics of migration and the space-dissolving and border-defying (but also border-reinstating) processes of globalization? To what extent can space not only be the locus of repressive order, but also of radical refusal, even an agency for creative change in political thought, in the practice of literature, and of political protest? Can there be imagined or practiced alternatives to the way “space” is conceived in the narratives of contemporary neoliberal politics? What is curious about this study, then, is the fact that although it claims much for literature and the imagination, its concerns are not primarily literary. Rather it is driven by a consciousness of political and social crisis in the face of non-functioning political systems, the social impact of an economic policy of financial austerity, or the influx of “alien” immigrants that nations in Europe and elsewhere are either unwilling or unable to accommodate. And yet the book appears to place trust in the power of the aesthetic: It is based on the assumption that objects of the imagination (literature, film, or art) may anticipate, even shape, reality since they are driven by a desire for change beyond the realm of the aesthetic (yet inclusive of it).  Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” frames Manzanas’ and Benito’s study—they discuss it in their opening and then again in a concluding chapter called “From Bartleby to Occupy Wall Street: The Politics of Empty Spaces.” Melville’s story thus establishes the book’s focus, allowing its authors to advance and exemplify concepts concerning the aesthetic as much as the political relevance of space. Here, as elsewhere, they acknowledge their indebtedness to Doreen Massey who,...

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Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp.
Feb18

Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp.

Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Auf der Suche nach Gemeinsamkeiten jener vielfältigen Facetten, die nicht mehr kommentarlos unter dem allzu vereinheitlichenden Begriff einer US-amerikanischen Kultur zusammenzufassen sind, wird man neben anderen Aspekten unweigerlich auf eine gewisse Faszination, wenn nicht gar Obsession mit dem Konzept des Anfangs und des Anfangens stoßen, die den kulturellen Mainstream und sein Verständnis von Geschichte und Identität ebenso prägt wie subkulturelle und gegenkulturelle Positionen. Das Konzept des Gründungsortes spielt hierbei eine besondere Rolle, und Orte werden gerne zu Stätten gemacht, indem man sie mythisch überhöht, ganz gleich, ob es im Namen einer nationalen Identitätsbildung oder deren Gegenbewegung stattfindet, egal ob Plymouth Rock oder Woodstock. Die Konstruktion dieser Gründungsorte findet oftmals konkret über diskursive und materielle Praktiken statt, die Geschichtsschreibung mit musealer Aufarbeitung und Ausstellung verbinden und dabei immer eine gewisse Kontinuität zur Gegenwart und zu gegenwärtigen Identitäten herstellen (und sei es durch die Inszenierung eines Bruches mit der Vergangenheit). In seinem Buch Wo sich Amerika erfand spürt Arno Heller einigen dieser Erinnerungsorte dort nach, wo sie in den USA vermutlich in der größten Dichte zu finden sind, nämlich in Neuengland. Es ist ihm dabei elegant der keineswegs leichte Brückenschlag zwischen akademischer Kulturwissenschaft (mit literarischem Fokus) und landeskundlicher Aufarbeitung gelungen, die das Buch für mindestens zwei Zielgruppen gleichermaßen interessant macht, ohne diese gegeneinander auszuspielen. Wo sich Amerika erfand ist zunächst einmal ein Reiseführer im besten Wortsinn, der eine wertvolle erzählerische Ergänzung zu jenen immer bildlastigeren Büchern darstellt, die Touristen zwar Karten, Daten und eine Liste sehenswerter Orte bieten, zugleich aber kaum mehr als einen knappen Absatz Text pro Eintrag aufweisen und sich höchstens noch einige wenige einführende Seiten zur allgemeinen Geschichte leisten. Auch Hellers Buch enthält zahlreiche Farbbilder, teilweise vom Autor selbst fotografiert, die in sehr guter Qualität und an geeigneter Stelle sinnvoll den Text illustrieren, aber auch nicht mehr tun wollen als dies. Die konkreten Fragen, mit denen sich analoge und digitale Reiseführer gerne beschäftigen – das kommentierte Kartenmaterial, das Touristen zu Sehenswürdigkeiten, Hotels, Souvenirläden und gutem Kaffee bringt – überlässt ihnen Heller gerne; er kümmert sich stattdessen um die narrative kulturhistorische Aufarbeitung und Einbettung eines Ortes im größeren nationalen, nicht selten auch globalen Kontext, und somit um jene Geschichte und Geschichten, die ein Reiseziel vielleicht überhaupt erst wirklich als Ort erfahrbar machen. Hellers Buch ist jedoch nicht nur im Gepäck Neuenglandreisender gut aufgehoben, sondern erfüllt einen zweiten Zweck gleichermaßen überzeugend: Es bietet eine grundlegende Einführung in die Kulturgeschichte der USA, die Studierenden der Amerikanistik für einen ersten Überblick ebenso nützlich sein wird wie als Orientierungspunkt für...

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Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp.
Feb18

Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp.

Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The turn to religion in literary studies over the past decade has yielded many fruitful insights, especially in scholarly understandings of sentimental culture.  When Ann Douglas turned serious attention to sentimentalism in The Feminization of American Culture (1977), she established a narrative in which a “masculine” and serious-minded Calvinism gave way to a “feminine” and soft-hearted sentimentalism.[1]  Jane Tompkins challenged Douglas, but left the basic paradigm—from Calvinism to sentimentalism—in place.[2]  Both books depicted a vague evangelical Protestantism behind sentimentalism.  The lack of distinction or theological depth in these accounts was recognized as a problem, but was seldom, if ever, addressed.[3]  Only now are scholars beginning to reveal the religious complexities and nuances of sentimental culture.  In The Altar at Home (2014), Claudia Stokes reveals the powerful effect of Methodism and the Second Great Awakening on sentimentalism.[4]  Kevin Pelletier’s new book, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism, likewise turns to “the fiery evangelical context in which American sentimentalism developed” (38).  Demonstrating against Douglas and others that “there is no clean break between hard-line Calvinist theology and the more moderate forms of belief that sought to replace it,” Pelletier sets a fear of God’s vengeance at the center of abolitionist sentimentalism (12). Pelletier’s idea that fear might be a forceful presence and an enduring feature of sentimentalism radically departs from usual understandings of this culture and its literature.  Scholars most often see an “autotelic” view of love and sympathy at work: that is, depictions of love produce love; representations of sympathy spread sympathy.  Some scholars call this approach modeling.  By modeling scenes of love and compassion, sentimental writers hope to reproduce that response in readers.  And indeed, sentimental novels often seem filled with contagious scenes of weeping, where right feeling is not just demonstrated, but replicated.  Yet as Pelletier points out, focusing on such scenes actually prohibits scholars from seeing the many times when such responses fail.  What happens when the heart hardens despite being surrounded by proper sentimental scenes?  Sentimental novels, Pelletier demonstrates, worried constantly about how to move the unmoved, and they turned to a fear of God as their answer.  The “apocalypse,” as Pelletier defines it, counted as any “suspended threat” of divine judgment and wrath: “Apocalypse is a warning that God would scourge reprobates for their sinful ways but never an actual depiction of this scourging” (12).  Where sympathy would not suffice, God’s threats could move readers from fear to love in the cause of abolition. In making this claim, Pelletier does important work distinguishing among multiple...

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Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp.
Feb18

Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp.

Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   It is perhaps not surprising that the last two decades have seen a renaissance of public sphere criticism.  After all, in these unstable times, the idea of a realm dedicated to disinterested conversation and rational deliberation holds a kind of redemptive promise.  Here individuals can occupy a space beholden to neither state nor private interests, in which participatory democracy plays out principally through what Nancy Fraser calls “the medium of talk.” Even as recent studies celebrate the public sphere, however, they have also been sharply critical of its limitations.  Despite its claims to universality, participation in the public sphere has historically rested with white propertied men.  And while “talk” has been its acclaimed component, public sphere engagement has been enacted principally through the disembodied medium of print.  In this way, it has systematically excluded those individuals who lacked both access to print culture and the means for claiming an abstract universality—that is women and people of color.  In more recent years, scholars have complicated these notions of an exclusive unified realm of white men by pointing to the presence of subaltern or counterpublics and by examining the ways that performance, affect, and voice have all contributed to the creation of the public sphere. Michael Millner’s Fever Reading is a recent and welcome addition to this latter scholarship.  Lucidly argued and elegantly written, Fever Reading makes a case for a public sphere of embodiment and emotion, what Millner occasionally calls “a public sensorium.”  But rather than seeing this as an alternative to the realm of discursive communication and rational judgment, Millner sees embodiment as enabling precisely the kinds of critical practices—reflection, evaluation, judgment—that public sphere proponents embrace. To make this argument, Millner focuses on the phenomenon of “bad reading”—reading that is fevered, addictive, distracted, overly absorbing, and so forth.  This is precisely the kind of reading that cultural custodians (both in the early American period and today) posit as detrimental because it “dissolve[s] critical distance and undercut[s] the possibility of reflection—elements thought essential to a proper public sphere and good citizenship.”  But Millner argues that the opposite is true—that bad reading practices are, in fact, “critical, reflective, and essential to modern democracy…” (xiii). Millner’s counter-intuitive claims rest on the idea that the emotions generated in bad reading are important diagnostic tools, ways of evaluating the surrounding environment.  Borrowing from research in the experimental sciences and particularly the work of William Reddy, Millner posits that emotional reactions allow readers to navigate complex...

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Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp.
Feb18

Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp.

Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Anita Wohlmann’s insightful study on “aged young adults” brings together the concepts of age/aging and youth in a very productive way, and by so doing adds a new dimension to age studies. In five thematically clustered chapters, the author closely examines seven contemporary (2001-2011) American narratives—four novels and three films—via an approach that she terms “age readings.” An age reading reveals references to age in fictional narratives to be more than simply descriptive, and examines their metaphorical function that often revolves around “norms, ideals, and expectations” (70). Aged Young Adults is grounded in a solid theoretical basis of age/aging studies and profits from drawing on theories by eminent age scholars. Wohlmann’s reading of her primary material combines analyses of the fictional material with approaches from cultural studies, sociology, and developmental psychology. Consequently, individual chapters follow a “dialogic organization” (76) that illustrates the reciprocal influence between fictional narratives and “the socio-cultural environment” (30). Thus, analytical observations about the fictional narratives prompt theoretical reflections, which in turn actuate further critical examinations. Chapter one, “Age and Aging in Theory and Practice,” lays out the theoretical background and basis for the age readings that follow in the next four chapters. The first analytic cluster, chapter two, entitled “Conflicts of Timing,” examines Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and Sam Mendes’s Away We Go (2009). The two works are connected by their focus on the characters’ age crises, as well as on the “disciplinary function of age discourses” (91). Chapter three, entitled “Living Across the Life Course,” analyzes Tom Perrotta’s Little Children (2006) and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2002). This chapter’s focus lies on age as a flexible marker and the “shifting meanings of adulthood” that are presented by the works, as well as on the role of age norms and how they affect imaginaries of the life course. “Mental Health and Age,” chapter four, offers an examination of the various links between mental health, consumer culture, age/aging, and entrepreneurial selves in Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005) and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003). The last analytic chapter, chapter five, entitled “Positive Age Metaphors,” examines Miranda July’s The Future (2011) and It Chooses You (2011), emphasizing particularly the aspects that unfold possibilities to reevaluate “notions of time, the future, [and] age or aging” (249). As can be seen from her selection of works, the novelty of Wohlmann’s approach, in the ever rapidly expanding multi-disciplinary field of age/aging studies, lies in the fact that her study focuses on chronologically young characters between the...

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Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings.
Feb18

Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings.

Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Walter Benn Michaels’s new book, The Beauty of a Social Problem, is dedicated to the work of a generation of younger photographers and visual artists—most  of them born after 1965—and  in particular to these artists’ shared belief in the autonomy of the work of art. At first glance, Michaels’s own interest in this notion of autonomy does not seem primarily theoretical, though theory does play a major role in his book, but also and in fact ultimately political. One of the central ideas behind his book is that the “separation” of the work of art “from the world” (xii)—from its subject and from its reader or beholder—might function as “an emblem of the relation between classes and also of the escape from that relation, of the possibility of a world without classes” (ibid.). This is a bold claim, to be sure, although The Beauty of a Social Problem is everything but a practical political manifesto (and Michaels never claims that he wanted to write one); rather, it is a prolonged theoretical meditation on the possibilities of thinking about the connection between the art world, on the one hand, and the social world on the other. For Michaels, contemporary photographic art and art theory present a particularly promising field to do so. Given the conceptual scope of the book, readers of The Beauty of a Social Problem will come across a number of political arguments and theoretical claims about the function of art and literature that Michaels has pursued throughout his career (for example, intentionality and meaning; the critique of the reader/beholder; social inequality vs. cultural diversity). But they will also come across a series of careful and often surprisingly unexpected close-readings of both contemporary artists (including, amongst others, Jeff Wall, Brian Urich, Arthur Ou, and Viktoria Binschtok) and classics in the history of photography (Walker Evans, August Sander, Paul Strand) that notably extend, and in many cases complicate, the range of arguments Michaels has become notorious for making, one of them being the relationship between photography and literature itself, and Michaels’s tendency to prioritize the former over the latter as his object of inquiry. The Beauty of a Social Problem consists of five main chapters: four lengthy pieces on the theory and history of photography and the visual arts (larger portions of which were previously published in journals) and a shorter final chapter, “Never Again, or Nevermore,”—at first sight somewhat inconsistent with the rest—focused...

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Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp.
Feb18

Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp.

Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   To scholars considering Afro-Pessimism as seriously as Sebastian Weier recently proposed in Amerikastudien/American Studies, a collection of essays titled Pictures and Progress will seem surprising.[1] Editors Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith announce their volume as an exploration of the ways “African Americans adopted and utilized photography in all its cultural forms to represent a new people, a new period, and new modes of black thought” (9-10). Instead of focusing on “structural white enslavism” (Weier 430), Pictures and Progress reminds its readers of the liberating potential of nineteenth-century photography. Its authors study a medium that produced authority, individuality, and micro-narratives of citizenship. Eleven substantial essays examine African American visual culture, cultural history, and literature. In between, four highly useful mini-chapters (“snapshots”) focus on the lives and oeuvres of early black photographers Augustus Washington, Thomas Askew, A.P. Bedou, and J.P. Ball. Wallace and Smith’s compelling introduction argues that the camera “helped to define the ethos of the era as well as direct the path of African American advancement” (15). Following Frederick Douglass’s explicitly optimistic thoughts on pictorial practices, the editors and most of their contributors imagine a “much more autonomous African American viewer” than the one Du Bois’s theories of “double consciousness” imply. They outline consumers “seeking progress and improvement through a study of the self objectified as image” (8).  Laura Wexler, for instance, concentrates on Douglass’s performances in his photographic portraits. She reads this “string of images” as expressions of Douglass’s determination to “insert himself” into the nation’s future (37). Ginger Hill explores Douglass’s theories of selfhood and the camera. In her essay, Douglass’s writings appear as “struggles with representation” (72) and as attempts to establish “iconicity […] in the face of the tragic” (71). Building on this foundation, the collected essays examine key literary and photographic texts of the African American nineteenth century. Augusta Rohrbach contributes a piece on Sojourner Truth’s negotiations with “shadow and substance.” Michael Chaney discusses Linda Brent’s “camera tactics.” These, Chaney finds, operate in a field where “the camera and the mulatta come together to form a composite machine for sustaining power relations through acts of seeing and being seen” (128). Along similar lines, Gabrielle Forman speculates on “mulatta genealogies” in the framework of slavery, freedom, and photographic culture. Smith discusses DuBois’s photographs for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair; she finds images “denaturalizing the assumed privilege of whiteness” (292) and “pushing subjectivity past the color line” (293). Wallace contributes a fascinating essay...

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Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp.
Feb18

Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp.

Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   In Storytelling in Film and Television, Kristin Thompson describes remakes, adaptations, and sequels as both “the recycling and expansion of existing narratives.”[1] In other words, and contrary to critical voices that reduce processes of cultural reproduction to commercially-driven acts of copying, Thompson points out how these cinematic forms are characterized by serial patterns of repetition and variation. This serial understanding of cultural reproduction is also emphasized in Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions. The volume, a collection of papers originally held at a conference at the University of Göttingen in 2010, provides a variety of critical perspectives on remakes and adaptations that “contest the idea that the remake is a debased copy of some superior original” (2). As the editors point out in their introduction, the twelve contributions seek to get a grasp on “these diverse and yet similar processes of cultural reproduction and the positive potential of ‘retromania’ in our contemporary media climate” (12). Combining the interdisciplinary perspectives of American Studies, film and television studies, as well as fan studies, the volume approaches the phenomenon from three different angles, which also make up its thematic sections: Filmic adaptations of canonical literary texts (“Adapt”), remakes of cinematic classics (“Remake”), and fan-made video productions (“Remodel”). Frank Kelleter’s “‘Toto, I Think We’re in Oz Again’ (and Again and Again): Remakes and Popular Seriality” is not only the first essay in this section, but also an excellent starting point for the entire volume. Combining textual analysis and theoretical overview, Kelleter reads the series of transmedial Oz adaptations against the backdrop of twentieth-century American popular culture and within the context of what he calls “popular seriality.” Instead of treating the different Oz-versions in terms of “original and adaptation,” Kelleter argues that “we find opportune serializations across different artistic channels” (23). Therefore, rather than reading L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel as the “original” Oz-text, Kelleter treats The Wonderful Wizard of Oz already as a “retelling” of traditional fairy tales and thus as one of many instances in the larger (serial) field of popular culture (19). Kelleter explores various facets of the popular series, but also uses his analysis of the countless Oz narratives to call for a more complex academic understanding of adaptations and remakes in general. Rather than merely asking “how a given serial text reflects the cultural situation and intentional structures of its time,” Kelleter proposes an understanding of remakes that emphasizes the agency of a given popular series “in enabling its own cultural realities and intentional follow-ups”...

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Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp.
Feb18

Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp.

Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The book, originally conceived as a dissertation, is dedicated to the exploration of a phenomenon that has become a staple of popularity in contemporary Hollywood film since the 1990s and that has provoked critical commentary by a variety of scholars for the last ten years.[1] Klecker’s stated goal in the introduction to salvage Hollywood film from accusations of solely producing dumb, flat, one-dimensional entertainment by pointing out the narrative sophistication and intellectual stimulation of what she calls mind-tricking narratives may therefore seem unwarranted. In her words, “mainstream phenomena are well worthwhile an in-depth academic discussion” (15). This should go without saying and should therefore not necessarily be the objective but the basis for analysis. Nonetheless, it is this obvious desire to convince the reader of the artistic value of the films she analyzes that animates the author’s attempts to describe and categorize the elements and qualities that characterize mind-tricking films and by which they enrich the narrative possibilities of the medium. While the resulting observations are eminently worthwhile, what seems to be missing occasionally is a consideration of the cultural function that mind-tricking narratives fulfill. Beyond pointing out how “intricate and demanding” (15) these films are, one could interrogate what the films’ flattering of viewer sophistication is used for.      In the second chapter of the book, Klecker is at pains to establish the uniqueness of mind-tricking narratives in comparison to standard Hollywood fare. Following Bordwell, she argues that, just like art cinema, they violate an essential quality of classical narrative films, namely the emphasis on the clarity of causality. Mind-tricking narratives are radical in featuring resolutions that completely undermine the viewers’ assumptions about what they have seen so far by withholding crucial information. Klecker defines this essential characteristic as “an extreme case of a surprise gap that causes a radical correction of hypotheses that occurs once the gap is disclosed in the end of the film” (27). Examples include The Sixth Sense (1999), Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Identity (2003), or Shutter Island (2010). She acknowledges that every narrative, film or otherwise, works on the principle of withholding and releasing narrative information. Hence, her insistence on the radicalness of mind-tricking narratives is first and foremost a question of degree rather than an absolute. Despite relying on Bordwell’s observations on film narratology, she also has to acknowledge his skepticism of the subversive or innovative potential of mind-tricking narratives. Bordwell sees them as basically conforming to the tenets of classical cinema. He writes about one of the “genre’s” essential representatives, Christopher...

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Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp.
Feb18

Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp.

Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The Western was never dead. Few movie genres have been such popular targets for critical obituaries and then have been found, upon closer inspection, to be very much alive, albeit in qualitatively quite diverse manifestations. Not only is there a continuous outpour of Westerns, there is also a continuous critical reception thereof. And although the monograph under review here does not initially stand out—it is neither transnational, transdifferent, transmedial nor of any other prefixed conviction—but appears rather conventional, it has a lot to commend it. The starting point is not the Western, but Hollywood. The underlying research interest of Holtz’s book is “the transition that Hollywood has undergone over the last forty years” (2), or more precisely, the changes and continuities from New Hollywood (which he dates 1967-1976) to what he calls Hollywood Now (which for him begins 2001 with the caesura of 9/11). “For an evaluation of ‘Hollywood Now,’” Holtz argues, “it thus seems to be beneficial to compare it with its formative years, which are regarded as so different in character yet already anticipated much of what has happened since” (3). For this comparison, he continues, a genre-theoretical approach is most useful because “genres are by nature transitional, paradigmatically mirroring the developments of Hollywood as a whole” (4), especially one of its most fundamental ambivalences: “American cinema has always clung to established formulas, eager to build on successes of the past” (4), yet realizing that renewal is inevitable in order to remain successful and economically viable. Hollywood’s development, in other words, is characterized by the same dialectic that characterizes genre development: difference and repetition. According to Holtz, then, the Western is simply the best genre for this comparison because it is prototypical, perennial, and, most importantly, negotiates a “national mythology” (4). For Holtz, the history of the Western is the “history of Hollywood in general” (4). This ambitious research interest is guided by three overarching arguments: first, that “the historical development of genres is influenced by a complex set of factors which transcends the simplicity of a single theoretical model” (5); second, that “the development of the American cinema from New Hollywood to Hollywood Now is marked by a consistency in terms of artistic inventiveness and ideological ambiguity despite changing historical backgrounds, industrial structures, artistic profiles, and audience compositions” (5); and third, that “the Westerns continue to be an eminently relevant form of cultural expression which paradigmatically reflect the complexities of American cinema” (5). Of these three, the second is...

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