Heinz Ickstadt, Aesthetic Innovation and the Democratic Principle: Essays on Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Fiction. Eds. Susanne Rohr, Peter Schneck, Sabine Sielke. Heidelberg: Winter, 2016. 402 pp.
Jul27

Heinz Ickstadt, Aesthetic Innovation and the Democratic Principle: Essays on Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Fiction. Eds. Susanne Rohr, Peter Schneck, Sabine Sielke. Heidelberg: Winter, 2016. 402 pp.

HEINZ ICKSTADT, Aesthetic Innovation and the Democratic Principle: Essays on Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Fiction. Eds. Susanne Rohr, Peter Schneck, Sabine Sielke. Heidelberg: Winter, 2016. 402 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 63.1     It may seem peculiar to spend the first two paragraphs of a relatively short book review on a preface to a collection of essays that was added quite some time after the essays themselves had been published. But in the case of Heinz Ickstadt’s Aesthetic Innovation and the Democratic Principle, a collection of his essays on literary aesthetics and aesthetic experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is necessary to do so because the preface sets up these essays as an intervention in current Americanist debates. In this preface, Ickstadt, a masterful, philosophically thoughtful reader of American literature, states that he “did not follow the discipline’s unmistakable tendency to shift its attention from literature to culture or from the study of literary texts to the study of theory” (9). While Ickstadt explicitly advocates interdisciplinary dialogue, he is weary of current attempts to read literary texts exclusively for their relevance for other fields, without considering how these texts are first of all literary texts and not simple representations of research in other academic fields. According to Ickstadt, then, current forms of interdisciplinarity occur too readily with readers disregarding the literariness of the text. For him, this shift away from literature is symptomatic of a general crisis of the Humanities: Since the status of literary studies (and the study of literature within American Studies in particular) is apparently endangered by the general shift in our contemporary academic landscape away from the Humanities, it is of course greatly tempting to secure its relevance by subsuming the specific questions literature generates into those of adjacent or seemingly more relevant fields (be they philosophy, sociology or the history of science). (10) Accordingly, the text too often becomes “an illustration of the theory applied.” Both in his preface and the essays themselves, Ickstadt does not reject such “interdisciplinary dialogue” (10). But he makes sure that he participates in this dialogue from a literary perspective, insisting that the question of the aesthetic remain at the heart of literary studies. In this light, Ickstadt’s collection of essays must be conceived as the scholarly legacy of a towering figure of American Studies as well as a challenge to the field as it stands today. Ickstadt’s series of essays ultimately amounts to a treatise on the aesthetic. His aesthetic theory is rooted in a commitment to modernism—from John Dewey’s philosophy to the poetry and fiction of American modernism. Throughout his essays, Ickstadt dwells on the aesthetic...

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Clare Hayes-Brady, The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace: Language, Identity, and Resistance (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 232 pp.
Jul27

Clare Hayes-Brady, The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace: Language, Identity, and Resistance (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 232 pp.

CLARE HAYES-BRADY, The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace: Language, Identity, and Resistance (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 232 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Clare Hayes-Brady’s provocative title disguises a very measured review of David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre. Hayes-Brady defines “failure” as “incompletion,” and uses the term in a broadly conceptual sense to connote the deep resistance to closure apparent in Wallace’s work. Her intention is, as she explains, to “offer a framework within which his work can be read” (19). In doing so, she moves away from the dominant discourse of the critical field that too often falls back on considering Wallace as a writer primarily concerned with narcissism, solipsism and most prominently sincerity. Stephen Burn has argued that this conception of Wallace “may not be the only way to theorize Infinite Jest.”[1] Hayes-Brady takes up the challenge to do this, offering a completely new approach, which sets the book apart from the existing scholarship. By using the idea of failure as a prism, Hayes-Brady addresses the thematic and structural ambiguities that have long been perplexing for scholars and uses them to rethink our perception of Wallace. The book is divided into eight sections. In the introductory chapter, Hayes-Brady distinguishes between three modes of failure in Wallace—abject, structural and generative failure. The third category is her main focus and the second chapter develops this further, making reference to general examples of failure across Wallace’s work and also emphasizing the formative influence of philosophy on him. Crucially, Hayes-Brady attempts to situate Wallace in a broader context and the third chapter examines the literary and cultural influences that shaped Wallace’s artistic development. For Hayes-Brady, Wallace is intrinsically a product of his time, “a writer deeply embedded in literary and cultural history” (9). Extending this, chapter four returns to philosophy and offers a more specific account of Wallace’s engagement with the discipline. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty and Paul Ricoeur provide specific points of discussion throughout the text, as all were significant to Wallace’s intellectual development. This section also refocuses attention on the sometimes overlooked first novel Broom of the System. Chapter five evaluates communication in Wallace’s work, with Hayes-Brady mainly illustrating its failures and shortcomings. The sixth chapter reapproaches the prominent topics of narcissism and solipsism with a particular focus on language, while chapter seven goes further by examining the “unique vocal structures” (17) Wallace uses in both fiction and non-fiction. This addresses some of the stylistic conventions of his writing, such as his continual and oftentimes disingenuous repudiation of any sort of expertise. In the eighth chapter, Hayes-Brady questions Wallace’s depictions of race, gender and the body, which...

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Johanna Hartmann, Christine Marks, and Hubert Zapf, eds. Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Works: Interdisciplinary Essays (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 425 pp.
Jul27

Johanna Hartmann, Christine Marks, and Hubert Zapf, eds. Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Works: Interdisciplinary Essays (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 425 pp.

JOHANNA HARTMANN, CHRISTEN MARKS, and HUBERT ZAPF, eds. Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Works: Interdisciplinary Essays (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 425 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     The growing general and academic interest in the contemporary American writer Siri Hustvedt has, not surprisingly, resulted in the first collection of interdisciplinary essays dedicated entirely to her work. The volume contains a number of essays by international scholars from various fields of knowledge, “approach[ing] Hustvedt’s work from a range of perspectives in order to engage with an oeuvre that is hallmarked by a wide variety of styles, themes, forms of narration, and aesthetic features” (3). The current collection takes the phrase “zones of focused ambiguity” for its title from Hustvedt’s 2012 essay “Borderlands: First, Second, and Third Person Adventures in Crossing Disciplines,” in which she promotes the necessity of interdisciplinary approach. The present volume sets out to advocate interdisciplinarity as well, covering the range from literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis to medicine, memory, and perception studies. The first of five sections, “Literary Creation and Communication,” opens with an essay “Why One Story and Not Another?” by Siri Hustvedt herself, where she, exploring “[t]he mind-body question” (11), speculates on the nature of imagination, memory, and literary creativity. “Where do ideas come from?” “Why […] do some novels feel […] like lies and others feel true?” (11). Hustvedt tries to find answers to these questions, focusing on the “resonance […] that lives between reader and text” (24). According to the author, it is our imagination that helps us to “leap out of ourselves and, for a while, at least, become someone else” (24). Gabriele Rippl further elaborates on these “boundaries of the self” (36) in the essay entitled “The Rich Zones of Genre Borderlands: Siri Hustvedt’s Art of Mingling.” Based on Hustvedt’s three most recent “hybrid” (33) novels, the article reveals how the writer’s “blurring of genre boundaries” (27), on the one hand, “allows for reinvigoration and further development of genres” (32) and, on the other hand, is a way to “[transgress] conventional homogeneous and one-voiced ways of fictional world-making” (36-37). Diana Tappen-Scheuermann’s contribution “Reality Bites: Fractured Narrative and Author-Reader Interaction in Siri Hustvedt’s Work” picks up the discussion of hybridity, zooming in on the boundaries between fact and fiction. She compares Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman with David Shields’s “‘reality-based’ literature” (40) and singles out the differences between autobiography and memoir, fiction and non-fiction, considering Hustvedt’s writing to mirror “the attempt to constitute the self through literature on different levels of autobiographical writing” (49). Caroline Rosenthal’s lucid essay explores “the shifting boundaries” (52) between reality and fiction even deeper in her...

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Sascha Pöhlmann, ed., Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), 379 pp.
Jul27

Sascha Pöhlmann, ed., Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), 379 pp.

SASCHA PÖHLMANN, ed., Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), 379 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Pynchon scholarship and scholars tend to echo the defining characteristics of the author at the center of their discipline, namely, paranoia and erudition. In other words, Pynchon’s paranoid texts often spawn paranoid readings, and his meticulously researched writing demands incursions into the esoteric and the arcane in search of the appropriate contexts and texts. It is said that pets often resemble their owners and something not altogether dissimilar could be asserted here. Having published three novels in the space of seven years (between 2006 and 2013), the arrival of Against the Day—after an almost decade-long lacuna—perhaps signalled the beginning of what could be termed Pynchon’s late period, in fact the author’s most prolific stage thus far. The discipline of Pynchon studies appears to be, likewise, entering a new stage. The recent demise of long-standing US-based journal Pynchon Notes was preceded by the emergence of another author-centric publication, the UK-based open-access Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon, which has since revised its subtitle to A Journal of American Literature, either diluting or broadening its scope. In line with broader trends in U.S. literary studies, the intersection between literature and science, visualities, temporalities, and the political are the four prevalent themes that dominate contemporary discussion of Pynchon’s work and make themselves manifest in the edited collection Against the Grain. The essays in this volume, furthermore, engage in the ever-strengthening move towards the reassessment of well-established critical dogma. And whilst concepts such as postmodernism and metafiction still apply to Pynchon’s work, there is a growing tendency for the terms themselves to be present merely tacitly in recent critical studies, kept at arm’s length, so that Pynchon’s relationship to them can be questioned further. Against the Grain has its origins in the 2008 International Pynchon Week held at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and, as such, displays the same tell-tale symptom as most conference proceedings and post-symposium collections unavoidably exhibit, namely a general lack of thematic or even methodological coherence. However, whilst this could be seen as a drawback in the case of essays on an author with a flat, unproblematic voice, as it pertains to Thomas Pynchon this is an approach that allows the polyphonic and encyclopedic qualities of the author’s work to emerge in all their glory. After all, a scholarly collection dealing with Pynchon’s oeuvre, which contains multitudes, would be remiss if it did not read like a score of different conversations taking place simultaneously. With the majority of the pieces dealing with, or at the very least touching on, Against the Day (2006),...

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Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 552 pp.
Jul27

Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 552 pp.

SIRI HUSTVEDT, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 552 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Siri Hustvedt’s sixth collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, even deeper than her previous work, explores the gaps between various modes of thinking within different disciplines. Maintaining that “all human knowledge is partial” (xii), Hustvedt integrates findings from phenomenology, biology, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, psychoanalysis, linguistics, etc., in order to investigate profound philosophical questions, such as: Who are we? What is the self? Where do ideas come from? What is the mind and how is it related to the brain, the consciousness, and the body? What role do emotion, memory, and the unconscious play in perception? Hustvedt’s goal is to “interrogate certainty and trumpet doubt and ambiguity” (149), and eventually inspire her reader to start asking questions about the received ideas and cultural truisms. Being a novelist and a feminist, an art admirer and a lecturer in psychiatry, a literary scholar and a public intellectual, Hustvedt attempts to “make sense” of plural perspectives (xiv) on many unsolved problems and complex phenomena, intercepting them with her own experiences, observations, and humor. The first of three sections, “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” addresses the questions of art and perception. The title essay discusses the work of the three artists—Picasso, Beckmann, and de Kooning—in the larger framework of existing cultural ideas and codes associated with the man/woman binary. Thus, Hustvedt argues that centuries-long equating women with emotions and the body, referring to them by their first name in the books on art and labelling their pieces “woman’s art” (32), while at the same time linking men to intellect and genius, promote unconscious ideas and biases against women that have become part of human perception. Hustvedt’s own in-depth analyses of some paintings, however, disclose that great art escapes gender and sex categories—an idea that repeats itself in other essays of the first section, especially in her discussion of Louise Bourgeois’s work in “My Louise Bourgeois.” Hustvedt expands her theory of perceptual biases in the following articles of the first part, referring to artists Jeff Koon and Anselm Kiefer, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Wim Wenders. Based on the latter’s piece about the choreographer Pina Bausch, the author investigates “the perceptual chasm” (46) between on-screen and live performances, giving special attention to the concept of the body and its immediacy. In her essay on Susan Sontag, Hustvedt scrutinizes Sontag’s lecture on classical pornography, her “posthumanist” position, and the meaning of the voyeuristic gaze, and...

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Joel Pfister, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp.
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Joel Pfister, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp.

JOEL PFISTER, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies 63.1     Joel Pfister’s Surveyors of Custom: American Literature as Cultural Analysis is a timely contribution to the current debate around critique and post-critique. In his monograph, Pfister makes the case for an understanding of literature as critique, foregrounding the “critical work” that literature is doing: literature, he argues, is cultural analysis and writers are analysts, or, as he phrases it in the title of his book, “surveyors of customs.” This guiding metaphor, equally inspired by Hawthorne’s and Melville’s day jobs in custom houses and Thoreau’s work as surveyor, is explained by Pfister as follows: “‘surveyor’ signified one who oversaw resources and assessed value” (5). “[C]ustoms,” meanwhile, should be understood as punning on to “become accustomed to structures, processes, and relations that damage themselves or others” (5). The structures and processes that Pfister is interested in are specifically those of capitalism. Riffing on Walter Benjamin’s famous seventh thesis in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Pfister substitutes “capitalism” for “barbarism” to state that “in industrial and corporate America there has never been a document of culture that was not also a document of capitalism” (14). In order to promote such an understanding of American literature as a “document of capitalism,” he introduces the term “systemic reading.” Taking his cue from Fredric Jameson, Pfister argues that “society […] disables people […] from perceiving the outlines, interactions, and movements of the system that reproduces them” (27). Systemic reading renders these invisible structures visible. More specifically, Pfister proposes what he calls systemic reading as a method for understanding the workings of soft capitalism through a reading of American literature published between the end of the eighteenth and the middle of the twentieth century. In Surveyors of Customs, Pfister contrasts soft capitalism with hard capitalism: the latter is found, for instance, in literary representations of “alienating workplaces, strikes, and poverty” (33), whereas the former is characterized by modern forms of management that pay attention to the cultural and psychological elements of work. Systemic reading, Pfister argues, shows that what Americans get out of capitalism is more than just “hard” economic rewards, it also includes “soft” rewards that are emotional and subjective. In the first chapter, “Inner-Self Industries: Soft Capitalism’s Reproductive Logic,” Pfister “investigates how American literature and capitalism’s investment in culturally producing […] ‘interiorities’ have been intertwined” (40). The dominant concept that is proposed by Pfister is Raymond Williams’s “incorporation,” which, he argues, based on his reading of a wide range of primarily canonical, mostly nineteenth- and some twentieth-century American literature, “should...

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Matthew Wilkens, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.
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Matthew Wilkens, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.

MATTHEW WILKENS, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies 63.1     Readers of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man will remember a pivotal scene in which the narrator—the Invisible Man of the title—witnesses an elderly black couple being evicted from their Harlem apartment. An angry crowd gathers. The Invisible Man watches in fascination, alternately dismayed and enthusiastic, as the crowd corners the white marshal tasked with executing the eviction. “The marshal was spun this way and that, then a swift tattoo of blows started him down the street. I was beside myself with excitement.” The Invisible Man is conflicted. Does he want to pacify the crowd, preventing an outburst of violence that will surely bring harsh reprisals? Or is mob justice the only way of redressing the wrong of the eviction? Later on, the Invisible Man encounters a man named Dupre, who sets fire to his Harlem apartment block in protest against living conditions in the slums. Dupre, the Invisible Man says, is “a type of man nothing in my life had taught me to see, to understand, or respect, a man outside the scheme until now.” The apparent senselessness of the riot both appalls and attracts him. “They did it themselves, I thought, holding my breath—planned it, organized it, applied the flame.” But what, exactly, did they do? Start a revolution? Or merely a riot? What’s the difference? How do we know a revolution when we see one? These, more or less, are the big questions Matthew Wilkens takes on in his Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction, a work at once formidably intelligent and, at times, frustratingly abstract. Nominally a study of American and British fiction of the 1950s—a period, Wilkens says, confusing to literary historians because neither fully part of the modernism that preceded it nor of the postmodernism thought to follow—Revolution has consequences for the study of all twentieth-century literature. The book’s largest quarry is a sort of unified field theory of change across different domains of cultural production and of politics. What, Wilkens asks, does revolutionary political change have in common with “revolutions” in other spheres, like science or the arts? For Wilkens, the Invisible Man’s description of Dupre as “outside the scheme until now” is “exactly the formula of the event” (110), “the event” being a term of art closely related to or even synonymous with the concept of “revolution.” The violence Dupre initiates has at least the potential to inaugurate a new situation—to accomplish a revolution. Wilkens’s definition of “revolution” builds on and synthesizes two influential theoretical models of change. First, there is Thomas...

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Mark Storey, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 208 pp.
Jul27

Mark Storey, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 208 pp.

MARK STOREY, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 208 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Mark Storey’s study, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities, aims to read markers of modernity as “absent presences” (2) in a number of novels set in rural environments of the Gilded Age. His argument is based on the assumption that traces of the relationship between literature and modernity can also be detected, and in the next step analyzed, in texts that seem to evade themes related to modernity in general, and to a dominant US-American “urban industrial capitalism” in particular. Building on Bill Brown’s thesis that literature contains historical traces that are not recorded in official historiography,[1] Storey formulates a pronounced claim: “I will argue that rural fiction is a unique record of modernity’s impact on socio-cultural life and literature” (2). With this claim, he intends to re-conceptualize the line of literary criticism that was first established by Leo Marx with his The Machine in the Garden (1964). The rejection of Marx’s clear antithesis between the “pastoral” and the “technological” is transferred to the rejection of the dichotomy “countryside” vs. “urban.” (Here, Storey also relies on Raymond Williams’s partial deconstruction of “the country and the city” in the latter’s eponymous book-length essay.) A further revisionist intention of Rural Fictions, Urban Realities addresses the tendency of literary history to differentiate between “rural” and “urban” cultures, not just in terms of geographical separation, but also in terms of chronology, with “rural” preceding “urban.” Instead, Storey aims at an “intimately historicized reconstruction of the period’s historical imagination […] by piecing together the way in which an urban fabric became part of the material of rural representation” (20). As a method, “piecing together” has some problems—problems that Storey is aware of, but hopes to overcome by “defamiliarizing the lense that rural fiction provides on the period” (21). The metaphors Storey uses for the description of his method testify to his rhetorical skill, but they do not make entirely clear at the outset of his investigation how exactly they will bear upon the more or less purely thematic analyses that follow in the main part of the book. In these chapters, he looks at, in turn, the railway, the country doctor, lynching, and finally, literary utopias. All in all, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities is based on the analysis of about forty novels and short-stories published between 1868 and 1902. Many of these works are only mentioned in passing, to cite some relevant detail that is being discussed in the respective chapter. A handful of writers and their works are more extensively...

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Philipp Löffler, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp.
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Philipp Löffler, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp.

PHILIPP LÖFFLER, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Philipp Löffler’s Pluralist Desires seeks to rethink historical fiction after the end of the Cold War. As Löffler argues, the novels he discusses share a belief that “when we write about history we essentially write about ourselves” (6), and for them the point of writing about history is “not to establish true accounts of particular historical events but to express the particularity of an individual life or an individual culture” (5). This is, as the study makes clear, more than an argument about particular books: it is a periodizing argument that situates these texts in the post-Cold War as a distinct cultural period. The texts Löffler discusses, key novels by Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Richard Powers, “offer thoughtful and provocative portrayals of what it means to write about history in the post-Cold War world” (10). Pluralism, of course, has a longer genealogy than just the immediate post-Cold War, and Löffler traces what he calls an “alternative and often neglected historical perspective” on the question of what he calls “cultural pluralism,” one which returns to the philosophical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. Löffler ultimately suggests three interlocking reception contexts for his writers in the moment after the Cold War, and by extension that of cultural pluralism as a dominant discourse: the waning of postmodernism, the increasing importance of identity politics for academia, and the similarly increasing centrality of minority fiction to the literary market (32-33). Pluralist Desires’s claims about what historical fiction is after the Cold War are appropriately cautious. The philosophies at work in the texts Löffler discusses argue that “the truth of history derives from the contingencies of life itself” (28), so that DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers do not figure as an “organic group of writers,” but rather as individual writers sharing a problem. At the same time, Löffler recognizes that the three contexts of reception he identifies are not deeply related to the end of the Cold War as such; rather, the “significance of 1989 as a global historical event is central, but only to incorporate a rather hybrid bunch of transitions into one overarching narrative” (29), offering a sense of simultaneity rather than a singular determinism. Against this backdrop of a carefully measured, but theoretically, philosophically, and historically informed understanding of what pluralism means, Löffler’s admirably concise book marshals an impressive number of challenging new interpretations. Through his readings of DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers, he firmly establishes the way post-Cold War historical fiction...

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Sybille Machat, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp.
Jul27

Sybille Machat, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp.

SYBILLE MACHAT, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies. 63.1     Contemporary culture is awash with images and narratives anticipating its own demise or, as the case may be, documenting its on-going decay. Scenarios depicting the aftermath of civilizational collapse have been a staple of popular entertainment, from feature films to comics and video games, at least since the 1990s; with novels such as John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997), Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy (2003, 2009, 2013), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), they have now become securely entrenched in the precincts of “serious” literary fiction. If this development reflects a growing anxiety about the future prospects of contemporary society, it is only too easy to generate a litany of concerns which are fueling it. Sybille Machat’s study In the Ruins of Civilizations forgoes such a bid for topicality, suggesting instead that the current vogue for the post-apocalyptic be seen as a continuation of modernity’s long-standing fascination with the material remnants of earlier civilizations—a fascination which, from the very outset, was accompanied by attempts to imagine how the material infrastructure of the present, having likewise fallen into ruin, might appear to an observer in the distant future. While this “ruin lust,” as art historian Brian Dillon has called it,[1] reached an early peak already in the eighteenth century with the aesthetics of the picturesque and the gothic, the era since the end of the Soviet Union may qualify as something of a second flowering. This is a compelling premise which sets In the Ruins of Civilization somewhat apart from much extant scholarship on post-apocalyptic fiction, which tends to frame the genre in terms of the historical traumata of the twentieth century and to employ approaches from psychoanalytic or neo-marxist criticism.[2] To fully explore its implications would require a close engagement with theories of historical consciousness and of the post-histoire, and it would lead into the territory explored, for example, by Frederic Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future, where he praises Science Fiction (of which the post-apocalyptic constitutes a subset) for its ability to transform “our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come,” thus “enact[ing] and enabl[ing] a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history.”[3] But Machat takes a different tack. Her chief complaint with regard to previous studies of the post-apocalyptic is that they have generally failed to take full account of the physical environments in which such stories are set, treating them merely as a passive back-drop against...

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Sonja Schillings, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.
Jul27

Sonja Schillings, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.

SONJA SCHILLINGS, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 63.1     Can acts of violence ever be legitimate, and how have claims of legitimate violence been theorized and represented in legal theory and philosophy on the one hand, and in (Anglo-)American narrative on the other? And how are legal-theoretical and literary discourses related? These are the guiding questions Sonja Schillings asks in her monograph Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, which is based on her dissertation at the John F. Kennedy Institute (FU Berlin) and published in the Remapping the Transnational series of Dartmouth College Press, a prime location for transnational American Studies. The issue of legitimate violence has vexed political theorists and philosophers, historians and legal scholars in the West ever since classical antiquity. Taking heed of the many discursive sites in which it has been debated, this interdisciplinary study traces answers that have been presented from antiquity to the present day through examining the “hostis humani generis constellation,” as Schillings calls it, the idea that there are “enemies of all humankind” against whom any form of violence—thus cast as universally defensive—is sanctioned. Its scope is impressive not only with regard to breadth (the texts discussed go far beyond the Anglophone world and reach back ad fontes) but also to theoretical depth, which makes it all the more remarkable that it never loses sight of the fundamental, even foundational question of legitimate violence in its political, social, and cultural dimensions, especially also with regard to its (post-) colonial entanglement in imperial contexts. In the course of her study, the author demonstrates how ideologically and theoretically flexible and adaptable the “hostis humani generis” constellation has proven through the centuries—more specifically, the pirata-praedo-innocent triangle in which praedo represents the possibly legitimate, pirata the illegitimate pole and innocents are needed as the to-be-legitimately-defended. The three most important focal points that Schillings explores in four parts are the age of early modern colonial expansion, the nineteenth-century frontier, and contemporary scenarios of international terrorism. In its urform, the pirate was the figure that came to be constructed as (almost) congruent with the enemy of all humankind, but Schillings convincingly argues that the flexibility of the constellation has not been limited to any specific historical agent. After a concise introduction, in which the author defines central terms of her study and situates its design by comparing early modern and contemporary piracy and civilization debates, the first part, “The Emperor and the Pirate: Legitimate Violence as a Modern Dilemma,” highlights...

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Emily Petermann, The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), 250 pp.
Jul27

Emily Petermann, The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), 250 pp.

EMILY PETERMANN, The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), 250 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     The descriptive structuralist semiotic analyses presented in this book evolved from discussions at the Word and Music Association Forum (WMAF; viii). The WMAF was formed in 2009 under the auspices of the International Association for Word and Music Studies, which was founded in 1997 to “promote interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry devoted to the relations between literature, verbal texts, language and music” (6). The Association organizes biennial conferences and edits a book series, Word and Music Studies, published by Brill, that currently comprises fifteen volumes.[1] From examples of jazz novels by authors such as Albert Murray, Michael Ondaatje, Xam Wilson Cartiér, and Toni Morrison, as well as novels based on the Goldberg Variations such as Nancy Houston’s The Goldberg Variations (1981/1996), Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations (1991), Gabriel Josipovici’s, Goldberg: Variations (2002) and Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations (2009), Emily Petermann argues that the literary subgenre of the musical novel—that is, the novel based on a musical precept in the widest sense—is not a derivative genre, but valuable in itself (1). It is equally performative (100–47; 208) in extending “the palimpsestuous nature of performance art (or art in general) to the written text” (208). Thus it should be seen in the context of the movement in contemporary art towards destabilizing the reader or spectator, since music for a reader “poses an unfamiliar challenge” (214). In terms of literary history and philological analysis, and given the focus on both the generic qualities and the specialized nature of the topics, one of the strengths of her study is the inclusion of examples from other languages such as Thomas Bernhard’s “Goldberg novel” Der Untergeher (1983/1991). Historically, the musical novel is an offspring of Romanticism as seen through the prism of literary Modernism. Its analysis will therefore have to be measured by how fully it accounts for the changes brought about during the periods of Romanticism and Modernism concerning the relationship between text and music, bearing in mind that this applies both to musical works of art and those of literature, as well as for the successive “encroaching” of verbal commentary on musical works themselves. Surprisingly, Petermann discusses Romanticism only in passing (1–2, 11, 16, 188–89, 193–200). She quickly moves on to the Modernist interest in the formal aspect of music which superseded the Romantic view of a perfect integration of form and content in music as an absolute art. She thus furthers the literary fascination with absolute music as a counterpoint to the inevitable references...

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Habiba Ibrahim, Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 2012), 256pp.

HABIBA IBRAHIM, Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 2012), 256pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies. 63.1     In his anthology Interracialism (2000), Werner Sollors diagnosed an “American exceptionalism” in the policing of racialized boundaries, a “300-year-long tradition” in which sexual and familial relations across the color line have been criminalized and remained taboo after legalization.[1] The last three decades, however, have experienced a paradigm shift from longstanding politics of the one-drop rule to the advent of multiracialism. This transformation has crystallized, for instance, in an unprecedented “boom”[2] of interracial life writing, the formation of multiracial activism, and in the reform of the U.S. Census that now allows respondents to identify multiple racial affiliations. Perhaps most prominently, it registered in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign which frequently converted his interracial origins from the previous cultural taboo of ‘miscegenation’ into the alleged fulfillment of the civil-religious myth of the melting pot. As Obama put it in his pivotal speech “A More Perfect Union”: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”[3] This discursive shift has been accompanied by a proliferation of research on phenomena of interraciality, past and present. Works such as Maria P.P. Root’s The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (1995) and Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race (1994) inaugurated the field of ‘Mixed Race Studies,’ which dominantly revolved around validating interracial identities and relationships against a historical backdrop of stigma. Within this compensatory engagement, multiraciality was often even inverted into another form of exceptionalism where the recognition of racial hybridity was inscribed with the potential of ushering in an era beyond racist division. This celebratory investment has received sustained criticism that illuminated how the emergence of multiracialism, including its academic attention, was implicitly tied to various forms of antiblackness, heteronormative, and classist politics, as well as to an obfuscation of the history and ongoing effects of enslavement and “genocidal conquest.”[4] With her study Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism, Habiba Ibrahim is joining this line of critical inquiry, exemplified by Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), Tavia Nyong’o’s The Amalgamation Waltz (2009), Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too” (2011) and Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk (2011). Ibrahim provides an incredibly rich, black feminist intervention by revealing the unacknowledged ways in which racialized gender norms have conditioned discourses of interracial familiality and mixed race. She illustrates...

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Hanna Wirth-Nesher, ed., The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature (New York: Cambridge UP, 2016), 732 pp.
Jul27

Hanna Wirth-Nesher, ed., The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature (New York: Cambridge UP, 2016), 732 pp.

HANNA WIRTH-NESHER, ed., The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature (New York: Cambridge UP, 2016), 732 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     This much-needed volume brings Jewish American literature as an ethnic literature back on the critical agenda. That the very concept should have almost vanished from the landscape of critical debates is noteworthy in and of itself, and its neglect is poignantly manifest, for instance, in the marginalization of Jewish American literature in the curricula of English and American Studies in the U.S. In 2009, a panel at the MLA convention with the title “Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?” acknowledged the situation and discussed the place of Jewish literature in twenty-first-century American literary studies. One of the central topics debated there—whether recent theoretical and critical developments such as whiteness studies, transnational studies, comparative ethnic studies, etc. have opened new ways of conceptualizing Jewish literature—is also reflected in the particular organization of this volume. Without simply turning back to traditional paradigms of categorization, the anthology argues against the view that Jewish American literature has lost its character as identifiably ethnic writing, as it is argued in some of the many redefinitions of ethnicity and minority culture that have taken place over the last decades in theoretical debates. Concomitantly, Jewish Americans who have made it into the mainstream no longer qualify as ethnic Americans, and, as Hana Wirth-Nesher sums up in her introduction to the volume, “their literature is not included in a canon whose primary criterion is the production of fissures and tensions rather than the appreciation of diversity” (6). In contrast, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature aims at a reexamination of constructs and categories of minority writing and ethnicity, taking into account the transnational character of Jewishness. The volume explores distinguishing characteristics of Jewish American culture, such as religion, peoplehood, race, and language, in light of the recent debates, and further aims to bestow Jewish American literature the hybrid status of being both American and part of a transnational, diasporic literary tradition. The general organization of the volume reflects this intention with five parts representing five different approaches that reoccur in each of the following sections: discovery, genre and period, place, creating fields, and innovation/new perspectives. The first part, “New World Encounters,” addresses the immigration history of Jewish Americans and their initial encounter with U.S. culture, or rather, the encounter with the idea of America. Part two, “Genres: Adopting, Adapting, Reinventing,” is quite classical in its description of Jewish American literature according to genre. As fiction writing bears the brunt of Jewish American literary expression, it follows a chronological order and is...

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Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (eds.), Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), 329 pp.
Jul27

Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (eds.), Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), 329 pp.

ELIZABETH S. ANKER AND RITA FELSKI (eds.), Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), 329 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Another death of Theory? Another burial? Another entombment during which no one sheds a single tear and all one hears are listlessly uttered anecdotes, as well as some mumbled and incoherent obscenities? Since many people outside academia think that literary studies is a scandalously useless discipline, it has to constantly justify its own existence. Those attempts at justification and the respective self-reflections of the discipline’s proponents can be useful or boring, stimulating and entertaining or jargon-filled nonsense. Whatever their nature, they keep the “Fach” alive. The “theory wars” of the past decades have shown how intense such debates can get. The discussion centering on the possibility of developing forms of postcritique of course has to be seen in connection with those “theory wars.” However, there is more to it. This becomes obvious in Rita Felski’s widely discussed The Limits of Critique (2015). In her opinion, critique is a style of thinking that is reflected in Fredric Jameson’s symptomatic reading, ideology critique, Foucauldian discourse analysis, certain forms of deconstruction, and versions of literary and cultural criticism that see it as their primary task to discover signs of transgression or (political) resistance in texts or that unmask political quietism. It is crucial to see that Felski does not offer a polemic against critique. Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance to appreciate that she does not seek to counterbalance the reign of critique and suspicious reading with the imperative that it was high time to realize the promising potential of a new aestheticism or new formalism. Instead, as Felski emphasizes, she presents “a close-up scrutiny of a thought style,”[1] which goes hand in hand with a certain intellectual mood or disposition. In Critique and Postcritique, the editors, Elizabeth S. Anker and Felski, continue the work begun in The Limits of Critique. In their introduction, they seek to convince their readers that it is deplorable that the practices of symptomatic or suspicious reading still seem de rigueur for many literary scholars, and they thus seek to convince their colleagues to fully realize the tempting possibilities of a wide range of affective styles, modes of argument, and tones. Critique must not be seen as the only possible theoretical approach. While Felski’s argument in The Limits of Critique constantly returned to the ideas, and practices, of affect, style, ethos, mood, and tone, the editors of Critique and Postcritique also ask whether critique entails “a distinctive disposition, tone, attitude, or sensibility” (1). Moreover, they call attention to the question of whether “postcritique...

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