Reflexivity and (Ex-)Change: New Perspectives from the Postgraduate Forum for German Americanists

The tenth anniversary issue of COPAS contains a selection of contributions from the Annual Postgraduate Forum (PGF) of the German Association for American Studies (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien / DGfA), which we hosted at the English Department at Westphalian Wilhelms-University Münster from October 31 to November 2, 2008. Since its inception, it has been the goal of the PGF to offer young scholars of American studies a forum to present current research as work in progress. Accordingly, its annual conferences have always been a breeding and testing ground for new theoretical approaches and ideas. As the organizers of this year’s PGF, we endeavored to mobilize and focus the vast intellectual resources of the forum by introducing two new topical units: an opening address and a conclusive plenary discussion on current methodological developments in German American studies on the one hand and the image and function of the PGF on the other. The methodological section was to center on the difficulties of reconciling interdisciplinary and transnational approaches with recent calls for distinctly German positionings in the field. To trigger the debate, the participants of the PGF had been asked to submit statements linking the interdisciplinary and transnational turn in American studies to their individual projects.

For the opening address, we had invited the new president of the DGfA, Peter Schneck, who spoke to us on “Professing American Studies.” Both critical and appreciative, Schneck, a former member of the PGF in its early days, shed a glance at its history and future opportunities. Referring to the establishment of the PGF by Sabine Sielke, Ulf Reichardt, and Hans-Joachim Rieke, Schneck pointed at the characteristic autonomy and future-orientedness of the early forum. In critical dialogue with established systems of thought, the PGF contributed to the rise of theoretical debates and was conducive to a significant “turn” within the field. Not the least of its contributions was its advocacy of poststructuralist critique within the field of American studies in Germany. However, asking what defines our field today, Schneck suggested that it was less a matter of contents, methods, concepts, and theories than of organization, representation, and resonance. Alluding to the successful promotion of young scholars of German American studies in the past, he promised his support of future endeavors and initiatives of the PGF. Peter Schneck’s insights and critical reflections on the PGF and the practices of American studies in Germany generated a vibrant debate, which was continued throughout the conference. Our self-reflexive concern and interdisciplinary exchange gave rise to new ideas and resolutions, which were collected and refined during our conclusive plenary meeting.

Turning to the individual voices which fueled its insightful and transformational moments, we are proud to report that we have been able to convene 34 young scholars from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland for the 2008 PGF conference. Allocated in literary studies, cultural anthropology, political science, visual studies, and history, the nineteen contributors to this year’s forum gave a representative overview of current objectives in postgraduate American studies in German-speaking Europe. While reflecting a wide range of research interests, the abstract submissions revealed clear thematic and methodological tendencies, which we arranged into seven topical sections. As only ten out of the nineteen conference contributions are assembled in this issue of COPAS, we would like to take the opportunity to give an overview of the entire range of papers presented at the Münster conference.

The first panel dealt with different ways of “Imag(in)ing American Modernism.” Simone Knewitz (Bonn) offered insights into her findings on negotiations of deviance in poems by William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell. Focusing on the complex relationship between “modernism” and “modernity,” she explored the overlaps between poetry and other disciplines and discourses, such as biology, medicine, visual and material culture. The other two presentations given in this panel were both concerned with the formation of American icons around the turn of the twentieth century: Kathleen Loock (Göttingen) provided an overview of her dissertation, which focuses on the ethnicization of Christopher Columbus and the development of this figure from a national icon to an immigration hero. Susanne Leikam (Regensburg) presented her work on the cultural imagination of natural disasters in U.S. history and culture with a particular emphasis on the status of San Francisco’s City Hall as an icon of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

Gender, interracial relationships, and identity politics were the subject of the second conference panel. Marie-Luise Löffler (Leipzig) opened the panel with a talk on Jewelle Gomez’s short story “Louisiana 1850” (1992), a work of contemporary science fiction dealing with the birth of a Black lesbian vampire. Focusing on Gomez’s revision of historically binary constructions of Black and white motherhood, Löffler presented a reading that challenges normative categories of maternity and stresses the fluidity of their representation.

Julia Sattler (Dortmund) looked at negotiations of ‘Americanness’ in contemporary autobiographical texts such as Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice (1994), Neil Henry’s Pearl’s Secret (2004), or Bliss Broyard’s One Drop (2007). Based on these texts, she focused on the inclusion of photographs of family members living on opposite ends of “the color line.” Centering on the voids and gaps in multiracial genealogies, Sattler analyzed narrated encounters with previously absent members of the family tree with regard to questions of family, kinship, race, and ethnicity. Next in this panel, Anna Rapp (Münster) investigated gender negotiations and the reception of the Black Arts Movement in the GDR. Looking at works by women writers of the Black Arts Movement such as Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, Rapp in “Ego Tripping Black Queens” investigated how the reactionary, woman-centered discourse of socio-political change in the United States obstructed the reception of such texts in the GDR. In this issue of COPAS, Carmen Dexl (Erlangen), who could not attend the conference, publishes a related article which deals with representations of race, violence, and masculinity in James W. Johnson’s 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Examining the interdependence of ethical functions and aesthetic form, she focused on Johnson’s portrayal of the ethical consequences of witnessing lynching on the protagonist. With a critical glance on the novel’s aesthetics, Dexl analyzed the effects of structure, first person narration, and violence and queried their interrelatedness with ethical concerns.

Panel three seized the question of identity in the context of the Native American Reservation. In his reading of writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie’s latest novel Flight (2007) and Alexie’s film The Business of Fancydancing (2002), Philipp Kneis (Potsdam/Berlin) examined discourses of hybridity and assimilation. Interweaving white and Indian perspectives in a discourse marked by humor and an insistence on authenticity, Alexie’s work negotiates Native American identity in the Pacific North-West. Anne Grob (Leipzig) presented her interview-based ethnographic research on Tribal Colleges in an account of the function, evolution, and unique character of these institutions of higher education. As important instruments in individual and community empowerment, Grob argued, these alternatives to American education contribute significantly to the social, cultural, political and, as she stressed particularly, the economic development of their communities.

With topics ranging from media adaptation to technological (bio-)enhancement, the contributions to our fourth panel were united by a media and technology studies approach. Drawing on Friedrich Kittler’s media theory, Stefan Meier (Chemnitz) discussed the cultural and medial conditions under which the comic book adventures of Superman were adapted for radio in the 1940s and 50s. Meier’s intermedial comparison concentrated on the ways in which these conditions affected the content and narrative strategies of Superman’s adventures. Benny Pock (Dresden) examined William Burroughs’s Nova Express (1964) against the background of the 1960s American counterculture. The focal point of his analysis was the countercultural fascination with various forms of consciousness expansion and body transcendence, which entailed a marginalization of subjectivity and authorship. Burroughs’s work mirrors this development by openly integrating interactive and intertextual writing strategies, which de-emphasize the traditional role of the writer as the sole originator of his or her work. The third contributor Lars Schmeink (Hamburg) presented a cultural studies reading of the video game Bioshock (2007), paying special attention to its simulation of agency and its treatment of posthumanism and alternate history. In contrast to conventional linear storytelling in novels or films, Bioshock provides the player with the opportunity to manipulate the text to an extent that allows for the creation of alternate endings.

Transitions and transformations of selves and places were the main points of interest for the speakers on the fifth panel. Sascha Pöhlmann (Munich) gave a talk on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, asking how it can and cannot be read as a place of beginning within the U.S.-American cultural context. The second speaker Eric Erbacher (Dresden) dealt with the incentives and demographic consequences of urban gentrification. For their bohemian and nostalgic character, older city districts have become increasingly lucrative for investors who renovate these areas in order to render them more attractive to high-income residents. Heike Steinhoff (Bochum) offered a comparative reading of the reality TV series The Swan (2004) and the children’s book My Beautiful Mommy (2008), questioning the ways in which media representations of extreme make-overs are used to promote normative body images and cosmetic surgery as means of reshaping the self.

The last two panels focused on the events and aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As a most media-driven and traumatizing event, 9/11 is both omnipresent and unspeakable, thereby posing considerable challenges to cultural texts which set out to represent this tragic moment in recent American history. Elisabeth Siegel and Christina Rickli provided us with an insight into how the American novel and American film deal with this new crisis of representation. Elisabeth Siegel (Vienna) examined the use of images in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), thereby exemplifying the crucial role of visual representations in the construction of a collective memory of 9/11. Christina Rickli (Zürich) proceeded on the assumption that the event was received as both real-life disaster and cinematic spectacle and substantiated her claim by working out the parallels between 9/11 newscasts and disaster movie aesthetics. After reconstructing Hollywood’s immediate response to September 11, she examined two recent movie representations, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), which illustrate both the difficulty and inevitability of dealing with the terrorist attacks.

Our final panel examined examples of information (mis-)management after September 11. Katrin Dauenhauer (Bonn) discussed the meaning and impact of the Abu Ghraib prison photographs and the question of the representability of torture through photography. Sebastian M. Herrmann (Leipzig) took a literary studies approach to Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold (2006), a bestselling non-fiction work which scrutinizes deceptive PR strategies of the Bush administration after 9/11. His main concern was the blurring of fiction and non-fiction in contemporary narratives of and about the former presidency.

Shifting the focus to a more general discussion of the current state of German American studies, we opened the plenary discussion, which constituted the conclusion of the three-day conference. Representing young German perspectives in American studies, this year’s Postgraduate Forum aimed at responding to recent calls for distinctly German positionings in the field. Accordingly, the first part of the plenary discussion revolved around the methodological tension between disciplinary thinking and interdisciplinary and transnational exchange. While offering great potential for research initiatives in the humanities, we argued, interdisciplinary and transnational approaches demand great responsibility from the core disciplines involved. In order to avoid conflation of distinct subjects and methods, contemporary German American studies are required to reflect even more explicitly on their historically grown perspectives. Apart from addressing the more general question of how scholars working in an interdisciplinary or transnational context can stay true to the agenda of their own discipline, we particularly raised the issue of how young German scholars of American studies can develop their own set of research questions and methodological tools while keeping a close and critical eye on recent trends in the United States. Based on Winfried Fluck’s crucial distinction of conceptual, methodological, and institutional forms of exchange and cooperation,1 these challenges were discussed from a practical and individual perspective, thus allowing all participants to share their personal experience and opinion. The discussion, just like the individual papers presented, revealed the necessity for further differentiation of interdisciplinary and transnational approaches, which continue to challenge, broaden and re-define current scholarship. Our main concerns involved a lack of theorization of the transnational, as well as the need for critical examination of the limits of “true” interdisciplinarity and problems of its practicability. Overall consensus was found that more critical clarifications of aims and concepts were needed, for which some participants offered examples from their own range of subjects.

In the second part of our plenary meeting, we discussed the role and function of the PGF for young German scholars of American studies and for the German Association for American Studies. The debate offered an arena to voice concerns, discuss improvements, and suggest changes: Most of the results of this discussion relate to structural changes concerning the PGF. With ever new young scholars beginning and finishing their Ph.D. studies in Germany, the list of (potential) PGF members is constantly changing. While the PGF’s rotating structure is fundamental to its dynamics and effectiveness, it also contributes to its instability. In order to mobilize as many newcomers and intellectual resources as possible, the plenum asked for more visibility and promotion of the PGF. We developed concrete suggestions for improvement, which we transmitted to the DGfA president and executive director, who received them with enthusiastic approval. The association offered its help in implementing a PGF-Listserve as well as new ways of calling new DGfA members’ attention to the PGF. As our plenary exchange was very fruitful and constructive, we suggested that it be continued at future PGF conferences and be complemented by a second meeting at the Annual Convention of the DGfA. As the organizers of the PGF 2008, we are glad not only about the many interesting discussions, talks, and exchanges during the conference, but also that the members of the PGF showed so much concern and enthusiasm for the forum’s future.

All the good work that was done in Münster in the fall of 2008 would not have been possible without the help of many who supported us in organizing this conference. We would like to thank the Embassy of the United States in Berlin for its generous financial support, and especially its delegate Manfred Strack, who joined us in Münster with an address. We would also like to thank the German Association for American Studies, its former president Rüdiger Kunow, and its current president Peter Schneck for their commitment and contribution to this year’s PGF. We are also grateful for the munificent, kind, and multifaceted help we received from the English Department in Münster, in particular from the Head of Department Mark Stein and the Chair of American Studies Maria I. Diedrich. We would also like to thank Marie-Theres Brands-Schwabe, Sofie Reiche, and Katharina Pabst, who provided enormous help in preparing for the conference and in permitting its smooth flow throughout the event. We also thank the editorial team of COPAS for offering the PGF a forum to present the papers of its annual conference to a larger audience and for co-editing this volume. Last but not least, we would like to thank all presenters and participants of the PGF. Their contributions made this conference the successful and noteworthy event that it was.

Christina Oppel, Anna Rapp, and Anna Thiemann

May 2009

1 Winfried Fluck, “Inside and Outside: What Kind of Knowledge Do We Need? A Response to the Presidential Address,” American Quarterly 59 (2007): 23-32.


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