Allemann, Daniel (University of Basel)
Bio Daniel Allemann is a graduate student in English and History at the University of Basel. His interests include American literature and culture, literary and cultural theory, political philosophy, and the history of political thought. He is currently working on his MA thesis entitled “On the Edge of Humanity: The American Indian in Sixteenth-Century Spanish Scholastic Writings” (working title).
Askin, Ridvan (University of Basel)
Bio Ridvan Askin completed his PhD in early 2014 with a thesis on "Narrative and Becoming: Differential Narratology." His main research interests are aesthetics, contemporary North-American fiction, and the relation of philosophy and literature. Since 2012 he serves as Treasurer and SAGW Delegate for the Swiss Association for North-American Studies.
Austenfeld, Thomas (University of Fribourg)
Talk “Lowell’s Dolphin: Shame, Guilt, and the Fate of Confessional Poetry”
Abstract The Dolphin controversy is more than a footnote in American literary history: it focalizes a major post-war poet, Robert Lowell, in the nexus between the acceptable disclosures of confessional poetry and the legitimate need for privacy; it asks whether the principles of art justify violating privacy rights; and it finally calls upon us to distinguish carefully between shame and guilt. Shame is best analyzed sociologically; guilt, personally. I read The Dolphin in this paper as a confession of guilt and therefore approach the volume under the auspices of ethics more than aesthetics. If we look carefully at the trajectory of Lowell’s books from his 1959 Life Studies, which opened the confessional movement, via the closure of that epoch with The Dolphin roughly 15 years later in 1973, and beyond to his final volume Day by Day, we discover Lowell returning to his Catholic roots. Put differently: Confessional poetry returns to the confessional booth.
Bio Thomas Austenfeld (Ph.D., U. of Virginia) taught at American universities for twenty years before becoming Professor of American Literature at the University of Fribourg. Author of American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman (2001), editor of Kay Boyle for the Twenty-First Century (2008) and of Critical Insights: Barbara Kingsolver (2010), and co-editor of Writing American Women (2009, SPELL 23) and Terrorism and Narrative Practice (2011), he has also published in Mississippi Quarterly, Colloquium Helveticum, Prose Studies, South Atlantic Review, Southwestern American Literature, and Great Plains Quarterly. A volume on Katherine Anne Porter is forthcoming in April, 2015.
Barras, Arnaud (University of Geneva)
Talk “The Poetics of Collision: Rethinking Knowledge, Ecology and History in Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers”
Abstract In the second part of the twentieth century, the rise of environmentalism and postcolonialism coincided with a shift in ecological values and practices. Ecofeminism emerged from and participated in that moral and ethical shift. Using this approach, I argue that the genre of environmental literature contributes to destabilizing and dissolving the rigid boundaries set up by monological and dualistic epistemology. Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers (1994) illustrates well the dialogical nature of environmental literature. The novel represents the exploration of Arctic Canada in the nineteenth century both from the storytelling perspective of the indigenous Dene community, the Tetsot’ine, and from the historical perspective of the English explorers. This dialogical configuration causes the reader to reexamine the hyper-separation of history and story, fact and fiction, and colonial and indigenous ecological knowledge. Indeed, instead of separating these binaries, Wiebe’s narrative unites them through a poetics of collision. In this context, the act of reading is both creative and critical: it encompasses a piecing together of this plural and polyvocal storyworld, and by doing so, to question North American colonial history from a pluralistic perspective. Ultimately, the reader’s responsibility is twofold: it consists in unveiling the harmful exclusion of differences while asserting the need for creative dialogue.
Bio Arnaud Barras is a PhD candidate at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he works as a research and teaching assistant in contemporary literatures. In 2013 Arnaud obtained a 1-year mobility fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to study the history of environmental ideas at the ANU. Arnaud’s research interests lie in the postcolonial representations of the relationship between organism and environment. His doctoral thesis draws on ecology, anthropology and reader-response theory to study metafictional representations of the organism-environment process in the work of Rudy Wiebe, Amitav Ghosh and Alexis Wright.
Bieri, Aline (University of Basel)
Bio Aline Bieri is a graduate student in English and Biology at the University of Basel. Her interests include American literature and culture, language acquisition and pragmatics, evolutionary biology as well as environmental studies. She is currently working on a paper in forensic linguistics investigating authorship attribution in textual documents that were used as evidence in court cases.
Breitenwischer, Dustin (University of Freiburg i. B.)
Talk “Being In-Between: The Moral Dilemma in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew”
Abstract In his 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, Henry James has his narrator tell the story of a parents’ disastrous and harmful divorce by way of focalizing through the child protagonist Maisie. The reader soon realizes that the little girl is not only part of a morally charged tangle of thorns, but that the narrative of her perception expresses, filters, reorders and manipulates that very tangle. It is through Maisie that the reader becomes invested in a world full of deception, hatred and corruption. As Maisie has to move through that very world, her primary mode of being is a state of dilemma. She never knows whom to turn to; she does not know whom to trust. And, as she does not express the narrative voice itself, she exists only as a void within a state of thorough in-betweenness.
On the basis of an Iserian understanding of aesthetic experience, this talk will thus assess the moral dilemma as a space in-between. As Maisie is neither here nor there (or, here and there at the same time), her dilemma formulates an aesthetic life-world. She is confronted with a system of immorality that opens up in front of her eyes like a theater stage. Her parents’ performances of ignorance and self-righteousness turn into sources of aesthetic (dis)pleasure. James employs morality as a productive tension within the performativity of text, plot and readerly experience. Or, to put it differently, the sources of immoral behavior and corruption are so very obvious that morality can no longer serve as an issue that wants to challenge the normative life-world of a contemporary reader. Morality becomes form as such. Hence, I claim that the figure of Maisie is an entrance point to a space, in which the narrative’s moral value system is turned into an opportunity for imaginary self-expression. What Maisie Knew must not be perceived of as a story of moral judgment but a quasi-theatrical staging of morality as poetic agent and aesthetic order.
Bio Dustin Breitenwischer is a doctoral candidate in North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg. He studied North American Studies and German Literature at Freie Universität and the University of Minnesota, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York. In his dissertation Die Kunst dazwischen zu sein, he deals with the artwork as a form-giving agent for the space of aesthetic experience. He is co-editor of Die neue amerikanische Fernsehserie published with Fink in 2014.
Brühwiler, Claudia Franziska (University of
Talk “Nearly Perfect in Its Immorality”?—Ayn Rand and Business Ethics
Abstract In the wake of the economic crisis and with the rise of the Tea Party Movement in the United States, Ayn Rand’s (1905-1982) novels have been (re-)discovered by a large readership. Advocating a stark individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, Rand’s opus magnum Atlas Shrugged (1957) resonates with many Americans’ fears that their country may resemble more and more the dystopian world shown in the novel. Her work has likewise captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and managers like Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia.org) and John Allison (formerly with BB&T) who describe her ideas as a source of inspiration and guidance. It is thus hardly surprising that the implications of Rand’s legacy likewise concern scholars in management studies. But what does Rand actually teach these managers and other readers? What are the ethical implications of her work, for the business world and beyond? Does Gore Vidal’s verdict hold that Rand’s school of thought is “nearly perfect in its immorality”?
Bio Claudia Franziska Brühwiler, Dr. rer. publ., is a political scientist and project coordinator at the University of St. Gallen. She teaches courses on American political culture, politics and literature, and international politics. Her first book, Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth,was published by Bloomsbury. She currently works on her post-doctoral thesis on Ayn Rand. Her interests include American popular culture, the American presidency, conservatism, and cultures of capitalism. Her articles have been published by Philip Roth Studies, PS: Political Science & Politics, the Canadian Review of American Studies (forthcoming), and by the Journal of American Studies (forthcoming).
Burckhardt, Ariane (University of Basel)
Talk “Dis-ordered Minds in Contemporary American Graphic Memoirs”
Abstract It is interesting to observe how the vulnerability and anxieties of the everyday hero have been a focus of autobiographical comics since the 1960s and 1970s. Justin Green’s account of his struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) and Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s raw depiction of her neurotic self in Goldie (1972) were two of the first representations of dis-ordered minds in graphic narrative. Since then many others have chosen this multimodal medium to give voice to their autobiographical performance. Through a close examination of contemporary American works such as Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me (2012) or Elizabeth Swados’ My Depression: A Picture Book (2005), this paper will explore the ethical and aesthetic possibilities of contemporary American graphic memoirs in representing the struggles (and joys) of life with mental illness, drawing on the notion that the medium offers itself as a space for thinking “otherwise,” outside of traditional binary concepts such as sick and healthy, sane and insane, mind and body, inside and outside and fact and fiction.
Bio Ariane Burckhardt is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Basel. She earned her M.A. in English in 2010 (University of Basel) with a thesis on metaphors in graphic memoirs and is currently working on a dissertation project on the subject of contemporary American graphic memoirs about life with psychiatric disability. In 2014 she received a start-up grant from the “Literary Studies” doctoral program of the University of Basel, where she is currently co-teaching a B.A. seminar on the topic of illness in graphic memoirs.
Claviez, Thomas (University of Bern)
Bio Thomas Claviez was Assistant Professor for American Culture at the John F. Kennnedy-Institute, Berlin, from 1996 to 2002, taught American Literature at the University of Bielefeld in 2006, was Professor for American Studies at the University of Stavanger, Norway, from 2006-2009, and is currently Professor for Literary Theory and Director of the Center for Cultural Studies (CCS) at the University of Berne. He is the author of Grenzfälle: Mythos – Ideologie – American Studies (1998) and Aesthetics & Ethics: Moral Imagination from Aristotle to Levinas and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn (2008). He has published essays on Pragmatism, Ecology, American Studies, American literature, Ethics and Aesthetics, and Native American literature.
Domsch, Sebastian (University of Greifswald)
Talk “From Trauma to Agency, from Anonymity to Empathy: The Terrorist Narratives”
Abstract One of the most important fields for the intersection of literary and ethical discourses in 21st-century America is the construction of the concept of terrorism. The guiding hypothesis for this paper is that there are two dominant kinds of “terrorist narratives” in American culture and that the difference between them is constituted by those aspects that mark the ethical potential of narrative.
The first kind is the “narrative of terrorism,” in the sense of an essentializing “grand narrative,” constituted among others by official rhetoric, news reporting, individual or collective trauma narratives as well as laws and regulations. From a narrative perspective, this discourse is characterized by aspects like trauma and anonymity, as well as by notions of the sublime, like fear and obscurity. But as pervasive as this narrative is, there is also a second and in some senses opposing kind, which could be specified as “the terrorist’s narrative,” which is one of the core narrative archetypes of American identity formation. This particularizing discourse, characterized by aspects like interiority and empathy as well as (the celebration of) agency, either pits the individual’s freedom against a limiting external structure (in a tradition that runs at least from the War of Independence through the contested myth of John Brown all the way to video games like Just Cause or Red Faction), or devalues essentialist claims by providing the terrorist with an identity (e.g. in John Updike’s Terrorist or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist). This paper seeks to look at the ways that literature partakes of or questions these two kinds of discourse by looking at the ethical affordances of the different narrative techniques involved, thereby focusing on an ethical question that is both deeply American and literary.
Bio Sebastian Domsch teaches Anglophone literatures at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Greifswald. He has studied at universities in Bamberg and Waterloo, Ontario, and taught at the LMU Munich and the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of books on Robert Coover, Cormac McCarthy, 18th-century literary criticism as well as video games and narratology. He has edited a collection on American 21st-century fiction and co-edited two other volumes. He is also one of the editors of the Kritisches Lexikon für fremdsprachige Gegenwartsliteratur (Critical Dictionary of Non-German Contemporary Literature).
Festl, Michael (University of St. Gallen)
Talk “Pathologies of Reconciliation: Political Philosophy and Philip Roth on the Individual in Society”
Abstract For quite some time now, political philosophy has been dominated by an effort to investigate into the nature of perfect justice: what are the normative principles that the perfectly just state would adhere to? This question has been brought (back) to the agenda of political philosophy by John Rawls when, in his seminal 1971 book A Theory of Justice, he invoked the contractarian idea of a state of nature in order to deduce the principles that rational individuals would equip their state with if given the opportunity of starting from ex nihilo. This Rawlsian approach, which by now constitutes the epicenter of political philosophy, was recently critiqued by Amartya Sen. Sen argues that even if justice theorists could one day agree on the constitution of the perfectly just state (which he doubts), such knowledge would not be of value in dealing with real problems of justice in a world as far from perfect justice as ours.
In his “American Trilogy” (1997-2000), Philip Roth depicts three characters who work their way up from the bottom of society to become the embodiment of the American Dream. Yet it is exactly the perseverance with which these three men chase after this dream—their American hustle—which, in the end, seals their doom. Having been their best friend for a long time, the American Dream strikes back at them and thereby devours some of its own most faithful children. Seymour Levov (American Pastoral), Ira Ringold (I Married a Communist), and Coleman Silk (The Human Stain) become the tragic heroes of Roth’s American trilogy not because they despise the American Dream but because they love it too much. The writer lets them fall prey to their drive for perfection and, in doing so, shakes one of the main pillars that the United States of America rests upon according to its self-description. I will argue that Roth’s literary critique of America’s, and possibly the whole Western world’s fixation on pursuing the perfect life in the perfect state is carried to extremes and thereby supports Sen’s arguments against a political philosophy that focuses on determining the principles of the perfect state. Furthermore, I try to show that in Roth’s American trilogy, the suffering of the protagonists and of minor characters alike hints at a necessity in modern-day society whose illumination should be part and parcel of political philosophy: the societal effort to reconcile individuals to new conceptions of what constitutes moral progress.
Bio Michael Festl studied philosophy, sociology and statistics in Munich, St. Gallen and Chicago. He graduated with a PhD-thesis on the intertwining of justice theory and epistemology. He also holds master’s degrees in history and in business studies. Since 2013 he has been a permanent lecturer in philosophy at the University of St. Gallen. Michael’s main philosophical effort is to prove the mutual dependence of political philosophy and theories of knowledge. His current project investigates the role of political philosophy in the downfall of the Weimar Republic. Michael is the president of the Swiss Philosophical Society.
Fluck, Winfried (JFK-Institute, FU Berlin)
Talk “Literature, Recognition, Ethics: Struggles for Recognition and the Search for Ethical Principles”
Abstract How can American studies, and more specifically, American literary and cultural studies, remain relevant as a field? Can a turn to ethics be helpful? Literary texts and aesthetic objects may be effective in dramatizing injustice but in what way can they contribute to the formulation of ethical principles? Questions about the possibility of ethical foundations have not been restricted to fictional texts and aesthetic objects but have become a central philosophical topic in the wake of postmodernism and poststructuralism. In each case, theories of the subject have provided the point of departure. In its first part, my lecture will focus on narratives of self-alienation, ranging from Marxism to post-structuralism, but also including some unexpected protagonists like British culture studies and reception aesthetics, and discuss the ethical principles derived from the assumption of the subject’s self-alienation. In the second part of my lecture, I want to draw on the concept of recognition to introduce an alternative view of the subject which may also open up a new perspective on the search for ethical principles in literature and art.
Bio Winfried Fluck is Professor emeritus of American Culture at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin. He taught at the Universität Konstanz, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Princeton University, UC Irvine, the University of Richmond and Dartmouth College, and was a research fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, the Advanced Studies Center of the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, and the Internationales Kulturwissen-schaftliches Zentrum in Vienna. His books include Ästhetische Theorie und literaturwissenschaftliche Methode; Populäre Kultur; Theorien amerikanischer Literatur; Inszenierte Wirklichkeit. Der amerikanische Realismus 1865-1900; Das kulturelle Imaginäre: Eine Funktionsgeschichte des amerikanischen Romans. He is a founding member and former director of the Graduate School for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and Co-Director of the “Futures of American Studies”-Institute at Dartmouth College. His most recent book publications are Romance with America? Essays on Culture, Literature, and American Studies (2009), Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies, ed. with Donald Pease and John Carlos Rowe (2011), and American Studies Today. New Research Agendas, ed. with E. Redling, S. Sielke and H. Zapf (2014).
Frese, Hans (University of Hamburg)
Talk “The Novel as Actor: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the Culture Wars and Bruno Latour’s ANT”
Abstract Many tend to tentatively identify the belief that literature is capable of delivering ethical and moral lessons with the conservative faction of the culture wars, whereas the radical questioning of the literary text’s capacity to transport anything at all is often equated with progressive criticism in the spirit of poststructuralist ideas. Thus, it might come as a surprise to some that one of the most influential theorists of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, claims that many contemporary authors are, in essence, driven by a “new didacticism” that leads them to question the values of “late capitalist, bourgeois […] society”—an assumption that has led to heated debates, especially with regards to the question of canon revision. It is this contradictory, divided battlefield that Jonathan Franzen steps onto. Dissatisfied with both an overtly politicized view of literature and solipsistic textualism, he reminds his readers that “it’s all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency.” His breakthrough novel The Corrections thus constitutes an attempt at occupying a position in-between, reconnecting with the world around it while also withdrawing from the fiercely polarized discussions of the culture wars. Does Franzen’s text succeed? Drawing on key concepts from Actor-Network Theory (ANT), I want to propose that the related questions of agency and ethics in literature need to be reconceptualized in order to come up with an answer that does justice to the complexity of contemporary American writing. More specifically, I want to elaborate on Bruno Latour’s key concepts and The Corrections to outline an alternative vision of the politically engaged novel and its potential contribution to moral and ethical debates.
Bio I started to study Law at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. Dissatisfied with the formalism of the discipline, I switched to studying German and English and graduated in 2007 after having spent a year in London as a Foreign Language Assistant with the PAD. After completing a two-year teacher training program, I started working full-time as a teacher in Hamburg, which I still do today. Outside of the classroom, I’m working on a dissertation on contemporary American literature and the culture wars that was originally supervised by Prof. Dr. Maria Diedrich and after having moved from Münster to Hamburg is now supervised by Prof. Dr. Susanne Rohr.
Hänggi, Christian (University of Basel)
Bio Dr. Christian Hänggi studied Communication Sciences at the Universities of Lugano and Toronto. In 2007, he received his PhD in Media and Communication from the European Graduate School where he currently is the Thomas Pynchon Postdoctoral Research Fellow. He teaches at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok and at the University of Basel. He is author of Hospitality in the Age of Media Representation (New York-Dresden: Atropos, 2009; Gastfreundschaft im Zeitalter der medialen Repräsentation, Vienna: Passagen, 2009). At the University of Basel, he is working on another PhD, which will investigate the musical dimension of Thomas Pynchon’s work.
Hoenisch, Michael (JFK-Institute, FU Berlin)
Talk “Representations of ‘New Wars’: The Human Terrain Concept and its Moral Conflicts”
Abstract Herbert Münkler’s analysis of post-cold war “new wars” emphasizes the privatization and commercialization of non-state actors; it marginalizes a similar transformation, on a larger scale, of state actors. In addition to traditional methods of combat, new wars develop innovations of guerilla warfare on one side and of counterinsurgency tactics on the other side. On both sides, everyday life and culture are perceived as relevant conflict zones. While one side is secretive by definition, the other side allows only “embedded” journalists. Documentary filmmakers face challenging problems in this type of warfare. If they try to remain true to one of the basic functions of their medium—to act as the “seeing eye” of “active and creative citizenship” (John Grierson)—they are forced to develop new methods. The long war in Afghanistan has been the subject of numerous documentary films (cf. Kahana, 2008, 319 ff.). Some of the best of them demonstrate convincingly the creative energy of documentary filmmakers in this new conflict environment. James Der Derian and Laura Poitras both emphasize, in different ways, the moral dilemmas of some of the actors in these wars and of the filmmakers themselves. Human Terrain (USA, 2010) by James Der Derian analyzes in detail various aspects of the methods of “new wars.” Der Derian, research professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, takes a sharp look at the moral dilemmas academics face in this new militarized context. In the section “Academic Counterinsurgency” the film constructs a virtual debate among the organizers of the “human terrain” program at Fort Leavenworth and the academics, mostly anthropologists, who are expected to provide research methods and results for the military. Der Derian does not claim any superior insight: “After the film was done, no owl of wisdom flew at dusk, no dove of peace emerged.” In spite of this modest disclaimer, the construction of the film suggests possible responses to the fundamental problems raised by these “new wars.” In The Oath (USA, 2010) by Laura Poitras the lives of two militants emerge in carefully constructed sequences. One of them, a former driver for Bin Laden, remains invisibly in Guantanamo. The other one, a body guard around Bin Laden, left Afghanistan before nine eleven and lives as a taxi driver in Yemen. There, he completed a re-education program that offered him a highly ambivalent new life, which Laura Poitras, withholding judgment and cliché, reconstructs with careful attention to the various moral dilemmas of his uncertain situation.
Bio Michael Hoenisch, professor of North American literature, works at the John F. Kennedy-Institute of the Free University of Berlin. His main research and teaching interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, Caribbean culture, and documentary film. Among his numerous publications, the most recent ones are “Erna Brodber: Postcolonial Constructions of ‘the People’” (published in Anglo-American Awareness, 2005), “Postwar Reconstruction and the Representation of the Law: Documentary Film About the Nuremberg Trial” (published in XVth and XVIth Russian-American Seminars, 2007), and “1960s Documentary Film: Perceptions of the Vietnam War in the USA and in Germany” (published in The Transatlantic Sixties 2013). Currently, he is the coordinator of the Erasmus program at the Kennedy Institute.
Huber, Sebastian (LMU Munich)
Talk “A Literary Ethics of Truth? Alain Badiou and the Ethics of Reading”
Abstract This paper explores one of the “yet to be determined further camps” of ethical theorization by elucidating Alain Badiou’s provocative take on ethics as a singular process that involves the eruption of an event in the realm of art, science, politics, or love. In contrast to a range of universalistic or relativistic ethics, Badiou’s approach offers an intriguing, if not unproblematic, way of conceiving ethics as a concrete practice that radically opposes the inflationary use of “ethics” in recent decades (particularly as part of the “ethical turn” and its Levinasian “ethics of recognition”). In depicting how this concise and singular conception of ethics—since for him “Ethics does not exist” (Ethics 28)—essentially depends on the eruption of a singular event and a subject that is faithful to this happening relates to the study of literature, my paper expounds the relevance of his conception of ethics for the field of (American) literary studies. I therefore address the humanities’ (and particularly American Studies’) skepticism about his concepts of “truths,” “events,” or “faithfulness” and insist on the productivity of engaging with his thought. Especially the nexus between Badiou’s philosophy and inherently literary theoretical concepts and methodological approaches, I insist, unfolds an “ethics of reading” that does not return us to a humanist ethics, while it simultaneously rejects to see “the act of reading as such” (Miller, The Ethics of Reading 1) as a general ethical praxis.
Bio Sebastian Huber holds a joined PhD degree from LMU Munich and the University of Alberta. He has published internationally on Alain Badiou, Mark Z. Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon, and David Simon. His book manuscript “Subject of the Event: Reagency in the American Novel after 2000” is in preparation.
Isernhagen, Hartwig (University of Basel)
Talk “American Studies: Method and Ethos”
Abstract In the beginning (or pretty close to it), there was an ethos: “By ‘American Studies’ I shall mean the study of American culture, past and present, as a whole...” Henry Nash Smith’s 1957 essay “Can American Studies Develop a Method?” solves what one might call the problem of the new discipline’s methodological anxiety by what is essentially an ethical postulate or proposition: to see American culture, and with it the American, as a whole. Self-reflection is here less than in other nation(al) studies the exploration of a repertoire, than that of an act of self-definition, it is less concerned with substance than with process and performance. And the tenor of the gesture is ethical: Thou shalt see the Whole. Or, in a tone slightly less anticipatory of polemic: Culture Studies of all kinds have in the 20th century increasingly demanded a holistic perspective, cultures have by definition been seen as wholes, and this whether the culture under consideration was “ours” or “theirs,” self or other. Not to recognize the interdependence of parts has increasingly been seen as “wrong” in one or another sense, and the demand for holism has thereby necessarily acquired an ethical aspect, which does, however, become more pronounced as soon as it is the self that is under consideration. This is due to the interpellative nature that both the culture and its study have for the student. This ethical tenor is, thus, by no means restricted to the myth-and-symbol school, of which Smith (already with Virgin Land ) had become one of the founding fathers. It is sufficiently broad, abstract, or under-defined, to recur in the discipline to the present day, it seems to me. And it gives a peculiar American Studies flavor to many of the general theoretical questions the Call for Papers lists as potentially relevant ones. (For many of these questions do not prima facie have an American Studies “character.”) I do not intend to demonstrate this “flavor” for each of the relevant topics, because I am not qualified to do so. But I can try to use what Kenneth Burke would have called a “perspective by incongruity”: I can use a pronouncedly European approach to tease the hidden Americanness out from the material. Incidentally and simultaneously, this perspective will also try to say something, at least by implication, about a different question: Is there a general notion of the text, of literature, perhaps of cultural production in general that is peculiarly suited to an American Studies approach? Wolfgang Iser’s notion of the implied reader is, it seems to me, severely under-theorized in his oeuvre, in which it tends to vanish into another notion: that of the act of reading as a response to indeterminacy. This is not a failure, but a necessary evasion of specification; for like its twin, the implied author, it is nothing but the name for a relation: between the text and the totality of its authors, from society to the person whose name appears on the outside of the book, in the one case, and between the text and all its real and potential readers—or, again, from the individual who happens to read it now to Society—in the other. What these terms do, is to make of the text a transition point for cultural meanings and forces, the center of action, and an agent. Desubstantializing the text, they give it immense power. The “implied reader,” then, names the reader side of that bundle of power, or, in terminology closer to Iser’s, its appeal as its power to appeal. It is a name for something that can always only partially be realized, and a name for the whole of which all partial realizations (readings) need to remain vaguely conscious if their partial nature is not to become a severe flaw. To inquire into the Americanness of the text is to give a particular shape to the implied reader: it is, in Althusserian terms, to inquire into its/his/her interpellative nature. The reader’s responsibility (and in a symmetrical way the author’s) is to react to that act of interpellation as well as possible. The ethics of literary and cultural criticism become one in this perspective, and they become fundamentally and foundationally affirmative (or, with the incautious, apologetic). In the interpellative appeal, the cognitive and affective functions of literary texts become essentially one as well, and so do ethics and aesthetics. The understanding of others is framed as essentially contributive to the whole that is the aim of the interpellation, however explosively conflictual the relation between self and other may be on “lower” levels. And in so far as the limits of the whole are those of the universe, literature will necessarily tend to have the strictly human play itself out before ecological and cosmological horizons. The Virgin Land does so very concretely for ecology, the New Criticism did so in a more general way for cosmology, and it arguably handed that concern on to the myth-and-symbol school. Iser’s holism, then, seems to enable a tentative and perhaps altogether too speculative (and perhaps too old-fashioned) discussion of some methodological and theoretical implications and manifestations of the ingrained holism of the discipline.
Bio Hartwig Isernhagen has been Emeritus Professor of American Literature at the University of Basel since 2004. His publications in American Studies include Ästhetische Innovation und Kulturkritik: Das Frühwerk von John Dos Passos, 1916-1938 (1983) and Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (1999), as well as numerous articles on the theory and history of twentieth century fiction (modernism/post-modernism), American Indian literature, and the humanities in transition. He continues to work sporadically in these fields, without any attempt to narrow his interests down to any specific area.
Iuli, Cristina (Università del Piemonte Orientale)
Talk “The Biopolitics of Aesthetics in Richard Powers’ Orfeo”
Abstract When literature addresses contemporary bioethical issues, what difference do the particular representational strategies it uses make? Does the relation between the subject it addresses as its narrative “content” and the poetic arrangement it brings forth reinforce or deconstruct hermeneutic regimes that depend on stable, normative accounts of the difference between human life and life itself, and between humanist subjectivity and the living? In other words, how is the relation between aesthetics, epistemology and politics negotiated in contemporary novels that explicitly engage with the question of who we—humans—are in relation to our present techno-scientific conditions of life, art, and politics? What is the ethical commitment and the political project these novels manifest, and how is it conveyed?
I will explore these issues in relation to Richard Powers’ Orfeo (2014), a novel which raises questions about the nature, possibilities and limits of aesthetics under extreme biopolitical conditions. In the novel, bacterial DNA, genetic splicing and the scenario of mutation, viral contagion, immunity and autoimmunity brought forth by biotechnology and its policing do not simply provide the representational content of the tale, but organize the biopolitical logic of the narrative by providing a tropological structure that evokes the concept of autoimmunity as it has been used by Derrida in his essay on the suicidal drive of democracy occasioned by the event of 9/11. The biopolitical edge of the novel also surfaces from its investigation of the relationship between life and aesthetics in explicitly political fashion. The central question that occupies the novel is what it means for life to become simultaneously part of art (of music, to be specific), by literally being the aesthetic experience it embodies (rather than a metaphor or a model for it) and, conversely, for aesthetic experience to literally become life (to inscribe sounds into the genetic material of a bacterium, so that “like the best conceptual art” its DNA string “would sit ignored by the millions of trades going on in the marketplace all around it” is the project of the novel’s protagonist). In so doing, the novel raises crucial philosophical and ethical questions about the relation between art and life as well as about human life and life in general.
The novel incorporates themes and structures from genetics and genomics and exposes their instrumental role in transgenic business as well as their impact on the redefinition of aesthetics, life, and politics and the relation between these elements at the triple level of individual subjectivity (the self), the aesthetic object (living music) and its political consequences (how unstable is the difference between being the subject and/or the object of politics?). In its attempt to bind technical innovations in artistic and communication media to the critique of the institution of art and literature, and in its tendency to extend such a critique to larger social practices, the novel self-consciously recuperates the critical impulse shared by all avant-garde aesthetics, regardless of the singularity of each project and of its specific targets and objects.
Bio Cristina Iuli is Assistant Professor at the University of Eastern Piedmont and Professor of Master in American Studies at the University of Turin in Italy. She holds a PhD in Literary Theory and Textual Analysis from the University of Bergamo as well as a second PhD in American Literature from Indiana University. Iuli is the author of Effetti Teorici: Critica Culturale e Nuova Storiografia Letteraria Americana (2002), Giusto il tempo di esplodere: Miss Lonelyhearts, il romanzo pop di Nathanael West (2005), Spell it Modern: Modernity and the Question of Literature (2009) as well as numerous articles. Her research interests include American modernist and post-modernist literature, cultural studies, and literary and critical theory.
Jankovic, Tea (University of Fribourg)
Talk “The Moral Subject and the Hero: Wittgensteinian Considerations on the Aesthetics of the Novel”
Abstract In the Tractatus and the Notebooks, Wittgenstein postulates a unity of ethics and aesthetics. Both are described as a “view on the world from outside,” the world defined as the sum of contingent facts. The concept of the subject is introduced as liminal—as designating the boundary of (one’s) world, rather than just one more fact in the world. The subject is thus crucial in understanding ethics/aesthetics because the outside view Wittgenstein describes is potentially her view on her world. I argue that the unity of ethics/aesthetics Wittgenstein also calls “the good life” or “the happy eye” is the achievement of subjectivity, the realization that the world is my world. I furthermore argue that art is able to show this close interrelatedness between the subject and her world. As Michael Fried maintains in connection with Wittgenstein’s few scattered remarks on aesthetics—art lends us a view on “mindedness” that would otherwise be unavailable to us, precisely because we always inhabits it.
Bio Tea Jankovic was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia and has lived in Serbia, Taiwan, Switzerland and the USA. She studied Philosophy and English at Basel, Fribourg and Harvard. After her studies she worked as an intern for a humanities journal in Bosnia and Hercegovina. She is currently working on her PhD at the Department of General and Comparative Literature at the University of Fribourg with a Swiss National Science Foundation stipend. Her dissertation is in philosophy and literature and deals with the aesthetic and ethical problems of representing a subject as an object of art.
Kopaitich, Ryan (University of Bern)
Talk “The Broom of the System and Systems in General: David Foster Wallace and the Ethics of Language”
Abstract Any discussion of ethics is always inscribed in some signification system, and predominantly, this system is language. This paper proposes a foundation for ethical thought elicited from language itself. David Foster Wallace’s 1987 novel The Broom of the System provides such a basis for thinking an ethics of language, as well as the ethical dimension of the aesthetic, by opening up new possibilities for the relationality that is a central concern for both philosophy of language and ethics. David Foster Wallace’s novel disassembles and examines language qua system, and by extension, its ethical constitution. In so doing, a specific question comes to the surface: is the relationship between speakers and hearers, or readers and writers, more than a facet of ethics, but one of its foundational inquiries? I assert that it is, and not only this, but that we can come to see the primary significance of literature in ethical thought through the rethinking of the structure and function of language (which is to say as a system in the first degree). What is argued for here is that a theory of indexicality based on radical intimacy is foundational to a non-didactic ethics founded in literary language.
Bio Ryan Kopaitich currently works in the section for literary theory at the English Department of the University of Bern, and is pursuing his PhD as part of the SNF Sinergia project, “Theory and Practice of Authenticity in Global Cultural Production”. He obtained his BA in English from the University of Arizona in 2009 and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Fribourg in 2012. His main research interests are contemporary Anglophone and continental novels, continental and analytic philosophy, with particular emphasis on philosophy of language, and literary theory.
Li, Kangqin (University of Leicester)
Bio Kangqin Li received her PhD in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. Her thesis combines a study of visuality in John Updike’s short fiction and a re-consideration of the short story as a genre. Her current research project explores the visual and material culture in the modern American short story. Li is also a Chinese translator of John Updike’s short stories.
Ludwig, Sämi (Université de Haute-Alsace, Mulhouse)
Talk “Real Paper Beings? On the Projection of Interiority in American Literary Realism”
Abstract Rather than presenting cutting-edge findings of late-late theory, I propose to discuss pre-modernist epistemology and the phenomenology of its particular mode of referentiality, which risks the construction and projection of the Other as a second person (“you”) beyond mere materiality. This fundamental dialogicity goes beyond factuality and attributions of material existence by projecting agency and even motivation—psychological issues that deeply involve ethics and morality. Hence this mode does not follow the syntactic logic of texts or signs but the pragmatics of human interaction. Rather than essentialist, such a model is truly constructivist—not merely in the semiotic sense of sign-construction but as experiential reality construction, of which sign-making is a part. Representation of this kind is grounded and hence points beyond mimesis. Rather than artificial (“posthuman”), it can be (should be?) part and parcel of linguistic ability as a particularly human prosthetic trait. My discussion will be based on William James’s observations on certainty and his filmic notion of the stream of experience as an alternative model to phenomenology in the formalist sense, preparing the ground for precisely such an “essentialist” model of live human interaction as we find in many classical American realist texts. My literary examples will draw on Henry James and William Dean Howells, in particular, the love affair of Rosier and Pansy in Portrait of a Lady and the paint business in The Rise of Silas Lapham. It is important to go back to these late-nineteenth-century models in order to better understand the shortcomings of twentieth-century formalism and the extra-moral logic of its many elaborate critiques. Curiously, some of these patterns have actually been anticipated in the very formalist immorality we find criticized in certain texts of American literary realism.
Bio Sämi Ludwig is a professeur des universités at the UHA Mulhouse in the Alsace (France). He received his education at the University of Berne (Switzerland) and has published in REAL, Amerikastudien, Mosaic, the Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison, The African American Review, and The Journal for Asian American Studies. In his Ph.D. thesis on intercultural communication in Maxine Hong Kingston and Ishmael Reed, called CONCRETE LANGUAGE (published by Peter Lang in 1996), he outlines a theory of the metaphorical tracing of the intention constructions of the other. His second book is on the convergences of American Realism and pragmatist theory: Cognitive Realism: The Pragmatist Paradigm in American Literary Realism was published by Wisconsin UP (2002). Together with Rocío Davis (City University of Hong Kong) he edits Contributions to Asian American Literary Studies, the only European book series on Asian American cultural studies (LIT Verlag, Germany). In addition to intercultural issues and questions of cognitive and pragmatist approaches to literature, he is also interested in the big picture of literary history, in colonial American culture, and occasionally even writes on poetry.
Marchi, Viola (University of Bern)
Talk “Ethics, Interrupted: Levinas’s Moral Philosophy and the Problem of Community”
Abstract Despite the enormous influence of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics on the rethinking of community in post-identitarian terms (most prominently in the work of Maurice Blanchot, Alphonso Lingis, and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Luc Nancy), the question of community remains a problematic spot in Levinas’s own philosophy. I would argue that, instead of grounding a new thinking of community, the dyadic relation of Same and Other poses a structural problem when trying to open the ethical relation to the wider realm of others while keeping radical difference in place. As external observer and guarantor of justice, for instance, is the Third excluded a priori from the ethical relation? Is community always only another term for the political? Or, as Levinas himself puts it in Otherwise Than Being: “What meaning can community take on in difference without reducing difference?” Tracing Levinas’s somehow troubled and troubling articulations of community, this paper aims at rethinking the scene of address by focusing on the Third as the element of interruption of the ethical encounter. Furthermore, I will argue that a reconceptualization of the scene of address might offer new ways for reconfiguring the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, another thorny implication of Levinas’s thought.
Bio Viola Marchi studied English and Italian literature in Pisa and Bern. She received her Master from the University of Bern with a thesis entitled The Order of Creation: The Author, the Text, and the Reader in Contemporary Native American Literature. She is currently working on her dissertation on Contemporary Literature and the Ethics of the Impersonal as a part of the SNF Sinergia Project “Theory and Practice of Authenticity in Global Cultural Production”. In her dissertation, she approaches philosophical and literary con-ceptualizations of community and their ethical underpinnings via the concept of impersonality.
McAfee, Noëlle (Emory University)
Talk “Freedom & Feminisms: Interrogating the Anglo-American Ideal of Negative Liberty with Hannah Arendt and Julia Kristeva”
Abstract What does it mean to be free? And in what ways should feminist theorists and practitioners aim for women’s freedom? Philosophically, the question of freedom has been approached in two classical ways: as negative and as positive freedom, that is, as freedom from (e.g., harm, barriers, and oppressive conditions) or freedom to (e.g., act, participate, or develop one’s talents and aims). Liberal capitalist societies tend to embrace negative liberty, whereas those with a social-welfare tradition value (though this is diminishing) positive liberty or, as Kant put it, the possibility for self-beginning, or, as Kristeva puts it with Arendt, the freedom to revolt against conventions and begin something new. This paper takes up, first, the question of the meaning and possibility of the latter, robust idea of freedom in a neoliberal era, when the logic of the market and technocratic solutions to political problems tend to render lives aimed at creating meaning unthinkable. Instead of lives of revolt and world-building, we are encouraged to go shopping and channel surf. In a neoliberal era, where might we find the seeds of radical thinking, questioning, and creation? Should we focus on our inner experience psychoanalytically or worldly experience politically or both? With the help of Kristeva and Arendt, I will show how in these times we can rebel from the given and lead rich and meaningful lives. Second, this paper considers what feminism might mean when coupled with this robust conception of freedom. Where second-wave feminists correctly aimed at ridding the world of the obstacles that impeded women’s (negative) liberty, corners of feminist theory and practice today are looking for novel ways that women and other people can create new meaning and purpose of their lives.
Bio Noëlle McAfee is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. Her writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious (Columbia 2008); Julia Kristeva (Routledge 2003); Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship (Cornell 2000); and numerous articles and book chapters. Her co-edited volumes include a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory and an edited volume titled Democratizing Deliberation: A Political Theory Anthology (Kettering 2012). She is also co-chair of the Public Philosophy Network and co-editor of the Kettering Review. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Democracy Otherwise.
Metz, Katharina (JFK-Institute, FU Berlin)
Talk “Altruism and Literary Form: William Dean Howells’s Realism”
Abstract The form of the nineteenth-century realist novel is often conceived of as being dedicated to the representation of individual experience by engaging in a mode of introspection. This paper challenges this reading, focusing on the novel’s formal interest in representing relationships of the individual to the Other by exploring the significance of the concept of altruism. Stimulated mainly by the success of Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary and sociological work, the neologism “altruism” gained significant popularity in the US in the late nineteenth century and was particularly influential for the critical and fictional work of William Dean Howells. Embedded in a narrative of evolutionary progress, altruism lies at the center of larger contemporaneous societal and cultural discourses on the self and society that are at the base of Howells’s conception of the form of the realist novel as heterogeneous or, as he phrases it, “democratic.” This paper argues that altruism functions as a reconceptualization of sentimental ethics that have been crucial for American literature of reform, a claim that will be supported by close readings of some of Howells’s later novels, in which representations of altruism address a contemporary engagement with issues of social equality and, more generally, the individual’s relation to the Other.
Bio Katharina Metz has been a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin since October 2013. She studied at Universität Freiburg and Indiana University, Bloomington, and completed her Master’s degree in North American Studies at the John F. Kennedy Institute (FU Berlin) in 2013. In her dissertation, she analyzes representations of altruism in late nineteenth-century American literary realism, concentrating on the intersection of sociology and literature, and the relationship of ethics and aesthetics. Next to her focus on nineteenth-century American literature, her research interests include utopian literature, early American literary criticism, and modernism.
Moffatt, Victoria (University of Basel)
Talk “Locating Others: The Ethics of Representation in Jamaica Kincaid’s An Autobiography of My Mother”
Abstract The question of representation is central to the construction of identity, but in constructing one’s identity, one inextricably links oneself to a defining Other that helps to establish the selfhood of the Self. Thus, the way a person represents him/herself with respect to others and represents others in relation to him/herself will facilitate a phenomenological construction of that self in relation to others and a better understanding/appreciation of one’s place in society. This paper sets out to examine the representation of Self and Other in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. It proposes that the narrator’s account of herself is really an “othered” account of a self that is so fractured in its construction that it fails to develop an identity in relation to itself and to the society in which it is located. By the end of the narrative the Other is faceless, thus implying also the facelessness of the Self. While through personal episodic memory, the narrator attempts a phenomenological continuity of her mother’s identity, it is through personal semantic memory that she creates the narrative continuity of that identity, and all in an effort to establish her own identity. However, since the mother/Other identity she constructs is in itself a fractured one, she seems to end up/remain equally fractured herself—a feature she attempts to project beyond herself. It is the projection of this fracturing onto others that raises ethical issues in relation to the confrontation with failure, the anxiety of change and the ambiguity of moral choices within a society that at once contributes to her self-construction as it also rejects the Self that she has become.
Bio Victoria A. A. Moffatt is currently a second-year PhD candidate at the Department of English, University of Basel. She is funded on a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship (ESKAS) for the duration of her program. Her research focuses on exploring the construct of the ‘Other’ in selected works of Joseph Conrad. She comes from Ghana where she has worked with the University of Ghana, Legon as a Lecturer in the Department of English since 2009. Her research interests include postcolonial/colonial studies, gender studies, cultural studies and psychoanalytical approaches to literature.
Ravi, Vidya (University of Fribourg)
Talk “Authenticity and the ‘Land Ethic’ in Aldo Leopold”
Abstract Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book A Sand Country Almanac is considered one of the blueprints of modern-day environmental ethics. Leopold’s “land ethic” suggests that conscientious, respectful use of the non-human world and preserving wilderness should be central human concerns. One of the ways in which humans ought to rethink their relationship with natural environment, he suggests, is to change our role “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” While his vision suggests a retreat, as critic Robert Dorman puts it, “from politics … to an authentic ethical life,” politics was never far from Leopold’s agenda. This paper starts out with a look at the ambiguities and challenges that underwrite Leopold’s environmental ethics. By considering the way in which Leopold’s personal narratives mask his polemics, the paper explores some of the ethical issues at the heart of environmental writing. Questions of community and belonging have become politicised as ecocritics such as Lawrence Buell, Joni Adamson and Rob Nixon stress the need to rethink national and disciplinary boundaries when it comes to environmental writing. Reading Leopold’s “land ethic” alongside present-day environmental movements would help highlight not only the new directions in ecocriticism but also the intersections (and disjunctures) between politics and ethics in environmental thought.
Bio Vidya Ravi completed her doctoral study at Cambridge and is now a postdoctoral assistant at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Her PhD was on dwelling places in post-1945 American fiction. She is now starting a research project on mountains and infrastructure, focusing on pastoralism, transport, and warfare.
Reichel, A. Elisabeth (University of Basel)
Talk “Against the Odds: Grasping Others through the Poetry of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward Sapir”
Abstract Given that they all have explored the Other not only in standard ethnographic prose but also in poetry, the anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward Sapir offer a unique vantage point from which to assess the value of literature in understanding others. To be sure, an analysis of their poems must start by pointing out the same primitivist tendencies that have been identified in their ethnographic writings. Yet, taking this as the final result of the analysis would mean to disregard a sine qua non of literature, that is, its aesthetic experience. Following Wolfgang Iser’s late work in conceiving of this experience as a complex phenomenon, the poetry of Mead, Benedict, and Sapir proves—against the odds—to provide a platform from which a new understanding of the Other can emerge. Further, while reception theory tended to stop short of discussing material components of the literary experience, reducing the complex interplay between reader and text to a disembodied process of meaning generation, a close reading of Sapir’s “The Harvest” shows the necessity of going beyond hermeneutics to gauge the potential for grasping others through literature.
Bio A. Elisabeth Reichel holds an M.A. in American and English Literary and Cultural Studies from Mannheim University. Her master’s thesis is entitled “Fictionalizing Music, Musicalizing Fiction: The Integrative Function of Music in Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing.” As a member of the SNSF project “Of Cultural, Poetic, and Medial Alterity: The Scholarship, Poetry, Photographs, and Films of Edward Sapir, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Margaret Mead,” she examines “Sonic and Visual Others in the Poetry of Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead” (working title) in her Ph.D. project. Her research interests include (inter)mediality; sound, visual and sensory studies; the ethics and politics of representing the Other.
Schweiger, Gottfried (University of Salzburg)
Talk “Literature and Social Critique”
Abstract Social critique, understood as a philosophical enterprise, combines aspects from different spheres of knowledge and reasoning: the social sciences’ (sociology, economics, ethnography, psychology, etc.) access to the reality that is being critiqued, social and political theory’s interpretation and systematization of this empirical knowledge, and ethics to ground the normative benchmarks of critique and to develop prescriptive evaluations. Philosophy is dependent on such an interdisciplinary approach because otherwise, it would remain stuck in its “ideal” world. Furthermore, there are attempts to use literature as a window into reality for social critique (Axel Honneth), which raises questions of reliability and justification. Can literature provide the kind of knowledge social critique requires? Or does this put social critique in danger of losing its touch with reality? In my paper, I want to argue that (some) literary works can indeed provide a certain kind of thick description, and those are of great value for social critique, which aims at uncovering often hidden pathologies of the social. Yet, while literary works can be facilitators of social critique in their own fashion, they alone are insufficient to ground a philosophical social critique. Literary works can guide the process of detection and unmasking (context of discovery) but they need further backup and cannot justify the critique itself (context of justification).
Bio Gottfried Schweiger is a senior researcher at the Centre for Ethics and Poverty Research, University of Salzburg, and the principal investigator of a three-year project on “social justice and child poverty” funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).
Schweighauser, Philipp (University of Basel)
Bio Philipp Schweighauser is Associate Professor and Head of American and General Literatures at the University of Basel. He is the author of The Noises of American Literature, 1890-1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics (UP Florida, 2006) and co-editor of three essay collections: Teaching Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (MLA, 2007), Terrorism, Media, and the Ethics of Fiction: Transatlantic Perspectives on Don DeLillo (Continuum, 2010), and Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma (U of Toronto P, 2013). He recently completed his second book manuscript “Beautiful Deceptions: European Aesthetics, the Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art, 1750-1828.” He is the President of the Swiss Association for North-American Studies.
Skibo-Birney, Bryn (University of Geneva)
Talk “Post-apocalyptic Storytelling and Post-anthropocentic Ethics in Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy”
Abstract Margaret Atwood states that “we are all telling stories to ourselves all the time, if it’s only the story of our own life […] memory evolved not to remind us of the past but to help us prepare for the future.” Indeed, stories, autobiographical or not, are widely considered to be fundamental in shaping our own identities (for example, moral, cultural, and/or national) and interpersonal relationships, as well as in shaping how we interact as a society. As David Eagleman suggests, in his review of Jonathan Gottschall’s The Story-Telling Animal, “stories serve the biological function of encouraging pro-social behavior.” Autobiographical stories and story-telling are at the heart of Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. As Atwood, Eagleman, and Gottschall suggest, these stories and the ways they are told are intrinsically linked to the different ethics and morals within the three novels. Through Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, this presentation will explore the link between story-telling, narrative structure, and metafiction on the one hand, and social ethics and individual morals on the other. Specifically, this presentation will closely analyze the relationship between the dissolution of culture, individual subjectivity, morality, language and narrative structure and the significance of reconstructing this dissolution via a genetically modified, morally “pre-programmed” posthuman narrator, resulting in a post-apocalyptic, posthumanist and, arguably, post-speciesist ethics.
Bio Bryn Skibo-Birney is an Assistant in American literature at the University of Geneva where she is currently writing her PhD thesis on human-animal hybrids in contemporary North American literature. She received her Master’s degree from the same university after writing a mémoire on posthumans, nonhumans, the arts, and emotions in works by Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Her research interests include human-animal studies, postmodern literary theory, and altered-state narratives. This last topic was the subject of her previous SANASpresentation and paper which discussed the symbiotic relationship of New Journalism and counter-culture movements in the 1960s.
Straub, Julia (University of Bern)
Talk “Towards a New Conversational Philosophy: Perspectives from Contemporary Literature”
Abstract Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman’s 2011 The Chairs Are Where the People Go has been called a “triumph of conversational philosophy” by the New Yorker. Located between the genres of self-help writing and “urban” essayism (both writers are residents of Toronto), this book advises on social behavior and interaction beyond the traditional sites of conflict resolution (e.g. marriage, family life, the workplace). Like in Sheila Heti’s critically acclaimed novel How a Person Should Be (2012), friendship, neighborhood and social etiquette in unrehearsed, improvised contexts (e.g. games, charades) are the central themes which allow an exploration of various aspects of selfhood. While remaining alert to the innovative impulses that shape these works on an aesthetic and formal level (i.e., their blending of literary genres such as the novel and drama, fiction and non-fiction), this paper aims to further our understanding of what exactly the term “conversational philosophy” (which Richard Rorty contrasts with analytical philosophy) has to offer to contemporary authors and readers and to examine its links with philosophical traditions.
Bio Julia Straub is a senior lecturer at the University of Berne, where she teaches American literature. She completed her PhD in 2007 with a study on the Victorian reception of Dante and finished her “Habilitation,” i.e. her second book manuscript, on eighteenth-century transatlantic literary relations in 2013. Her other research interests include melodrama, autobiography, contemporary Anglophone literatures and canon theory. She is currently editing a Handbook of Transatlantic North American Studies, which will come out in 2016.
Vincent, Patrick (University of Neuchâtel)
Talk “Re-Moralized Landscape: John Muir in Switzerland”
Abstract This paper proposes to examine American conservationist John Muir’s unpublished writings on his short but productive 1892 tour of the Swiss Alps, ignored by biographers and critics alike. In Zermatt, Muir does not follow the rhetoric of exceptionalism of earlier authors such as Thoreau or Thomas Cole, for whom America’s wild landscapes trumped those of Europe and were a sign of the nation’s moral superiority. More surprisingly, he also abandons his earlier persona “John o’ the mountains,” or solitary wanderer in the wilderness, and instead warms to the sight of hundreds of men, women, children, and invalids ascending to the Gornergrat, which he interprets as a “hopeful sign of the times.” Victorian writers, including Leslie Stephen, regularly complained that tourism had devalued the sublime and destroyed Switzerland’s moral landscape. John Ruskin’s Modern Painters attempts to salvage the Alps’ moral significance through a theologico-scientific myth of divine power and human frailty. Muir, on the other hand, domesticates the Alps, rejecting Ruskin’s sacred gloom and reconciling wild nature with modern science and tourism arguing that mountains are an essential feature of our humanity. Muir’s tour of the Alps, I will maintain, helped him articulate some of his ideas on how to preserve wild nature, and anticipated some of his key texts on conservation, including his 1895 speech to the Sierra Club, and his 1898 essay entitled “Wild Parks.”
Bio Patrick Vincent is a professor of English and American literature at the University of Neuchâtel. He has published articles on various American authors’ approaches to landscape, including James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder. He is the author of The Romantic Poetess (2004) and La Suisse vue par les écrivains de langue anglaise (2009), and is co-editor of Helen Maria Williams’s A Tour in Switzerland (2011). He is currently finishing a monograph entitled Mountain Liberty: Switzerland, Republicanism, and Romanticism and is also working on a project on transatlantic landscapes.
Wilson, Joanna (University of Leicester)
Talk “Of Moms and Men: The Legacy of Mother Blame in American Fiction”
Abstract My research focuses on violent protagonists in contemporary American literature, and within this field of study it can be observed that trauma is a recurring method of representing such protagonists as deviant and “evil” aetiologically rather than ontologically. In particular, I argue that mothers are frequently used as the primary traumatising factor, demonised and depersonalised in order to reassert their violent offspring’s humanity. If readers do in fact “ascribe great moral force to storytelling,” then hidden beneath more overt issues such as representing or vocalising evil or deviancy is what can be inferred as a legacy of mother blame, insidiously invisible yet nevertheless present. A close analysis of specific violent American narratives reveals that throughout recent history the assumption has persisted that mothers make monsters. If readers infer a moral message from such novels, then what they are likely to surmise is highly reminiscent of “Momism” or notions of the schizophrenogenic mother. The moral message is that mothers are potentially dangerous, and society should be wary of this. Through a small selection of case studies, it is my intention to highlight this issue of persistent and covert mother blame, in order to challenge its prevalence in contemporary literature and society.
Bio Joanna Wilson is a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Leicester in England, studying violent protagonists in contemporary American fiction. She has a background in both Social Anthropology (MSc UCL) and Comparative Literature (MA UCL), and these disciplines inform her current research and academic interests, which include (but are not limited to) marginality, deviancy, voice, evil, liminality, violence, performativity, and trauma.