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Faculty of languages and literature

American Studies / Anglophone Literatures and Cultures - Prof. Dr. Sylvia Mayer

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Brief Description

Contemporary American culture is to a large extent shaped by a sense of shared risk, and fictional narratives across media have contributed significantly to this shaping power of risk, pushing the boundaries of what is imaginable about the future at any given moment. The project investigates the contribution of North American fictional texts to the converging discourses of global technological and environmental risks since the 1980s. Drawing on insights of risk theory and risk research in the social sciences and using the premises and methods of cultural and transmedial narratology, it analyzes and defines what we call "risk fiction" -- a corpus of novels, films, and graphic narratives that explore how technological and environmental global risks have affected individual and collective experiences in the contemporary world risk society. One of the key aims of the project is to establish the concept of risk as analytical category in the disciplines of literary and cultural studies, linking ecocriticism and science fiction studies to define and analyze risk fiction as emerging transmedial genre. Four subprojects focus on specific narrative articulations of the risks addressed, and together develop a conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetics, poetics, and ethics of risk fiction as a genre. In doing so, they break new theoretical and methodological ground within literary and cultural studies, contribute to interdisciplinary risk research in the humanities, and make a new corpus of texts available for further research.

Basic Information

Time Frame: 2015 – 2018

Applicants: Prof. Dr. Jeanne Cortiel, Prof. Dr. Sylvia Mayer

Research Assistants: Lukas Büttcher, Laura Oehme

DFG Website: http://gepris.dfg.de/gepris/projekt/270917525?language=en

Subproject 1 Hide

"The Aesthetics and Ethics of the North American Climate Change Novel – Towards a Definition of the Environmental Risk Narrative"

Researcher: Sylvia Mayer

This subproject focuses on developing a definition of the environmental risk narrative. Taking the growing body of U.S. American and Canadian climate change novels as representative of an attempt to narrate the multiple, diverse, and controversial experiences of this global risk, it aims at mapping its key characteristics in terms of its aesthetics and ethics. The corpus of texts to be analyzed at the moment consists of about 40 novels, 20 of which have already been studied in earlier work (see Mayer 2013, 2014b). In terms of genre, the novels cover the range from realist through speculative fiction to science fiction. Not taken into consideration will be climate change novels for young adult readers.

Drawing on Ulrich Beck’s definition of risk as “anticipation of catastrophe,” the project starts from the premise that the genre of the climate change novel has already developed into two subgenres that can be categorized as two types of environmental risk narratives: “risk narratives of anticipation” and “risk narratives of catastrophe” (Mayer 2014b). The former type is characterized by its temporal focus on a pre-catastrophe present, the phase of the anticipation of climate collapse; the latter type is characterized by its temporal focus on a post-catastrophe present, the phase after climate collapse – which more often than not can be regarded as revealing a new phase of anticipation of catastrophe since new (environmental and other) risks have been the result of climate collapse.

In addition to this basic categorization, it is, however, necessary to study in much more detail the narrative strategies and techniques the novels at stake employ in order to establish a more detailed aesthetics of this particular type of environmental risk narrative. Analysis of genre conventions, modes of representation, plot patterns, character constellations and configurations, spatial settings, and imagery are necessary to find out how the novels have met the challenge of representing a natural and cultural phenomenon that is, to a certain extent, intangible (for instance, due to the “invisibility” of greenhouse gas emissions and to the long spatial and temporal scales that have to be taken into account). Here the cooperation and exchange with the projects engaging more specifically with science fiction in graphic narrative and film will sharpen the focus on the genre characteristics.

Moreover, linked to insights into the aesthetics of the climate risk narratives, the (environmental) ethical positions of these risk narratives will be analyzed. Since literary texts can be regarded as a specific mode of moral inquiry (see, for instance, Nussbaum 1990, Oehlschlaeger 1995), the climate change novels must be investigated in terms of the ways they address the challenges to develop a sustainable – or, to refer to Ursula Heise’s concept – an “eco-cosmopolitan” ethical stance. The issue of ethics, moreover, reflects cultural anthropology’s claim that any kind of risk perception is fundamentally expressive of historically specific social values.

Subproject 2 Hide

"Narrating the Anthropocene: Globalization and Environmental Risk in U.S. American Climate Change Narratives" 

Researcher: Lukas Büttcher

This subproject examines the participation of U.S. American climate change narratives, i.e. novels and short stories, in discourses of globalization and environmental risk. Central to this study is a concept of globalization developed by scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer and published in 2000: based on studies of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that point toward global warming, and, ultimately, anthropogenic climate change, they argue that human intervention in and alteration of the planetary ecosphere has ushered in a new geological age, the Anthropocene. As a result of scientific-technological advances that made the age of industrialization, i.e. the age of an ever-expanding fossil-fuel economy, possible, the Anthropocene symbolizes global environmental connectedness, including the global dimension of environmental risk.

While in geology the concept of the anthropocene is still debated, ecocriticism and other environmentally oriented disciplines have very recently begun to work with it in order to address environmental issues that must be understood as global in scope. Among the issues discussed are (1) the question of an environmental ethics that does not only go beyond traditional interpersonal ethics (which excluded non-human nature from its moral universe), but takes also rigorously into consideration the global interdependencies of all species, and (2) the question of the development of a planetary consciousness that develops into some kind of “eco-cosmopolitan” citizenship (Heise 2008).

This study of North American climate change novels and short stories rests on the premise that fictional texts are particularly well suited to deal with and dramatize the complexity, and diversity, of individual and communal global risk experience in ways that work with and at the same time transcend factual, scientific representation. The study will thus investigate how the major claim of the Anthropocene concept – the geological, and with it the biological and chemical, domination of human power – is explored in the texts. It will look at the narrative techniques used to address the ecological, scientific, socio-economic, political, and cultural implications of living in the Anthropocene, and it will examine its global ethical implications. Of particular interest will be the question how strongly the climate change risk narrative relies on the apocalyptic mode – a mode that has been very important, maybe even dominating, in non-fictional writing about climate change (Skrimshire 2010). In this respect, the project will draw on and contribute to insights from the other subprojects on how apocalypse has shaped risk discourse.

Subproject 3Hide

Risk Technologies and Global Catastrophe in Contemporary American Graphic Narrative"

Researcher: Laura Oehme

Since the 1980s, the comics medium has undergone a noteworthy development towards extensive formal and thematic experimentation, providing new forms of narrativizing the social and cultural conflicts, anxieties and paradoxes of turn-of-the-millennium cultures. The project focuses on the negotiation of risk technologies and global catastrophe in graphic narratives that are characterized by a critical, and formally and stylistically innovative engagement with existing risk discourses. Since the category of risk has not yet been employed in the field of comics studies, a basic but central objective is to put together a relevant corpus of texts to demonstrate that graphic narratives participate significantly in the contemporary fictional risk discourse. The second, major objective is to analyze the collected narratives as to the specific narrative means with which they articulate and critically explore risk. While close readings form the primary basis for the initial analysis of the corpus, transmedial narratology provides the theoretical framework for the in-depth, topical analyses of the interplay of words and images that is central for conveying meaning in comics.

The corpus will include primary texts from the 1980s to the 2010s, covering almost four decades of what Beck refers to as the “age of man-made uncertainties” (World at Risk, viii). What these politically and aesthetically diverse texts have in common is that they narratively explore the potential impact of several key risk technologies, such as nuclear technology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics, and the risk scenario(s) engendered by these technologies. Moreover, all of them engage the ambivalence of these technologies in envisioning how they might shape the future. The paradigmatic analyses of the primary texts will focus on the medium-specific characteristics of comics that contribute particularly to the negotiation of risk, and on the specific aesthetic characteristics and ethical dimensions involved in producing a sense of global technological risk in graphic narratives.

In conjunction with analyzing individual texts already identified in the first part of this subproject, the ongoing further development of the text corpus remains crucial to this subproject throughout and will require extensive additional research. Preliminary research points to the existence of a wide range of both mainstream and independent comics that engage with risk technologies and global risk. Of particular relevance for this research project as a whole is corpus work on comics that engage with environmental risks, providing a productive point of convergence with subproject 2 (on environmental risk in American climate change narratives). This diverse body of texts, however, is for the most part not accessible in Germany. Thus the work program for this subproject includes a research stay at the Eaton Collection at the University of California, Riverside, which holds the most comprehensive collection of science fiction literature worldwide, including an extensive collection of comics. A research stay in the archive is essential for the corpera of all subprojects, dealing with both technological and environmental risk. This continued corpus work enables the formulation of a more refined, precise definition of risk fiction as a genre.

The findings of this project will result in a monograph on the subject, contributing to the goals of the general project, i.e. the comparative analysis of risk fiction across media; some of the results will also serve as the basis for a scholarly article to be published as a follow-up project in one of the key journals for comics studies (e.g. ImageText, The European Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics).

Subproject 4Hide

"Risk and the Dystopian Body: Future Technologies and Contemporary American Popular Film"

Researcher: Jeanne Cortiel

The desire for a systematic prediction of the technological future has captivated the American cultural imagination for two centuries, finding expression in the creation of “futures studies” in the early 20th century (Bell 7). Popular film has been an active participant in mapping these discursive conflicts and modes of “being in the world” (Sobchack 224-225). Towards the end of the 20th century, the genres of post-apocalyptic disaster, future war, Zombie apocalypse and Superhero film incorporated science fiction elements to play out cultural anxieties around the tension between scientific/technological knowledge and the inability to know. Although unintended consequences and hostile deployment of risk technologies are central factors in these films, risk has not been an analytical category in scholarship on science fiction film. This subproject will address this gap in research.

In defining the relevant body of texts, this subproject will first of all contribute to the expansion of the primary text corpus for the project as a whole and for related follow-up projects. Its research will particularly focus on the following recurring risk scenarios: machine or alien takeover (Robotics/AI), viral pandemic (Biotechnology/Genetic engineering), catastrophic human enhancement (NBIC-convergence), and nuclear
apocalypse (nuclear technology), including intersections with environmental risk fiction. The aim is to develop paradigmatic close analyses of 30–40 popular American films that came out between the 1980s and the 2010 to contribute to the definition of risk fiction as intermedial genre, which is the object of the project as a whole.

Based on initial studies of risk in superhero fiction (Cortiel and Oehme), the task here is to further investigate the formal aesthetic and generic characteristics developed in filmic risk fiction to explore the human body and individual agency in a framework of global risk. These films place the human body in a number of conflicting frames of reference: transnational catastrophe, scientific exploration, and biblical narratives of redemption. In all of them, the ambivalent presence of science and technology creates a pervasive sense of uncertainty and bodily anxiety particularly around the male body. The study will trace the ways in which filmic risk fiction crosses genre lines from science fiction, utopia/dystopia, post-apocalyptic fiction to body horror, romance and autobiography to structure its narrative around risk. The conceptual angle of global catastrophic risk and the cooperation with ecocriticism enables an analysis of the correlation between the aesthetics and ethics of risks in these films. How does the narrative exploration of character choices and agency relate to the transition of risk scenarios into disaster scenarios? How does individual risk taking behavior converge with or diverge from global risk? In answering these questions, this subproject defines the specific forms, contents, and aesthetic principles of filmic risk fiction, and its complex cultural functions in terms of contemporary risk communication.

Methodolically, this analysis not only combines filmic close reading methods with cultural narratology, but also develops specific methods of risk scenario analysis for the study of fiction. These methods will serve as a basis for further research into the intermedial reception of these films and a more extensive reading of a larger body of texts. Its major results will be published as a journal article, which will serve as one of
the starting points for a comprehensive monograph on risk fiction coauthored by Jeanne Cortiel and Sylvia Mayer in a follow-up project.

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