Faculty of Humanities

Race, Whiteness, and Ambiguity: North American Studies

In the USA, the election of Barack Obama served as proof to the end of ethnic and race-based discrimination. Now, after the end of his term, the question of whether we have in fact entered a ‘post-racial’ era is extremely contested. Nevertheless, examples such as the Ferguson and Baltimore protests to police brutality seem to debunk this aforementioned optimism. Where and for whom is racism a reality? Is racism more present in society than in literature or the other way around? If racism truly does not play a role in society or its institutions, which mechanisms now lead to their continued endurance? Therefore, the dissertation Disappearing Blackness? High Cultural Pluralist Voices of the Program Era (Courtney Moffett-Bateau M.A., supervisors: Prof. Barbara Buchenau; Prof. Kornelia Freitag, RUB; Prof. Stephanie Batiste, UC-Santa Barbara; Scholarship for international doctoral candidates, KAS) uses this moment in literary studies to reflect on how contemporary authors and their texts are positioned within a US print culture that currently dreams of a life beyond race.

In the centuries before the American Revolution – which can be seen as the end of a process that finally crystallised the equation between Americanness and a pure, white identity – discourses on the American ‘nation’ relied heavily on ambiguity as a foundational principle, and on the kind of ambivalence that Kamau Brathwaite views as a “cultural attribute of the colonial.” Dr. Elena Furlanetto’s habilitation treatise Indians, Pirates, Creoles: Productive ambiguities in Colonial America (tentative title) looks at literary representations of subjects cast as ‘ambiguous’ from the point of view of ethnicity, religion (Indians and Creoles), race, and legality (black pirates) in seventeenth- to late-eighteenth-century British America, a period in which American nationalism was a phenomenon in the making, displaying a highly mutable, prototypical form. Texts dating back to the early modern period imagine the national community as a highly syncretic whole resting on hybridity and fluid identities. In such a societal context, ambiguity – rather than univocality – becomes centre stage in the debate about the nature of the national self.

The English language monograph under preparation by Prof. Barbara Buchenau, Intercultural Figuration in North America’s Colonial Cultural History, investigates non-fictional and proto-scientific texts, images and maps about early North America (1540–1700), including their revival and reuse in 19th- and 20th-century popular culture and historiography. Social scientific research about stereotyping and discrimination is brought into conversation with insights from the fields of imagology and religious typology to develop a hermeneutic approach to identity-enhancing figurations such as the white man’s Indian. Figures of thought such as an Americanised version of the biblical Cain bring together competing cultural and religious traditions, thus offering crucial incentives for social interactions in thoroughly unrelated intercultural contexts. They provide rough patterns of action that coin the self-confidence, the historical awareness as well as the future options of all those who take part in the interaction directed by the respective figure of thought.

In his book Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of American Myths and Symbols, Dr. Dietmar Meinel (Anglophone Studies) examines the mediation of traditional motifs and narratives of American culture in computer animated films of the Pixar Animation Studios. Whether interventionist sheriff dolls liberating oppressed toys (Toy Story) or exceptionally talented rodents hoping to fulfill their dreams (Ratatouille), these cinematic texts draw on popular myths and symbols of American culture. As Pixar films refashion traditional American figures, motifs and narratives for contemporary audiences, this book looks at their politics of representation - from the frontier myth in light of traditional gender roles (WALL-E) to the notion of voluntary associations and neoliberalism (The Incredibles). Through close readings, this volume also considers the aesthetics of digital animation as further mediations of the traditional themes and motifs of American culture in novel form to explore Pixar films in all their cinematic, ideological and narrative complexity.