"The field of popular culture has a lot to offer for science"

Professor Dr Birgit Spengler and the other view of the USA

"I am not an author-centred reader, but rather a topic-centred reader. What I read depends less on certain authors than on the topics that move me at the moment," Birgit Spengler says, professor of American Studies at the University of Wuppertal. Nevertheless, there are contemporary writers whom the scholar finds particularly recommendable. In addition to such well-known names as the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrisson, she also mentions writers who are less well-known in this country, such as the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, Louise Erdrich, who is of Indian origin, or the Mexican Valeria Luiselli, who lives in the USA. She finds an element that connects these three authors in the "states of exception" they describe, which Spengler is exploring as part of a current project. For example, Danticat is dedicated to the theme of violence in Haiti and the migratory movements that this violence triggers. "In Danticat's Dew Breaker (2004), the stories themselves move back and forth between the USA and Haiti, giving us an impression of the violence that shapes Haiti's history and does not let go of the characters even in the USA. Danticat makes her readers experience the suffering of her characters very sensitively and yet impressively, without leaving us traumatised out of the reading experience. That in particular is a great art," the literary scholar says enthusiastically. "In this way, Danticat is also facing one of the decisive challenges of our time. We have to take more notice of the suffering of others and change our actions accordingly. Literature can initiate processes of rethinking and open up new worlds and possibilities of being." Louise Erdrich, on the other hand, illuminates life on a fictional Chippewa reservation in North America in numerous novels. Spengler says: "She interweaves history, stories and genealogies. Some characters or their families and descendants appear again and again in different texts. Erdrich thus interweaves family and personal history(s) with national history to deal with topics such as colonisation and its effects. Despite these serious themes, Erdrich's novels are not short on humour either." Among the ten best books of 2019 chosen by the New York Times is Valeria Luiselli's latest novel. Lost Children Archive (2019) approaches the U.S.-Mexican border issue through the comparison of a modern-day road trip and the plight of the unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, tens of thousands of whom sought asylum in the U.S. in 2013/14. Contemporary history becomes tangible for the reader in a way that news media cannot. At the same time, it is the task of literary and cultural studies to take a closer look at how such representations function and what strategies they develop to reflect social processes, themes and problems. In this respect, the Americanist also finds Richard Powers' latest novel, The Overstory (2018), particularly illuminating. In this novel, with which the American writer intervenes in the environmental policy discussion, he attempts to think literature, life and the world in a "tree-centred" way and thus to reconceptualise them. The fascinating thing about American literature is its diversity, Spengler emphasises, the many different influences from which it draws and which allow the reader to discover something new again and again.

Collective rebellion against structures of domination

Spengler does not see a clearly definable difference between European and American authors across epochs. "Of course, there have been close relationships between American and European literature since the colonisation of America. Although there are many similarities and connecting elements, I am also convinced that authors are always shaped by and react to their cultural contexts. Against this background, the literature of the area that later becomes the USA develops in a different way than, for example, British literature. There are other themes, other emphases that are dealt with, and this is already evident in colonial literature". Nevertheless, there are many parallels between female writers in Europe and the USA, Spengler emphasises, because certain material and motifs migrated back and forth transatlantically. For example, one concern shared by many European and American female writers of the 19th century is the rebellion against existing power structures. In Spengler's view, this is where a distinct transatlantic dialogue takes place, a consciousness of a kind of transatlantic sisterhood. Nevertheless, the emphasis on U.S. and European literary relations is also limiting: hemispheric and inter-American connections or a broader understanding of transatlantic relations that also includes the African continent are thus left out.
"I am not a fan of gender dichotomies," the native of southern Hesse explains when asked if women write differently from men. "Above all, the external circumstances and how they are processed frame and shape writing and gender identity". If different ways of writing or writing strategies are developed at a certain time and in a certain social context, these are less due to natural differences between the sexes than to different forms of participation, e.g. in social discussions, education and power.

Visual turn, a reorientation

Birgit Spengler was awarded the Cornelia Goethe Prize in Frankfurt for her dissertation on "Vision, Gender and Power in Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing (1860 - 1900)" in 2007. In it, she deals with gender and power relations in this period. "In this dissertation , my thesis is that these relations are negotiated by female writers, among other things, via gaze regimes. Social relations are thus metaphorically represented and negotiated through viewing conditions, but also through visual technologies and epistemological, philosophical questions. The second half of the 19th century is so interesting because the so-called "visual turn" is actually only set around the turn of the century". Innovations in the visual technology of the 19th century, new physiological insights on the workings of vision made much earlier in the 19th century, but even before the great realists such as Henry James and the advent of literary modernism, had an impact on rethinking vision and its epistemological implications. I perceive the way women writers address ways of looking and visuality on the plot level of fictional texts as particularly exciting because women were particularly often reduced to objects of a socially disciplining and male-desiring gaze due to social norms during the 19th century."

I want manage to let students participate in the questions I am burning for

The scientist has been teaching and researching at the University of Wuppertal since 2017 and wants to motivate her students by trying to arouse their curiosity. "The best-case scenario is to get students to read for themselves and discover for themselves". Since Spengler considers learning to be a "very individual" process that involves relating personal experiences and bodies of knowledge to new things, she focuses on insight, saying, "The nicest thing for me is when students walk out of the course or lecture and say, 'I want to read more on that. This has grabbed me'. It is less about imparting a canon of knowledge and more about analytical skills and abilities." The study of popular culture is also absolutely legitimate within this framework. "I think," Spengler explains, "that popular culture is so interesting because it often picks up on social currents, crises and fears much more directly than high-cultural forms and thus gets to the heart of the cultural imaginary of a society." However, what belongs to popular culture and how it is judged is very changeable. "Simplistically, one could say that popular culture is always that which does not count as high culture at a certain point in time. Even Shakespeare was not always counted as part of British high culture," she explains. Academic approaches to popular culture are subject to at least as much change. While some see popular culture as a means of social subversion, others argue in the direction of mere commercialisation. In the meantime, however, popular culture has become an integral part of the academic approach to cultural studies in the humanities.

Forms of mobility in comics in times of digitalisation

The dedicated scholar also conducts her own research on the terrain of popular culture. The Unwritten is an American comic series by Mike Carey with artwork by Peter Gross. Birgit Spengler has investigated how forms of mobility are depicted in this series, because "a particularly interesting and socially relevant cultural phantasm is taken up here: the idea of boundless mobility." Mobility has increased decidedly in our time due to technological innovations. We are "connected", virtually and physically, and preferably at any time and in any place. "The comic takes up this theme and imagines a world that depicts and potentiates forms of mobility which are available to us today, while also reflecting on them critically." The world depicted in the comic consists not only of the one we know, but also of the worlds of literary texts: for example, the world of Moby-Dick or that of a novel by Charles Dickens. These worlds are closely interconnected and, in the comic, interdependent in their continued existence: The plurality of literary worlds keeps our world in balance, prevents the predominance of a single "story", or a single authoritarian interpretation of "world". An ominous power, however, tries to precisely prevent this plurality by destroying literary worlds. The protagonist, who can cross the threshold between "reality" and "literature" with the help of a literary map and a magic doorknob, must prevent this. "The comic contrasts this utopian form of a boundless mobility that exists beyond temporal limitations with the existence of all those characters who are trapped in a kind of no-man's land by the destruction of their literary worlds." Spengler uses this series to address issues of globalisation as the far-reaching interconnections of alien worlds with each other. "This is a taking up of the problem that is driving our time".

In search of the female view of things

Another research topic of the literature and cultural studies scholar are photographs of women at the turn of the century in the West of the USA. "The West has a special power of fascination. The landscapes, nature and stories told about the West have given rise to such popular genres as the Western and are disseminated and propagated by it," she illustrates, explaining her research approach as following: "In the 19th century, visual culture, especially photography and painting, made a major contribution to integrating the West into the cultural imagination of the nation. Painting and photography provide imagery that incorporates the West into the narratives that the nation tells about itself." These narratives include the American doctrine of "Manifest Destiny", stating that the US had a divine mandate to expand. The West, in the sense of Manifest Destiny, is first explored through great expeditions and then physically appropriated, where necessary brutally through physical violence. However, the idea of "Manifest Destiny" is also communicated and naturalised with the help of visual iconography in the landscape photography of the West. In this context, Spengler is specifically looking for the female view of things. "I am interested in how women, who only entered the photography of the West at the end of the 19th century, contribute to changing the imagery of the West." To do this, she travelled to the States herself and found evidence of a different view. "I did research in various archives in the US and discovered photographs that subvert prevailing conventions of the gaze. Such depictions, for example, pull the rug out from under the viewer. They play with the perspective of the gaze in a way that draws us into the landscape and disorients us instead of elevating us above it. I am particularly interested in the pictorial work, which has been neglected. It can help to take a different view of things," she says, "perhaps also to develop a different ethics of looking".

In her research, Prof. Dr. Birgit Spengler observes the always exciting, and fraught with tension, 19th, 20th and 21st century USA in literature and culture with a very unique and innovative eye. She wants to share the insights of this special gaze with her students and concludes: "If I manage to let students participate in the questions I am burning for through research-centred learning, so that they can deal with them independently and develop individual questions, my goal is achieved."

Uwe Blass (Interview on December 17, 2019)


Professor Dr Birgit Spengler studied American Studies, English Literature and Literary Studies as well as Modern German Literature at the University of Frankfurt. She habilitated in 2013. She has been Professor of American Studies at the University of Wuppertal since 2018 after further stays in Göttingen and Bonn.

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