American Literature and the Transformation of Privacy
The DFG-funded research project “American Literature and the Transformation of Privacy” is integrated into Johannes Völz’s Heisenberg-Professorship for American Studies, Democracy, and Aesthetics. The transformations that practices and meanings of privacy are currently undergoing in the United States constitute a central component of contemporary changes in American democratic culture, as they affect the relationship between private and public spheres and the position of the individual vis-à-vis the state. This research project traces these transformations and their historical precursors through the lens of American literature.
Historically, the careers of privacy and literature have been closely intertwined: The modern notion of privacy emerged alongside the genre of the novel and developments in literary techniques, in particular techniques for the representation of feelings and thoughts, shaped conceptions of the private. In view of this interdependence, this project investigates the changing functions of privacy in American democracy and the aesthetic dimension of the private that take shape in American literature from the Romantic period to the contemporary “New Sincerity” movement.
The research project consists of the following two intersecting studies:
1) Johannes Völz: “The Poetics of Privacy in Contemporary American Literature”
This book project investigates the structural transformation of the private in contemporary culture. How do contemporary writers (roughly of the last two decades) transform the meaning of “the private,” how do they reimagine the relation between public and private, to what degree do they replace the public-private dyad with the conflict between privacy and surveillance, and how do they draw on emergent notions of the private to project new models of subjectivity? The book focuses on three contemporary scenes of writings, each of which highlights particular concerns with the private. The first part zooms in on the complex of (self-)surveillance, technology, and the transparent self in novels by authors such as Dave Eggers, Dana Spiotta, Joshua Cohen, and Gary Shteyngart. Part two focuses on writers often associated with “the New Sincerity movement.” They include Miranda July, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Tao Lin, Sheila Heti, and David Foster Wallace. Part three investigates the genre of the memoir as a production of the private under the aegis of the therapeutic.
2) Stephan Kuhl: “American Fiction and the Aesthetics of Privacy, 1850–1960”
This postdoctoral project provides historical depth to contemporary debates about the state of privacy through a sustained literary analysis of its transformations from the period of Romanticism to the dawn of Postmodernism. The project traces the interdependence between literature and privacy by investigating how literary representation shaped social conceptions and functions of the private and how, in turn, structural transformations of the private sphere generated specific literary practices.
“American Fiction and the Aesthetics of Privacy, 1850–1960” examines the aesthetic forms through which American literature gave meaning to privacy. While American authors wrote privacy into existence, they could do so only while simultaneously making it legible and, thus, exposing it to the observation of their readers. By investigating the tropes and narrative modes that allowed authors to navigate this apparent contradiction, this project aspires to understand how the methodologies and terminologies of narratology and formal literary analysis can contribute to an understanding of privacy and to the constitution of a general aesthetics of the private. In addition, the project draws on the disciplines of sociology and psychoanalysis, in order to investigate how transformations of the private sphere changed the conditions of the production of literature. It places specific emphasis on the role that the social exclusion from privacy privileges of the poor and of criminalized, gendered, pathologized, and racialized groups played in inhibiting and shaping their literary practices.