The Fiction of America

The Fiction of America

Performance and the Cultural Imaginary in Literature and Film
Nordamerikastudien, Band 31 1. Aufl.

von: Susanne Hamscha

30,99 €

Verlag: Campus Verlag
Format: PDF
Veröffentl.: 16.05.2013
ISBN/EAN: 9783593419763
Sprache: deutsch
Anzahl Seiten: 334

Dieses eBook enthält ein Wasserzeichen.


Amerika ist eine Inszenierungsform, eine Fiktion. Susanne Hamscha macht diese These zum Ausgangspunkt ihrer Untersuchung, sie versteht »Amerika« als Performanz. Durch das Gegenlesen klassischer amerikanischer Literatur und gegenwärtiger Populärkultur deckt sie stets wiederkehrende Handlungsmuster der US-amerikanischen Kultur auf. Es zeigt sich, dass normative Erzählungen über »Amerika« bereits im Moment ihrer Artikulation untergraben und infrage gestellt werden. Durch die Betrachtung der kulturellen Texte als performative Akte werden die Widersprüche dominanter Bedeutungen der amerikanischen Kultur zutage gefördert.
The Fiction of America-America as Fiction13
Act I
Setting the Stage-or, Performing 'America' on the Streets of Philadelphia35
Act II
Will the Real American Please Stand Up! Americanness (Dis)Embodied83
Interlude: Pop Goes the Canon83
Scenario 1, A Fish Called Emerson: The American Scholar and Finding Nemo91
Scenario 2, From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park: The Re(dis)covery of America119
Scenario 3, S(w)inging the Self: Whitman, Spider-Man, and the Body Politic150
American Idols: The Anatomy of Race and Gender181
Interlude: Romancing the Ghost181
Scenario 1, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth: Straight White Masculinity and Ethnic Ventriloquism in Moby-Dick and Jaws188
Scenario 2, Ghostly Femininity: Parody and Dissent in The Scarlet Letter and Madonna238
The Specters of America285
Susanne Hamscha ist Postdoc-Stipendiatin an der Universität Göttingen.
The English translation of America (1988), Jean Baudrillard's "collection of traveler's tales from the land of hyperreality" (backcover), opens with a frontispiece by Chris Richardson, which shows a man on a horse, looking at the screen of a drive-in movie theater that is centered against a mountainous desert landscape (see Fig. 1). On the screen, he sees his postmodern alter ego: a space explorer, who is on a mission to conquer the final frontier. This frontispiece depicts something that is easily and unmistakably identifiable as 'America,' and it does so by engaging two concepts: performance and the cultural imaginary. It is by way of performance that a notion of 'America'-or, more specifically, of 'Americanness'-is produced which is anchored in the imaginary, in national fantasies that serve to unite a very diverse body of American citizens.
Richardson's photograph creates this notion of Americanness through the simple, yet very effective strategy of doubling. The photograph cap-tures various items from a vast archive of cultural concepts, symbols, and myths that are commonly associated with American culture and doubles them by pairing each of these items with a counterpart. The cowboy, the embodiment of American masculinity, meets his alter ego, the astronaut; the 'original' frontier, the vast territory of the West, collides with the 'final' frontier, the indefinite reaches of space; the asphalt highways and (empty) automobiles of a tamed civilization impenetrate the wilderness of untouched nature in the imaginings of American landscape. In his frontis-piece, Richardson assembles mythical figures and concepts that are deeply engrained in American culture and that re-surface again and again in liter-ature, film, music, paintings, photography, advertising, and other cultural products, which lets these notions appear to be 'typically' and 'naturally' American. However, as Judith Davidov reminds us, the crucial point here is that "everything-the landscape before us and the moonscape on the screen, western hero and space explorer, the artwork itself-is a construc-tion, or what Baudrillard calls a simulacrum" (1998, 296-297; italics in the original). In other words, the Americanness of this piece is not intrinsic to the cultural concepts used by Richardson, but is carefully constructed through a process of performative doubling.
Baudrillard defines the simulacrum as an image that "bears no relation to any reality whatsoever" and has become a truth in its own right (1999, 6). This definition can certainly be applied to Richardson's frontispiece: it depicts a version of America that does not correlate with the political, social, and economic 'realities' of the United States. Rather, it is a repre-sentation of a very specific imagining of American culture which is grounded in an elaborate system of stock concepts and images, whose manifestations in actual cultural products may vary and are contingent on the context in which they appear. However, the basic structure of these concepts essentially remains the same. What is more, it is precisely the transformability of these images/concepts and their ability to adapt to the course of time that contributes to their persistence in American culture. Their continued presence is so strong that it appears as if they indeed re-flected a 'reality' when, in fact, they represent an imaginary version of 'America.' Most crucially, it is through performance, through reiteration, through "a stylized repetition of acts" (Butler 1990, 179) that specific stock concepts, such as the individual items depicted in Richardson's frontis-piece, have come to signify American culture, or Americanness.
I think that Richardson's visual representation of an imaginary America is an excellent example to illustrate how the cultural imaginary and performance work together in constructing Americanness, and how they sustain each other in the process. As an archive of images, affects, and desires that stimulate imaginings of 'America,' the cultural imaginary depends on constant reiteration, otherwise it could not reach a degree of institutionalization. Any kind of performance, on the other hand, needs to be embedded in a larger set of established performances, as every replication must be based on something that had been there before. Americanness emerges in the interplay of the cultural imaginary and performance, and is instituted through "acts which are internally discontinuous [and] which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief" (Butler 1990, 179).
This study investigates how the Americanness of American culture is constructed in the interplay of performance and the cultural imaginary. More specifically, I argue that the construction of Americanness is always already troubled and undermined in the very moment of its production by the specters that haunt dominant imaginings of 'America.' Most crucially, then, my study conceives of 'America' as a practice, as a concept that is constituted by performative acts. That is, I understand America as a dynamic concept, as something that is done, rather than as an object of study that just is. In my analysis of American cultural productions, I juxtapose 'classics' of American literature with recent films and twentieth-century pop culture phenomena; I compare, for instance, selected essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with Pixar's animated feature film Finding Nemo (2003), Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) with the blockbuster Spider-Man (2001), and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) with music videos by pop artist Madonna. By bringing these texts into a dialogue, I aim to show that Americanness is produced through the reiteration of 'foundational scenarios' that have come to define a distinctly American culture. My starting point is the American Renaissance, the brief period between 1850 and 1855 in which, as F.O. Matthiessen says, America "came to its first maturity" and affirmed its "rightful heritage in the whole expanse of literature and culture" (1941, vii). As Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman have noted, the institutionalization of an American literary canon in the mid-twentieth century helped to promote an "imaginary homogeneity," a powerful ideology which proposed "that every moment of historical time constituted the occasion for the potential repetition of the sacred time of the nation's founding" (2002, 16). My study will highlight re-foundings of the nation in American literature and popular culture, showing how 'America' continuously re-invents itself in performance. Although Matthiessen's position has been scrutinized and revised in the past decades, the works produced in the American Renaissance are still generally perceived as the first 'classics' of an 'original' and markedly American literature (cf. Pease 1989, vii). If these works are indeed 'foundational' in the sense that they put American literature on the cultural map, then juxtaposing them with recent texts might enable one to identify the stamp these works have left on American culture and to discern recurring cultural patterns, which, borrowing from Diana Taylor, I will call 'foundational scenarios.'
Foundational scenarios designate patterned performances; that is, they act out those values, ideals, or characteristics that are, because of their frequent recurrence in cultural productions, oftentimes regarded to be quintessentially American. The Emersonian scholar, who encourages his fellow citizens to be self-reliant and nonconforming individuals, constitutes such a foundational scenario, which is re-worked, for instance, in Finding Nemo (2003). Or, the social experiment of self-sufficiency and self-governing Henry David Thoreau performs in Walden (1854) is a foundational scenario which one can find in slightly different form in numerous literary texts and films, including the blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993). However, foundational scenarios are not merely endless repetitions of cultural patterns that one can stack in an archive of performances. Rather, their reactivation or reiteration opens up a space that allows for affirmation and consolidation, but also for parody, reversal, and reconfiguration. In other words, the space opened up in the reiteration of foundational scenarios always harbors a potential for revisions of the meanings of 'Americanness' and 'America.'
A juxtaposed reading, I thus want to argue, allows one to see a disrup-tive moment in the performance of America, which exposes American culture as highly ambivalent, paradoxical, and fraught with tension. This disruptive moment emerges out of a spectral narrative, I suggest, which runs parallel to dominant narratives of 'America,' but has been systemati-cally subdued and pushed to the background. Haunting American culture since the inception of the United States, this spectral narrative seeks to break surface and leave an imprint on dominant notions of 'America' and 'Americanness.' My study zooms in on those moments in which the spec-tral narrative moves to the foreground and American culture is confronted with its inherent contradictions and inconsistencies.

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