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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Department of English and American Studies

W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures - Winter Semester 2019/2020


November 05, 2019

Kirsten Twelbeck (Universität Augsburg) - American Wheat Scenes


Today, wheat covers more land than any other crop, including corn, rice, and soy. The US is one of the major contributors to this development and invests massively in new technologies, research, and breeding institutions to secure the expansion of this “nourisher of nations” (F. Norris) into non-traditional areas. Currently, the American wheat market is running a neck-to-neck race with Russia in producing new resilient wheat lines to maintain the wheat food supply for a growing world population.The frontier narrative of American big scale agriculture started in the 15th century, when Columbus brought the first seeds to the New World. For European colonizers of all kinds, the grain was a “cultural imperative” (W. Dunmire) associated with territorial power and cultural superiority. At the same time, the strength and sense of redemption that American culture ascribes to the wheat has always been imagined as potentially vulnerable to the destructive forces of nature, cultural resistance, inadequate technology, and economic derailment. It is because of its expressly human-centered design that the wheat has been a particularly powerful reminder of personal and collective failure. This impression is reinforced by the perceived agency of the crop, its “wild” heritage and vital power: in American art and literature, wheat fields act in inherently uncontrollable ways; they are a “brute force” (F. Norris), prone to destroy the well-balanced interdependence of crop, humans and environment. Focusing on a selection of unruly, imagined wheat fields, this talk examines how American art and literature have confirmed, challenged and negotiated the national myth of progress. What political and cultural conflicts have been inscribed in the wheat? Has the role of the wheat changed after the official closing of the frontier? Why is there so much emphasis on the imperfection of both the wheat and humans?Why do artists and writers rely on the wheat and its transformations to discuss the state of the nation, the individual and the world at large?


Kirsten Twelbeck is a trained Americanist with a Ph.D. from Free University Berlin. In 2014, she finished her “habilitation” at Hannover University. After teaching as a visiting professor at several German universities she recently accepted a position at the “Wissenschaftszentrum Umwelt” (WZU) at Augsburg University where she strengthens the role of the Environmental Humanities as a defining field in this interdisciplinary institution. She is currently conducting a research project on the wheat, together with colleagues from the life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. She is the author of No Korean Is Whole Wherever He or She May Be (2000)andBeyond the Civil War Hospital: The Rhetoric of Healing and Democratization in Northern Reconstruction Writing (2018).



November 19, 2019

Julie Villegas (University of Washington) - The Racial Shadow of the Mestiza Nation


This talk presents a work in progress stemming from interdisciplinary intersectional research focusing on “mixed race” identity demographics within the United States. The discussion will explore multigenerational narratives of individuals who do not easily fit into fixed categories of 'race' as defined through various forms of government and social structures. The narratives presented in this discussion illustrate the historical construction of racial difference and the inherent subversiveness of multiracial identity, which continues to complicate 'race' classification and is an especially timely discussion point in the lead up to the 2020 U.S. Census.


Julie Villegas is associate director of the University of Washington Honors Program and affiliate assistant professor in the department of English. Dr. Villegas develops and teaches international study programs and also teaches seminars in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. She did her graduate studies at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Washington, completing a Ph.D. in English. Dr. Villegas’ research is in critical mixed race and border studies (The Racial Shadow in American Literature, University of Washington).



December 03, 2019

Miriam Strube (Universität Paderborn) - Pragmatism in Black: The Deep Democratic Tradition in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


In The New Territory: Ralph Ellison in the Twentieth-First Century (2016), the editors claim that “Ralph Ellison has never been more relevant to American thought than he is today; indeed, Ellison looks more and more like the cultural prophet of twenty-first-century America” (2).Likewise, in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison Ross Posnock states that “in our global, transnational age the renewed promise of cosmopolitan democracy has emerged as an animating ideal of popular, political, and academic culture. This is a way of saying that we are only now beginning to catch up with Ralph Waldo Ellison” (1). In my talk, I want to read Ellison along similar lines, yet placing him in a specific philosophical tradition he has - somewhat surprisingly - so far not been seen in, namely the pragmatic tradition of what Cornel West calls deep democracy, a concept that according to West’sDemocracy Matters defines democracy as “not just a system of governance … but acultural way of being” (68). In doing so I firstly explore Ellison’s thinking around a pragmatism related to the struggle for disenfranchised Americans. Secondly, I also hope to show Ellison as a political thinker, one with a deep commitment to and desire for a democracy that is not merely formal but lived as an everyday practice.


Miriam Strube is Professor of American Studies at Paderborn University. She has studied American Studies, English and Philosophy at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and New York University. For her research she has received scholarships for Columbia, Princeton and Harvard University, and Tel Aviv University. She has also taught in Leeds, England and at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China. She is author of Subjekte des Begehrens: ZursexuellenSelbstbestimmung der Frau in Literatur, Musik und visuellerKultur and co-editor of Revisiting Pragmatism: William James in the New Millennium as well as Pragmatism’s Promise. She has written articles on popular culture, feminist philosophy, modernist poetry and environmental racism. In her current scholarship and teaching, including a translation and edition of Cornel West’s anti-racist writings (Suhrkamp 2020), she focuses on social justice and radical democracy.



December 17, 2019

Philipp Kneis (Oregon State University) - The Utopian Roots of Colonialism in the Americas


Typically, the term "utopian" has a positive connotation. Yet when we consider Thomas More's inaugural text of the modern version of the utopian genre, we can easily be misled by the narrative stance of the text which describes Utopian society as an improvement, despite all the cautioning sarcasm. Yet More clearly depicts a society that thinks of itself as so advanced and beneficial that it “naturally” believes in its own superiority, and in its assumedly righteous mission to spread its empire over the native cultures around it. Utopia is a mandate for colonialism, heteronormativity and white supremacy, and the ideal state envisioned by More sees its colonialism justified as a “civilizing mission.” This is typical for utopian conceptions, and illustrates one of the founding principles of the United States as well, specifically in the combination of loftily emancipatory political rhetoric and colonialist practice. Yet other American countries have maintained their utopian promises as well, be they Canada – positioning itself as the “better America” –, Mexico – in its mission to negotiate precolonial, Spanish, and postcolonial legacies –, Cuba – as one of the last Communist countries –, or the South American countries aiming to fulfill the Bolivarian revolution, or their version of the “American Dream.” This still, to this day, includes demands for converting indigenous lands to productive use – especially for resource extraction, be it for timber, uranium, or lithium for electric cars even. The liberatory utopian promise may have its benefits, but can be revealed to always have a dark side. In fact, utopia and dystopia are closer together than typically imagined. Utopia is the fantasy; dystopia oftentimes the reality. The talk sets out to clarify the relation between both extremes, provide a brief cultural history of such ideas, and to reflect on the utopian theory and practice of the American continent.


Philipp Kneis holds an M.A. (Magister) in American Studies and History from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and a Ph.D in American Studies fromthe University of Potsdam. He is one of the founding members of the Transatlantic Students Symposia.He currently teaches at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. His main research interests pertain to intersections of culture and politics in the US and the European Union.



January 14, 2020

Heike Schäfer (Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe) - “Dazzled by Absence”: Poetics of Erasure in Contemporary American Literature


The past few years have seen a boom in literary erasures. Whether well-established or little known, mainstream or experimental, an increasing number of US American authors have begun to compose their work by effacing the texts of other writers. They have crossed out, cut out, or painted over parts of newspaper articles, government documents, poems, or novels to forge new literary works out of the remaining words and blanks or blacked out spaces. Historically, this appropriative play with what is present on and what is absent from the page is rooted in twentieth-century conceptual art, avant-garde poetics, and the censorship of information, or redaction. Currently, literary erasures frequently articulate dissent. They address forms of discourse and social subjugation that literally have obliterated human livesand cultures. In her recent book of poetry, Wade in the Water (2017), former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith erases the Declaration of Independence, for instance,to reveal the chasm between the nation’s democratic ideal and its history of slavery. My presentation will explore this popular and innovative literary form from a comparative media perspective. I will argue that the material and visual elements of the erasures—such as paper, typography, or page layout—are integral to their representational strategies and to the cultural interventions they perform. My analysis suggests that a greater concern with the specific materialities and media in which we encounter literary works can significantly expand our understanding of literature and its cultural role.


Heike Schaefer is Professor of North American Literature and Culture at the University of Education Karlsruhe, Germany. She is the author of American Literature and Immediacy: Literary Innovation and the Emergence of Photography, Film, and Television (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Mary Austin’s Regionalism (University of Virginia Press, 2004). She has edited several books and special issues, including The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture: Medium, Object, Metaphor (with Alexander Starre; Palgrave, 2019), Literary Knowledge Production and the Life Sciences (with Karin Hoepker; LWU, 2017), and Network Theory and American Studies (with Regina Schober and Ulfried Reichardt; Amerikastudien/American Studies, 2015). Her current research project, “The Senses of Literature,” examines the media and materialities of contemporary American literature.