Dissertation and Habilitation Projects

Dissertation Projects

Frederike Offizier: Security Narratives and Biomedicine

This project with the working title “Help Yourself So Help You Science: Identity Construction in the Context of Security Narratives” explores security narratives that are increasingly used and produced in biomedical and biotechnological contexts. With this research project I aim to study to what extent the term biosecurity and its logics involve an understanding of what a good life is and how these pervade American culture in an increasingly intimate manner. Through the analysis of literary and cultural representations I aim to explore how the biologically inflected understanding of security determines life and identity constructions, structuring U.S. society and producing new paradigms of difference. Central to this analysis is the perspective on security not as a fixed property but as something produced by convincing narrative constructions. I therefore analyze security narratives as performatives that are based on affective attachment rather than factual relation alone.

Habilitation Projects

Dr. Verena Adamik: Secret Nations and Hidden Empires – Black Resistance and Conspiracy at the Beginning of the 20th Century

My research revolves around conceptions of Black conspiracies in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. I focus on speculative fiction by African American authors who imagined secret societies and concealed empires in which Black people could seek refuge, power, justice, and/or revenge against national and international systemic White supremacist oppression. Considering historical covert Black organizations, Black nationalism, popular conspiracy theories of the time, and related racialized imagery and identities in the USA, texts are investigated for their engagement with entangled conceptions that underwent crucial shifts at the time, such as nation, race, populism, fascism, colonialism, and empire.

Dr. Sunčica Klaas: Rac[e]ing Rails: Railroads and Transportation Justice in African American Literature and Culture

“The future is rail!” With these words, the European Commission embarked on its journey in 2021 to establish the railroad as the infrastructural backbone not only of the European Green Deal but also of the continent’s connectivity, prosperity, and “harmonization.” On the other side of the Atlantic, American railroads have been undergoing vigorous rebranding efforts, with policy makers such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden, riding trains both physically and discursively on their progressive treks. In this sense, the railroad has been seen as providing the material, symbolic, and emotional infrastructures to visions of more progressive, equitable, and environmentally-sustainable futurities. Yet, while echoing the familiar “railroad lore” of modernization, democratization, and unification, these progressive imaginaries seldom consider the different positionalities, priorities, meanings, and visions of justice that emerge in the context of transportation – an omission that prevents a more political understanding of the “passenger” and of the different ideas of what “good” and “just” transportation means or should mean (Richter 2005). For a literary and cultural scholar, such issues often translate to the question of representation, the question, namely, whose ideas, meanings, and narratives are reflected in the material and symbolic technologies and infrastructures. Indeed, sociologists and human geographers have repeatedly been calling for studies of how meanings and discourses circulate in the context of mobility, and how they contribute to the sedimentation and contestation of inequality (Sturken and Thomas; Sheller).

Answering to this call, the project “Rac[e]ing Rails” explores how Black Americans have imagined and created the railroad in the context of literature and culture, political and technological discourses of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Sitting at the crossroads of African American, technology, and mobility studies, the project’s main question is how Black Americans engaged with the symbolic and the material technologies of the railroad in order to envision alternative political futurities and notions of justice. What motivates this project aside from the contemporary railroad renaissance is the astounding lack of African American experiences on and contributions to the American railroad in public memories. Indeed, as the historian Eric Arnesen has it: “Americans had forgotten or consciously ignored the role played by African Americans in the construction and operation of the railroads” (2002). With the exception of the Underground Railroad, historical studies have similarly glanced over the Black America’s input to different forms of railroading, silencing it in favor of a metanarrative of “progress, religion, whiteness, modernity, masculinity, [and] the future” (Dinerstein 2006). Given the scarcity of Black railroad experiences and contributions in mainstream histories and public memories, the project “Rac[e]ing Rails” argues that a prioritization of Black mobility imaginaries underlines the railroad’s ongoing flexibility in the production and contestation of different scales of injustice, while also opening up alternative networks of meaning and politics in relation to both race and transportation. The railroad, as it is understood here, figures itself as a metaphor for ideology, or better said, as a technology for the production of invisibilities that secure its ongoing influence as a vehicle of national development, unity, and growth.

Dr. Hannah Spahn: Cosmopolitanism and Character in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (Funded by the German Research Foundation)

The habilitation project takes its symbolic point of departure from the first preserved use of character in 463 BC, when the term in fact referred, not to the Greeks, but to their African cousins, fifty fugitive women who are included into the polis after the first democratic decision in Greek literature. While these literary “firsts” may be incidental, I argue that conceptions of cosmopolitanism and character played a similarly central, if often overlooked, role in African American literature, whether in Equiano, Haynes, Walker, McCune Smith, Douglass, Harper, Chesnutt, Hopkins, or Du Bois. Joining the perspectives of intellectual history, literary and cultural studies, the project examines the imbrications of two modes of thinking that were, unlike today’s discussions of transnationalism and identity, directly available to the contemporaries of the long nineteenth century: the period between the first major wave of national cosmopolitanism during the founding of the American republics, when ideas of world citizenship became politically relevant and character began to move beyond Theophrastan notions, and the age of intense cosmopolitan thought that preceded the “war to end all wars” in the early twentieth century, when the coherence of character came to be questioned in psychoanalysis and modernist literature.