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Contingency & Contraction: Modernity and Temporality in the United States, 1880-1920

DFG-funded research project, 2018-2021 

Project Team and Subprojects: 

Prof. Dr. Ruth Mayer: "Synchronized! The Gendered Aesthetics of Mass Culture"

Felix Brinker, M.A. (Post-Doc): "Disorders and Synchronizations: Newspapers, Sunday Supplements, and the Temporalities of Modern Mass Culture, 1890-1920"

Annabel Friedrichs, M.A.: "Imagining Change: Visual and Textual Representations of Femininity in Mass and Avant-Garde Magazines, 1880-1920

 Project Description

This research project investigates the restructuring of time in US-American modernity. A new understanding of time has been identified as an elementary facet of technical, scientific, and industrial modernization at the turn of the 20th century in the USA. Large parts of the epoch's artistic output seem informed with the desire to come to terms with the modern temporal imperatives of acceleration and synchronization, and to gain command of the conditions of contingency, alienation and heteronomy. The project explores the period between 1880 and 1920, and thus engages with the peak period of the emergence of a largely commercialized mass culture and of trans-Atlantic artistic and literary avantgardes. Both areas of cultural expression figure as intricate parts of a larger socioeconomic terrain of increased productivity, and both are intimately affected by overarching time regimes and disparate experiences of time. The project plans to gauge modes of mass cultural and artistic time management that have been largely ignored in the established critical scholarship. 

The project argues that the cultural work of modernity consists to a large extent in efforts to relate (rather than pry apart) the divergent dynamics of a regularizing (industrial) chronometry on the one hand and personal experiences and needs on the other. While past research has highlighted cultural responses to modernity that either radically reject or enthusiastically embrace the conditions of acceleration and synchronization, the present proj mediate these extremes (with a deliberate emphasis on the 'mediality' of this process). Instead of capitalizing on modernist practices of subversion or resistance, the project epitomizes the practical facets of modernity, its capacity to appropriate a multiplicity of time regimes and experiences into manageable and navigable 'personalized' entities. Formal modes of contraction and abbreviation play a seminal role in this sector of modernist articulation. 

The project engages exemplarily with three emergent media forms that have been identified and that identified themselves as instrumental in the expression of a modernist aesthetics and its temporality: early narrative film, early newspaper comics and the periodical press of the day. All of these forms respond to the exigencies of temporal constraints and to the imperative of acceleration by emphasizing their own formal brevity or their modular structure. By investigating parallel strategies of presentation in media that are commonly associated with different cultural spheres, the planned project intends to cast a different light on the period as a whole. It thus contributes to current efforts of challenging established ideas of periodicity and epochality.

Publications & Works in Progress

Edited Volumes:

Brinker, Felix, and Ruth Mayer, editors. Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880-1920. Proposal under review, projected date of appearance 2020. 

Ruth Mayer, and Ilka Brasch, editors. Modernities and Modernization in North America. Winter, 2019. 

Essays, Articles and Shorter Pieces:

Brinker, Felix. “Social Time, Periodical Time, Reading Time, Narrative Time: The Times of Newspaper Comics and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905-09.” Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880-1920, edited by Felix Brinker and Ruth Mayer, work in progress

Brinker, Felix and Christina Meyer, entry on “Comics.” Handbuch Popkultur [Pop-Culture Handbook], edited by Thomas Hecken and Marcus S. Kleiner, J.B. Metzler,  2017, pp. 198-203. 

Friedrichs, Annabel. “Saturday Night is Tub Night: Civilizing the Child in Alice Beach Winter’s Visual Narratives of Mother- and Childhood, 1880-1920.” Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880-1920, edited by Felix Brinker and Ruth Mayer, work in progress.

Friedrichs, Annabel. “Sewing Modernity: How the Sewing Machine Allowed for a Distinctively Feminine Experience of Modernity,” aspeers 11 (2018).

Mayer, Ruth. “Unique Doubles: Ornamental Sisters and Dual Roles in the Transitional Era Cinema.” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, accepted.

Mayer, Ruth. “Mass Culture Writing (About) Itself: Modern Periodical Culture and the Dispositif of Distraction.” Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880-1920, edited Felix Brinker and Ruth Mayer, work in progress.

Mayer, Ruth. “Periodically Queer: Sexology and Non-Normative Sexualities in the Little Magazine The Masses.” Modernist Cultures, vol. 15, no. 4, Winter 2020, accepted.

Mayer, Ruth. “The Crime Fiction Series.” Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Jesper Gulddal et al. Routledge, forthcoming 2020.

Mayer, Ruth. “Running Late: The Silent Serial, the Cliffhanger, and the Exigencies of Time, 1914-1920.” Oxford Handbook of Silent Film, edited by Charlie Keil and Rob King, Oxford UP, forthcoming 2020.

Mayer, Ruth. “Kurze Formen”; “Serialität.” Ästhetische Eigenzeiten: Ein Wörterbuch, edited by Michael Bies, Michael Gamper and Steffen Richter, Wehrhahn, forthcoming 2020.

Mayer, Ruth. “Endless Deferral: Theories of Mass Culture and the Aesthetics of Affect.” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, edited by Winfried Fluck, Rieke Jordan, Stephan Kuhl, and Johannes Voelz, Gunter Narr, forthcoming 2019.

Mayer, Ruth. “Daydreams of Society: Class and Gender Performances in the Cinema of the Late 1910s.”Hollywood at the Intersection of Identity, edited by Delia Malia Konzett. Rutgers UP, forthcoming 2019.