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Online Lecture on Pandemic Storytelling: Ansgar & Vera Nünning and Jim Phelan

When May 06, 2021
from 07:00 to 08:30
Where Online (Zoom)
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Ansgar Nünning (Justus-Liebig-University Gießen) / Vera Nünning (University of Heidelberg): Pandemic Stories as Crisis Narratives: Competing Narratives of the Coronavirus Pandemic as an Epistemological Crisis and a Crisis of Forms of Life


Taking its cue from the question “Crisis compared to what?“ posed by the anthropologist Janet Roitman, the contribution will provide some preliminary hypotheses about the competing narratives that have been disseminated about the coronavirus pandemic and the Covid-19-crises. Arguing that pandemic stories can be conceptualized as crisis narratives, we will make an attempt to clarify what kind of crisis, or crises, we are currently witnessing when dealing with competing narratives of the coronoavirus pandemic. We will explore whether the latter can be understood less as just a health crisis but rather as a catalyst of a cluster of different crises, or as a ‘deep crisis’ with various dimensions and layers. Taking into consideration the contagious nature of narratives (Robert Shiller), we will argue that the competing crisis narratives surrounding the corona pandemic constitute not just an ‘infodemic’ but a fully-fledged epistemological and normative crisis and a crisis of prevailing forms of life.


Jim Phelan (Ohio State University): Donald J. Trump’s Storytelling, May 12—June 7, 2020; or, Can His Saying Make Things So?


This talk examines U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s storytelling over 27 days in spring 2020 in order to explore the ways in which his performances threatened to destroy the genre of nonfiction political narrative in the United States. The analysis of these 27 days is framed by a Preface, written from the perspective of January 2021 after the attack on the U.S. Capitol by those who believed Trump’s Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election—an attack indicating that Trump had almost succeeded in destroying the genre.

By the spring of 2020, Trump had all but eroded that genre’s foundations in referentiality, and his Republican supporters in Congress, in right-wing media, and in the electorate had allowed him to operate on the principle that “my saying makes things so.” The events of the spring of 2020, however, especially those accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, provided the greatest resistance to that principle, because the virus was an extratextual reality that was indifferent to Trump’s rhetoric. The talk is itself an unfolding narrative, as it traces Trump’s storytelling about the pandemic, voting by mail, Barack Obama, and, toward the end of the period, about George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed. This thick description of Trump’s performances does not end with a definitive judgment about the fate of the genre of nonfiction political narrative, but instead offers insights into the nature and relentlessness of Trump’s attack on that genre that in turn shed light on his Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election.


Recommended Reading:

James Phelan • Assessing Nonfictional Narratives in Contest: The Rhetoric of Devin Nunes | Instrumental Narratives (


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