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Life Writing and Popular Culture

February 14th, 2012

The adoption of the concept of life writing in the 1980s for all forms of personal accounts had a liberating effect on the allegedly conservative genre of auto/biography and opened it up for new authors and new topics. After the conventional life stories written by “great men,” women and minority writers embraced life writing as a new form of self-expression and restructured the genre according to their different life cycles. This auto/biographical turn in the print media coincided with the pictorial turn of increasingly visual cultures and extended to other media, such as film, photography, audiovisual tapes, the Internet and theatrical performances. The popularity of these automedia also influenced the forms of popular culture, such as the comics. The comic strip has become a new pictorial guideline for the presentation and preservation of lives which are marginalized and endangered, the comic mode serving as a protective shield. In my lecture I will trace the emergence of the comic strip in the United States in ethnic communities and its stabilizing function for the cultural insecurity of newcomers in a new language environment. Universal pictures become a pictorial lingua franca and a general means of communication in the process of acculturation. Three examples will elucidate the potential of the comics as life writing and its promises for constructing the future. My first example is the intercultural accommodation of Art Spiegelman to life in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s by way of the comics. In a creative interaction with the subculture he begins to draft his first comics later collected in what he calls a “comix auto/biography” and published as Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young % @ & * ! (2007). My second example is Chester Brown’s comic-strip biography of Louis Riel (2003), in which he reevaluates the role of this historical figure as a freedom fighter for the Métis against the Canadian government. For Brown the attempt to annihilate the native minority culture in the 19th century prefigures Quebec’s struggle for cultural independence in contemporary Canada. My third example focuses on the transcultural application of life writing and the comics with regard to Barack Obama’s presence in popular culture in China. A series of posters and wallpapers will show the comic transfiguration of the interlinked biographies of Mao and Obama after the president’s visit to the People’s Republic in 2009. This practice of life writing and the comics in popular culture appear to be a vital ground for transnational understanding and promises to overcome personal cultural conflicts by appealing to a larger community in the comic mode.

Alfred Hornung, Professor of English and American Studies, received his PhD and Habilitation from the University of Würzburg. He is a specialist in American literatures and cultures from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First century and a leading scholar in all areas of life writing. As a long-time editor of the journal Amerikastudien / American Studies, as president of the German Association for American Studies (DGfA) and of MESEA (Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and t Americas), as a member of the International Committee of the American Studies Association he participated in shaping the transatlantic and transnational fields of American Studies.

As director of the Center for Intercultural Studies at Mainz he promoted the interdisciplinary cooperation of the humanities and social sciences and initiated a number of international programs, including PhD programs with Columbia Univ. and Peking Univ. He held guest-professorships at various European, American, Canadian and Chinese Universities and was a fellow at Harvard, Yale and the National Humanities Center. His teaching and research reflect these areas of activities and focus on modernism, postmodernism, inter-, transcultural and transnational American Studies as well as narratology and literary theory.

He is the author of Narrative Struktur und Textsortendifferenzierung: Die Texte des Muckraking Movement 1902-1912 (1978), Kulturkrise und ihre literarische Bewältigung: Die Funktion der autobiographischen Struktur in Amerika vom Puritanismus zur Postmoderne (1985), Lexikon Amerikanische Literatur (1991), and the editor of 18 volumes on postmodernism, inter¬culturality and autobiography. He is an editor of the American Studies Monograph Series, the American Studies Journal and on the editorial board of several journals, including Atlantic Studies and the Journal of Transnational American Studies. He is the elected member of the Review Board of the German Research Foundation (DFG) for European and North American literatures. Prof. Hornung’s latest publication is an article about Transnational Lifewriting in the Cambridge History of Canadian Literature. The following link will lead you to interviews with the editors and authors conducted in this regard.