Fachbereich 7

Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft

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The American Western in the 21st Century: Rehearsing and Transforming U.S. Myths

DozentIn: Irina Brittner, M.A.

Veranstaltungstyp: Seminar

Ort: 22/104

Zeiten: Mo. 16:00 - 18:00 (wöchentlich)

Beschreibung: In this seminar we will explore more recent examples of the prototypical American (film) genre, the Western. Although the Western usually narrates events from a particular historical moment––most often from the 19th century––the genre is in many respects paradigmatic for the U.S. For once, the Western emphasizes the frontier experience as formative impetus for the genesis, preservation and elevation of national myths (just to name a few who make this point: Richard Slotkin, Heike Paul, William Wright). In this mythic function, the Western rehearses cultural scripts of Americanness, thereby reconciling the contradictions and paradoxes that the frontier experience has engendered within the developing nation. In particular, the genre has immensely contributed to representing the American nation to itself (and the world), its narratives have negotiated U.S. frontier politics of expansion in the West as “a westward creation story” (Campbell qtd. in Paul 313), and the genre has helped to legitimize the violence perpetrated against Native Americans as justified in the name of civilization.
Moreover, the publication of Western novels and production of Western films has proven to be a lucrative business that turned the Wild West into an international U.S. trademark, which peaked in the period between 1939 to 1969 with the so-called Golden Age Western movies (cf. Paul). Contrary to repeated proclamations that the Western is dead, the genre remains a viable commodity in today’s culture industry (cf. Campbell). Its enduring appeal is evidenced by novelistic, cinematic and ludic output that revisits the genre, rehearsing many of its key conventions while undermining or redefining other features. Some examples of the neo- or post-western, as these new interpretations of the genre have been called, include for instance the novels Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy, 1989) and The Plague of Doves (Louis Erdrich, 2008), the movies Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021), and the game Red Dead Redemption I and II (Rockstar North, 2010 and 2018).
As a consequence of the ideological, economic and aesthetic sway of its narratives, the genre has created a powerful and idiosyncratic iconography that had, and continues to have, a long-lasting effect on U.S. society. The Western thus lends itself particularly well for a scholarly engagement that aims to better understand how American national identities and the nation’s foundational experience have been shaped, represented and contested through certain types of narratives. Ultimately, this seminar aims to analyze how narrative and cinematic forms negotiate politics as aesthetic artefacts, that is, how certain stories tap into political discourses or construct ideological positions through their formal configurations. After a short introduction to the ideological functions, cinematic / narrative conventions, as well as the aesthetic features of ‘classical’ Western myths, we will look at the generic revisions that have been theorized under the term of neo- or post-Western. After we have familiarized ourselves with frameworks of and approaches to the Western (at the turn) of the 21st century, we will analyze and interpret several Western novels and movies in detail in the remainder of the class. A list of primary material, which needs to be purchased, read and/or watched, will be made available to the participants shortly before the beginning of the seminar.

Works Cited

Campbell, Neill. Post-Westerns: Cinema, Region, West, University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Paul, Heike. The Myths that Made America: An Introduction to American Studies, transcript, 2014.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, University Oklahoma Press, 1973.
Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, University of California Press, 1975.

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