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NEW FACULTY: Interview with Prof. Laura Bieger

Date:18 October 2017
Prof. Laura Bieger
Prof. Laura Bieger

From Germany, Prof. Laura Bieger comes to the University of Groningen as a new professor and new chair of the Department of American Studies. We sat down with her recently for an interview to ask her to reflect on her first weeks in Groningen and discuss future plans.

What did you do before coming to Groningen?

I was a professor for British and American Cultural Studies at the University of Freiburg for 3.5 years. However, by far the longest time of my academic life before coming to Groningen, I spent at Freie Universität Berlin, where I studied North American Studies, History, and Philosophy, and received my PhD. While still a student, I became a teaching assistant in the history department, and later, an assistant professor and “Juniorprofessorin” in the culture department of the renowned John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. I also had a guest professorship at the University of Vienna for one semester, and I spent time as a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and as the Guest of the Director at IFK Wien. After so much moving around, I look forward to finding a new academic home at UG.

How do you like Groningen so far?

I instantly fell in love with Groningen when I came for my job interview, partly because of the beautiful and inviting architecture, partly because the university and the city are so organically intertwined. I don’t think I have ever been at a place that reconciles cosmopolitanism and local color and commitment with such ease. I spent my first month on a houseboat in a canal on Schuitendiep, which was a special treat. 

What are your current research interests and what are you working on now?

I recently started a new project on the “reading public,” for which I have just received a prestigious grant by the Humboldt Foundation. My starting point is that the current crisis of Western democracies reminds us how firmly the public sphere is still grounded in reading and readership. This may seem counterintuitive in our visually-inclined media age, which is precisely why I am intrigued by it.

In more general terms, I find that studying the public’s continuous investment in reading and readership is a pressing task at a time when printed matter ceases to be the unrivalled foundation of our reading culture, while the public sphere is undergoing its perhaps gravest transformation, since the invention of the printing press. Scholars tend to equate the rise of modern mass media with the decline of the public sphere—which is, after all, an institution on which democratic societies crucially depend. My aim with this project is to take a less biased stance.

What if structural changes, such as the recurring transformations of the public sphere, testify to the fact that democratic orders are open to inner revision and renewal? Open in ways that make them inherently vulnerable; yes, but that also afford modes of existence that are of vital use for those living in democracies—and that are never ever unmediated. It is this structural disposition that my project seeks to explore. In a talk that I will give next month at Deutsches Haus at New York University where I am currently a Visiting Scholar, I will propose and unfold the following five theses on the public sphere:

(1) Organizing ourselves as publics is a text-based mode of democratic existence, and this raises fundamental questions about what texts are, how they relate to each other and other mediated forms, especially images, and how these relations participate in the constitution of the public sphere.

(2) Readers and media are co-actors in the constitution of the public sphere.

(3) The public sphere shares this constitution with the literary field.

(4) The two domains are structurally interlinked through historically specific institutional and media networks in which text-reader-relations are forged and transformed.

(5) If transformations in the public sphere and the literary field are bound to affect each other, determining the governing rules and structural parameters which regulate the transactions between these two sites demands an extended notion of literary, institutional, and media agency.

What motivated you to pursue this field?

With hindsight, one might say that my academic career started on a bicycle. After finishing high school I was hungry for adventure and uncertain what to do with the rest of my life, and so I persuaded my boyfriend at the time to ride across the North American continent with me. En route from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., reconciling familiar images and narratives the with actual places and people proved so productively irritating that, for me, a lifelong occupation grew out of this state.

Ever since, my interest in American culture has unfolded along two axes: its spaces and its media. In both my teaching and my research, I have examined their interplay as the medial and material, poetic, and political foundation of modern sociality, generating ever-new life-worlds and subjectivities. So, you can see that I am interested in American culture—the culture of a proto-colonialist immigrant society with democratic-egalitarian aspirations—as an exemplary modern culture. Studying how it has evolved to become a major force in shaping modern life, for me, goes hand in hand with studying its mass media, its institutions, and its culturally specific habits as well as values.

How do you see your work interacting with and being relevant to current society? In your own words, how would you describe American Studies?

Western democracies are currently undergoing vast transformations that involve the restructuring of public and private spheres, the increasing cooptation of daily life with market principles, globalization, and the transnational flow of goods, people and ideas, as well as recent autocratic responses to these developments. I think that coming to terms with these transformations is a pressing task for American Studies teaching and research dedicated to producing socially relevant insights. As the oldest existing democracy, democratic, social, and cultural logics—which are not to be confused with the fulfillment of democratic ideals—are deeply engrained in U.S. society. In most general terms, my work examines these developments in a comprehensive historical perspective that includes political theory, philosophy, intellectual history, sociology, as well as literary, cultural, and media studies methodology.

What will you be teaching this academic year?

I will be teaching a Special Topic course on “The Art of Protest” and a course on “Political Theory.”