The cultural dictionary of modernity has long cross-referenced the United States as „the New World“ where (European) history would take a new start. As a place of eschatological hope for Puritan dissenters, or as a place with the potential of social mobility for immigrants, the newness of America was predicated on the dismissal of Europe as corrupt or mired in outworn traditions and on the construction of a historical telos to whose achievement America was to take the lead. At the same time, American agents of the new had to come to terms with resistances at home. Emerson and Whitman demanded a constant renewal of efforts of their fellow Americans to overcome the retrospection of their age to explore the countless possibilities for growth both in everyday life as well as in the world at large. Modernist writers such as Pound turned such admonition into a battle-cry, attacking what they regarded as a stale conservatism or a meek spirit of reform. With postmodernism however, the literary rhetoric of the new at least may have entered a twilight phase, due to its appropriation by the fashion industry as the latest retro style, and by the media as the latest format of entertainment.
The oppositions appear clear-cut: the old vs the new, tradition vs innovation, continuity vs rupture, for the proponents of the new declare what must count as old, and have to muster support for their proposition in order to turn it into a performative speech act. Yet there have always been strong counter-currents in American literary and cultural history as well as in American pragmatist philosophy which have all deplored the disregard, neglect or destruction of (certain) American traditions. How is „the new“ envisioned, conjured up, legitimized and, above all, explained? How is „the old“ identified, disparaged, annihilated? What were such constructions “good for” in retrospect, and what counter-movements and dissenting voices challenged them? Which role do technological innovations and political confrontations play in the discourses of the new? Is there a rhetoric of utopia based on the idea of the old? To what extent can literary texts be described as hybrid forms that resist their authors’ rhetoric of the new? How does contemporary literature reflect and respond to the aging of the medium of the text? And is there perhaps a new sense of the world-making power of language?
The conference will take place on October 28th-29th, 2016.