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Cara Barer, "New Century" (2006)

Medium, Object, Metaphor:
The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture

5.-7. November 2015, University of Konstanz, Germany

The conference “Medium, Object, Metaphor: The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture” brings together European and North American scholars from the fields of literary studies, cultural studies, book studies, and media studies to discuss the changing cultural functions that the printed book performs in the digital age. Since we read, write, and discuss literary texts in a broad variety of media today, the book’s privileged position in literary culture has begun to wane. At the same time, the rapid digital transformation of contemporary culture has lead to a reinvestment of writers, readers, and publishers in the printed book as a material object, as an analog medium of signification and communication, and as a metonym for print culture and the humanist values and modes of knowledge production associated with it. The conference sets out to examine the shifting ways in which the printed book is used, imagined, represented, and theorized in contemporary American culture.

We are particularly interested in exploring the following set of questions:

  • Which divergent roles are attributed to the printed book as a medium and as a material as well as discursive object in contemporary American culture? How is the printed book differentiated from other media formats in which we experience literature?

  • Does the printed book serve as a metonym for specific types of knowledge and of identity? Is the book seen to offer a unique form of knowledge production?

  • In which ways does the book serve as an object of reverence or nostalgic longing today?

  • How does the materiality of the book impact the literary text and shape the reading process? Do books possess agency and if so in what sense?

  • How does the self-referential display of the book’s mediality in recent novels, poetry collections, and graphic novels bring into focus the material aspects of reading and writing practices? Does it help to uncover the corporeal dimensions of perception, representation, and communication?

  • How do current experiments with the form of the book serve to negotiate fears and hopes raised by the increasing medial heterogeneity and transmedial dispersal of literary practice? Do they aim to assert the continued relevance of literature for the digital age?

  • How does the present usage and status of the printed book compare to the past? What does this indicate about both the book’s changing cultural function and the current transformation of American (media) culture?

The conference examines the impact digital technologies and practices have exerted on the printed book as a medium of literature to advance a media cultural reorientation of literary and cultural studies that would enable us to understand literary texts both in their media specificity, intermedial context, and transmedial configuration.

The conference is organized by Heike Schaefer, Professor of North American Literature and Culture at the University of Konstanz. It is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the University of Konstanz (Excellence Initiative), the German Association for American Studies (GAAS), and the Embassy of the United States.







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