Narrative Liminality and/in the Formation of American Modernities

Against the backdrop of American studies’ long and deep infatuation with ‘narrative’ as a cardinal category of analysis, this research network proceeds from the realization that there are important other logics of signification and symbolization that reside outside of narrative. While there have been some attempts to explore these alternative logics, most notably in game studies and in new media studies, these efforts typically involve creating stark binarisms to engage the ‘other’ of narrative. To counter this tendency of either overlooking these symbolic logics altogether or of casting them as polar opposites to narrative, we instead propose the term ‘narrative liminality’ to denote, describe, and investigate forms and instances of symbolic expression that cannot be considered narrative but that should also not simply be described as binary opposites of the symbolic form of narrative. ‘Narrative liminality’ is thus meant to capture a quality in and of symbolic forms that are often conceived as non-narrative (e.g., play, database, or network), a quality that unfolds at the borders of such symbolic forms and in their relationships with each other. By conceptualizing these forms as marked by narrative liminality, we emphasize that they are characterized by their permeable, fluid border with narrative as much as by features that distinguish them from narrative.

Such narrative liminality is a pervasive phenomenon in American culture, not just of the present but also of the past: Our network assumes that it gains particular cultural currency in contexts of sociocultural transformation, dynamization, and reflexivity—that, in other words, narrative liminality constitutes a key idiom in the formation of American modernities.

Accordingly, the goal of this network is to explore and harvest the potential of ‘narrative liminality’ to unlock and analyze important social and cultural dynamics in US culture. This involves two distinct yet hermeneutically interrelated operations: One is to formally model ‘narrative liminality’ as an analytic category that allows us to ask for the symbolic dynamics shared by a diverse array of cultural expressions: How can the narrative potentiality, the latent narrativity, shared, e.g., by databases and rituals be described? Where and how do narrative ‘residues’ and the extra-narrative qualities of rituals and play overlap? What insights become available when such symbolic forms are approached comparatively? In a second line of inquiry, we will interrogate narrative liminality for its sociocultural dynamics in an American context, uncovering the cultural work these forms do in facilitating social change, pluralities, and cohesion. Based on the working hypothesis that narrative liminality figures as a language of modernities and modernization, we want to ask: In what social, medial, and topical contexts does narrative liminality tend to get activated? What particular meaning-making and cultural work does it enable? How does ‘latent’ narrativity structure the knowledges, communities, or senses of self produced by such cultural expressions? As a heuristic platform, the network will begin by focusing its pursuit of these questions on three symbolic forms we expect to be particularly hospitable to narrative liminality: data(base), play, and ritual. This selection is to be critically reflected, refined, and amended in the course of our research.


  • Michaela Beck (Dresden): “Lyrical Strategies and the Ritualistic in 21st-Century U.S. ‘We’ Narratives”
  • Sebastian Domsch (Greifswald): “Staging Icons”
  • James Dorson (Berlin): “Narrating Complex Causality: Naturalist Fiction and the Statistics Effect”
  • Katharina Gerund (Erlangen): “Narrative Liminality, Tacit Knowledge, and Affective Labor: Autobiographies from the Home Front of the 'War on Terror'”
  • Sebastian M. Herrmann (Leipzig): “Textual Databases in Nineteenth-Century US Literature”
  • Katja Kanzler (Leipzig): “Disparagement TV: Narrative and Spectacle in Invective Popular Culture”
  • Christina Meyer (Hannover): “Expressive Forms on the Juvenile Consumer Market: The Brownies, 1884-1900”
  • Regina Schober (Mannheim): “From Numbers to Narrative? Self-Knowledge Between Quantification and Autobiography”
  • Stefan Schubert (Leipzig): “Ludic Textuality: Play, Narrative, and Metatextuality in Popular Culture”
  • Gesine Wegner (Dresden): “The Politics and Poetics of Staring: Disability, Trauma, and the Spectacle in Contemporary American Comics