Damien Schlarb, Ph.D.wiss. Assistent, Abteilung Scheiding
- Nineteenth-Century American Literature
- New Media
- American Romanticism
- Postsecularism / Literature & Religion
- Early American Studies
- Digital Game Studies
- Media Studies
I am a scholar of American literature and culture. My literary research focuses on the American Renaissance, the long eighteenth century, and discourses on religion, skepticism, and biblical criticism in America.
American Literature, Religion, and Skepticism
My first book, Melville’s Wisdom: Religion, Skepticism, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2021), explores how American literature reflected the advent of historical criticism of the Bible in the U.S. I examine how Herman Melville responds to the spiritual crisis of modernity by using the language of the biblical Old Testament wisdom books to moderate contemporary discourses on religion, skepticism, and literature. Melville’s work is an example of how romantic literature fills the interpretive lacuna left by contemporary theology. Attending to Melville’s engagement with the wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), I argue, can help us understand a paradox at the heart of American modernity: the simultaneous displacement and affirmation of biblical language and religious culture. In wisdom, which addresses questions of theology, radical skepticism, and the nature of evil, Melville finds an ethos of critical inquiry that allows him to embrace the acumen of modern analytical techniques such as higher biblical criticism, while salvaging simultaneously the spiritual authority of biblical language. Wisdom for Melville constitutes both object and analytical framework in this balancing act. Melville’s Wisdom joins other works in postsecular literary studies in challenging its own discipline’s constitutive secularization narrative by rethinking modern, putatively secular cultural formations in terms of their reciprocity with religious concepts and texts. I foreground Melville’s sustained, career-spanning concern with biblical wisdom, its formal properties, and its knowledge-creating potential. By excavating this project from Melville’s oeuvre, Melville’s Wisdom shows how he seeks to avoid the spiritually corrosive effects of suspicious reading while celebrating truth-seeking over subversive iniquity. I recently wrote a piece for the Oxford University Press Blog about how the insights gained from my book apply to twenty-first century technology culture.
Bridging my interest in nineteenth-century literature and new digital media (see below), I have turned to the work of speculative fiction and Afrofuturist writer N.K. Jemisin. Her politically engaged work draws on the romantic tradition and sounds the potentialities of the so-called “post” (racial, political, etc.) era of fiction writing. Jemisin combines progressive, activist politics and innovative vision with a strong sense of genre history.
New Media, Digital Games, and Culture
My current project, Game Works: American Culture, Video Games, and Work in the Twenty-First Century, pushes my interest in the epistemological potential of cultural objects further by acknowledging their agency and viewing them as co-actors in a network. In 2018, over 66% of U.S. Americans, aged 13+, self-identified as “gamers” (Nielsen poll, 2018), a trend that has been steadily rising. An industry with an annual volume of $55 billion in the U.S. ($150 billion globally), video games have overtaken film ($11.3 billion) and publishing ($6 billion) in earnings potential. Behind these figures lies a story of how games drive cultural and societal change. Gamers play recreationally, at home, on the train, and even at work. Gig-economy giant Uber interfaces with its drivers via a gamified cell-phone app that turns extra driving shifts into bonus-point bonanzas. Games shape education and influence the way we access public goods or interact with political representatives. Online games may even become full-time, professional occupations that play out in designated, international e-sports leagues and power social media channels. Meanwhile, gamification consultants are touting the alleged ability of games to solve the incongruities of the twenty-first century information work.
Digital game scholars have always considered playing videogames a form of nontrivial effort. one thing, players transform the game world to make the game unfold. Scholarship in the analytical humanities has yet to confront the full implications of this assumption. Game Works contemplates games as a nexus of work: players solve problems, analyze characters, and navigate topographies, co-creating meanings and culture. Games invite negotiations of identity and ideology, they marshal resources (energy and processing power), and they deploy algorithmic code. Development teams labor across national and institutional contexts, with their work bearing multiple aesthetic sensibilities. My discussion rests on two assumptions: one, the category of actor must include non-human entities such as computer systems running the game; two, work in and through games is a meaning-making activity and therefore requires a semiotics. To address these two assumptions, I lean on classical hermeneutics, semiotics, and object-oriented-ontology, specifically the extended definition of agency in Bruno Latour’s actor-network-analysis. I pursue two sequentially linked objectives: first, I want to trace out the cultural and historical multivalence of work done in, by, and for games. Second, I critically discuss how such work produces meaning. The project bears a threefold surplus value: it makes accessible a new kind of object for Cultural Studies, esp. American Studies; it illustrates the historical continuities and breaks between video games and legacy media; and it situates these analyses in discourses about the futures of work and workspaces. The project intersects with the fields of Game Studies, American Studies, Media Studies, Materiality Studies, and the Political Economy of Technology.
Media Change and Politics in the Information Age: Interconnections and Cultural Reflections
Interdisciplinary Project with Prof. Andreas Jungherr (University of Bamberg)
Media and political systems are deeply interconnected. Specific constellations of media technology, economic foundations, and audience behavior shape the public arena, the opportunities for people to form and express political opinions, and the conditions of political competition. Accordingly, media change and political change are interconnected. But the media do not only shape politics, they also reflect changes and associated anxieties back through cultural products.
This project examines these interconnections between media and political change through the analysis of select episodes of media and political change in the US. We consider changes as processes of gradual becoming, rather than dramatic instantaneous shifts. In our analyses we focus on how media change impacts the following dimensions:
- Reach: How does technological change impact whether media reach shared national or international audiences or do they only reach regional or topically focused audiences.
- Interdepencies: How does technological change impact whether media largely follow internal institutional norms in news selection and coverage or whether those are largely dictated by interdependencies with economic or political systems.
Technological changes we will focus on are the proliferation of periodical print culture (magazines and newspapers) (early 1800s), the acceleration of communication through the telegraph (late 1800s), the emergence of mass media (early to mid 1900s), the commercialization of news (mid to late 1900s). Based on these analyses, we turn to contemporary changes brought through digital technology, such as the world wide web, plattform communication companies, and future developments, such as the metaverse and artificial intelligence.
The project traces the long history of the (digital) information age and its interconnection with political change. How do changes in media technology, the shifting economics of production and distribution, as well as audience formation and behavior impact political competition? How do political actors read these changes, adapt their behavior, or shape changes through regulation?
Additionally, the project looks at how the media reflect these political changes through cultural products. We analyze critically the cultural forms that emerge from the contact zones between politics and media. Comprehending the ways in which such revolutions unfold and intersect—diachronically, structurally, formally, procedurally, and ideologically—helps to understand societal change writ large, specifically issues of political competition, communication, and the ability of media to reflect and negotiate culture.
The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Americanist Damien Schlarb (University of Mainz) and the political and communication science Andreas Jungherr (University of Bamberg). It proceeds from an interdisciplinary analytical framework by joining social-scientific, philological, and media-historical methodologies. This interdisciplinary approach is necessary because it keeps the analytical focus of the project trained on the multifarious interactions (e.g., collisions, bifurcations, domination) between political and media change and on the new communicative forms that emerge from such contacts. Rather than offering a fragmented or siloed-off, bipolar analysis of this phenomenon, the project explores the rocky territory of these contact zones, bringing to bear in their analysis both media studies and political scientific sensibilities. The investigation of the correlations and cross-pollinations of media and political change provides answers to larger structural questions about the nature of social and cultural change in the information age.
- Andreas Jungherr and Damien Schlarb. 2022. The extended reach of game engine companies: How companies like Epic Games and Unity Technologies provide platforms for extended reality applications and the metaverse. Social Media + Society 8(2): 1-12. doi: 10.1177/20563051221107641.
I teach courses in American Literature and Culture as well as Digital Game Studies. I have also taught American Literature and Composition at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA), where I lived and taught for six years while earning my Ph.D. at the Department of English. My pedagogy is process-oriented and conversational. I engage with students in a semester-long dialog about their thinking and writing in order to help them achieve a sense of ownership of their research. One of my key concerns is integrating writing in the classroom and teaching students the importance of writing for their thought processes.
- Critical Theory
- Culture Studies (Historical Survey)
- Digital Game Studies
- Early American Literature
- Nineteenth-Century American Literature
- The American Short Story
My academic service experience includes serving as layout editor for the South Atlantic Review (the journal of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association) and as managing editor Amerikastudien / American Studies (the journal of the German Association for American Studies). I have held various positions in both U.S. and German universities. These experiences inform both my teaching and my approach to academic collaboration.