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Dissertationproject of David Beckmann


Horroring - A Constructivist Approach to the Media Sociology of Heteronomy (working title)


While horror is one of the most popular categories in the contemporary entertainment industry across media genres and thus marks a central object of inquiry for anyone with an interest in the goings-on in our media society, academic research on the sociology of horror is curiously complacent. Oftentimes, the cause for horror's popularity is simply presupposed as the hedonistic enjoyment of negative affect, or 'fear,' eclipsing both the possible absence of such responses during reception and other possible uses and functions of horror. Although this has been criticized before, many contributions to the study of horror noticeably lack interest in the empirical reality of their object, circularly re-affirming their own theoretical presuppositions. At the same time, media scholars are permanently dissatisfied with the definition of what horror even is, that is, which media products actually deserve the ascription, making empirical information about 'horror's' functions problematic because the respective researcher's pre-definition is always already in question. Finally, those approaches which do aim at an exploration of social processes beyond the enjoyment of affect, such as discourse and field analyses that seek to be applicable to society in general, are arguably unable to determine what is specific about horror discourses and fields in contrast to others.


Motivated by said problems, I propose a different approach to the study of this media phenomenon altogether. Drawing on the work of German literary and media scholar Siegfried J. Schmidt, I apply the constructivist, systems-theoretical concept of an "Empirical Science of Literature" to horror, conceiving of it not as a body of media products, or texts, dependent on a necessarily arbitrary scholarly definition, but as the object of a social system of communicative actions that is constituted by convention and the participants of which actively construct the category of horror as their shared object of observation for the purpose of intellectual, moral, hedonistic, and social need satisfaction. With this approach, three major problems of horror studies can be overcome: Firstly, contingent affective responses to texts are no longer presupposed as sole basis for explanations of horror's popularity and/or used as a criterion for generic definition. Secondly, it is no longer necessary to pre-define what horror 'is' at all – instead, the asking and answering of this question become the object of research itself. And thirdly, the specificity of horror discourses and fields is acknowledged by the conception of a communicative complex operating on definitive conventions that demarcate this specific social system from its societal environment. Concretely, I intend to theoretically integrate the communication about horror into the larger societal communication about heteronomy, the possibility of a subject's hope- and helplessness. According to the largely forgotten aesthetic theory of philosopher Ayn Rand, human heteronomy, alongside its opposite, human autonomy, is one of the two dominant themes negotiated in the art of a society in general. I mean to pursue this thesis further, establishing a theoretical frame for the observation of the communication about horror that, although not ruling it out, does not limit itself to the presumption of fear-enjoyment as motivation and function from the start, and decidedly allows for and is interested in deviant or unexpected empirical cases of media usage. Thus, my dissertation project is not interested in texts or affects themselves, but in the communicative processes that negotiate the meaning and application of the term horror to texts and affects in the first place, an empirical social process I refer to as "horroring." By shifting perspective in this way, I replace the usual media-sociological question "What are the uses of horror media?" with the constructivist re-phrasing "What are the uses of observing media as horror?" With this, I aim to explore the possible intellectual, moral, hedonistic, and social need satisfactions, or functions, of horroring as they can be witnessed in meta- and paratextual statements made by systemic participants about such texts they consider to be horror. My overall aim is to advance the sociological study of horror media beyond altercations about prescriptive theoretical blueprints for textual analysis and toward research that is adequate to the empirical evidence of what real people are actually doing with them, that is, of horroring as is.


Short biography:

David Wilhelm Beckmann received his B.A. degree in English/American and German literary and language studies at the university of Osnabrück in 2018 with a thesis on Günter Grass and his two-subject M.A. degree in American and German literary and cultural studies at the university of Cologne in 2021 with a thesis on US-American horror fiction. Since 2022, he is a collegiate at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, as well as scholarship holder of the Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst, working on a dissertation project supervised by professors Hanjo Berressem and Matthias Bickenbach.