I was recently invited to join the closing panel discussion at Seriality Seriality Seriality: The Many Lives of the Field that Isn’t One, the final conference of the tremendously productive Popular Seriality Research Unit, funded by the German Research Foundation. The unit has been in full swing for over half a decade, and this conference was its bittersweet last event. It was a terrific gathering of scholars who spent three days sharing, questioning, and generating ideas about serial storytelling in its many forms. Frank Kelleter of the Freie Universitat Berlin organized it all, and invited me along with Dan Hassler-Forest, Amanda Klein, Peter Stanfield, and Harold Wenzel to summarize, reflect, and offer some conclusions. The task was, of course, impossible. Below are my comments, minus several tangents and plus a clarifying sentence or two. I admit that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of the conference, and I’m not sure it made much sense inside it either. Still, here it is!
Closing Reflections on Seriality, Seriality, Seriality The Final Popular Seriality Research Conference, June 24, 2016
I’m honored to have this opportunity – after the Research Group has given so much to me. I didn’t know “seriality” was a word before I met this group in 2013, and after a week I was ready to claim that Seriality was a field. This group gave me a vocabulary to think through my subject when I was at a deadlock. Without you, I would never have finished that book. As a film person, being connected to this research unit meant that I didn’t have to spend ALL my time whining about the past.
At first I was flattered to be asked for closing remarks – then I realized that generalizations are very rarely adequate, and so am I. So I am perfect for this job.
I always leave the the Popular Seriality unit full of ideas, contradictions, discoveries. Today is no exception.
- What is Seriality anyway?
- Is it linear, circular, gap or continuity?
- Is it a compulsion?
- Is it a way of seeing?
- Is it an immoderate appetite for binging?
- Is it a rational compression of time?
- Is it a form, or is it a vessel for other forms?
- Is repetition and difference necessarily evolution?
As for contradictions, these questions reveal them because they can all be answered yes and no. But serials and seriality are themselves contradictory and incoherent, open and closed, centered and without a center, retrograde and progressive, always ending but never concluding.
And of course I’ve made discoveries:
- You can 3D print with marzipan!
- Hildegard Withers, was RKO’s Sleuthing Schoolmarm!
- Seriality is the Holy Ghost of Agency!
- The word stu-blimity (stupid/sublimity) exists and we should use it!
- Someone made porn about Rouben Mamoulian, and no, you cannot un-see that.
But there are two or three thoughts I want to spend a little more time on – not necessarily connected.
First, we’ve talked a lot about seriality’s tendency toward proliferation, sprawl, and unruliness. But it has another side as well, providing order, reassurance, familiarity.
Being a Stodgy Old Formalist underneath at all – and I can’t believe no one has quoted him before now – I will now quote Rudolf Arnheim. Talking about the importance of the FRAME to Composition in Film as Art, he observed:
“There is no balance in the infinite, except perhaps in wallpaper designs where there is a serial uniformity, which, of course, is hardly applicable to film.”
In the absence of an organizing frame that creates a center, seriality offers predictable repetition, makes the infinite knowable – but of course never fully known. It is a lot like life, but with hope.
Second, and barely related, is another observation – this time from popular sociologist Margaret Thorp in her 1939 book America at the Movies. She describes the rituals of rural, neighborhood, low-brow filmgoers like this:
“You can have your weekly artistic experience, if you are a serial fan, without the labor of adjusting yourself each time to a wholly new environment. The devotee of The Lone Ranger watches his tenth adventure with the same comfortable ease with which the experienced musician hears a new conductor’s reading of Beethoven’s ‘Seventh Symphony.’
Seriality gives us familiarity, comfort and spares us the trouble of making acquaintance with new forms. But it also provides the grounds for connoisseurship. Though she doesn’t intend this, Thorp suggests the erasure of high and low. The Lone Ranger and Beethoven, share repetition and variation, and seriality attunes consumers to the nuance of formal engagement. This speaks to, I think, the pervasive, maybe fundamental, power of the form to which this conference has alluded again and again.
I have one last fragment of thought, spurred by Julika Griem’s discussion of hidden normativity in our governing metaphors: Machine and Game. An issue I take seriously because both Machine and Game form central reference points in my work.
The metaphors of machine and game might betray analytic, rational, maybe masculinist pursuits. But seriality is also a matter of feeling, emotion, and pleasure: the things that pornography, melodrama, and embodiment return to our study. [And I would argue that melodrama is the missing third term between machine and game]. But even the concept of the operational aesthetic, as Tom Gunning imported it to film studies, involves the sensual. It conveys not just the pleasurable analysis of a working system but the viewer’s getting caught up in bodily rhythmic effects, the thrill of momentum. A return to the world of Mad Max in Fury Road is as much a return to a sensation of gravity and movement, a particular kind of feeling embodied in George Miller’s precise control of form. As this morning’s panel so well demonstrated, seriality and our understanding of it need not be cast in narrow terms.
SO, to paste these fragments together, however inadequately, I want to re-emphasize that while serial patterns give us a horizon, a frame, a promise of mastery of time and space, seriality and serials also hold the map in abeyance; they withhold or simply don’t supply the power of a full view. Seriality installs the structured enigmas of story into our lived worlds, but we cannot have it all at once. The very novelty of simultaneous and complete access, of Netflix’s “full drop,” belies our serial desires. We indulge and binge because, before now, we never could. And binging is a privilege based on the ability to fit our lives around the serial rather than the serial into our lives.
Well, enough of my own incoherence.
I’m glad to see that at the end of this research unit, serality is still a mess – an interesting and productive mess that can only fail by being tidied up. This group hasn’t allowed it to ossify into a catch phrase and a couple hermeneutic techniques. They have not turned to labeling and confirmation seeking as (self) satisfying activities (the unfortunate end of most academic fields). This group has resisted coherence, and done so quite nicely. So let’s just NOT settle into conclusions. Instead, let’s embrace seriality’s ethos – keeping alive the possibility of conclusion and coherence, without necessarily committing to or reaching either. If we get to the end of the road, we should turn around and go back and maybe we can find some sort of redemption.
I leave you with a final quotation, this one from Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail: “Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”