Frank Kelleter, ed., Media of Serial Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2017), 306 pp.
For six years, from 2010 to 2016, the Popular Seriality Research Unit (PSRU), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), was the epicenter for all things popular and serial in Germany. In a dozen of conferences, workshops, and symposia organized by the unit, countless essays, book chapters, and articles, the work of the researchers from disciplines like American studies, German philology, cultural anthropology / European ethnology, empirical cultural studies, and media studies inspired a whole generation of seriality scholars and raised the bar for future collaborative and interdisciplinary research in this field.
Media of Serial Narrative is the latest and final collection by the research unit, and as such, represents a legacy of sorts. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Frank Kelleter’s first chapter entitled “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality.” Kelleter presents nothing less than a theory of seriality that distinguishes itself from the assumptions of critical theory (the Frankfurt School) as well as populist versions of cultural studies (the Birmingham School) and “neo-vitalist” (10) approaches rooted in cultural philosophy, which portray “seriality as a fundamental life force of culture” (11).
Instead, he aims at providing a theoretical framework that understands seriality as “something that emerges from situated historical actors and agencies with particular modes of describing and performing themselves” (11). Kelleter then presents the eponymous five ways of looking at popular seriality: 1) Popular series are “evolving narratives” (12). They are consumed while they are still developing and “while certain narrative options are still open or have not yet even materialized as options” (12). Consequently, the analysis of commercial series “means to focus on moving targets” (14). 2) Popular series are “narratives of recursive progression” (16). As they progress, their past must be reinterpreted or rewritten continually. 3) Popular series are “narratives of proliferation” (18). They tend to cross media boundaries and spill into different areas of everyday life. Furthermore, they encourage user / reader participation. 4) Popular series are “self-observing systems and actor networks” (22) and 5) “agents of capitalist self-reflexivity” (26).
This fifth perspective “builds on, and slightly modifies, Benedict Anderson’s notion of the ‘imagined community’” (26), a concept that is heavily “dependent on the operations of a technological mass-media” (27) for continuation. The belief in continuation (as in the confidence in credit transactions) is what Kelleter sees—with reference to Joseph Vogl—as a condition for the functioning of capitalism. Serial media play a key role here: “Continuation is the name of the game, and serial media play an important part in creating systemic trust in the improbable reality of their own—and hence their own culture’s—persistence” (30).
Kelleter’s programmatic text is followed by thirteen more chapters subdivided into four parts. Part I deals with “Literature and Comics” and is opened by Jared Gardner, who tells the prehistory of comics in the newspapers of the 1840s and 1850s. While traditional accounts stress the gap between the publication of the first “American” comic by Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer in the 1840s and the rise of the comic strip in the 1890s, Gardner suggests a much more continuous development and points to the “broader media ecology of the early 1840s” (41) to make this case. Discussing the examples of the illustrated weekly Brother Jonathan, in which the first “American” comic The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck was published, Gardner especially refers to issues of piracy and the relentless optimism in the character of Oldbuck.
The topic of the third chapter, written by Daniel Stein, is the cultural work of the city-mystery genre. Entitled “Serial Politics in Antebellum America,” Stein analyzes “the powerful nexus of serial entertainment and political engagement” (53). Following the success of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-43) the city-mystery genre sprawled over national and cultural borders and became very successful in the United States, too. Stein highlights that city mysteries as such are “perhaps the earliest example of a Western popular literary genre in the modern sense of the term: a body of serial texts written, marketed, and read as serial genre text” (55; emphasis in original). Dealing with “the conspiracies of the wealthy and powerful against the poor and powerless” (61), Stein points out the inherent tension between “the radicalism of dogmatic ideologies aimed at immediate and fundamental action (and, thus, closure) […], and the necessities of popular seriality” denying or at least delaying closure (62).
In the fourth chapter, Christina Meyer impressively shows how the comic figure of the Yellow Kid proliferated and sprawled from the Sunday supplement pages over media and genre borders to many paraphernalia. Furthermore, she argues that the figure’s serial logic is “embedded in and spawned by the economic structures, technologies, and ideologies of capitalist culture” (77). As Meyer points out, comic historians habitually place the Yellow Kid in the context of the circulation wars between Pulitzer and Hearst. However, she shows that “spilling into different areas of public and recreational life, into theaters and music halls, into the streets and private households […], the Yellow Kid ought to be seen in the light of a whole range of contemporary cultural practices […] (84).
The next four chapters on cinema comprise the second part of the collection. Scott Higgins’s contribution entitled “Inevitability of Chance” focuses on the “issue of time to account for some of the [sound] serials peculiar appeals and to explore the nature of our engagement with cinematic seriality” (93). Sound serials were film serials that consisted of fifteen- to twenty-minute-long chapters screened once a week in cinemas often as part of a matinee. Examples of sound serials include the twelve episodes of Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) and Flash Gordon (thirteen episodes, 1936) targeted mainly at a juvenile audience. Discussing the conventional five-part structure of sound serials and the function of the cliffhanger, Higgins claims that “sound serials managed time to blend wild implausibility and strict conventionality, which embodied a basic and constant appeal: the reassurance of survival and success in the face of staggering improbability” (106).
Shane Denson and Ruth Mayer explore the “Spectral Seriality” of, among other serial figures, Count Dracula. A serial figure, they argue, is a stock character, “a flat and recurring figure, subject to one or more media changes over the course of its career” (108). When Denson and Mayer claim that Dracula “embodies and paradigmatically exemplifies a spectral logic” (108), they refer to a very flexible figure that sprawls across media boundaries, a “ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Davis 373). Examples of such “characteristically liminal, transitional, or border-crossing beings” (109) are Frankenstein’s monster, Tarzan, Fu Manchu, or Dracula. The authors convincingly argue that media are not neutral tools and media history is not a directed and linear process: “Serial figures, with their feedback loops and self-reflexive logics of iteration, epitomize the fact that that the evolution of media systems is a non-teleological process: overdetermined by competing forces, random, accidental, and consequently always also haunted by a sense that ‘things could have been otherwise’” (109). Serial figures are, therefore, “ideal conceptual figures for media-archaeological inquiries” (109). Discussing several reiterations of Dracula such as the novel by Bram Stoker (1897), Tod Browning’s movie (1931), and Francis Ford Coppola’s filmic version (1992), Denson and Mayer excitingly substantiate this claim in their chapter.
In “Hollywood Remaking as Second-Order Serialization,” Frank Kelleter and Kathleen Loock discuss “remakes, prequels and sequels and so forth […] as historical varieties of a serial practice distinct to Hollywood’s commercial film culture” (126). Drawing heavily on Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, they analyze the “historical self-reflexivity of cinematic remaking […] as media-specific practice of serial self-observation” (128). They propose to look at all the different discourses (public, scholarly, industrial) and the (aesthetic) work the remade film is doing itself to “enact cinematic seriality” (131). In other words, remakes (with the help of scholarly articles, commercials, and all other inter- / paratexts and performances) write their own media history and the history of earlier iterations in retrospectively serializing them. The totality of these discourses and practices is what Kelleter and Loock call “second-order seriality: ongoing narratives about (and through) ongoing narratives” (144; emphasis in original).
Constantine Verevis discerns a “discursive shift” (148) concerning “New Millennial Remakes.” While the remake in earlier decades served as “evidence that Hollywood had exhausted its creative potential” (148), the new millennial remakes can be seen as “free adaptations or variations that actualize an implicit potentiality at the source” (149) leading to a situation in which “multiple versions proliferate and coexist” (149). Verevis introduces five theses arguing that new millennial remakes are (1) intermedial and (2) transnational (163). They embrace the postauteur (3) and are characterized by proliferation and simultaneity (4). Finally, they “do not erase or overwrite, but coexist” (5).
Chapter nine opens the section on television. Jason Mittell addresses the “The Ends of Serial Criticism” and argues for a fusion of historical poetics and cultural studies to offer “a better understanding of how serial programs work as both aesthetic texts and cultural practices” (170). He poses two questions for serial critics to ask in the process of analysis: “what does [a TV series] mean through how does it mean?” “Why does it matter through how does it matter?” (170). Paradigmatically, Mittell tries to answer the first question in a discussion of a scene from Homeland that is screened six different times in seasons one and two. Mittell impressively demonstrates how the meanings of this scene change over (screen) time and with other inter- / paratexts. He then goes on to answer the second question by discussing the development of the female character Skyler White from AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and the reactions to this character within and outside the story world. Mittell convincingly shows how taking seriality seriously can result in an ever-growing complexity, a multitude of possible meanings, perspectives, and contingencies. An interpretation of a serial will therefore be “itself […] a serial endeavor—always in flux, replete with gaps and ellipses, inclusive of endless contexts and paratexts, and always frustrating in its incompleteness” (181).
In “Sensing the Opaque,” a chapter on aesthetics and opacity, Sudeep Dasgupta argues that television seriality does not only “invite investigation” into the meaning of a narrative, but also presents “opaque moments that assert their own nonsignifying presence” (184). Apart from the presentation of things as “sense of things rather than meaning of things” (196), Dasgupta presents three different categories of opacity: “within single episodes, in the shape of moments or sequences of sounds and images” (196). He exemplifies his observations with reference to the object- and image-laden world of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper in the AMC show Mad Men (2007-2015).
Sean O’Sullivan concludes the part on television with his chapter “The Inevitable, the Surprise and Serial Television.” He takes Hitchcock’s “central opposition […] between surprise and suspense” and transforms this for the narrative analysis of serial television into “surprise and the inevitable” (205; emphasis in original). The inevitable is linked to the expectation on the side of the viewer that “something will happen” and that this something has “significant consequences for the story” (205). In contrast to a closed narrative, the inevitable in serials “appear[s] to be a regular, and increasingly problematic, hinderance” (209). O’Sullivan discusses TV shows like Deadwood, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos and their negotiations of the inevitable (mainly in the first three shows) and of surprise (mainly in the latter three).
The last section of the book is entitled “Transmedia and Digitality” and contains three essays. Henry Jenkins’s “‘All Over the Map’: Building and Rebuilding Oz” offers a detailed discussion of the “Ozzness,” the large network of information concerning the worlds and narratives of Oz and its relationship to “narrow conceptions of the canonical story,” i. e., the Judy-Garland version (226). Over the last decades, Jenkins discerns a “shift toward world-building over storytelling,” but notes that a vocabulary for this new aesthetic is still missing (227). His essay, furthermore, offers a very interesting take on the dynamics of narrative sprawl and canonization processes at the heart of both serial storytelling and world-building.
The chapter by Christine Hämmerling and Mirjam Nast stands out from the other essays for its methodology. In their ethnographic study the scholars investigate the reception process for two long-running German serials: the TV police procedural Tatort and the SciFi pulp novel series Perry Rhodan. Using the concept of “Alltagsintegration” (quotidian integration), Hämmerling and Nast focus on the “habitual dimension of media reception,” while also taking into consideration “the diversification of serialized media practices and technologies in the digital age” (249). They examine the selection of media devices and delivery technologies, the setting, and the temporal rhythm of reception as well as collection patterns and the use of on- and offline infomedia about the series. Hämmerling and Nast conclude that “even under conditions of digital media change,” viewers of Tatort and readers of Perry Rhodan “have tended to conserve reception practices closely connected to the original delivery system of these series” (258).
The last chapter by Shane Denson and Andreas Sudmann deals with “Digital Seriality” in computer and video games. In it, the authors develop “possible research perspectives” and “offer preliminary theoretical distinctions” (281). They propose an “interdisciplinary approach […] combining media aesthetic and media philosophical perspectives with the resources of discourse analysis and cultural history” (262). Sudmann and Denson distinguish three forms of ludic seriality: “intra-ludic seriality,” which occurs within games, for instance the “structures of repetition and variation that characterize the various levels or worlds of a game” (271; emphasis in original), “inter-ludic seriality” (sequels or prequels of games), and “para-ludic seriality” (outside of actual games ). The last category relates back to the overall scope of the book since it refers to the relationship to other media, their specific forms of seriality, and the social practices of their readers / players / consumers.
Media of Serial Narrative is an important and timely book. It is the most successful in the chapters that are trying to follow Kelleter’s programmatic framework and which understand serial criticism as a serial endeavor (Mittell 181; also Meyer; Denson and Mayer). In these chapters, it also becomes clear how extremely complex, prone to proliferation, (and possibly frustrating) such serial analyses can be. Furthermore, Media of Serial Narrative expands the scope and territory of serial criticism to the realms of cinema (Kelleter and Loock; Verevis) and games (Denson and Sudmann), which are not covered by traditional scholarship. As the research unit itself did, the book connects different aspects of seriality and utilizes them not only for an analysis of serial texts and serial practices, but also for an analysis of the cultures that produce them. While Media of Serial Narrative succeeds in including a wide variety of texts (comics, serial novels, serial movies, TV series, games, etc.) and practices, its focus on (North) American and Western European phenomena is limiting. It would have been especially interesting, whether the theoretical framework established by the research unit and put forward here in Kelleter’s first chapter could be used in the analysis of non-Western practices and cultures. Apart from this issue, Media of Serial Narrative represents a valuable resource for everyone in media and American studies and interested in popular seriality.
Gunter Süẞ (Mittweida University of Applied Sciences)