Recently, I posted the description for the symposium on “Imagining Media Change” that we’re organizing this June, with keynote speakers Jussi Parikka and Wanda Strauven — part of this semester’s larger series of events. Now I am proud to present the poster for the symposium (designed by Ilka Brasch and Svenja Fehlhaber), which includes an overview of the schedule and speakers. A more detailed schedule, including the titles of talks, will be made available soon.
Below you’ll find the full text of the talk I just gave at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, as part of a panel on “Post-Cinematic Affect: Theorizing Digital Movies Now” along with Therese Grisham, Steven Shaviro, and Julia Leyda — all of whom I’d like to thank for their great contributions! As always, comments are more than welcome!
Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect
I’m going to talk about crazy cameras, discorrelated images, and post-perceptual mediation as three interlinked facets of the medial ontology of post-cinematic affect. I’ll connect my observations to empirical and phenomenological developments surrounding contemporary image production and reception, but my primary interest lies in a more basic determination of affect and its mediation today. Following Bergson, affect pertains to a domain of material and “spiritual” existence constituted precisely in a gap between empirically determinate actions and reactions (or, with some modification, between the production and reception of images); affect subsists, furthermore, below the threshold of conscious experience and the intentionalities of phenomenological subjects (including the producers and viewers of media images). It is my contention that the infrastructure of life in our properly post-cinematic era has been subject to radical transformations at this level of molecular or pre-personal affect, and following Steven Shaviro I suggest that something of the nature and the stakes of these transformations can be glimpsed in our contemporary visual media.
My argument revolves around what I’m calling the “crazy cameras” of post-cinematic media, following comments by Therese Grisham in our roundtable discussion in La Furia Umana: Seeking to account for the changed “function of cameras […] in the post-cinematic episteme,” Therese notes that whereas “in classical and post-classical cinema, the camera is subjective, objective, or functions to align us with a subjectivity which may lie outside the film,” there would seem to be “something altogether different” in recent movies. “For instance, it is established that in [District 9], a digital camera has shot footage broadcast as news reportage. A similar camera ‘appears’ intermittently in the film as a ‘character.’ In the scenes in which it appears, it is patently impossible in the diegesis for anyone to be there to shoot the footage. Yet, we see that camera by means of blood splattered on it, or we become aware of watching the action through a hand-held camera that intrudes suddenly without any rationale either diegetically or aesthetically. Similarly, but differently as well, in Melancholia, we suddenly begin to view the action through a ‘crazy’ hand-held camera, at once something other than just an intrusive exercise in belated Dogme 95 aesthetics and more than any character’s POV […].”
What it is, precisely, that makes these cameras “crazy,” or opaque to rational thought? My answer, in short, is that post-cinematic cameras – by which I mean a range of imaging apparatuses, both physical and virtual – seem not to know their place with respect to the separation of diegetic and nondiegetic planes of reality; these cameras therefore fail to situate viewers in a consistently and coherently designated spectating-position. More generally, they deviate from the perceptual norms established by human embodiment – the baseline physics engine, if you will, at the root of classical continuity principles, which in order to integrate or suture psychical subjectivities into diegetic/narrative constructs had to respect above all the spatial parameters of embodied orientation and locomotion (even if they did so in an abstract, normalizing form distinct from the real diversity of concrete body instantiations). Breaking with these norms results in what I call the discorrelation of post-cinematic images from human perception.
With the idea of discorrelation, I aim to describe an event that first announces itself negatively, as a phenomenological disconnect between viewing subjects and the object-images they view. In her now-classic phenomenology of filmic experience, The Address of the Eye, Vivian Sobchack theorized a correlation – or structural homology – between spectators’ embodied perceptual capacities and those of film’s own apparatic “body,” which engages viewers in a dialogical exploration of perceptual exchange; cinematic expression or communication, accordingly, was seen to be predicated on an analogical basis according to which the subject and object positions of film and viewer are dialectically transposable.
But, according to Sobchack, this basic perceptual correlation is endangered by new, or “postcinematic” media (as she was already calling them in 1992), which disrupt the commutative interchanges of perspective upon which filmic experience depends for its meaningfulness. With the tools Sobchack borrows from philosopher of technology Don Ihde, we can make a first approach to the “crazy” quality of post-cinematic cameras and the discorrelation of their images.
Take the example of the digitally simulated lens flare, featured ostentatiously in recent superhero films like Green Lantern or the Ghost Rider sequel directed by Neveldine and Taylor, who brag that their use of it breaks all the rules of what you can and can’t do in 3D. Beyond the stylistically questionable matter of this excess, a phenomenological analysis reveals significant paradoxes at the heart of the CGI lens flare. On the one hand, the lens flare encourages what Ihde calls an “embodiment relation” to the virtual camera: by simulating the material interplay of a lens and a light source, the lens flare emphasizes the plastic reality of “pro-filmic” CGI objects; the virtual camera itself is to this extent grafted onto the subjective pole of the intentional relation, “embodied” in a sort of phenomenological symbiosis that channels perception towards the objects of our visual attention. On the other hand, however, the lens flare draws attention to itself and highlights the images’ artificiality by emulating (and foregrounding the emulation of) the material presence of a camera. To this extent, the camera is rendered quasi-objective, and it instantiates what Ihde calls a “hermeneutic relation”: we look at the camera rather than just through it, and we interpret it as a sign or token of “realisticness.” The paradox here, which consists in the realism-constituting and -problematizing undecidability of the virtual camera’s relation to the diegesis – where the “reality” of this realism is conceived as thoroughly mediated, the product of a simulated physical camera rather than defined as the hallmark of embodied perceptual immediacy – points to a more basic problem: namely, to a transformation of mediation itself in the post-cinematic era. That is, the undecidable place of the mediating apparatus, the camera’s apparently simultaneous occupation of both subjective and objective positions within the noetic relation that it enables between viewers and the film, is symptomatic of a more general destabilization of phenomenological subject- and object-positions in relation to the expanded affective realm of post-cinematic mediation. Computational, ergodic, and processual in nature, media in this mode operate on a level that is categorically beyond the purview of perception, perspective, or intentionality. Phenomenological analysis can therefore provide only a negative determination “from the outside”: it can help us to identify moments of dysfunction or disconnection, but it can offer no positive characterization of the “molecular” changes occasioning them. Thus, for example, CGI and digital cameras do not just sever the ties of indexicality that characterized analogue cinematography (an epistemological or phenomenological claim); they also render images themselves fundamentally processual, thus displacing the film-as-object-of-perception and uprooting the spectator-as-perceiving-subject – in effect, enveloping both in an epistemologically indeterminate but materially quite real and concrete field of affective relation. Mediation, I suggest, can no longer be situated neatly between the poles of subject and object, as it swells with processual affectivity to engulf both.
Compare, in this connection, film critic Jim Emerson’s statement in response to the debates over so-called “chaos cinema”: “It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer’s autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they’re more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don’t work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to – just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.” Now, I want to distance myself from what appears to be a blanket disapproval of such stimulation, but I quote Emerson’s statement here because I think it neatly identifies the link between a direct affective appeal and the essentially post-phenomenological dissolution of perceptual objects. Taken seriously, though, this link marks the crux of a transformation in the ontology of media, the point of passage from cinematic to post-cinematic media. Whereas the former operate on the “molar” scale of perceptual intentionality, the latter operate on the “molecular” scale of sub-perceptual and pre-personal embodiment, potentially transforming the material basis of subjectivity in a way that’s unaccountable for in traditional phenomenological terms. But how do we account for this transformative power of post-cinematic media, short of simply reducing it (as it would appear Emerson tends to do) to a narrowly positivistic conception of physiological impact? It is helpful here to turn to Maurizio Lazzarato’s reflections on the affective dimension of video and to Mark Hansen’s expansions of these ideas with respect to computational and what he calls “atmospheric” media.
According to Lazzarato, the video camera captures time itself, the splitting of time at every instant, hence opening the gap between perception and action where affect (in Bergson’s metaphysics) resides. Because it no longer merely traces objects mechanically and fixes them as discrete photographic entities, but instead generates its images directly out of the flux of sub-perceptual matter, which it processes on the fly in the space of a microtemporal duration, the video camera marks a revolutionary transformation in the technical organization of time. The mediating technology itself becomes an active locus of molecular change: a Bergsonian body qua center of indetermination, a gap of affectivity between passive receptivity and its passage into action. The camera imitates the process by which our own pre-personal bodies synthesize the passage from molecular to molar, replicating the very process by which signal patterns are selected from the flux and made to coalesce into determinate images that can be incorporated into an emergent subjectivity. This dilation of affect, which characterizes not only video but also computational processes like the rendering of digital images (which is always done on the fly), marks the basic condition of the post-cinematic camera, the positive underside of what presents itself externally as a discorrelating incommensurability with respect to molar perception. As Mark Hansen has argued, the microtemporal scale at which computational media operate enables them to modulate the temporal and affective flows of life and to affect us directly at the level of our pre-personal embodiment. In this respect, properly post-cinematic cameras, which include video and digital imaging devices of all sorts, have a direct line to our innermost processes of becoming-in-time, and they are therefore capable of informing the political life of the collective by flowing into the “general intellect” at the heart of immaterial or affective labor.
The Paranormal Activity series makes these claims palpable through its experimentation with various modes and dimensions of post-perceptual, affective mediation. After using hand-held video cameras in PA1 and closed-circuit home-surveillance cameras in PA2, and following a flashback by way of old VHS tapes in PA3, the latest installment intensifies its predecessors’ estrangement of the camera from cinematic and ultimately human perceptual norms by implementing computational imaging processes for its strategic manipulations of spectatorial affect. In particular, PA4 uses laptop- and smartphone-based video chat and the Xbox’s Kinect motion control system to mediate between diegetic and spectatorial shocks and to regulate the corporeal rhythms and intensities of suspenseful contraction and release that define the temporal/affective quality of the movie. Especially the Kinect technology, itself a crazy binocular camera that emits a matrix of infrared dots to map bodies and spaces and integrate them algorithmically into computational/ergodic game spaces, marks the discorrelation of computational from human perception: the dot matrix, which is featured extensively in the film, is invisible to the human eye; the effect is only made possible through a video camera’s night vision mode – part of the post-perceptual sensibility of the video camera that distinguishes it from the cinema camera. The film (and the series more generally) is thus a perfect illustration for the affective impact and bypassing of cognitive (and narrative) interest through video and computational imaging devices. In an interview, (co)director Henry Joost says the use of the Kinect, inspired by a YouTube video demonstrating the effect, was a logical choice for the series, commenting: “I think it’s very ‘Paranormal Activity’ because it’s like, there’s this stuff going on in the house that you can’t see.” Indeed, the effect highlights all the computational and video-sensory activity going on around us all the time, completely discorrelated from human perception, but very much involved in the temporal and affective vicissitudes of our daily lives through the many cameras and screens surrounding us and involved in every aspect of the progressively indistinct realms of our work and play. Ultimately, PA4 points toward the uncanny qualities of contemporary media, which following Mark Hansen have ceased to be contained in discrete apparatic packages and have become diffusely “atmospheric.”
This goes in particular for the post-cinematic camera, which has shed the perceptually commensurate “body” that ensured communication on Sobchack’s model and which, beyond video, is no longer even required to have a material lens. This does not mean the camera has become somehow immaterial, but today the conception of the camera should perhaps be expanded: consider how all processes of digital image rendering, whether in digital film production or simply in computer-based playback, are involved in the same on-the-fly molecular processes through which the video camera can be seen to trace the affective synthesis of images from flux. Unhinged from traditional conceptions and instantiations, post-cinematic cameras are defined precisely by the confusion or indistinction of recording, rendering, and screening devices or instances. In this respect, the “smart TV” becomes the exemplary post-cinematic camera (an uncanny domestic “room” composed of smooth, computational space): it executes microtemporal processes ranging from compression/decompression, artifact suppression, resolution upscaling, aspect-ratio transformation, motion-smoothing image interpolation, and on-the-fly 2D to 3D conversion. Marking a further expansion of the video camera’s artificial affect-gap, the smart TV and the computational processes of image modulation that it performs bring the perceptual and actional capacities of cinema – its receptive camera and projective screening apparatuses – back together in a post-cinematic counterpart to the early Cinématographe, equipped now with an affective density that uncannily parallels our own. We don’t usually think of our screens as cameras, but that’s precisely what smart TVs and computational display devices in fact are: each screening of a (digital or digitized) “film” becomes in fact a re-filming of it, as the smart TV generates millions of original images, more than the original film itself – images unanticipated by the filmmaker and not contained in the source material. To “render” the film computationally is in fact to offer an original rendition of it, never before performed, and hence to re-produce the film through a decidedly post-cinematic camera. This production of unanticipated and unanticipatable images renders such devices strangely vibrant, uncanny – very much in the sense exploited by Paranormal Activity. The dilation of affect, which introduces a temporal gap of hesitation or delay between perception (or recording) and action (or playback), amounts to a modeling or enactment of the indetermination of bodily affect through which time is generated, and by which (in Bergson’s system) life is defined. A negative view sees only the severing of the images’ indexical relations to world, hence turning all digital image production and screening into animation, not categorically different from the virtual lens flares discussed earlier. But in the end, the ubiquity of “animation” that is introduced through digital rendering processes should perhaps be taken literally, as the artificial creation of (something like) life, itself equivalent with the gap of affectivity, or the production of duration through the delay of causal-mechanical stimulus-response circuits; the interruption of photographic indexicality through digital processing is thus the introduction of duration = affect = life. Discorrelated images, in this respect, are autonomous, quasi-living images in Bergson’s sense, having transcended the mechanicity that previously kept them subservient to human perception. Like the unmotivated cameras of D9 and Melancholia, post-cinematic cameras generally have become “something altogether different,” as Therese put it: apparently crazy, because discorrelated from the molar perspectives of phenomenal subjects and objects, cameras now mediate post-perceptual flows and confront us everywhere with their own affective indeterminacy.
Following my talk on affective seriality in contemporary television, I am pleased now to present the text of my colleague Felix Brinker’s talk, also delivered last weekend at the “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt. Like much of Felix’s work, this piece on conspiracy as a mode of narrative complexity brings perspectives from critical theory and new materialism to bear on recent discussions in cultural media studies and television studies, thus opening a space for an important dialogical and critical intervention.
Narratively Complex Television Series and the Logics of Conspiracy – On the Politics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Interpretive Labors of Active Audiences
Operating within a television landscape that is characterized by the increasing competition between different media formats, American prime-time dramas of the last 15 years have relied strongly on complex strategies of serialized story-telling in order to ensure viewers’ sustained and ongoing investment in their narratives. Assessing this shift away from earlier norms of episodic closure, media scholar Jason Mittell has labeled the last two decades of American television an era of “narrative complexity” (cf. 29). Narratively complex shows, he argues, capitalize on the possibilities of the serial format and emphasize continuous, serial narration over episodically contained plots; over time, these shows therefore tend to amass complicated webs of backstories and character relationships and thus ask their audiences to engage in, as he puts it, “an active and attentive process of comprehension” (Mittell, 32). Today, I would like to focus on a particular subset of narratively complex shows, namely those that present their over-arching story-lines as an investigation into a central mystery, and that develop this motif as a framing narrative over the course of several seasons, if not the entirety of their runs. Shows like Lost, 24, Rubicon, Homeland, or Fringe all similarly rely on series-spanning story-lines about far-flung intrigues and enticing mysteries. By doing so, these shows adapt the formula that turned earlier series like The X-Files or Twin Peaks into fan-favorites: As Jeffrey Sconce puts it, the ongoing story-lines of these shows “cultivate a central narrative enigma” (107) – like the alien invasion slash government cover-up on The X-Files or the murder of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks, the mysterious events of Lost’s island, or the uncertain loyalties and motivations Homeland’s prisoner-of-war-cum-terrorist Brody – and use it as a central narrative hook to transform casual viewers into committed loyals. Due to their focus on long-running storylines, these shows exhibit a tendency to become more and more complex over time; despite (or maybe because of) this increasing complexity, many of the shows that follow this model of storytelling have become critical and commercial successes.
Unsurprisingly, then, a considerable number of recent programs have sought to replicate the storytelling strategies of hit shows like Lost – and mystery-centric series can by now be considered a mainstay of American television. In this paper, I would like to take a closer look at the narrative strategies shared by these programs and outline the specific audience practices such shows invite. I argue that the narrative logics of these series are best understood if we conceptualize them as conspiracy narratives – that is, as series that tell stories that center on their protagonists attempts to expose and put a stop to the nefarious workings of mysterious, hidden powers. By adhering to the logics of the conspiracy narrative, these shows aim to provoke a particular way of watching television, an active and attentive audience behavior that entails the readiness to engage in speculations about the unfolding narrative, and to pay close, almost obsessive attention to details. These shows can thus be understood as sharing a specific “narrational mode,” as David Bordwell puts it, with “a historically distinct, [shared] set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension” and can be considered a distinct subset of narratively complex programs (Bordwell 150, cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 29).
Shows that adhere to such a ‘conspiratorial mode of storytelling’, as I call it, are crime fictions of a grand (or, at times, even cosmic) scope: in them, the story-world has been thrown into chaos and turmoil by the actions of a vast conspiracy, and the story unfolds as the protagonists seek to reconstitute order and attempt to thwart the evil plans of the conspirators. The overarching story-arcs of these shows proceed from the investigation of an initial, isolated event – a puzzling murder or an unexplained plane crash, for example – and promise to eventually offer resolutions for this mystery. Over the course of the series, however, this promise is invariably left unfulfilled, as the protagonists’ further adventures soon reveal that the initial event is only one in a larger chain of mysterious occurrences that are all orchestrated by powerful hidden forces. As the protagonists of these series with each episode venture further into the heart of the mystery, final resolutions or explanations never materialize, as the greater scheme or master-plan turns out to be too vast and to intricate to be fully explored. The ongoing storylines of these shows thus adhere to what scholars of conspiracy like Michael Barkun or Mark Fenster have described as the organizational logic of the conspiracy narrative: as these series progress, their protagonists gain insight into the hidden plans of their scheming opponents, but, by doing so, the number of unexplained mysteries and unanswered plot questions perpetually multiplies as more and more sinister plots come to light (cf. Barkun 101ff.). Shows like these thus exhibit the same narrative dynamic that Fenster has described for the ongoing storyline of Chris Carter’s The X-Files: the series-spanning story-arcs of such programs move “ineluctably toward[s] closure while continually forestalling it” (150).
These shows’ tendency to continuously evoke a central mystery while perpetually refusing to unveil the truth behind it is therefore the result of their reliance on a potentially open-ended, infinitely expandable narrative structure that lends itself ideally to the needs of serial formats like that of the contemporary prime-time television drama. In general, the protagonists of conspiracy narratives in any medium invariably encounter not an isolated mysterious event, but a whole series of puzzling phenomena that are all somehow connected. Conspiracy fictions therefore always cover more than the events of a singular plot; instead they present themselves as collections of several smaller narratives that are loosely connected and that can hardly be contained within standalone formats like the novel or the movie (cf. Cole 37, Fenster 140). Conspiracy-themed films like Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View or Oliver Stone’s JFK therefore usually offer only limited closure and conclude with ‘open’ endings that leave the guilty unpunished. The format of the narratively complex television series, however, allows the narrative logic of conspiracy to unleash its serial potential, as it privileges open-ended narrative trajectories – simply because television shows become profitable the longer their remain on air. Shows that make use of such a conspiratorial narrative construction, however, also inherit another, more problematic aspect of conspiracy fictions, namely their tendency to “careen towards incoherence” (Fenster 122). As the conspiratorial storyline unfolds over several seasons, the number of mysteries multiplies and the web of interconnected subplots becomes more and more complex – up to a point were it becomes difficult if not impossible to consistently resolve all the open questions. Once the end of a series approaches, conspiratorial television shows thus face the challenge to offer a convincing conclusion and to “resolve the excesses of [its] narrative elements,” (as Fenster has put it with reference to conspiracy narratives in general). Especially for long-running series, this poses a considerable problem – and this circumstance might explain the mixed reactions of viewers to the final episodes of conspiratorial shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, for example, which were criticized for precisely such a lack of closure (cf. Anders, cf. Newitz). This phenomenon, however, is less a result of ‘poor’ plotting on the parts of television writers and also not due to a lack of advanced planning or foresight – it rather points us to the basic principles of serial storytelling in general, which, as an unashamedly commercial format, has always been more interested in securing long-term revenue streams than in a classical norms of textual unity, plausibility and coherence (and this, of course, goes back to serial figures like Sherlock Holmes, who had to return from the dead after Conan Doyle had run out of money).
As long as conspiratorial television series are in full swing, however, their refusal to offer definitive and final explanations usually turns out to be to their advantage, as such an openness fosters audience speculation. Since these texts never really reveal what’s behind the conspirators’ schemes, they encourage their audiences to connect the dots, and to come up with explanations for the mysteries that the serial narrative leaves unexplained. These tendencies make the structure of conspiracy narrative ideally suited for the goals of contemporary television authors, as they align well with broader trends within what Henry Jenkins has dubbed convergence culture. Arguing that pop-cultural texts of the convergence era seek to establish long-term relationships with their audiences, Jenkins has noted that contemporary programming aims to capture viewers’ attention beyond the narrow-time frame of the television hour. Contemporary television authors, he argues, seek to attract viewers that “give themselves fully over to [their favorite programs]; [who] tape them and may watch them more than one time; [and who] spend [a considerable amount] of their social time talking about them“ (Convergence Culture 74). By inviting their audiences to get to the bottom of their narrative enigmas, conspiratorial television shows encourage precisely such a behavior – and user activity in online forums dedicated to the discussion of shows like Lost, 24, Fringe, or Homeland attests to the validity of this claim.
These developments are far from being new; even in the early 1990s, fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files took their speculations about these programs to Usenet discussion boards and mailing lists (cf. Jenkins “Do You Enjoy;” as well as Clerc). With the increasing availability of digital video formats, time-shifting devices, and widespread Internet access, however, such audience practices have arguably become more mainstream, and by now play an important part in the considerations of television producers and authors. More recent shows therefore take great care to keep fan speculations going; Lost and Fringe, for example, notoriously disperse plot-relevant clues and hints about their mysteries throughout their narratives (as well as across associated official paratexts like video games, alternate-reality games, or websites that accompany the series). A prominent example of this practice is Lost’s infamous “Blast Door Map” that appeared in “Lockdown,” the 17th episode of the show’s second season. This episode features a brief scene in which John Locke gets pinned down by a closing blast door after things go wrong in the mysterious ‘hatch.’ While waiting for help, the hatch’s lights suddenly go out and black light lamps flicker on instead – the scene then briefly offers the viewers a glimpse of a mysterious map painted on the door with fluorescent colors. In the episode itself this map is visible for barely 6 seconds, but on Lostpedia, fans soon engaged in detailed analyses of what they saw as an intriguing clue to the show’s mysteries. Based on enlarged screen captures from the episode, users soon deciphered the barely legible notes written on the map and parsed out references to earlier events. As it turned out, viewers who paid no attention to this scene did not miss anything important, as the map did not achieve greater relevance for the show’s ongoing narrative – nonetheless, the blast door map presented itself as a riddle to be solved, and the activity of Lostpedia users was not deterred by the fact that this event did not have a deeper meaning after all.
Other shows follow similar strategies to encourage fan speculations: each episode of Fringe, for example, features barely noticeable clues about the events of future episodes in the background of the mise-en-scène. Virtually every episode of this series features subtle links to future adventures of the protagonists, usually directly referring to events that will play out in the coming week: the logo of a plot-relevant bio-tech company emblazoned on a coffee cup and visible for little more than the blink of an eye, for example, or graffiti in the background of street scenes that allude to the plot of the following episode. Fringe, however, does not limit its dissemination of clues to its diegesis: every episode features several symbol-bearing title cards that appear before commercial breaks. These symbols, as enterprising viewers have since discovered, correspond to letters of the alphabet and, once deciphered, spell out a word that resonates with the theme of each week’s episode. Obviously, not all of the shows that subscribe to the logics of the conspiracy narrative rely on similarly baroque strategies to encourage audience speculation (although Christian Junklewitz has shown yesterday that his happens on Doctor Who as well) – in fact, more down-to-earth series like Homeland or Rubicon rather rely on more conventional means to further their mysteries and include relevant bits and pieces of information in snippets of dialogue or have their characters act out suspicious behavior. What these shows nonetheless share is the awareness that the evocation of a narrative enigma is a key element in the attempt to ‘activate’ audiences and foster their commitment to the series.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of such committed audience practices is the amount of work and time that dedicated viewers invest to unearth and analyze the hidden clues presented by conspiratorial television series. As my examples from Fringe and Lost suggest, spotting the clues and hints hidden within these television texts requires a meticulous, almost obsessive attention to detail and the readiness to engage in time-consuming and laborious close readings of scenes and even individual frames. In his book on Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins has famously argued that such online fan practices should be considered as examples of a ‘collective intelligence’ at work, i.e. as fundamentally democratic, communal problem-solving processes that might “be preparing the way for a more meaningful public culture” (Convergence Culture 228, cf. also 206-239). Participating in such collective processes of interpretation and communication – themselves made possible through the participatory character of social media – could ultimately, Jenkins argues, “create new kinds of political power” and also foster democratic decision-making processes offline. While Jenkins might have a point when it comes to the collaborative practices in online forums, I think such a view of the political significance of these phenomena is all too optimistic and essentially unfounded. As Steven Shaviro notes in his Post-Cinematic Affect, “aesthetics does not translate easily or obviously into politics“ (138) – and neither do specific ways of engaging with a text somehow directly translate into political engagement. While the thematic preoccupations of conspiratorial television series with issues of power and corruption might invite politicizing readings, the claim that political engagement emerges directly from online fan practices can hardly be backed by empirical evidence. The existence of time-consuming and work-intensive audience activities, I argue, rather points us to the character and social function of recreational leisure activities under the regime of contemporary capitalism in general. In an essay titled “Free Time”, Theodor W. Adorno argued that recreational activities, like the consumption of mass or pop-cultural texts, serve the important function of re-constituting the individual’s capacity to work and to take part in social life in general. “Free time,” he points out, is “shackled to its opposite”; recreational activities should therefore not be conceptualized as radically opposed to and separate from work but as an area of social life whose function is always defined in relation to the sphere of labor (187, cf. 187-190). Leisure activities like watching a movie or reading a novel promise a temporary escape from the toils and troubles of the daily routine, he argues, but at the same time, the character of these practices are determined and delimited by their potential to contribute to the reproduction of the individual’s labor-power (or “Arbeitskraft”). Viewed from this perspective, the time-consuming and cognitively challenging audience practices inspired by narratively complex television series take on a political significance that is quite different from the one attested by Jenkins. In this context, American Studies scholar Frank Kelleter has recently pointed to the overlap between the cognitive demands of contemporary popular culture and the professional skills required in the working environments of our present: By inviting active and sustained interpretive practices, Kelleter argues, contemporary television series
call up precisely those skills which characterize the neoliberal labor routines in the age of digitalization: network-thinking, situational feedback, dispersed processing of information, multitasking and, last but not least, the readiness to no longer differentiate between work and leisure. (Kelleter,“Serien als Stresstest” – my translation)
The interpretive practices of committed television viewers thus point us to the fact that engaging with contemporary popular culture has become more and more like work – a particular kind of work, to be exact, namely one that consists chiefly of the production, handling, and interpretation of information (and Jason Mittell’s claim that active viewers might now approach shows as ‘amateur narratologists’ also seems to point us to this). Maurizio Lazzarato has labeled this kind of work “immaterial labor” and argued that it has replaced manual and industrial labor as the predominant form of work in post-industrial societies. Increasingly geared toward producing the “informational and cultural content” of commodities rather than the material production of things, immaterial labor blurs the boundaries between labor and leisure and coincides with the emergence of increasingly automated, computerized, and networked working environments (Lazzarato 1996, 132, cf. 136-137). Active viewers who engage in the detailed analysis and online discussion of their favorite shows perform precisely such a labor, which productively contributes to the popularity and the accessibility of television texts – but they do so unpaid, without any financial compensation for their work.
Instead of too rashly celebrating such practices as fundamentally democratic or even politically subversive, as cultural studies scholars at times tend to do, I argue, we should consider their emergence as indicators of an increasing permeability of the borders between labor and leisure under the regime of contemporary capitalism.
Adorno, Theodor W. “Free Time.” The Culture Industry. Selected Essays On Mass Culture. J.M. Bernstein, ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. 187-197.
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Below you’ll find the full text of the talk I delivered today at the “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference early, so I didn’t have time to discuss the talk in any detail following the brief Q & A. I’m hoping, then, that some of those people who expressed an interest in discussing my ideas and proposals further might take the opportunity to comment here. And, of course, even if you weren’t there today, comments on this early-stage work are very welcome!
Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television
In this talk, I want to consider the possibility and the purpose of an “affective turn” in television studies. I’ll try to explain what such a “turn,” or refocusing of scholarly attention, might entail, and I’ll consider some of the grounds for making such a move.
First of all, the “affective turn” as I’m using the term describes developments going on in various disciplines, including philosophy and media and cultural theory, since about the 1990s. Following theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, Steven Shaviro, and Brian Massumi, the “affect” in question here refers to a domain of pre-personal feelings, not subjective emotions but raw intensities that transpire below the threshold of consciousness, as functions and correlates of non-voluntary processes: for example, the not-quite-conscious sensations associated with visceral, proprioceptive, and endocrinological changes in one’s overall body-state. Thus, affects are diffuse material forces and sensations, whereas emotions are their more narrowly focused correlates; affects precede consciousness and envelop the mind, while emotions can be seen to involve the subjective “capture” of affect, the yoking of affect to consciousness, or the filtering and processing that takes place when pre-reflective affect becomes available to reflective conscious experience. Theory and criticism undertaken in the wake of an affective turn seek to uncover the material and cultural efficacy of affect prior to this filtering.
But why would television scholars want to make this turn towards a subterranean domain of pre-personal affect? Briefly, I want to propose that an affective turn would help to highlight the richly material parameters of the televisual experience, to focus attention on embodied interfaces and non-cognitive transfers, thus providing a counterpoint to the dominant celebration of cognitive effort in recent television studies. In other words, the context for an affect-oriented intervention is the tendency, widespread in popular and scholarly accounts alike of recent television, to intellectualize the medium, to focus on complex narrative structures in an effort to redeem TV from long-standing prejudices and stereotypes that cast the bulk of programming as culturally inferior trash produced for a passive, undiscriminating, and distracted mass audience. Foregrounding the emergence of a new televisual “quality,” many recent critical approaches have focused particularly on contemporary serial television’s demanding textual forms, which seek to engage viewers with complex puzzles and intricately orchestrated plot developments – thus breaking with the formulaic repetition characteristic of simple episodic programs and providing mental stimulation in exchange for viewers’ long-term investments of attention. As early as the 1980s, the advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television had defined “quality” in the following terms: “A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought.” In short, quality TV does what good literature is supposed to do, namely: to engage the viewer/reader and make him or her think. And popular criticism has continued to pursue this tack in the effort to make television respectable, e.g. by comparing newer series to the nineteenth century novel – The Wire, for example, has been called “a Balzac for our time”, thereby suggesting that this paradigmatically complex series distinguishes itself by a heady sort of appeal that rewards the sophisticated viewer. Steven Johnson has famously claimed that such complex television provides its viewers with what he calls a “cognitive workout.” And Jason Mittell, who has probably done more than any of these people to explore the mechanics of complexity, has noted the way complex series reward viewers who assume the role of “amateur narratologists.”
Clearly, the critical reappraisal of the medium and its implied viewer is not without foundation, as it speaks to very real changes in television programming in the wake of industrial, technological, and cultural shifts. Over the past ten years or so, there has indeed been an unprecedented flowering of programs that would seem to encourage active and intellectually engaged viewing. At the same time, though, graphic scenes of sex and violence proliferate across contemporary television series, including shows widely valued for their sophisticated cognitive demands. In particular, bodies are now routinely put on display, violated, tortured, dissected, and ripped apart in ways unimaginable on TV screens just a decade ago. I want to be clear that I don’t think this in any way invalidates theories and analyses that foreground the cognitive appeals of narratively complex TV. But this explosion of body images – including images of bodies exploding – does, I think, challenge such approaches to reconcile intellectual and more broadly affective and body-based appeals. By advocating an affective turn, a turn towards a diffuse, inarticulate field of pre-personal affect, I am not urging a turn away from consciousness or a regressive turn back to the view of an unrefined, unintellectual viewer. Instead, I am asking for more thought about how cognitive and affective appeals coexist today, and specifically about how they might be seen to work in tandem to maintain the momentum of contemporary television’s serial trajectories.
Seriality is the key word here: seriality is one of the things that’s illuminated particularly well by broadly cognitivist and narratological approaches, and it’s seriality, I think, that marks the real challenge for an affective turn in TV studies. Consider Brian Massumi’s definition of affect as “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of what might be called ‘passion,’ to distinguish it both from passivity and activity” (28). This conception, which Massumi associates with the thinking of Baruch Spinoza, accords also with Henri Bergson’s notion of affect as “that part or aspect of the inside of our bodies which mix with the image of external bodies” (Matter and Memory 60). And the Bergsonian image of the body as a “center of indetermination,” where affect is an intensity experienced in a state of “suspension,” outside of linear time and the empirical determinateness of forward-oriented action, corresponds to a major emphasis in film theory conducted in the wake of the affective turn – namely, a focus on privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations. Such moments figure prominently in what Linda Williams calls the “body genres” of melodrama, horror, and pornography – genres in which images on screen are mobilized to arouse pity, fear, or desire directly in the body of the viewer. In his now classic study, The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro explores extreme cases like the self-reflexive attunement between gory images of zombies dismembering and disgorging on-screen characters, on the one hand, and the embodied spectator affected viscerally by these images on the other. But these are moments of caesura, when narrative and discursive significance dissolves and gives way to an “abject” experience of material plenitude prior to its parceling out into subject-object roles and relations. These displaced or “utopic” moments, dilated experientially to allow for a poetic sort of tarrying alongside images, are of course already exceptional in narrative cinema, but they must seem even more clearly at odds with the vectors of serial continuation that pull television viewers from one episode to the next, engrossing them in a story-world and concerning them with the lives of its characters week after week, over the course of several seasons.
So if television studies is to make an affective turn, it will have to account for the medial differences between long-form serial television and closed-form film, and it will have to distinguish the role of affect in each. One place to start with this comparison might be the self-reflexive “operational aesthetic” that Jason Mittell, following Neil Harris’s work on P.T. Barnum, has attributed to contemporary serial television as one of its central mechanisms. For Mittell, the operational aesthetic is related to the cognitive operation of tracing and taking pleasure in the complexities of narrative twists. At stake is an enjoyment not only of the story told but also of the manner of its telling, and the operational aesthetic involves the viewer in what might be described as the recursive pleasure of recognizing a series’ own recognition of the complexity of its narration. But if television’s “narrative special effects,” as Mittell calls them, can be explained in terms of an operational aesthetic, it’s important to note that this mode of engagement has also been attributed to closed-form film to explain the appeal of special effects of the ordinary, primarily visual and non-narrative, sort. Tom Gunning has applied the term “operational aesthetic” to the body-gag spectacles of slapstick. In this view, Charlie Chaplin’s or Buster Keaton’s body gets implemented as a thing-like mechanism in a larger system of things, and the spectator takes pleasure in tracing the causal dynamics of the system, which is in a sense also the system of cinematic images itself; the cinema in turn reveals itself as a complex (Rube Goldberg-type) contraption for the transfer of material intensities from one body – Chaplin’s or Keaton’s – to another – my own, as the latter is affected physically and compelled to laugh. Similarly self-reflexive mechanisms are at work in sci-fi and horror films, where visual and visceral spectacles interrupt narrative flow and bedazzle or shock with an operational appeal to the body rather than the brain. Monumental explosions, monstrous sights flashed on the screen without warning, and show-stopping effects seek in part to bypass the brain and imprint themselves in the manner of the physiological Chockwirkung that Walter Benjamin took to be central to the filmic medium.
But is this corporeal sort of self-reflexivity, an operational aesthetic that arouses the body more than the brain, possible in long-form serial television? And, if so, can it be a central component of televisual seriality, a motor of serial development, or must it remain a mere side-show in a medium dependent upon the forward momentum of narrativity?
As I noted before, there is certainly no shortage of body spectacles on contemporary television, and they seem in many ways to function like the cinematic spectacles I’ve been describing. Procedural, or what might more properly be called operational, forensic shows likes CSI or Bones, for example, resemble science-fiction film in their showcasing of technological processes – processes that are anchored in diegetic techniques and technologies but that serve to foreground medial technologies of visualization. These displays serve, like the special effects of science-fiction film, more to impress the viewer than to advance the story. Significantly, such digressive forensic displays revolve around bodies and their imbrications with medial technologies: corpses are subjected to analytical methods that issue not in cognitive but in visual and media-technological spectacles, thus providing the spectator with an affectively potent – but narratively rather pointless – formula that gets repeated week after week. The technological probing of bodies onscreen thus speaks to and motivates a doubling of the viewing body’s own technological interface with the television screen – the material site of affective transfer, which is crucially at stake in these biotechnical displays. A show like Grey’s Anatomy similarly problematizes the integrity of bodies and sets them in relation to technologies, both medical and medial, in order to establish an affective circuit between bodies onscreen and off. Bodies in pain, bodies injured, impaled, injected, or incised, bones sawed, organs exposed and removed: all of these things have their place in a narrative, but they also maintain an excessive autonomy as images, establishing in this way a relay between an affective awareness of one’s own embodiment and an emotional engrossment in a melodramatic story.
And while these shows may tend toward the episodic or the formulaic, their employment of body spectacles might be seen to illuminate a range of contemporary television, including shows widely recognized as qualitatively complex. Premium cable shows like Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under, Dexter, or Californication, for example, revolve around a variety of corporeal explorations. And a series like True Blood manages to combine all three of Linda Williams’s “body genres” into a hybrid mix of soft-porn, horror, and melodrama. The Walking Dead positively obsesses over its media-technological ability to generate graphic images of all states of bodily decay, thus offering a series of visual and visceral challenges to the viewer that run parallel to and punctuate the story’s unfolding. And even a starkly serialized and celebrated complex show like Breaking Bad activates these mechanisms when it visualizes a scene of bodily destruction like this one:
Here, there is a properly visual appeal, a showcasing of the image that involves the viewer by activating a sense of one’s own corporeal fragility – thus staging a deeply existential demonstration of physical vulnerability that culminates, and momentarily negates, all the narrative investment and development of character that has led up to this point. In other words, the affective force of this moment far exceeds its diegetic and medial temporality; with Massumi, we might say the image occasions “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of […] ‘passion’” or immersive involvement. But, I suggest, the scene demonstrates a synergistic or contrapuntal rather than strictly oppositional relation between narrative development and affective depth. The image of the exploded face retains a visual and affective singularity, an excess over and above the storyline in which it’s embedded, but its evocation of the viewer’s own delicate corporeality resonates as well with the series’ overall narrative focus on a protagonist whose body is under attack by cancer.
Finally, to generalize from these examples and wager a hypothesis about the contrapuntal function of such body spectacles in contemporary long-form serial television: I suggest that corporeal self-reflexivity, or the establishment of affective circuits by graphically opening up bodies for destructive, clinical, or sexual purposes, serves as a nexus for the formal hybridization of serial and episodic forms that Mittell makes central to his conception of narrative complexity. Not, of course, the nexus, but a nexus: in other words, a site where a certain sort of formal experimentation takes place, leading to an alternative form of “serially complex television” that activates an “operational aesthetic” for cognitive and corporeal means, in the process intensifying viewers’ investment in narrative developments by imbuing them with affective depth. I speak intentionally of “serial complexity” rather than “narrative complexity,” in order to account for the contrapuntal interplay between lines of narrative continuity on the one hand and moments of non-narrative affect on the other; by standing outside of series’ narrative temporalities, the latter moments punctuate continuity with discontinuity, but they also harbor the potential to establish an alternative seriality of their own, one that runs parallel to narrative development; this is an affective and corporeally registered seriality established through the repetition and variation of such poignant moments and images. Scenarios of the body-genre type serve then as fulcrum points for alternating between ongoing serial arcs and more episodically ritualistic engagements with affectively intense but narratively vacuous states of being: arousal by sexualized images, for example, or being moved to tears by highly melodramatic sequences (like the ritualized climaxes of Grey’s Anatomy, which employ music video techniques for a literally melodramatic presentation of bodily triumphs and defeats), or being shaken or disturbed by brutal violence and body horror (which can be occasioned by vampires, zombies, gladiators, serial-killers, or even health-care givers).
At stake, then, in television studies’ affective turn is the discovery of a broad, material site of serial complexity, of a nexus where shifts occur between serial and episodic forms or between repetition and variation, serially modulated through alternating appeals to cognitive effort and to bodily stimulation. By engineering self-reflexive feedback loops between onscreen body spectacles and the bodily sensitivities of offscreen viewers, contemporary series cement strong affective bonds between their viewers and the very form of complex seriality – with its shifting of gears and contrapuntal rhythms internalized at a deep, sub-cognitive level as the rhythms of one’s own body. Engagement with form thus becomes the embodiment of temporal vicissitudes that are as much those of the show as they are the flowing time of the spectator’s own affective life. At stake is a sort of serial synchronization of affective potentials, over and above (or perhaps deep below) the cognitive recognition of formal complexity. Such affective interfaces materially support and encourage mental engagements with narrative developments, but they do so by cultivating deep material resonances that, at the farthest extreme, institute a corporeal (perhaps endocrinological) need, a serially articulated demand for bodily replenishment or a weekly affective “fix.” The serialized probing of diegetic bodies is reflexively tied to a complex serialization of the viewer’s own body.
The schedule has now been posted for the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference taking place this spring at Dartmouth College (April 19 – 21, 2013). There are quite a few interesting speakers and exciting topics on the roster, so I encourage readers to look at the complete conference schedule. But here I’d like to focus briefly on a few people who happen to be both involved in the conference and associated in one way or another with this blog and the various projects represented here.
First of all, two of my European colleagues will be presenting papers:
Daniel Stein, co-editor with me on Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives and fellow postdoctoral researcher in the Popular Seriality group, will be presenting a paper called “Animating Batman: Serial Storytelling, Cartoon Animation, and the Multiplicities of Contemporary Superhero Comics.” (Click the title for his abstract.)
Lukas Etter, contributor to Transnational Perspectives (with a great chapter on Jason Lutes’s Berlin) and member of the research project “Seriality and Intermediality in Graphic Novels” (a Swiss project associated with the DFG research group on Popular Seriality), will present “Seria(s)lly Episodic: Gradual Formal Variations in Alison Bechdel’s Feminist Comic Strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008).” (Click title for abstract.)
I will also be presenting a paper, titled “Animation as Theme and Medium: Frankenstein and Visual Culture.” (Again, click for the abstract.)
Finally, our American host and the conference’s organizer is Michael A. Chaney, Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth College, who is likewise a contributor to Transnational Perspectives (with an excellent chapter on “Transnationalism and Form in Visual Narratives of US Slavery”).
As it turns out, this will be the second time that all four of our paths cross — the first being at a comics studies workshop in Bern, Switzerland in October 2011. In this respect, and in addition to our cooperation on the volume, the upcoming conference marks the continuation of a very literal transnational exchange of ideas, which has brought together German, Swiss, and American (among other) perspectives on the study of comics and related media. I look forward to this and further such intersections and (national as well as medial) border-crossings!
Here is the abstract for Daniel Stein’s talk at the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College (April 19 – 21, 2013):
Animating Batman: Serial Storytelling, Cartoon Animation, and the Multiplicities of Contemporary Superhero Comics
Comics and films scholars have devoted much time to the phenomenon of the Hollywood superhero blockbuster, developing sophisticated theories of media transposition and comic book adaptation. They have paid much less attention to a related and equally significant phenomenon: the animated superhero cartoon, most often produced for television. This may come as a surprise since animated versions of Superman (1941) and Spider-Man (1967) appeared rather early in the history of the superhero genre and have contributed to its evolution at least as much as the film serials of the 1940s (Batman: 1943 and 1949; Captain America: 1944), live action television series (Superman: 1952; Batman: 1966; Spider-Man: 1977), and the Hollywood blockbusters that followed the first Superman movie (1978).
This paper addresses two sets of questions that are vital to our understanding of superhero comics and their place in twenty-first-century media culture. First: How can we describe the transposition from sequential comic book narrative to the animated images of the television narrative? Are we dealing with different “visual ontologies” (Lefèvre)? And how does the change from multimodal storytelling in print to multimedial storytelling in film impact the representation? Second: If serial genres such as superhero comics produce various mechanisms to manage the multiplicities of proliferating “vast narratives” (Harrigan/Wardrip-Fruin), we must explain how new media impact the development of the genre. How does the “animated universe” (Brooker) of specific superheroes relate to their comic book continuities and canonicity? The paper analyzes animated Batman cartoons of the last twenty years: from television series such as Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999), Batman Beyond (1999-2001), and Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011) to animated movie adaptations of canonical graphic novels such as Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) Batman: Year One (2011), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012).
Here is the abstract for Lukas Etter’s talk at the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College (April 19 – 21, 2013):
Seria(s)lly episodic. Gradual Formal Variations in Alison Bechdel’s Feminist Comic Strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008).
When early in 2000 comic artist Alison Bechdel depicted herself as insane, this was due to the political state of her country. The episode in question, titled “Leadership Vacuum”, is a one-page comic strip in which the artist is shown at the drawing board, incapable of bearing the ‘loudness’ of the current political discourse resulting from the Lewinsky affair of the previous year. Simultaneously depicted is a main character, Mo, who transgresses from an intra- into an extradiegetic world by ‘stepping out’ of the strip and addressing the readers in order to explain the author’s alleged insanity. “Leadership Vacuum” is an episode of Dykes to Watch Out For, a bi-weekly feminist comic strip syndicated in U.S.-American periodicals between 1983 and 2008 – i.e., the strip which Bechdel had been working on for more than 17 years at this point.
These 17 years are subtly reflected in the episode “Leadership Vacuum”, given that Mo rummages in drawings made at an earlier stage. While self-reflexivity is almost always present in Bechdel’s later work – Fun Home (2006), “Cartoonist’s Introduction” (2008), “Compulsory Reading” (2008), “Wrought” (2008), Are You My Mother? (2012) – the rummaging in earlier drawings, and more generally speaking such an explicit type of self-reflexivity, is exceptional for a Dykes to Watch Out For episode. More importantly still, it is a subject matter largely understudied in critical literature on Bechdel’s work. Here begins, ultimately, what the present paper aims to focus on: The gradual formal changes over time in Dykes to Watch Out For, with a special interest in drawing style as well as narrative features – such as direct addressing of the readers at the end of an episode (“Stay tuned!”). An analysis of such changes will facilitate our understanding of the mechanisms at work a flexinarrative (i.e. combination of the ‘episodic’ and the ‘serial’ proper) on a more abstract level. It will add to an understanding of how Bechdel’s strip continually serves as a pungently sarcastic comment on contemporary ‘Western’ society at large for – in Eco’s terms – both a ‘naïve’ reader and a ‘smart’ one.
Here is the abstract for Shane Denson’s talk at the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College (April 19 – 21, 2013):
Animation as Theme and Medium: Frankenstein and Visual Culture
Frankenstein and above all Frankenstein’s monster are emphatically plurimedial figures; already in the nineteenth century, they escaped the confines of Mary Shelley’s novel and proliferated on theater stages and in political cartoons before embarking, in the twentieth century, on a long career in film, radio, TV, comics, and video games. In the course of these developments, the monster in particular has become an unmistakable visual icon, the general contours of which were more or less fixed in our visual culture through Boris Karloff’s embodiment in the early 1930s. The image, however, remains flexible enough as to be instantly recognizable in cartoonish illustrations adorning cereal boxes. In this presentation, I contend that the monster’s image presents a special case for thinking the intermedial networks that constitute our visual culture, owing to the fact that this icon is linked inextricably with “animation” as both a thematic and media-technical topos. The act of animation, or bringing a creature composed of dead corpses to life—subject to only cursory treatment in the novel—becomes the main subject and visual attraction of the tale’s filmic iterations, where animation is motivated not solely by narrative but linked also to a self-reflexive probing of film as a medium. The first Frankenstein film, Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), used reverse motion and trick photography to animate its creature, and it linked into early discourses of cinema, according to which moving images in general (rather than, as later, a special class of films) were referred to as “animated film”—for the cinema brought “dead” photos (cf. 19th century memento mori) back to life, as attested in the names of early-film companies and apparatuses (Bioscope, Vitagraph, etc). James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), too, probes animation as both theme and medium in the midst of change, reviving this nexus (and the monster) in the wake of the sound transition, with its foregrounding of uncanny figures “electrified” by technical sound, showcased all the more by a mute monster capable only of inarticulate moans. Besides the cinematic trajectory, moreover, there is also a rich Frankensteinian comics tradition—which includes fumetti film tie-ins, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein series of the 1940s and 1950s, various serializations at Marvel and DC, and even crossovers with superheroes like Batman, Spiderman, or the X-Men—that similarly probes “animation” as the thematic/medial wellspring of modern visual culture. Both in film and comics, graphic/visual treatments of Frankenstein approach animation (asymptotically, perhaps) as an enabling frame or parergon and thus relive, again and again, an iconic Urszene of the birth of modern visual culture and its self-reflexive mediality.