Scott Higgins, “Ludic Operations: Play and the Serial Action Sequence” #SCMS15

giphy-train

Here is the abstract for Scott Higgins’s paper on the panel “Digital Seriality” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

Ludic Operations: Play and the Serial Action Sequence

Scott Higgins (Wesleyan University)

In “Digital Seriality: On the Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games,” Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann call for “a serious consideration of both the specificities of game-based serialities and the common ground they share with other media-cultural practices and aesthetic forms.” This essay heeds that call, albeit in reverse. If the concept of play can illuminate serial qualities of digital games, then perhaps analog serial forms should be regarded in terms of their ludic potentials. In particular, the concept of operational aesthetics connects the Hollywood sound serial and the contemporary action film to the kind of spatial, physical, problem solving basic to many digital games.

Tom Gunning brought the concept of “operational aesthetics” to film studies from Neil Harris’ study of P.T. Barnum. For Gunning, the term describes an essential fascination with seeing systems at work, “visualizing cause and effect through the image of the machine.” While Gunning traces this pleasure to early gag films and slapstick comedy, which he sees as at odds with studio-era plotting, the sound serial’s weekly death traps and infernal machines give pride of place to similar processes. Cliffhangers are physical traps with clear procedural boundaries: story potential is embedded within concrete mechanisms. The best cliffhangers achieved such visual and spatial clarity that viewers might feel something like a gamers’ agency, tracing out potential outcomes. In their design of narrative space, and their obsession with physical process, cliffhangers prefigure the fully ludic architectures of digital games. Similarly, Lisa Purse proposes that the contemporary action genre enacts a “fantasy of spatial mastery,” an embodied experience of overcoming physical constraints and boundaries. From Bond to Raiders to the Marvel franchises, action films have inherited the serial’s operational logic, placing inhabitable characters in diagrammatically vivid problem spaces.

My paper explores the operational action sequence as a form of ludic narrative, drawing examples from Captain Midnight, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Guardians of the Galaxy. As transmedial action properties, both serials and blockbusters maintain a direct connection to the culture of play via seriality’s interrupted continuity. Operational aesthetics forms a bridge between story and game. I hope this research will help embolden the field to pursue the ludology of film narrative.

Bibliography:

Denson Shane, and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann. “Digital Seriality: On the Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games.” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 7.1 (2013): 1-32..

Gunning, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths.” Classical Hollywood Comedy. Eds. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1995. 87-105.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Murray, Janet. “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004. 2-11.

Purse, Lisa. Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2011.

 

Author Bio:

Scott Higgins is associate professor and chair of film studies at Wesleyan University. His interests include genre, narrative theory, film aesthetics, and technology. His first book, entitled Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow, is published by the University of Texas Press. His second is the edited volume Arnheim for Film and Media Studies, published by Routledge. He is working on a manuscript about sound serials of the 1930s-1950s.

Ilka Brasch, “The Operational Aesthetic as a Receptive Mode”

operational_aesthetic

Abstract for Ilka Brasch’s talk at the symposium “Imagining Media Change” (June 13, 2013, Leibniz Universität Hannover):

Facilitating Media Change: The Operational Aesthetic as a Receptive Mode

Ilka Brasch

When the Scientific American published Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographs of a horse in motion on October 19th, 1878, the magazine advised its readers to cut the images and mount them into the drum of a zoetrope. By means of this nineteenth-century optical toy, the readers could then prove whether Muybridge’s photographs really did depict the movement of a horse during gallop (Newhall 43). In addition to being one historical instance of media change, the example describes an engagement with media that exceeds a simple acknowledgment of mediated content. The tinkerer’s play with technology, I argue, relates back to what Neil Harris termed the operational aesthetic: a critical engagement with the nature and structure of an artifact, which then allows for the observer to judge about its truth value (Harris 79).

Tracing the history of a critical engagement with developing machines, or ‘new media’, since the 1840s, I will establish the operational aesthetic as a particular mode of engagement with media. That receptive mode then influenced the ways in which tinkerers, operators, or spectators experienced media change. Although media change itself impacts the operational aesthetic, that particular receptive mode also impacts the engagement with ‘new media’. As a final step, I will consider how the operational aesthetic influenced, and was changed itself, during the spectators’ engagement with silent film serials up to the 1920s. All in all, the presentation will serve to offer the operational aesthetic as one way of imagining media change.

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Newhall, Beaumont. “Photography and the Development of Kinetic Visualization” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Insitutes, 7 (1944): 40-45.

Felix Brinker, “On Popular Seriality, Operational Aesthetics, and Audience Productivity”

poetics_of_politics_poster

On Friday, June 21, 2013, Felix Brinker will be speaking about “The Politics of Long-Form Storytelling in Contemporary American Serial Television” at the “Poetics of Politics” conference in Leipzig. Felix’s talk builds upon recent work he’s been doing in the context of his dissertation project and related talks (for example, at the recent “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt). Here is a preview of the upcoming talk:

The Politics of Long-Form Storytelling in Contemporary American Serial Television: On Popular Seriality, Operational Aesthetics, and Audience Productivity

Felix Brinker

The turn of American prime-time television dramas towards increasingly serialized storytelling during the last two decades seems to have coincided with an explicit politicization of their content. Especially shows discussed under the label of ‘Quality TV’ have been repeatedly celebrated and/or dismissed for their openly political agenda – be it for their engagement with the anxieties connected to the ‘War on Terror’ and the nebulous practices of intelligence agencies (as on Rubicon, Homeland and 24), or for attempts to tackle the social ills of contemporary urban America (as on The Wire or Breaking Bad). At the same time, other popular programs that at first glance seem to background political concerns in favor of more ‘escapist’ content (e.g. mystery-centric science-fiction or fantasy shows like Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, or Heroes) increasingly engage with matters of power, politics, and political intrigue and develop these motifs in ongoing storylines. While recent cultural and media studies publications on these phenomena have easily connected this renewed interest in political subject matters to the emergence of what Jason Mittell has termed ‘narratively complex television’ – that is, a (by now pervasive) shift in emphasis away from episodically contained storylines towards an ongoing serial narration that allows contemporary programming to construct richly furnished, expansive storyworlds and thus (among other things) opens up new possibilities for representing the complexities and intricacies of political systems and processes – less attention has so far been paid to the political dimensions of the increasingly active audience practices invited by such programming, and to the social aspects of popular seriality itself.

Located firmly within the competitive media environment of the convergence era, complex television series seek to engage their audiences in practices that extend well beyond ‘passive’ reception, and encourage them to become culturally and textually productive by participating in the discussion, interpretation and analysis of their favorite programs in dedicated online forums. Therefore, my paper argues that the political significance of narratively complex serial television manifests itself less on the level of content than on the level of form: By inviting their viewers to parse the complicated unfoldings of  narratives across longer periods of time, as well as across different media formats and paratexts, contemporary prime-time dramas ask their audiences to dedicate a considerable amount of their time to the engagement with a serially expanding text. By doing so, narratively complex serials not only ask their viewers to engage in cognitively challenging and time-consuming reception practices, but also inspire them to engage in the laborious creation of unofficial paratexts (such as wikis, blogs, and fansites) which chart the developments of storylines and characters – paratexts that serve both to render the increasingly complicated narratives accessible and as ‘free’ promotional materials that ensure the cultural visibility of these programs. These shows therefore thrive on the ‘free’ (i.e. unpaid) work of their viewers and employ it to secure their own continued serial proliferation. Drawing on recent conceptualizations of popular seriality that understand the active participation of audiences as an activity that is integral to the economic viability serial storytelling in general, as well as on post-operaist takes on immaterial labor as the predominant form of work in post-industrial societies, my paper argues that the contemporary centrality of such ‘participatory’ practices marks a profound shift in the relationship between work and leisure (or between recreational activity and professional media use) that coincides with the digitalization of our media environment.

To make its argument, my paper will take a closer look at contemporary serial dramas like HomelandThe Wire, and House of Cards, and identify the textual strategies by which these shows encourage a particularly active audience behavior. Drawing on Neil Harris’s concept of the ‘operational aesthetic’, I argue that especially moments of formal/medial and thematic self-reflexivity – that is, moments in which these series thematize, demonstrate, and comment both on the operations of the serial text and on the logics of the diegetic events it narrates – constitute central fulcra for facilitating the audiences’ ongoing and sustained engagement with serial television narratives. By repeatedly producing such moments of non-alienating self-reflexivity – for example in scenes in which a show asks their viewers to ‘recall’ events from earlier episodes and visualizes this by having its characters use diegetic media technologies – complex television dramas manage to call attention to the logics of their own narrative operations and suggest a particular, preferred way of engaging with the text without detracting from the story that is being being told. At the same time, I argue, these moments become productive for the representations of political systems and processes, since they usually also serve to thematize diegetic logics, processes, and chains of cause and effect. Such instances of formal and thematic self-reflexivity thus constitute moments in which the serial logics of narratively complex televisions shows are on display, and from which one could trace out the relationships between their representational politics and the politics of popular serial formats themselves.