All About Seriality: Henry Jenkins’s 4-Part Interview with Frank Kelleter

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Following the recent publication of Media of Serial Narrative, edited by Frank Kelleter, there is a 4-part interview with Kelleter conducted by Henry Jenkins over on the latter’s blog. The interview is far-ranging and offers a good introduction to the volume and to the broader work conducted by the Popular Seriality Research Unit from 2010 to 2016, continued in ongoing work today.

Part one of the interview is here.

Part two.

Part three.

Part four.

Animating Frankenstein (Stanford Graphic Narrative Project, Nov. 16, 2016)

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This coming Wednesday (Nov. 16, 2016 at 6pm), I will be presenting a talk titled “Animating Frankenstein: Film, Comics, Visual Culture.” The event is organized by the Stanford Graphic Narrative Project (under the leadership of Mia Lewis and Scott Bukatman) and hosted by the Stanford Humanities Center. More info here.

On the ‘Parergodic’ Work of Seriality in Interactive Digital Environments

 

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Here is the full text of my talk from the 2015 conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts — part of the panel on Video Games’ Extra-Ludic Echoes (organized by David Rambo, and featuring talks by Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk, David Rambo, and myself).

On the “Parergodic” Work of Seriality in Interactive Digital Environments

Shane Denson (SLSA 2015, Houston, Nov. 15, 2015)

I want to suggest that popular serialized figures function as indexes of historical and media-technical changes, helping us to assess the material and cultural transformations that such figures chart in the process of their serial unfoldings. This function becomes especially pronounced when serial figures move between and among various media. By shifting from a medial “inside” to an “outside” or an in-between, serial figures come to function as higher-order media, turning first-order apparatic media like film and television inside out and exposing them as reversible frames. But with the rise of interactive, networked, and convergent digital media environments, this outside space is called into question, and the medial logic of serial figures is transformed in significant ways. This transformation, I suggest, is not unrelated to the blurring of relations between work and play, between paid labor and the incidental work culled from our entertainment practices. In the age of transmedia, serial figures move flexibly between media much like we move between projects and contexts of consumption and production. The dynamics of border-crossing that characterized earlier serial figures have now been re-functionalized in accordance with the ergodic work of navigating computational networks—in accordance, that is, with work and network forms that frame all aspects of contemporary life.

I will come back to this argument in a moment and elaborate with reference to Batman and his movement from comics to film and video games, but first let me say a few words about “the work of seriality.” In the nineteenth century, production work became increasingly serialized as it was fragmented and mechanized in factories, culminating in the assembly line, the paradigmatic site of serialized production, and eventually leading to digital automation and process control. Ultimately, of course, this trajectory was spearheaded by capitalism’s own seriality, or its structuration as an endless series of M-C-M’ progressions. At the same time, works of culture also fell under the spell of the series. The industrial steam press churned out penny dreadfuls and dime novels, before comic strips, film serials, radio and TV series took over. The simultaneous rise of serialized work practices and serial “works” of culture is too massive, I suggest, to be a sheer coincidence. And concomitant with these two was a third form of serialization: that of cultural identity or of subjective experience itself. As Benedict Anderson and Jean-Paul Sartre before him have argued, new forms of community, identity, and perception were based in the serial work of media, such that, for example, the serialization of daily papers, consumed more or less simultaneously by an entire nation, could produce the nation itself as an “imagined community” of serialized subjects. Anderson’s conception of the serialities of nationhood or the proletariat suggests a material connection between the minute level of concrete serial media practices and the broad level of discursive, cultural, or imagined realities—a connection that I want to pursue into the realm of digital media.

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I want to suggest that serialized media are able to leverage these shifts in the nature of work/works because they function according to the logic of the “parergon,” as described by Jacques Derrida. Etymologically, the term parergon is composed of the prefix “para-” (next to, or beside) and “ergon,” which derives from Greek for work. The parergon is thus literally “next to the work,” marginal or supplementary to it, as a frame is with respect to a painting (or an hors d’oeuvre with respect to the main course of a meal).

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But the picture frame in particular demonstrates an essential reversibility: on the one hand, the frame serves as a background for the work, as a ground for the image it frames and selects or presents. On the other hand, the frame can also be absorbed into the figure when seen against the larger background of the wall, as when we take a broad view of a row of paintings on a museum wall before selecting one to observe more closely. The frame is therefore subject to repeated figure/ground reversals, and it’s the same with serialized media, which are constituted in the flickering interplay between an ongoing sequence and its articulation into discrete segments.

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A serial figure like Frankenstein’s monster embodies this interplay and mediates it as a higher-order reflection on media change. The monster is of course part of a film’s diegetic universe, for example, but it also exceeds that frame and partakes in a plurimedial series of instantiations. We never just see Frankenstein’s monster; we see an iteration of the monster that stands in extradiegetic relation to Karloff’s iconic portrayal and to a series of media and mediations of the figure. And we should not forget that Karloff’s mute monster, which contrasts sharply with the eloquent monster of Shelley’s novel, once served to foreground the transition from silent cinema to the talkies. Figure/ground reversibility is an essential precondition for plurimedial seriality as such, specifically enabling the foregrounding of mediality that allows the serial figure to serve as a figuration of media change.

But with the rise of digital media, the formerly discrete media across which serial figures were deployed come to mingle in much closer proximity. What Henry Jenkins calls our “convergence culture” responds by coming up with new ways to tell stories (and to sell commodities) that take advantage of the coming-together of media in the space of the digital. In Jenkins’s version, transmedia storytelling is inherently serial, but much less linear than a conventional television series might be, as it allows the reader/viewer/player/user to explore various facets of a story-world through movies, games, textual and other forms, allowing for a variable order of consumption that corresponds, we might say, to the database structures in which digital information is stored and (interactively) accessed. But transmedia storytelling often aims to smooth over the disjunctures between media installments; the parergonal logic of figure/ground reversals that sustained serial figures and allowed them to track and foreground media changes is thus transformed. A serial figure like Batman thrives in this new environment and traces this transformation in relation to computational mediation and the shift from a parergonal to what I call a parergodic logic.

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With the term parergodics, I want to link Derrida’s notion of the parergon with Espen Aarseth’s use of the term ergodics to describe processes and structures of digital interactivity. Ergodics combines the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path), thus positing nontrivial labor as the aesthetic mode of players’ engagement with games. For Aarseth, the arduous or laborious path of ergodic interactivity marks a fundamental difference between digital media such as video games or electronic literature on the one hand and traditional literature and narrative media on the other. For whereas the path of a narrative is fixed for the reader of a novel or the spectator of a film, it must be generated in digital media through a cooperative effort between the user and the computational system. The signs composing the text of a video game—including textual strings, visual perspectives, narrative and audiovisual events—are not (completely) predetermined but generated on the fly, in real time, as the player makes his or her way through the game. Ergodics, the path of the work or the work of the path, therefore describes the nontrivial labor at the heart of gameplay. But to expand this beyond Aarseth’s narrower frame of reference, the concept of ergodics can also be seen to ground a wider variety of interactive and participatory potentials in contemporary culture, where computational networks are implicated virtually ubiquitously in entertainment, social life, and work. The borders between these realms are remarkably unclear (think of all the things people do on social networks and the virtual impossibility of distinguishing clearly between work activities and play), and it would seem that this has something to do with the indifference of computational media to the type of contents processed. This computational indifference to the phenomenological modalities of human experience – or to the differences between the analogue media that at least partly corresponded to those modalities – leads, as Mark Hansen argues, to a divergence between mediation in its classical, perceptually oriented form and a new form of mediation that channels human affect into the process-oriented project of establishing ever greater networks of pure connectivity. This is the larger significance, I propose, of what Steven Shaviro calls “post-cinematic affect”: in contrast to the cinema, which was constituted by the storage and reproduction of perceptual objects, ergodic mediation involves acts of affective interfacing with the fundamentally post-perceptual realm of computation, which is algorithmic, distributed, and nonlocal, in contrast to the phenomenological basis of human embodiment. Clicking on a Youtube video not only delivers perceptual content to your embodied eyes and ears, it also delivers computational content – information about affective, epistemic, and monetary valuations – to the routines of network-constitutive algorithms. In this environment, play activities not only involve the execution of nontrivial work, as Aarseth argues, but corporations and financial interests, among others, continually find clever ways to disguise work as play, to “gamify” our labor, both paid and unpaid, while mining the data generated in the process in order to profit from both dedicated and incidental work. In this environment, as Matteo Pasquinelli has argued, virtually any investment of attention or affect will also generate a surplus value for Google, Facebook, etc. – a value produced and accumulated parasitically, without regard for any significance we may attach to the contents of our digital interactions, by means of computational algorithms functioning on an altogether different level than the human concerns that feed them.

As a result, media “contents” become incidental or marginal to work, so that our so-called “participatory culture” might better be termed a “parergodic culture,” where cultural “contents” are reversibly supplemental to the nontrivial labor of interactive work. But the notion of “parergodic culture” suggests also that there might be para-ergodic margins from which to witness the shift, to take stock of it in the process of its occurrence. This is where the parergon meets ergodics, and it’s in this reversible margin of parergodicity, neither completely inside nor outside the realm of ergodics, that I’d like to situate the serial work of Batman from about the mid 1980s to the present.

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The starting point is the appearance of graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, 1986), Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth (Grant Morrison, 1989), and The Killing Joke (Alan Moore, 1988), which re-envisioned Batman as a darker figure and laid the groundwork for the figure’s medial self-awareness.

In their wake, a key scene in Tim Burton’s 1989 film stages a parergonal reversal of medial spaces during Joker’s televised address to Batman and the people of Gotham. The medium takes on an unexpected materiality as the Joker shoves the mayor’s image off the screen, and a crucial reversal is visualized as a shot of several contiguous studio monitors gives way to the various screens united in Batman’s multimedia console. It is here, with a sudden freeze frame interaction, that Batman enacts a further parergonal reversal: while the film’s editing leads us to believe that Bruce Wayne, like all the citizens of Gotham, is viewing the Joker’s address live, he pauses the recording, in effect pausing the continuity of the film itself. And with this seemingly insignificant difference it introduces between live and recorded images, Batman’s pausing of the image announces, in effect, an entry into the interactive space of post-cinematic media. This is the first step towards the reconceptualization of images and visual media as purely processual, computational, and no longer tied to perception as its objects.

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Jump ahead twenty years. Computational technologies are implemented more broadly in the actual production of visual media, for example in post-cinematic blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Nolan’s second film, The Dark Knight, can be seen as a serial continuation not only of Batman Begins, the first film in Nolan’s trilogy, but also an updating of Burton’s early exploration of Batman’s ergodic mediality.

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Most centrally, Nolan’s film updates Batman’s console and places it in the middle of the caped crusader’s pursuits to restore order to Gotham. The film spends a considerable amount of time foregrounding this computational wonder machine, which alternates reversibly with the film itself and serves to foreground its CGI-based spectacles.

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Within the frame of the narrative, a new range of computational powers is demonstrated, including biometric facial recognition and computational forensics. Early in the film, Bruce Wayne’s tech guy Lucius Fox demonstrates to him a new technology, utilizing a cell phone to emit an inaudibly high frequency capable of mapping a remote location by means of digitally enhanced sonar. This sets the stage for the film’s climax, when the sonar program is spread, virus-like, to the cell phones of all of Gotham’s inhabitants. Through this network, which feeds into Bruce Wayne’s central console, now equipped with a giant wall of display devices, Batman is able to “see” the whole city.

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This is a disembodied or nonlocalized 3D computer-graphics vision generated through a distributed, nonhuman sensory form that substitutes computational process for perceptual object. Seeing through the eyes of a machinic network, Batman is able to find the bad guys just in time for the final showdown, but at a decisive moment Batman’s “vision” machine crashes.

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The event is presented to us in first-person perspective, crucially drawing attention to the mediation of our own vision through computational processes. Here the parergonal reversibility between diegetic and medial levels is thoroughly parergodic, as we are made witness to an event that challenges the perceptual frames delineating the narrative and our ability to engage or disengage with the medium.

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But the scene anticipates an even more intense experience of parergodic involvement in the video game Arkham Asylum. Here, a specifically parergonal exploration of spatialized boundaries between sanity and insanity that goes back to the graphic novel of the same title is translated into a narrative that weaves back and forth between “reality” and Scarecrow-induced hallucinations. The player, who has to act in order to stay alive, can never be sure when one of these hallucinatory states has begun, and he or she therefore gets drawn into such illusions until an abrupt awakening takes place in the wake of a victory (in a boss battle) or its deferral. Even more poignantly, though, there is a total break with all narrative, perceptual, and actional involvement at one point late in the game, when the images on the screen freeze and display digital artifacts and the soundtrack begins to skip like a scratched CD.

Suddenly, the screen goes black and the game literally reboots – at least, I could swear that my PlayStation restarted at this moment, while a feeling of panic gripped me. When the game restarts, we see images reminiscent of the game’s opening scenes – thus compounding a sense of fear that either my disk or my machine is broken, and that all my progress in the game, by this time some 10 or 20 hours, is lost and will have to be repeated from the beginning. But this time things are backwards: the Joker’s in the driver’s seat, escorting Batman into Arkham Asylum. The cutscene gives way to an interactive sequence where the player controls the Joker, thus instituting a weird sort of actional identification with the villain, who then turns and points a gun directly at the player, whose vision is suddenly realigned with the perspective of Batman. There’s no chance to avoid death, and we see this “Mission failed” screen with the tip, “Use the middle stick to avoid Joker’s gun fire.” Only, there is no middle stick on the PlayStation or Xbox controller. This whole sequence therefore emphasizes the point of interface as a reversible margin where computational or ergodic media converge as both the thematic/actional “content” and the material platform for play.

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And the quasi-glitch and simulated crash of the game channel this attention to reveal the significant work involved in ergodic play—the very real panic and extradiegetic fears activated here highlight the cognitive and physical labor invested by the player, the precariousness of the digital platform for the storage or accumulation of such work, over which we have little individual control, though our activities are sure to generate profit for the corporations holding ownership of intellectual properties (like Batman), of proprietary software and hardware (like the console we’re operating), or the algorithms that will mine our activities for surplus value. This, I suggest, is parergodic culture.

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Out Now: Serialization in Popular Culture

serialization in pop culture

Just back from a trip abroad, I was happy to find this in the mailbox: my copy of Serialization in Popular Culture, edited by Rob Allen and Thijs van den Berg. The volume goes back to an excellent conference that took place in Amsterdam in 2011, organized by the editors of the book, where I presented a paper on film serials of the 1910s: “Rethinking the Serial-Queen Melodrama: Serial Narration and Medial Self-Reflexivity in Transitional-Era Cinema.” Now much expanded, my paper appears here as “The Logic of the Line Segment: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Serial-Queen Melodrama.” The book contains a number of wonderful contributions by Mark W. Turner, Joyce Goggin, Dan Hassler-Forest, Sean O’Sullivan, Jason Dittmer, and more:

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Also, I’ve posted this before, but I can’t resist posting once more my colleague and collaborator Ruth Mayer’s high praise for the volume:

“This collection presents an ambitious and original intervention in the field of seriality studies. It captures the workings of serialization as a core principle of modernity by taking stock of a wide range of medial formats and narrative and non-narrative configurations from the nineteenth century to the present time.” – Ruth Mayer, University of Hanover, Germany

Finally, the book is, unfortunately, quite expensive in the hardcover version that is now available, and it is to be hoped that a paperback edition will appear at some point. In the meantime, if you are in a position to do so, please request a university library or other institution to order a copy, and in this way support the editors and contributors and increase the chances for an affordable paperback/ebook edition.

Das Zwergenproblem — and how to solve it…

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What is the Zwergenproblem, or the problem of the gnome? Though this looks and sounds like one of those classic German words destined for import into the English of intellectuals (think of Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, or Fahrvergnügen…), you won’t find the term “Zwergenproblem” in any dictionary. And yet it’s a widely shared opinion in Germany (at least in left-leaning circles) that garden gnomes — themselves typically Deutsch — are somewhat (how should I say?) problematic creatures. Their nation-based typicality is one of the problems, and they are aligned with a range of conservative political values as symbols of a bourgeois Sesshaftigkeit that finds its natural expression in the carefully mowed lawn and Garten of the proud homeowner/Dorfbewohner. This is by no means to say that gnomeownership, any more than homeownership, is a clear indication of one’s politics. Still, the associations and stereotypes are there — so much so, in fact, that garden gnomes have come to embody a downright cliché for a certain sort of lifestyle. Of course, the existence of a cliché always invites ironic appropriation as a response, and so recent times have seen the appearance of black-leather biker-gnomes, pot-smoking gnomes, and gnomes doing gnaughty things. Trying to dissociate gnomes from notions and practices of bürgerliche Spießigkeit, these have been attempts to solve what I am calling the Zwergenproblem. But none of them, it seems to me, has yet provided an adequate response, one suited to the true gravity of the situation.

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Meanwhile, beyond and outside of Germany, the garden gnome has come to represent a mostly white, middle-class, suburban existence in a depoliticized any-space-whatever. Garden gnome liberationism has emerged in response — an international effort to free the gnomic proletariat from their servitude, to return gnomes to the wild, and more generally to draw attention to their plight. And yet the political edge wears thin when these efforts devolve into “pranks.” The travelling gnome prank — in which mostly white, middle-class, suburban kids steal their neighbors’ gnomes and take them on vacation, photographing them in front of famous tourist attractions — is all good fun, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really address the core of the Zwergenproblem. Clearly, this is because the prank is situated within the same space of possibility as the “straight” form of gnomeownership that it ostensibly questions: the space of material affluence, leisure, and the freedom to travel, where the suburban home materially anchors and spiritually secures the traveller’s foray “out into the world” like the warmth of Heidegger’s Hütte accompanied him along his Holzwege. Besides, any last drop of radical potential was drained when a major Internet travel company appropriated the prank for its marketing campaign, thus transforming the “liberated” garden gnome into a symbol for digitally enabled neo-liberal capital and the transnational flows of money, bits, and bodies. Behold: the neo-liberated gnome.

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This is where things get interesting, I think, and where a space for artistic intervention into the Zwergenproblem begins to disclose itself. The example of Internet-based travel, which of course depends on real money (hence real labor) and ideally gets real bodies to real places, places the garden gnome squarely in the realm of the so-called “new aesthetic” — which James Bridle describes as “a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities,” especially as concerns the intersection of material and digital realms. The neo-liberated gnome embodies capital as it flows within the control society, and it both emulates and encourages the “participatory culture” of viral marketing, whereby the unpaid immaterial labor done on social networks is appropriated and a surplus value is extracted by algorithmic means. What better mascot than the neo-liberated gnome, which bears witness to the wonders of the world, makes us hungry for travel (and for good-natured pranks), and even tempts us to donate our labor by posting pictures to Facebook et al that will serve as further advertisement for that travel company with the funny garden gnome…

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The association with the “new aesthetic” is even clearer in the context of 3D printing and scanning technologies, where the garden gnome has become a symbol for that magical intersection of materially unique objects rendered digitally reproducible, as in MakerBot’s extensive use of the gnome to demonstrate their machines. There should be no doubt about it: 3D printing really does involve a revolutionary sort of realignment of the physical and the ideal, but why should the garden gnome become the symbol for this transformation? The answer, I think, has to do with the fact that before it became the mascot for the new aesthetic, the garden gnome was a mascot for a putatively “old aesthetic” that itself was secretly bound up in the appearance of industrial modernity and its “aesthetic of the new.” The garden gnome’s origins are in nineteenth-century Germany; accordingly, the creatures must be seen as an essentially modern phenomenon, and as a part of the popular culture that begins to emerge in Europe alongside industrial technologies of production and communication. And yet they feign resistance to that culture, pretending to belong to a romanticized folk culture that is pitted against the emerging commercial popular culture. The gnome, in other words, claims allegiance to the oral culture and local tradition that bequeaths to us the fairy-tale, and it aims to distinguish itself from the mass-produced industrial culture of the modern world — to which, nevertheless, it essentially and materially belongs! Now, with the advent of 3D printing and design, the possibility of digital reproduction calls the gnomes’ bluff, makes their mass and serialized nature apparent, and reveals that they have been subject from the start to the same iterative principles as the serial figures of popular culture. What’s more: the digital infrastructure democratizes the production process, putting the means of production in the hands of the many (or at least in the hands of the growing number who have access to the technology). The gnome becomes shareable across time and space, and subject to a serial process of modification. But again there is the danger that the material and immaterial labor of this “participatory culture” is subject to appropriation and exploitation.

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Besides, there’s nothing very subversive about printing born-digital gnomes in order to repeat the pranks of their more earthy forebears. If we’re really going to do something about the Zwergenproblem — i.e. if we are going to address the problematic politics of the garden gnome as it exists in our transitional moment — we will have to do so with a historical consciousness, one cognizant of the gnomes’ troubled history, their relation to modern production processes, material and immaterial labor, class consciousness, nationalism, popular and high-art cultural formations, and the role of seriality in all of these constellations.

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From an artistic perspective, no one is doing a better job of this at present, I think, than Karin Denson, with her “Krass People” series of gnomes, which are featured throughout this post. (Full disclosure: Karin is my wife. I’m biased. So what? No one’s got better gnomes than her!) Based on iconic figures from popular culture and modern art, her gnomes call into question the boundaries between industrial mass production, pre-modern handcraft, and modern and postmodern artistry. Half ready-made, half carefully crafted objects, the gnomes are collected from flea markets, outlet stores, garage sales, eBay, and wherever else they might be found, before they are hand painted and occasionally re-sculpted to resemble superheroes like Superman or Batman, creatures such as Nosferatu or Frankenstein’s monster, pop stars like Lady Gaga or David Bowie, figures from Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean, or re-imaginings of artworks by Duchamp, Miró, or Dalí. The result is a set of unique physical objects that retain strong conceptual and material links to the cultures of seriality that, since the nineteenth century, have increasingly and irrevocably problematized any notion of uniqueness or (artistic) authenticity. Finally, the objects are digitized and their images subjected to various further transformations: placed in Photoshop collages, set in motion in animated gifs, and displayed in a growing virtual gallery on tumblr. And that’s just the beginning: video, generative, and other works are in planning.

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So does this answer the Zwergenproblem? Perhaps not completely. After all, can there be a truly final answer to a problem that is so thoroughly serial in both its historical genesis and its structural formation? Any answer, it would seem, would itself have to be serial rather than static. And that’s precisely what we have here: an ongoing, serially unfolding, plurimedial and mixed-reality approach that may not answer, but which first succeeds in formulating or addressing, that central problem of the modern world: das Zwergenproblem.

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Finally, in case you’re interested: Karin’s gnomes are available for purchase, but there is only a very limited supply of these (problematically) unique and labor-intensive objects. Karin will be exhibiting and selling them this coming Sunday, November 3, 2013, at the Kunsthandwerkermarkt at the Kulturzentrum Faust (from 11am to 5 pm in the “Warenannahme”).

[UPDATE: There’s now an Etsy store where the gnomes can be purchased online: https://www.etsy.com/shop/KrassStuff]

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Now Open Access: Bildstörung / Image Interference

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After appearing one year ago in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 7, the article “Bildstörung: Serielle Figuren und der Fernseher” [roughly, Image Interference: Serial Figures and the Television Set], co-authored by myself and Ruth Mayer, has now gone into open access and can be downloaded freely at the publisher’s website: here. In addition, the rest of the articles in this special issue devoted to “The Series” are now freely available here. I am very happy to be a part of this great collection, and I applaud ZfM‘s commitment to making their journals open access after an initial one-year print-only period.

Popular Seriality — Round Two!

popular_seriality_logo_550_300I am very excited to announce today that the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft / German Research Foundation) has now officially approved the application of the Research Unit “Popular Seriality — Aesthetics and Practice” for a second 3-year funding period! From October 2013 through September 2016, we will continue our research on serial forms and processes in popular culture, this time around through seven newly developed projects:

Serial Politicization: On the Cultural Work of American City Mysteries, 1844-1860 (Daniel Stein, Berlin)

Serial Narration in Popular German-Language Periodicals from 1850 to 1890 (Claudia Stockinger and Stefan Scherer, Göttingen and Karslruhe)

Serializing Mass Culture: Popular Film Serials and Serial Structures in the United States, 1910-1940 (Ruth Mayer, with Ilka Brasch, Hannover)

Writing Series: The Occupational Culture of Present-Day German Televised Entertainment (Regina Bendix, Göttingen)

Retrospective Serialization: Remaking as a Method of Cinematic Self-Historicizing (Frank Kelleter and Kathleen Loock, Berlin)

Digital Seriality: The Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games (Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann, Hannover and Berlin)

Real-Life Storytelling: The Threefold Formal Structure of Reality TV as a Procedure of Cumulative Serialization (Christian Hißnauer, Göttingen)

For more information about the Research Unit — our past and present projects, publications, news, events, and other information — please refer to our official homepage: here.

Super Star Trek and the Collective Serialization of the Digital

SuperStarTrek

Here’s a sneak peek at something I’ve been working on for a jointly authored piece with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann (more details soon!):

[…] whereas the relatively recent example of bullet time emphasizes the incredible speed of our contemporary technical infrastructure, which threatens at every moment to outstrip our phenomenal capacities, earlier examples often mediated something of an inverse experience: a mismatch between the futurist fantasy and the much slower pace necessitated by the techno-material realities of the day.

The example of Super Star Trek (1978) illuminates this inverse sort of experience and casts a media-archaeological light on collective serialization, by way of the early history of gaming communities and their initially halting articulation into proto-transmedia worlds. Super Star Trek was not the first – and far from the last – computer game to be based on the Star Trek media franchise (which encompasses the canonical TV series and films, along with their spin-offs in comics, novels, board games, role-playing games, and the larger Trekkie subculture). Wikipedia lists over seventy-five Trek-themed commercial computer, console, and arcade games since 1971 (“History of Star Trek Games”) – and the list is almost surely incomplete. Nevertheless, Super Star Trek played a special role in the home computing revolution, as its source code’s inclusion in the 1978 edition of David Ahl’s BASIC Computer Games was instrumental in making that book the first million-selling computer book.[i] The game would continue to exert a strong influence: it would go on to be packaged with new IBM PCs as part of the included GW-BASIC distribution, and it inspired countless ports, clones, and spin-offs in the 1980s and beyond.

A quick look at the game’s source code reveals that Super Star Trek didn’t just come out of nowhere, however: Here, the opening comment lines (“REM” indicates a non-executable “remark” in BASIC) mention not only the “Star Trek TV show” as an influence, but also a serial trajectory of inter-ludic programming, modification, debugging, and conversion (porting) that begins to outline a serialized collectivity of sorts. Beyond those participants mentioned by name (Mike Mayfield, David Ahl, Bob Leedom, and John Borders), a diffuse community is invoked – “with a little help from his friends…” – and, in fact, solicited: “comments, epithets, and suggestions” are to be sent personally to R. C. Leedom at Westinghouse Defense & Electronics. Reminiscent of a comic-book series’ “letters to the editor” page (cf. Kelleter and Stein 2012), this invitation promises, in conjunction with the listing of the game’s serial lineage, that readers’ opinions are valued, and that significant contributions will be rewarded (or at least honored with a hat-tip in the REM’s). Indeed, in these few preliminary lines, the program demonstrates its common ground with serialized production forms across media: since the nineteenth century, readers have written to the authors of ongoing series in order to praise or condemn – and ultimately to influence – the course of serial unfolding (cf. Hayward 1997, Looby 2004, Smith 1995, Thiesse 1980); authors dependent on the demands of a commercial marketplace were not at liberty simply to disregard their audience’s wishes, even if they were free to filter and select from among them. What we see, then, from an actor-network perspective, is that popular series therefore operate to create feedback loops in which authors and readers alike are involved in the production of serial forms (cf. Kelleter 2012a) – which therefore organize themselves as self-observing systems around which serialized forms of (para-)social interaction coalesce (cf. Kelleter 2012d, as well as the contributions to Kelleter 2012b).

The snippet of code above thus attests to the aspirations of a germinal community of hackers and gamers, which has tellingly chosen to align itself, in this case, with one of the most significant and quickly growing popular-culture fan communities of the time: viz. the Trekkie subculture, which can be seen to constitute a paradigmatic “seriality” in Anderson’s sense – a nation-like collective (complete with its own language) organized around the serialized consumption of serially structured media. And, indeed, the computing/gaming community had its own serialized media (and languages) through which it networked, including a plethora of computer-listings newsletters and magazines – such as David Ahl’s Creative Computing, where Super Star Trek had been published in 1974, before BASIC Computer Games made it more widely known; or People’s Computer Company, where Bob Leedom had mentioned his version before that; or the newsletter of the Digital Equipment Computer User Society, where Ahl had originally published a modified version of Mike Mayfield’s program. These publications served purposes very much like the comic-book and fanzine-type organs of other communities; here, however, it was code that was being published and discussed, thus serving as a platform for further involvement, tweaking, and feedback by countless others. Accordingly, behind the relatively linear story of development told in the REM’s above, there was actually a sprawling, non-linear form of para-ludic serialization at work in the development of Super Star Trek.[ii]

And yet we see something else here as well: despite the computing industry’s undeniable success in moving beyond specialized circles and involving ever larger groups of people in the activity of computing in the 1970s (and gaming must certainly be seen as central to achieving this success), the community described above was still operating with relatively crude means of collective serialization – more or less the same paper-bound forms of circulation that had served the textual and para-textual production of popular serialities since the nineteenth century. In many ways, this seems radically out of step with the space-age fantasy embodied in Super Star Trek: in order to play the game, one had to go through the painstaking (and mistake-prone) process of keying in the code by hand. If, afterwards, the program failed to run, the user would have to search for a misspelled command, a missing line, or some other bug in the system. And God forbid there was an error in the listing from which one was copying! Moreover, early versions of the game were designed for mainframe and minicomputers that, in many cases, were lacking a video terminal. The process of programming the game – or playing it, for that matter – was thus a slow process made even slower by interactions with punch-card interfaces. How, under these conditions, could one imagine oneself at the helm of the USS Enterprise? There was a mismatch, in other words, between the fantasy and the reality of early 1970s-era computing. But this discrepancy, with its own temporal and affective dynamics, was a framing condition for a form of collective serialization organized along very different lines from contemporary dreams of games’ seamless integration into transmedia worlds.

To begin with, it is quite significant that Super Star Trek’s functional equivalent of the “letters to the editor” page, where the ongoing serialization of the game is both documented and continued, is not printed in an instruction manual or other accompanying paraphernalia but embedded in the code itself. In contrast to the mostly invisible code executed in mainstream games today, Super Star Trek’s code was regarded as highly visible, the place where early gamers were most likely to read the solicitation to participate in a collective effort of development. Clearly, this is because they would have to read (and re-write) the code if they wished to play the game – while their success in actually getting it to work were more doubtful. Gameplay is here subordinated to coding, while the pleasures of both alike were those of an operational aesthetic: whether coding the game or playing it, mastery and control over the machine were at stake. Unlike the bullet time of The Matrix or Max Payne, which responds to an environment in which gamers (and others) are hard-pressed to keep up with the speed of computation, Super Star Trek speaks to a somewhat quainter, more humanistic dream of getting a computational (or intergalactic) jalopy up and running in the first place. In terms of temporal affectivities, patience is tested more so than quick reactions. If bullet time slowed down screen events while continuing to poll input devices as a means for players to cope with high-velocity challenges, the tasks of coding and playing Super Star Trek turn this situation around: it is not the computer but the human user who waits for – hopes for – a response. As a corollary, however, relatively quick progress was observable in the game’s inter-ludic development, which responded to rapid innovations in hardware and programming languages. This fact, which corresponded well with the basically humanistic optimism of the Star Trek fantasy (as opposed to the basically inhuman scenario of The Matrix), motivated further involvement in the series of inter-ludic developments (programming, modification, debugging, conversion…), which necessarily involved coder/tinkerers in the para-ludic exchanges upon which a gaming community was being built. […]


[i] A more complete story of the game’s history can be gleaned from several online sources which we draw on here: Maury Markowitz’s page devoted to the game, “Star Trek: To boldly go… and then spawn a million offshoots,” at his blog Games of Fame (http://gamesoffame.wordpress.com/star-trek/) features comments and correspondence with some of the key figures in the game’s development; Pete Turnbull also recounts the game’s history, including many of the details of its many ports to various systems (http://www.dunnington.u-net.com/public/startrek/); atariarchives.org hosts a complete scan of the 1978 edition of BASIC Computer Games, from which we reproduce an excerpt below (http://www.atariarchives.org/basicgames/); and a recent article in The Register, Tony Smith’s “Star Trek: The Original Computer Game,” features several screenshots and code snippets of various iterations (http://www.theregister.co.uk/Print/2013/05/03/antique_code_show_star_trek/).

[ii] A better sense of this can be had by taking a look at all the various iterations of the game – encompassing versions for a variety of flavors of BASIC and other languages as well – collected by Pete Turnbull (http://www.dunnington.u-net.com/public/startrek/).

Works Cited

Hayward, J. (1997) Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington: UP of Kentucky.

Kelleter, F. (2012a) Populäre Serialität: Eine Einführung. In Kelleter F., ed. Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 11-46.

Kelleter, F., ed. (2012b) Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Kelleter, F. (2012d) The Wire and Its Readers. In Kennedy, L. and Shapiro, S., eds. “The Wire”: Race, Class, and Genre. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, pp. 33-70.

Kelleter, F. and Stein, D. (2012) Autorisierungspraktiken seriellen Erzählens: Zur Gattungsentwicklung von Superheldencomics. In Kelleter, F., ed. Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 259-290.

Looby, C. (2004) Southworth and Seriality: The Hidden Hand in the New York Ledger. Nineteenth-Century Literature 59.2, pp. 179-211.

Smith, S. B. (1995) Serialization and the Nature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Price, K. M. and Smith, S. B., eds. Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, pp. 69-89.

Thiesse, A.-M. (1980) L’education sociale d’un romancier: le cas d’Eugène Sue. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 32-33, pp. 51-63.

Serialization in Popular Culture

figure2b-pauline

Above, two stills from The Perils of Pauline, which I take here as an opportunity to announce an exciting book set to come out at the end of this year: Serialization in Popular Culture, edited by Robert Allen and Thijs van den Berg at the University of Amsterdam. The book, which I am very proud to be a part of (with a piece called “The Logic of the Line Segment: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Serial-Queen Melodrama”), will be published by Routledge as part of the Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies series.

Here’s a brief description of the collection:

From prime-time television shows and graphic novels to the development of computer game expansion packs, the recent explosion of popular serials has provoked renewed interest in the history and economics of serialization, as well as the impact of this cultural form on readers, viewers, and gamers. In this volume, contributors—literary scholars, media theorists, and specialists in comics, graphic novels, and digital culture—examine the economic, narratological, and social effects of serials from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century and offer some predictions of where the form will go from here.

With sections on “Victorian Serials,” “Serialization on Screen,” “Serialization in Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” and “Digital Serialization,” this book is going to be an important contribution to the emerging field of seriality studies. But don’t take my word for it; here’s an endorsement from an expert in the field:

“This collection presents an ambitious and original intervention in the field of seriality studies. It captures the workings of serialization as a core principle of modernity by taking stock of a wide range of medial formats and narrative and non-narrative configurations from the nineteenth century to the present time.” — Ruth Mayer, University of Hanover, Germany

Spectral Seriality: The Sights and Sounds of Count Dracula

Below you’ll find the talk that Ruth Mayer and I recently gave at the “Popular Seriality” conference in Göttingen (June 6-8, 2013). We will be expanding the paper for publication, so comments and criticisms are very welcome!

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Spectral Seriality: The Sights and Sounds of Count Dracula

Shane Denson, Ruth Mayer – Leibniz Universität Hannover

1. Introduction

In this talk we will be looking at the medial logics and serial dynamics of iconic popular figures, taking Dracula as a paradigmatic example of a “spectral” logic that enables serial figures to proliferate across medial channels. By “serial figure,” we mean a type of stock character populating the popular-cultural imagination of modernity; a “flat” and recurring figure, subject to one or more media changes over the course of its career. We see serial figures as integral and ideologically powerful components of the political and economic order of modernity, which works expansively to increase commensurability and connectivity. Serial figures operate in this system as mediating instances between the familiar and the unknown, the ordinary and the unusual. It is thus not by accident that such figures are characteristically liminal, transitional, or border-crossing beings – straddling the divide between nature and technology like Frankenstein’s monster, between life and death like Dracula, human and animal like Tarzan, or oscillating between moral and ethnic positions like Sherlock Holmes, Fantômas, or Fu Manchu. These figures parasitically appropriate the media ensembles of a given period, taking up residence in them and making them their own; at the same time, serial figures are in a way themselves media of modernization, higher-order media that gather together and focus attention on media undergoing change. This is especially true with regard to the cultural and commercial logic of the “update,” according to which transformations and transitions in the modern media landscape are negotiated and sold as “innovations.” But characterized as they are by a reversible relation to media as both instrument and environment – as both (diegetic) object of interest and as the very horizon of perception, expression, or narration – serial figures lend themselves also to a retrospective view of media change as non-teleological, overdetermined by competing forces and yet haunted by a spirit of indeterminacy and a sense that “things could have been otherwise.”

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In the following, we will first try to flesh out this picture and explain more precisely what a serial figure is, what it does, and how it operates. Our focus will be on the figure of Dracula, who perhaps more than any other serial figure brings into focus what we’re designating the “spectral” logic of serial proliferation: that is, a ghostly and flickering relation to presence, or the present, which characterizes the medial historicity of the serial figure and propels its ongoing transformations as it moves between old and new media – from text, to film, to radio, TV, and toward the digital. Seen in this light, it is the spectrality of the figure, the fact that it’s neither (completely) here nor there, that keeps the figure alive – or, more precisely, undead – never quite exhausted by a single, definitive instantiation but always at least potentially available for yet another serial iteration.

2. Serial Framings & the Spectral Integrity of the Icon

A serial figure is a figure that needs no explanation, no introduction, and no elaborate framing – it is familiar, even if one has never dealt explicitly with the figure. The serial figure is distinguished here from the series character, which is developed in an ongoing narrative (for example, a soap opera, a serial novel, or a saga). Serial figures – as Umberto Eco once wrote of Superman – undergo a “virtual beginning” with each new staging, “ignoring where the preceding event left off.” Series characters grow and develop a more or less linear biography, while serial figures are characterized by repetitions, revisions, and even the occasional “reboot” of their entire history. Serial figures and series characters must, however, be understood as ideal-typical figurations; often, they blend into one another in the course of their narrative unfolding. Indeed, serial figures quite often derive from series characters: many (like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Fantômas) were first introduced in the continuing narratives of serialized magazine productions, then further developed in novel series, before eventually mutating into serial figures proper as they jumped across various medial channels (Denson/Mayer 2012a/b).

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Serial figures have an extreme affinity to modern media, and they seem positively to thrive on media changes. Though many classical serial figures were established in literary texts, they all jumped very quickly to other media, mutated, fanned out, proliferated, and reproduced without losing their distinctive forms, features, trademark equipment or gear. As a result, they are particularly good at introducing the cultural or medial “new,” and thus at mediating novelty against the background of a figure’s familiarity – serial figures both foreground or exoticize and familiarize the foreign or unknown. This marking and familiarization is achieved not only narratively, but also formally – by way of serial iteration. Serial figures are not developed linearly from A to B; rather, their careers unfold along branching paths, across nodes, loops, and resonances, by way of a “concrescent” or compounding, sedimenting rather than sequential form of seriality.

Even before the comics superheroes of the 1930s took up and adapted many of their characteristics, serial figures presented themselves as both long-familiar and strangely new, at once timeless and hypermodern, universal and particular alike. For a long time, however, the serial figures of the turn of the century have been read almost exclusively in terms of the atavistic, the primitive, the unconscious – in any case, not the modern. This approach culminated in the 1960s in the reception history of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. For Dracula, Frye’s impact registers in the assumption of a “majestic immutability” informing the representation of the vampire through the ages, as Nina Auerbach delineated in her cultural history of the vampire (1995: 130; cf. Douglas 1966). This assumption then gave way, in the wake of intellectual history and Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge,” to a more historically and medially specific approach, as exemplified by Nina Auerbach’s own take on vampires as “personifications of their age” (3): instead of transhistorical continuities, scholarship now foregrounded historical breaks and radical revisions.

But cultural contextualization alone is not enough to get a handle on the cultural careers of serial figures. We have to pay attention both to their iconicity and variability, and towards this end we have to focus on the serial figure’s mediality – or, more generally: its formal framing. To understand the constructive force of such framing, one should not stretch the frame too far. If you look not at Tarzan, but at primate-human hybrids in the history of Western culture, not at Dracula but the vampire from Byron to True Blood, not Frankenstein’s monster but man-machine configurations since the early modern era – you run the risk of overlooking the specific medial dynamics of popular seriality, a dynamics of modern and hence mass and technical media. Connected to the inherent reproducibility of modern media, this properly serial dynamic draws on an awareness of something being re-told, activating a dialectics of recognition and astonishment, of departures from and re-anchorings of previously staged narratives and images. The more concrete the anchor points and cross-references in a serial sequence, the more clearly does this logic manifest itself. And only with regard to this logic can we recognize the political-ideological and medial-material “work” of the serial figure, its anchoring in a specific world-historical era.

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Dracula himself is very much a product of the late colonial era, and the threat he poses is accordingly “dynamic, totalizing.” Earlier monsters operated “on the margins of society, hidden away in their towers,” while modern creatures of horror are figures of expansion and spread. “The modern monsters,” writes Franco Moretti with a view particularly toward Dracula, “threaten to live for ever and to conquer the world. For this reason they must be killed” (Moretti 1982: 68). Dracula, not the generic vampire, comes from Transylvania, and thus from the border region between East and West; a region which does not yet demarcate horror and superstition at the time of the figure’s inception but “the vexed ‘Eastern Question’ that so obsessed British foreign policy in the 1880s and 90s” (Arata 1990: 627; see also Richards 1993: 56-64; Gibson 2006). In our minds, Dracula always has pointed teeth, he always wears a cape, always sleeps in a coffin, and he concentrates on female victims, even if he got along during various stretches of his serial career without some of these habits and accoutrements. In its iconicity, the figure of Dracula mobilizes a whole army of basic conceptual oppositions, pitting them against one other, but without the prospect of resolution: East meets West, the predator threatens civilized humanity, masculine agency preys on the female victim – and, of course, life and death entwine in the vampire’s uncanny body. None of these pairs of terms remains unproblematic or stable in the course of the figure’s long career, but all of them reappear again and again in various guises and constellations. In his serial specificity, Dracula thus stands out among vampires – he no longer embodies the sensibility of the early Victorian period, nor yet has he assumed that of our late televisual postmodernity. There is a diffuse – indeed spectral – integrity to the figure across its various medial instantiations; its iconic appearance will always by superimposed upon any and all possible concrete manifestations, even if (and perhaps especially if) the figure now appears in a different form.

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3. Dracula’s Medial Dialectics

The figure’s iconic form has been fixed for us above all by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count in Tod Browning’s 1931 film version, to which we will return shortly, but first we turn briefly to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel from which the figure first sprang to … uhh … “life.” The source text helps us to see the presence of a further conceptual pair at work in the serial unfolding of the figure: for the novel is marked, in a way that problematically straddles its diegetic “inside” and its medial “exterior,” by an unsettled tension between the diversification of media and an effort to commensurabilize or contain them. This tension is energized by the spirit of a transitional phase in which the medium of the novel – still the master medium of entertainment in the late Victorian era – starts to cede its territory to the technical mass media that shaped entertainment in the twentieth century. As we shall see, the unresolved tension between the specificity and generality of mediation is also generative of the sights and sounds of Count Dracula as he proliferates serially across the century’s audiovisual channels.

More than perhaps any other serial figure, Dracula reveals the active and creative power of technical media already at his literary point of departure. In Thomas Elsaesser’s estimation, which follows Friedrich Kittler’s seminal reading in Aufschreibesysteme, “[Dracula] may be the only original and authentic myth that the age of mechanical reproduction has produced” (2011: 111). Kittler read Dracula as “that perennially misjudged heroic epic of the final victory of technological media over the blood-sucking despots of old Europe” (Kittler, 1999: 86). And Kittler was not the only critic to read the novel as the document of a media struggle, in which an alliance built on modern media of communication is pitted against an ancient and totalitarian power (see also Wicke 1992; Richards 1993). While we very much agree that Dracula should be read as a novel about mediatization and media change, however, we are not so sure about its actual position within this battle – its sympathies, as it were. Technical media may prove superior in the battle of forces that the novel both depicts and takes part in. But the alliances or opposing camps within this battle are far less clear-cut than one might think. This may have to do with the fact that the triumph of the technical media of entertainment was about to deal a fatal blow to the very medium of the novel. The very particular novel at hand, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, does not openly militate against the media system of the twentieth century, we argue. But it is by no means as celebratory of its own format’s impending replacement as is often assumed.

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In line with this reconsideration of alliances and tensions, we contend that Dracula serves not so much as an outdated antecedent to the mass-media cultures of modernity, but as an integral element – perhaps even a basic principle – of them. Already at the point of his literary inception, Dracula embodies a principle of diffusion, of intermedial spectrality, according to which one material form is translatable into another: the humanoid, the wolf, bat, and fog. This allows him for a time to elude his pursuers, but they too are acquainted with a plurality of media forms: shorthand notation, the telegraph, the phonograph, and the typewriter play instrumental roles in this counter-project. Mina Harker, as Dracula’s most important opponent and the driving engine of the international alliance of vampire hunters in the metropolis, is a skilled typist, and she manages to render the fractured records of journals, newspapers, phonograph cylinders, and stenographic notes into the uniform medium of typewritten text, reproduced in triplicate; Mina becomes what Kittler called the “central relay in an immense information network” (Discourse Networks 354). In doing so, however, Mina also cleanses the new technological media of communication of their ‘rawness’ and authenticity: “I have copied out the words on my typewriter, and none other need to now hear your heart beat, as I did” (199), she reassures Dr. Seward after having reviewed his phonograph cylinders. Simultaneously, and interestingly, she defuses what could be considered the most powerful forcefield of the late Victorian novel, obliterating the traces of feeling, the trembling and the terror, the horrible events’ profound impact on the ‘soul.’ At the very end of the novel, her husband, Jonathan Harker, summarizes in frustration that “in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing […]. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story” (335).

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Fortunately, the version of the events that the book ultimately renders is not Mina’s purified, streamlined, typewritten collection of data, but Bram Stoker’s lurid and sprawling ‘imperial gothic’ (Brantlinger 1995). With this, the novel counters the “modern” ideal of totalizing data processing with another, older, aesthetics of totality – collating voices, perspectives, and media in order to achieve an impression of synchronicity and homogeneity. Dracula thus displays its tacit predilection for the media system of the nineteenth century and its unacknowledged skepticism vis-à-vis the technical media of the upcoming age. But the novel is fighting a losing battle on behalf of its own format. At the novel’s end, Dracula will be defeated while Mina has just given birth to a son, who shall bear all the first names of the league of vampire hunters. But, alas, in the story’s longer run, the powers of reproduction are afforded to the vampire rather than the Victorian lady. What distinguishes Mina in the novel – her interiority, her reflection, her robust presence – disqualifies her for a serial career and confines her to the bounds of the book. Dracula, in contrast, who is hardly ever ‘there’ in the novel, transgresses its boundaries and lives on, by virtue of his capacity to defer closure and synchronicity.

Rooted diegetically in the serial infection process by which the curse of the undead spreads, Dracula’s power far exceeds the text’s limits, formally and materially resisting the closure of the work. Dracula taunts his pursuers: “My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine […]” (273). In his flickering dispersion he seems to project various options for a future vampiric existence, tentatively envisioning nodes and links to future versions of himself. In that respect, the novel functions – against its own best interest and almost as if being operated by an alien force – as the ideal starting point for the figure’s serial proliferation.

Dracula’s spectral quality resides in his uncanny ability to navigate not only (diegetic) time and space but also to spread diffusely through the very real experiential timespaces that rub against one another in modernity, in the oppositional trajectories of medial particularization and convergent totalization. Transcending the novel – which is itself a site of convergent mediality wherein distinctions are effaced in the effort to correlate, coordinate, and ultimately thus to entomb the shape-shifting villain – Dracula emerges as a higher-order medium, thus acting simultaneously as a parasitic harbinger and a host of media transformation. The meta-medium of the serial figure accentuates the insufficient totality or completeness of the book as compared to audiovisual media – the media of silent and sound film, radio, and television into which the Count will successively and temporarily descend, before he inevitably pulls up stakes (so to speak) and moves on. In this interplay of first-order and second-order media, or between medial specificity and comparability, the sights and sounds of Dracula become the sights and sounds of media change itself.

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4. The Icon as Transitional Medium

The transitional interplay of medial figure and ground is nowhere so tightly focused as in Tod Browning’s classic film from 1931 – particularly in the iconic image it bequeaths to us of Count Dracula. The film’s title card already evidences the plurimedial seriality that the figure had amassed over the previous three decades: “Carl Laemmle presents Dracula by Bram Stoker” – not as a direct adaptation of the novel, but “from the play adapted by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston,” which in fact refers to two plays: first a London-based production from 1924 and then a 1927 Broadway play based on it, and starring Bela Lugosi. Not mentioned here are Stoker’s own theatrical production, performed only once (prior to the novel’s publication) for the purpose of securing a copyright, Friedrich Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation Nosferatu from 1922, or any of the print editions, adaptations, abridgments, and serializations that had appeared since 1897. But what’s about to appear on screen will in any case overshadow all of those past interpretations, including the original novel, and it will continue to color our perception of any future instantiation for decades to come. Significantly, Browning’s film kicks off the horror-film cycle of the 1930s, including a series of Universal Studios productions featuring the Count: after Dracula (1931) comes Dracula’s Daughter (1936), then Son of Dracula (1943), the monster mash-ups House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), and finally Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which Lugosi reprises his role one last time. The figure, like the horror film, changes markedly over the course of this series, though, so it’s easy to lose sight of the originary medial functionality of Lugosi’s icon, which is born in the wake of the transition from silent to sound film. By film historian Donald Crafton’s reckoning, this transition was coming to its end by the time Dracula appeared in February 1931, but as Robert Spadoni has argued, the film harnessed a lingering experience of the first sounds moviegoers had heard emitted from the screen – an uncanny or “ghostly” experience resulting from the incomplete phenomenal coordination of sound and image. The Count gave a body to this recently bygone (but unforgotten, “undead”) experience, around which the horror genre itself was initially fashioned.

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In this context, Browning’s film re-enacts the novel’s battle between medial particularization and generalization – abstracting it, though, from Mina’s and Stoker’s divergent efforts to coordinate medial fragments into a coherent textual whole, and transferring it to a probing of the cinema’s recent efforts to coordinate sight and sound into a coherent audiovisual whole. Dracula’s body is the central site of the struggle, the medial stakes of which are made clear in the film’s first ten minutes or so, leading up to the Count’s appearance and first encounter with his guest. The non-diegetic music with which the film opens will cease after the opening credits, and it will not reappear again until the closing credits. But the opening scene, set inside a noisy horse-drawn coach traveling through Transylvania, locates us more or less unproblematically in the sound-era of cinema, as onscreen characters converse and produce audible dialogue. Soon, though, as we move deeper into the wilds of Transylvania, this will stop and give way to an eerie silence. When the sun sets and our traveler Renfield (here playing the role of the novel’s Harker) sets out for Borgo Pass, a series of images show the Count’s distant castle, first from the outside, then its interior, bringing us swiftly to his coffin. There is no sound at all, until the interminable silence is broken by the sound of coffins opening, creaking, bumping, then rats squeaking, wolves barking, howling, as the camera moves in to reveal Dracula, who has silently appeared. The background of silence contrasts palpably with the use of non-diegetic music during the credits. This might be called a non-diegetic silence, as it foregrounds the images as silent, setting the stage for an uncanny sound, very different from the normalized sound of dialogue that precedes it. The silence has, of course, a diegetic aspect, but it is also double in a way, standing out as the spectral presence of a material and medial absence. (By way of contrast, a “regular” (diegetic) silence might conventionally be marked with the sound of crickets chirping.) Renfield’s carriage arriving now at Borgo Pass brings with it – and takes with it again just as quickly – the normalized (i.e. synchronized) sound we saw in the opening sequences, again foregrounding the uncanny silence of Dracula, who awaits Renfield ominously in his own carriage. Renfield’s somewhat fearful words to the silent count – “The coach from Count Dracula?” – seem awkwardly obtrusive against the background of silence, and the aural register itself alternates as ground and figure with the image of the tight-lipped count. Visually, Dracula’s bulging eyes accentuate this interplay, as they themselves describe a partially autonomous figure against the ground of his face – thereby singling out vision and visuality and setting them in a volatile and oscillating relation with sound and the sonic, before the Count’s coach heads off with its passenger toward the castle.

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Along the way, Renfield discovers that a bat has silently replaced the driver, and upon arrival he confirms that the driver is missing, while the castle door creaks open – autonomously and ostentatiously. Renfield enters, bats squeak, armadillos rustle. Dracula descends the staircase silently behind the frightened Renfield’s back. “I am Dracula.” Renfield explains hastily he thought he was in the wrong place. Awkwardly, Dracula replies, “I bid you welcome.” Wolves howl in the background. “Listen to them! Children of the night. What music they make.” This self-reflexive foregrounding of sound, captured for the purposes of the uncanny, reimagines the Jazz Singer’s famous “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” It will reverberate again in Tarzan’s yell, and – somewhat paradoxically – also in the muteness of Frankenstein’s monster, all of which stand in a self-reflexive relation to the sound-film transition.

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The interplay of silence/sound, noise/speech, visual/sonic continues in London: there we hear the noisy metropolis, the scream of a first offscreen victim, and the music of the opera house, all of which are contrasted with the silence of the house at night, where a bat waits noiselessly at the window, enters without a sound, and where an offscreen transformation allows Dracula to appear just as noiselessly at Lucy’s bedside. This is followed by the screams of the madhouse and its raving lunatics, including Renfield, contrasted with the concentrated silence of Seward and the other doctors, and of van Helsing before he announces that they’re dealing with the undead, Nosferatu. Dracula communicates with Renfield without speech, seemingly with his eyes – which, in the iconic image, are highlighted with precise rays of light, producing an effect much like the bulging eyes earlier, again making vision/the visual the carrier of (a weird, for us indecipherable sort of) information, while sound is alienated from the image and rendered as incomprehensible noise – thus “denaturing” the recently naturalized, modern system of communication via synchronized sound and vision. It is significant that sound is produced, if not as dialogue, only by objects and nonhuman animals, never by the count’s body in humanoid form, which is perfectly and uncannily silent both in motion and at rest. Later, the count’s invisibility in the cigar-case mirror, first noticed by van Helsing, further problematizes sound/image relations, as Dracula is audible while not (mediately) visible. The fact that he “casts no reflection in the mirror” in fact mirrors or translates the fact that his body also emits no sound. Thus, sound and vision are dissociated from one another, both of them operating as channels of significance and its deformation in a joint effort to undo the habitualization of synchronized sound and reveal an experience of disjointedness and material excess at its base. This excess, this spectral materiality, refuses to be contained completely by the new medium of sound film. The latter is shown to be “haunted” by a stubborn spirit of medial transitionality, embodied by Dracula, which resists containment in a neat medial package just as the Count could not be contained in the novel.

The film reinstates, in this way, the excess that Mina, in the novel, had erased in her transcription of Seward’s cylinders. But it does so in a way that sits uneasily with Stoker’s own attempt to restore a novelistic “spirit” to his apparently dying medium. For the film transfers the mechanism of phonography, the technical capture of the aural real, from the level of content to that of the medium, which it self-reflexively foregrounds; accordingly, the material excess of breath (literally, “spirit”) and heartbeat that Mina erased from the cylinders are restored and channeled towards the nervous, embodied reactions of the spectator confronted with the early horror film.

As in the novel, then, but for very different purposes, Dracula again thrives on, marks, and carries forth an unsettling spirit of medial transitionality: whereas Stoker sought to counter the impending changes to the media landscape of the nineteenth century, Browning allows the figure to extend the scope of the cinema’s sound transition – and with it the vampire’s own power. Problematizing the coordination of sound and image, Dracula’s uncanny image continually reinstates the distinction between sonic and visual registers, thus thwarting the medial coherence of the talkie, obstructing the normalization of a generalized audiovisual mediality. Rather than be contained by the medium of the sound film, Dracula himself becomes the medium in which the particular streams of sound and image can appear, juxtaposed and disjoined, forever at battle. Browning’s film thus continues the trajectory of serialization that the Count embarked upon when he escaped and transcended Mina’s and Stoker’s textualizing efforts in 1897. And though the medial self-reflexivity of the icon will fade from view as the sound transition recedes further into the past and the figure further establishes its place in popular culture, it is the icon’s spectral instrumentalization of the unsettled relations between medial particularity and generality that in part ensures its ongoing serial power.

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