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

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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

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