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

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

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

Felix Brinker

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

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

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

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Serial Bodies

Below you’ll find the full text of the talk I delivered today at the “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference early, so I didn’t have time to discuss the talk in any detail following the brief Q & A. I’m hoping, then, that some of those people who expressed an interest in discussing my ideas and proposals further might take the opportunity to comment here. And, of course, even if you weren’t there today, comments on this early-stage work are very welcome!

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Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television

Shane Denson

In this talk, I want to consider the possibility and the purpose of an “affective turn” in television studies. I’ll try to explain what such a “turn,” or refocusing of scholarly attention, might entail, and I’ll consider some of the grounds for making such a move.

First of all, the “affective turn” as I’m using the term describes developments going on in various disciplines, including philosophy and media and cultural theory, since about the 1990s. Following theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, Steven Shaviro, and Brian Massumi, the “affect” in question here refers to a domain of pre-personal feelings, not subjective emotions but raw intensities that transpire below the threshold of consciousness, as functions and correlates of non-voluntary processes: for example, the not-quite-conscious sensations associated with visceral, proprioceptive, and endocrinological changes in one’s overall body-state. Thus, affects are diffuse material forces and sensations, whereas emotions are their more narrowly focused correlates; affects precede consciousness and envelop the mind, while emotions can be seen to involve the subjective “capture” of affect, the yoking of affect to consciousness, or the filtering and processing that takes place when pre-reflective affect becomes available to reflective conscious experience. Theory and criticism undertaken in the wake of an affective turn seek to uncover the material and cultural efficacy of affect prior to this filtering.

But why would television scholars want to make this turn towards a subterranean domain of pre-personal affect? Briefly, I want to propose that an affective turn would help to highlight the richly material parameters of the televisual experience, to focus attention on embodied interfaces and non-cognitive transfers, thus providing a counterpoint to the dominant celebration of cognitive effort in recent television studies. In other words, the context for an affect-oriented intervention is the tendency, widespread in popular and scholarly accounts alike of recent television, to intellectualize the medium, to focus on complex narrative structures in an effort to redeem TV from long-standing prejudices and stereotypes that cast the bulk of programming as culturally inferior trash produced for a passive, undiscriminating, and distracted mass audience. Foregrounding the emergence of a new televisual “quality,” many recent critical approaches have focused particularly on contemporary serial television’s demanding textual forms, which seek to engage viewers with complex puzzles and intricately orchestrated plot developments – thus breaking with the formulaic repetition characteristic of simple episodic programs and providing mental stimulation in exchange for viewers’ long-term investments of attention. As early as the 1980s, the advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television had defined “quality” in the following terms: “A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought.” In short, quality TV does what good literature is supposed to do, namely: to engage the viewer/reader and make him or her think. And popular criticism has continued to pursue this tack in the effort to make television respectable, e.g. by comparing newer series to the nineteenth century novel – The Wire, for example, has been called “a Balzac for our time”, thereby suggesting that this paradigmatically complex series distinguishes itself by a heady sort of appeal that rewards the sophisticated viewer. Steven Johnson has famously claimed that such complex television provides its viewers with what he calls a “cognitive workout.” And Jason Mittell, who has probably done more than any of these people to explore the mechanics of complexity, has noted the way complex series reward viewers who assume the role of “amateur narratologists.”

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Clearly, the critical reappraisal of the medium and its implied viewer is not without foundation, as it speaks to very real changes in television programming in the wake of industrial, technological, and cultural shifts. Over the past ten years or so, there has indeed been an unprecedented flowering of programs that would seem to encourage active and intellectually engaged viewing. At the same time, though, graphic scenes of sex and violence proliferate across contemporary television series, including shows widely valued for their sophisticated cognitive demands. In particular, bodies are now routinely put on display, violated, tortured, dissected, and ripped apart in ways unimaginable on TV screens just a decade ago. I want to be clear that I don’t think this in any way invalidates theories and analyses that foreground the cognitive appeals of narratively complex TV. But this explosion of body images – including images of bodies exploding – does, I think, challenge such approaches to reconcile intellectual and more broadly affective and body-based appeals. By advocating an affective turn, a turn towards a diffuse, inarticulate field of pre-personal affect, I am not urging a turn away from consciousness or a regressive turn back to the view of an unrefined, unintellectual viewer. Instead, I am asking for more thought about how cognitive and affective appeals coexist today, and specifically about how they might be seen to work in tandem to maintain the momentum of contemporary television’s serial trajectories.

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Seriality is the key word here: seriality is one of the things that’s illuminated particularly well by broadly cognitivist and narratological approaches, and it’s seriality, I think, that marks the real challenge for an affective turn in TV studies. Consider Brian Massumi’s definition of affect as “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of what might be called ‘passion,’ to distinguish it both from passivity and activity” (28). This conception, which Massumi associates with the thinking of Baruch Spinoza, accords also with Henri Bergson’s notion of affect as “that part or aspect of the inside of our bodies which mix with the image of external bodies” (Matter and Memory 60). And the Bergsonian image of the body as a “center of indetermination,” where affect is an intensity experienced in a state of “suspension,” outside of linear time and the empirical determinateness of forward-oriented action, corresponds to a major emphasis in film theory conducted in the wake of the affective turn – namely, a focus on privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations. Such moments figure prominently in what Linda Williams calls the “body genres” of melodrama, horror, and pornography – genres in which images on screen are mobilized to arouse pity, fear, or desire directly in the body of the viewer. In his now classic study, The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro explores extreme cases like the self-reflexive attunement between gory images of zombies dismembering and disgorging on-screen characters, on the one hand, and the embodied spectator affected viscerally by these images on the other. But these are moments of caesura, when narrative and discursive significance dissolves and gives way to an “abject” experience of material plenitude prior to its parceling out into subject-object roles and relations. These displaced or “utopic” moments, dilated experientially to allow for a poetic sort of tarrying alongside images, are of course already exceptional in narrative cinema, but they must seem even more clearly at odds with the vectors of serial continuation that pull television viewers from one episode to the next, engrossing them in a story-world and concerning them with the lives of its characters week after week, over the course of several seasons.

So if television studies is to make an affective turn, it will have to account for the medial differences between long-form serial television and closed-form film, and it will have to distinguish the role of affect in each. One place to start with this comparison might be the self-reflexive “operational aesthetic” that Jason Mittell, following Neil Harris’s work on P.T. Barnum, has attributed to contemporary serial television as one of its central mechanisms. For Mittell, the operational aesthetic is related to the cognitive operation of tracing and taking pleasure in the complexities of narrative twists. At stake is an enjoyment not only of the story told but also of the manner of its telling, and the operational aesthetic involves the viewer in what might be described as the recursive pleasure of recognizing a series’ own recognition of the complexity of its narration. But if television’s “narrative special effects,” as Mittell calls them, can be explained in terms of an operational aesthetic, it’s important to note that this mode of engagement has also been attributed to closed-form film to explain the appeal of special effects of the ordinary, primarily visual and non-narrative, sort. Tom Gunning has applied the term “operational aesthetic” to the body-gag spectacles of slapstick. In this view, Charlie Chaplin’s or Buster Keaton’s body gets implemented as a thing-like mechanism in a larger system of things, and the spectator takes pleasure in tracing the causal dynamics of the system, which is in a sense also the system of cinematic images itself; the cinema in turn reveals itself as a complex (Rube Goldberg-type) contraption for the transfer of material intensities from one body – Chaplin’s or Keaton’s – to another – my own, as the latter is affected physically and compelled to laugh. Similarly self-reflexive mechanisms are at work in sci-fi and horror films, where visual and visceral spectacles interrupt narrative flow and bedazzle or shock with an operational appeal to the body rather than the brain. Monumental explosions, monstrous sights flashed on the screen without warning, and show-stopping effects seek in part to bypass the brain and imprint themselves in the manner of the physiological Chockwirkung that Walter Benjamin took to be central to the filmic medium.

But is this corporeal sort of self-reflexivity, an operational aesthetic that arouses the body more than the brain, possible in long-form serial television? And, if so, can it be a central component of televisual seriality, a motor of serial development, or must it remain a mere side-show in a medium dependent upon the forward momentum of narrativity?

As I noted before, there is certainly no shortage of body spectacles on contemporary television, and they seem in many ways to function like the cinematic spectacles I’ve been describing. Procedural, or what might more properly be called operational, forensic shows likes CSI or Bones, for example, resemble science-fiction film in their showcasing of technological processes – processes that are anchored in diegetic techniques and technologies but that serve to foreground medial technologies of visualization. These displays serve, like the special effects of science-fiction film, more to impress the viewer than to advance the story. Significantly, such digressive forensic displays revolve around bodies and their imbrications with medial technologies: corpses are subjected to analytical methods that issue not in cognitive but in visual and media-technological spectacles, thus providing the spectator with an affectively potent – but narratively rather pointless – formula that gets repeated week after week. The technological probing of bodies onscreen thus speaks to and motivates a doubling of the viewing body’s own technological interface with the television screen – the material site of affective transfer, which is crucially at stake in these biotechnical displays. A show like Grey’s Anatomy similarly problematizes the integrity of bodies and sets them in relation to technologies, both medical and medial, in order to establish an affective circuit between bodies onscreen and off. Bodies in pain, bodies injured, impaled, injected, or incised, bones sawed, organs exposed and removed: all of these things have their place in a narrative, but they also maintain an excessive autonomy as images, establishing in this way a relay between an affective awareness of one’s own embodiment and an emotional engrossment in a melodramatic story.

And while these shows may tend toward the episodic or the formulaic, their employment of body spectacles might be seen to illuminate a range of contemporary television, including shows widely recognized as qualitatively complex. Premium cable shows like Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under, Dexter, or Californication, for example, revolve around a variety of corporeal explorations. And a series like True Blood manages to combine all three of Linda Williams’s “body genres” into a hybrid mix of soft-porn, horror, and melodrama. The Walking Dead positively obsesses over its media-technological ability to generate graphic images of all states of bodily decay, thus offering a series of visual and visceral challenges to the viewer that run parallel to and punctuate the story’s unfolding. And even a starkly serialized and celebrated complex show like Breaking Bad activates these mechanisms when it visualizes a scene of bodily destruction like this one:

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Here, there is a properly visual appeal, a showcasing of the image that involves the viewer by activating a sense of one’s own corporeal fragility – thus staging a deeply existential demonstration of physical vulnerability that culminates, and momentarily negates, all the narrative investment and development of character that has led up to this point. In other words, the affective force of this moment far exceeds its diegetic and medial temporality; with Massumi, we might say the image occasions “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of […] ‘passion’” or immersive involvement. But, I suggest, the scene demonstrates a synergistic or contrapuntal rather than strictly oppositional relation between narrative development and affective depth. The image of the exploded face retains a visual and affective singularity, an excess over and above the storyline in which it’s embedded, but its evocation of the viewer’s own delicate corporeality resonates as well with the series’ overall narrative focus on a protagonist whose body is under attack by cancer.

Finally, to generalize from these examples and wager a hypothesis about the contrapuntal function of such body spectacles in contemporary long-form serial television: I suggest that corporeal self-reflexivity, or the establishment of affective circuits by graphically opening up bodies for destructive, clinical, or sexual purposes, serves as a nexus for the formal hybridization of serial and episodic forms that Mittell makes central to his conception of narrative complexity. Not, of course, the nexus, but a nexus: in other words, a site where a certain sort of formal experimentation takes place, leading to an alternative form of “serially complex television” that activates an “operational aesthetic” for cognitive and corporeal means, in the process intensifying viewers’ investment in narrative developments by imbuing them with affective depth. I speak intentionally of “serial complexity” rather than “narrative complexity,” in order to account for the contrapuntal interplay between lines of narrative continuity on the one hand and moments of non-narrative affect on the other; by standing outside of series’ narrative temporalities, the latter moments punctuate continuity with discontinuity, but they also harbor the potential to establish an alternative seriality of their own, one that runs parallel to narrative development; this is an affective and corporeally registered seriality established through the repetition and variation of such poignant moments and images. Scenarios of the body-genre type serve then as fulcrum points for alternating between ongoing serial arcs and more episodically ritualistic engagements with affectively intense but narratively vacuous states of being: arousal by sexualized images, for example, or being moved to tears by highly melodramatic sequences (like the ritualized climaxes of Grey’s Anatomy, which employ music video techniques for a literally melodramatic presentation of bodily triumphs and defeats), or being shaken or disturbed by brutal violence and body horror (which can be occasioned by vampires, zombies, gladiators, serial-killers, or even health-care givers).

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At stake, then, in television studies’ affective turn is the discovery of a broad, material site of serial complexity, of a nexus where shifts occur between serial and episodic forms or between repetition and variation, serially modulated through alternating appeals to cognitive effort and to bodily stimulation. By engineering self-reflexive feedback loops between onscreen body spectacles and the bodily sensitivities of offscreen viewers, contemporary series cement strong affective bonds between their viewers and the very form of complex seriality – with its shifting of gears and contrapuntal rhythms internalized at a deep, sub-cognitive level as the rhythms of one’s own body. Engagement with form thus becomes the embodiment of temporal vicissitudes that are as much those of the show as they are the flowing time of the spectator’s own affective life. At stake is a sort of serial synchronization of affective potentials, over and above (or perhaps deep below) the cognitive recognition of formal complexity. Such affective interfaces materially support and encourage mental engagements with narrative developments, but they do so by cultivating deep material resonances that, at the farthest extreme, institute a corporeal (perhaps endocrinological) need, a serially articulated demand for bodily replenishment or a weekly affective “fix.” The serialized probing of diegetic bodies is reflexively tied to a complex serialization of the viewer’s own body.

It’s Not Television (Or Is It?)

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Three members of the Initiative for Interdisciplinary Media Research (Felix Brinker, Florian Groß, and Shane Denson) will be presenting papers at the upcoming conference “It’s Not Television” (22-23 February 2013, Goethe University of Frankfurt). Our abstracts can be found here:

Felix Brinker: “Narratively Complex Television Series and the Lure of Conspiracy – On the Politics of Long-Form Serial Storytelling and the Paranoid Eye of Active Audiences”

Shane Denson: “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television”

Florian Groß: “Born Alone, Die Alone, But Never Dine Alone: The Creative Individual and Generic Family Structures in Recent TV Series”

Profanity TV / Digital Humanities: Independent Studies Final Presentation

On Tuesday, July 17 (6:00 pm, room 615 of the “Conti-Hochhaus” at Königsworther Platz 1), the participants in my independent studies course on “Digital Media and Humanities Research” will present their projects at an event that is open to all interested parties. Linda Kötteritzsch, Julia Schmedes, and Mandy Schwarze will discuss their blog, “Bonfire of the Televised Profanities,” and its significance at the intersection of TV studies and digital media, while Urthe Rehmstedt and Maren Sonnenberg will approach questions around the digital humanities through the medium of the video essay. Spread the word, and check it out if you can!

The Conspiratorial Mode of Storytelling in Contemporary American Television Series

My colleague and office-mate, Felix Brinker, has just published an exciting article on what he calls the “conspiratorial mode” of storytelling in recent American TV series. This was part of a larger project — Felix’s MA thesis — so perhaps we can expect to see other aspects in the future (maybe also in connection with his PhD?). In the meantime, here is the abstract for the article, which appears in Aspeers 5 (2012): 87-109:

Hidden Agendas, Endless Investigations, and the Dynamics of Complexity: The Conspiratorial Mode of Storytelling in Contemporary American Television Series

Felix Brinker

Contemporary American television shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 24, Alias, or Fringe construct long-running story-arcs around central narrative enigmas in order to inspire committed and regular viewing. In the unfolding of their central storylines such shows perpetually resist closure and defer the resolution of their central conflicts. The specific narrative trajectory of these shows, this paper argues, is best understood if viewed through the lens of conspiracy theory – or, rather, if these shows are conceptualized as conspiracy narratives: as crime fictions of a grand (and, at times, cosmic) scope, as stories that circle around a potentially endless conflict between cunning protagonists and nefarious hidden powers, between investigations and cover-ups. In such programs conspiracy is more than just a thematic preoccupation — it also functions as an organizational logic or structure that governs the way in which these shows tell their stories.

I argue that the success of such programs is indebted to this particular way of storytelling, which I call the ‘conspiratorial mode.’ This article sketches the narrative structure of conspiratorial programs, situates them in the context of post-network television, and considers their curious dynamics of narrative progression and deferral. Finally, it offers an account of the shared characteristics of shows that partake in the conspiratorial mode of storytelling and suggests reasons for the recent prominence of conspiracy narratives in American television beyond and apart from a paranoia that is supposedly widespread in contemporary American culture.

The full text of the article can be found here.

Quality TV (Prezi @ Profanity TV)

Recently, I asked the participants in the independent studies course on “Digital Media and Humanities Research” to experiment a bit with presentation software, including the freely available Prezi — which the students running the “Profanity TV” blog did with very impressive results: here is their elaborate presentation on Quality TV. (And in case you missed it, make sure you check out their introductory “trailer” video for the site, which explains what the blog, i.e. their project for the course, is all about.)