Batman and the “Parergodic” Work of Seriality in Interactive Digital Environments

wayne-tech

On Saturday, December 15 (11:30 am, 6th floor of the Conti-Hochhaus, room TBA) — in the context of a research colloquium of the American studies department — I will be presenting some work in progress from my “Habilitation” project Figuring Serial Trajectories (more info about my project here; also, more info about the larger collaborative project with Ruth Mayer on serial figures here, and the website of the overarching research group on popular seriality here).

The topic of my talk will be Batman, computer games, and digital media environments. I will be expanding on, and trying to make somewhat more concrete, the idea of “parergodicity” which I presented at the recent FLOW conference (see here for my position paper).

Here is the abstract for my talk:

Batman and the “Parergodic” Work of Seriality in Interactive Digital Environments

Shane Denson

In the twentieth century, serial figures like Tarzan, Frankenstein’s monster, and Sherlock Holmes enacted a broadly “parergonal” logic; that is, in their plurimedial instantiations (in print, film, radio, TV, etc.), they continually crossed the boundaries marked by these specific media, slipped in and out of their frames, and showed them – in accordance with the logic of the parergon as described by Jacques Derrida – to be reversible. Through such oscillations, serial figures were able to transcend the particularity of any single iteration, and more importantly they were able to constitute themselves as higher-order frames or media, within which the transformations of first-order (i.e. apparatically concrete) media could be traced in the manner of an ongoing – though not altogether linear – series.

In the twenty-first century, many classic serial figures have declined in popularity, while the basic functions and medial logics of those that remain have been transformed in conjunction with the rise of interactive, networked, and convergent digital media environments. As I will argue in this presentation, the figure of Batman exemplifies this shift as the transition from a broadly “parergonal” to a specifically “parergodic” logic; the latter term builds upon Espen Aarseth’s notion of the “ergodic” situation of gameplay – where ergodics combines the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path), thus positing nontrivial labor as the aesthetic mode of players’ engagement with games. Expanded beyond narrowly ludological frames of reference to include a wider variety of interactive and participatory potentials in contemporary culture, ergodic media give rise to new forms of seriality that accompany, probe, and trace the developmental trajectories of the new media environment. These new forms and functions of seriality, as embodied by a figure like Batman, raise questions about the blurring of relations between work and play, between paid labor and the incidental work or “immaterial labor” culled from our leisure activities and entertainment practices, in the age of the “control society” (Deleuze) or of “post-cinematic affect” (Shaviro). Following Batman’s transitions from comics to graphic novels, to the films of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, and on to the popular and critically acclaimed videogames Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, I will demonstrate that the dynamics of border-crossing which characterized earlier serial figures has 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.

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Required Reading: Graeber on Nolan’s Batman

More required reading for anyone interested in popular culture, film, comics, media generally, Occupy, politics generally, the financial crisis, global capital, or life generally: David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, has a thought-provoking piece in The New Inquiry on superhero comics and their recent film incarnations (with special reference to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films). The piece starts provocatively enough:

Let me clarify one thing from the start: Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises really is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda.

From there, Graeber goes on to explore (perhaps not altogether unproblematically, but importantly) the politics of superhero comics from the mid twentieth century to the age of digital filmmaking and media convergence.

Dark Knight Rises offers an opportunity to ask some potentially enlightening questions about contemporary culture. What are superhero movies really all about? What could explain the sudden explosion of such movies—one so dramatic that it sometimes seems that comic book-based movies are replacing sci-fi as the main form of Hollywood special effects blockbuster, almost as rapidly as the cop movie replaced the Western as the dominant action genre in the ‘70s?

Why, in the process, have familiar superheroes suddenly been given complex interiority: family backgrounds, ambivalence, moral crises and self-doubt? And why does the very fact of their receiving a soul seem to force them to also choose some kind of explicit political orientation?  One could argue that this happened first not with a comic-book character, but with James Bond. Casino Royale gave Bond psychological depth for the first time. By the very next movie he was saving indigenous communities in Bolivia from evil transnational water privatizers.  Spiderman, too, broke left in his latest cinematic incarnation, just as Batman broke right.

This is an important piece, framed by consideration of Nolan’s latest Batman film, but really about the framing function of constituent power and the popular means for channeling, negotiating, and ultimately re-imagining it.

Serial Figures and (the) Television

The new issue of Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft is out now. It’s a special issue on “The Series,” edited by Daniela Wentz, Lorenz Engell, Jens Schröter, Herbert Schwaab, and Benjamin Beil, and among a great set of articles it includes a piece I co-authored with Ruth Mayer, entitled: “Bildstörung: Serielle Figuren und der Fernseher” [roughly: Image Interference: Serial Figures and the Television]. Here’s the abstract:

This article investigates the logic and aesthetics of popular seriality by looking at several exemplary moments of medial recursivity – which we identify as a ‘motor’ of serial narration and proliferation. Our focus is on the medial development of serial figures – figures that are firmly established in the popular imagination and which have undergone multiple media changes in the course of their careers. In their serial reenactments, these figures are able to shed light on the ways in which the structures of a medial memory are established and updated, and how medial acts of forgetting are operationalized in this context. Exploring three case studies – the figures of Fu Manchu, Fantômas, and Batman – this article in particular reflects on the function of television with respect to its influence on the medial positionings and self-conceptions of other serial entertainment formats (the novel, film). We set out from the hypothesis that television is in many respects privileged in this role as a medium of reference. Not only its propensity for serial forms distinguishes it in this regard, but also its contradictory attributes of immateriality (television viewing) and apparatic presence (the television set) contribute to making the medium of television appear as both the epitome of serial sequentiality and as a disruptive factor or instrument for arresting the flow of serial figures’ stagings – thus covering a broad spectrum of medial reference functions.

And in German:

Dieser Aufsatz untersucht die Logik und Ästhetik populärer Serialität im exemplarischen Bezug auf das Moment der medialen Rekursivität, das hier als ‚Motor’ der seriellen Narration und Proliferation  ausgemacht wird. Der Fokus liegt auf der medialen Entfaltung von seriellen Figuren – also Figuren, die in der populären Imagination fest etabliert sind und im Laufe ihrer Karriere mehrere Medienwechsel unterlaufen. In ihrer seriellen Fortschreibung vermögen solche Figuren Aufschluss darüber zu geben, wie Strukturen eines medialen Gedächtnisses etabliert und fortgeschrieben werden und wie mediales Vergessen in diesem Zusammenhang operationalisiert wird. Anhand dreier Fallbeispiele – der Figuren Fu Manchu, Fantômas und Batman – erkundet der Aufsatz insbesondere die Funktion des Leitmediums Fernsehen in seiner Wirkmacht für die mediale Selbstverortung und das Selbstverständnis anderer serieller Unterhaltungsformate (Roman, Spielfilm). Er geht von der Hypothese aus, dass das Fernsehen in vieler Hinsicht für diese Rolle als Referenzmedium privilegiert ist. Nicht nur sein serialitätsaffiner Charakter zeichnet es hierfür aus, sondern auch seine widersprüchlichen Attribute der Immaterialität (Fernsehen) und Apparathaftigkeit (Fernseher) tragen dazu bei, dass dieses Medium gleichermaßen als Inbegriff der seriellen Sequenzialität und als Störfaktor oder Instrument der Arretierung im Fluss der seriellen Figureninszenierung erscheinen kann – und damit ein breites Spektrum an Referenzfunktionen abdeckt.

Seriality and Media Transformation #GöSerial

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When this post goes online, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion (together with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Sean O’Sullivan, and Ruth Page, and moderated by Jason Mittell) on the topic of “seriality and media transformations” at the workshop on Popular Seriality going on at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Each of the participants has been asked to prepare a five-minute statement to set the stage and get things rolling. This is what I’ll be saying:

Seriality and Media Transformation

Shane Denson

The topic of this panel, seriality and media transformation, names a constellation of processes that, as I see it, are perhaps not essentially or necessarily linked, but which are nevertheless bound together as a matter of historical fact. I’m tempted to say that seriality and media transformation are “structurally coupled” under conditions of modernity. My thoughts on this topic follow from research I’ve been conducting with Ruth Mayer, where we’ve been looking at popular figures like Frankenstein’s monster, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Batman – what we call serial figures, which proliferate across a range of media (but in a fragmented, plurimedial way, not by way of the more coherent, and more recent, transmediality that Henry Jenkins describes in terms of “world building”). In the context of this research, where we look at the way these figures jump from one medium to another, perpetually re-creating themselves in the milieu of a new medium, we are concerned with a nexus between seriality and mediality – a nexus where series are not just the contents of specific media (film serials, radio series, TV series, and the like), but where seriality is constituted as a higher-order medium, one in which the relations between and the transformations of first-order media (media as we usually think of them) are put on display, made visible, and negotiated. To make a big claim – because what else can you do in five minutes? – I would claim that it is the very hallmark of modernity to forge and reforge such a nexus of seriality and mediality; in other words, the articulation of seriality as a higher-order medium of media change is a central device for measuring, and indeed for constituting, the progression or forward march of a future-oriented modernity.

So we have to regard the media-historical function of the nexus: Because series unfold over time, they are subject to any changes that their carrier media may undergo. Not just passive receivers, though, series actively trace these transformations as they enact their own temporal unfoldings: the self-historicization by which series mark new installments against the old and in some cases stage qualitative transformations of their internal norms (as when Lost suddenly shifts from using flashbacks to flashforwards) – such processes of serial self-renewal and innovation can also serve as indexes of media change, and as the means for updating the idea of modernity in the process. Modernity itself is all about the update, and more often than not the update in question is all about innovations in media and technologies of mediation. So I’m suggesting that serial forms, which are inherently concerned with perpetually updating themselves, are the “natural” forms in which modernity would seek to stage itself.

Of central importance here is the medial self-reflexivity that serial forms are in various respects capable of instantiating. I’ll just briefly consider the example of Frankenstein’s monster, conceived as a serial figure (or a figure of serialization). Originating in a highly self-reflexive novel about (among other things) the experiential deformations occasioned by industrialization, the monster was serially replicated on the increasingly mechanized theater stages of the nineteenth century, before it became subject, in 1910, of a highly self-reflexive film by the production company of Thomas Edison, the wizard of modern media-technological innovation himself. In the film, as in all the Frankenstein films that would follow in the course of the next century, animation is both a diegetic and a medial process. In 1910, the term “animated pictures” was still used to describe film in general and to distinguish it from the still pictures of photography, so the creation sequence instantiated a sort of “operational aesthetic” in which, against the background of the familiar figure, film could stage itself as a figure of modern media fascination. Importantly, this is at the outset of the cinema’s so-called transitional era, which would radically change the phenomenological and industrial functions of film. Nor is it an accident that the still iconic image of the monster, embodied by Boris Karloff, was established (in 1931) in the wake of the cinema’s sound transition. Robbed of speech, a mute icon served all the better to foreground the fact of sound and thus to stage the self-renewal of film, the updating of the medium’s modernity, against the background of the flat figure’s serialized history. The figure of the monster, which exists not in a series but as a series, which updates itself in color and widescreen formats, in 3-D and CGI, in comics, on TV, and in video games, increasingly becomes a medium itself: a second-order medium of media change, and of modernity as the trajectory of media-technical innovation, updating, and transformation.

Batman Live?

Several weeks ago, my family and I were able to catch a performance of the touring stadium show Batman Live (English site here, German here) in Hamburg. All in all, it was lots of fun. And it also happens to tie in with my current research on plurimedial serial figures. I had planned, therefore, to write a sort of review of the show, but as I can’t foresee finding the time to do so anytime soon, here are a few scattered thoughts.

As the title Batman Live indicates, the show is all about “liveness,” but the cultivation of the latter, which might be said to constitute the show’s main conceit, involves the performance in all sorts of paradoxes. One might, of course, say (with reference to Derrida, perhaps) that all performance, insofar as it involves the iteration of a script, renders “liveness” problematic, as the present is bound up in the pastness of the patterns and discourses that it repeats. But the paradoxes of Batman Live are much more concrete than all that…

By what means does Batman Live contrive to make Batman live? Naturally, by employing a live actor to embody the figure on a physical stage. “Live” is here contrasted with “recorded,” and it would seem that film, which also employs live actors (at least sometimes) but preserves their actions for later playback, is the particular medium of reference here. (Incidentally, film serves a double role here, as the show undoubtedly seeks to profit from the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, while defining itself against them with the implicit claim that “more live” = “more real” or more spectacular.) But, at least, in the German-language version I saw, this claim to liveness is undermined with the very first words uttered on stage, as the actors quite clearly lip sync a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Furthermore, the stage/screen dichotomy as a basis for the claim to liveness is unsettled by the presence of a gigantic digital display behind the stage. We’re used to this, of course, from big-budget musicals and, increasingly, even smaller-budget theater productions, but the backdrop in this case is used to make constant reference to other media (especially to comics and video games), the pre-existence of which must be seen to complicate the purported “liveness” of the performance.

For example, when Batman and Robin race away in the Batmobile, exiting the stage through one of the many discreet passageways that open up when necessary to allow traffic onto or off of the stage, their high-speed journey to Arkham Asylum is continued onscreen, framed quite obviously in the visual forms typical of digital racing games. (The layout of Arkham Island and the interior of the asylum, as depicted on the screen, in fact seemed to be pulled directly from the console game Batman: Arkham Asylum; an uncanny sense of recognition, an identification of the digital backdrop with my own TV screen hooked up to a PS3, transported me momentarily out of the arena and into my own living room.) The backdrop is also used for the purpose of narrative ellipsis, as a means of summarizing the events that occur between on-stage scenes; significantly, this takes place in the idiom of graphic narrative: we see digitally animated comic book pages flipping, the virtual camera zooming from panel to panel, revealing what happens “in the meantime.” Indeed, one might claim that the “meanwhile” is the temporal register that superhero comics in particular have perfected more than any other medium; such direct recourse to it, though, radically unsettles the here and now of the “live.”

On the other hand, though, we might say that these intermedial references are not so much at odds with, but in fact an integral part of the performance’s cultivation of “liveness,” which consists not only in the present-ness of the actors and their actions in a physical space shared by us, but precisely in the act of “bringing to life” the places and events depicted in film, video games, and comics — effectively imbuing these media with life by expanding them onto the stage, where Batman, Robin, the Joker, and others relate to the (intermedially determined) screen as part of their (diegetic) world.

Furthermore, this permeability of the screen, which alternates between embodying an expansion of diegetic space and an extra-diegetic, specifically narrative function (with concrete references to the narrative/representational techniques of other media) is caught up in paradoxes much like those informing the deployment of 3D techniques and technologies: they, too, oscillate between a) claims of establishing an intensified immersive experience that would bring represented characters and events to life for us in an unprecedented manner, and b) an emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the whole affair, a celebration of the technological infrastructure that enables such spectacles, and hence a foregrounding of the event itself in a manner that is radically at odds with the notion of “immersion.”

Indeed, the discourse of “immersive experience” is referenced in the video clip embedded here, where the “physicality of the stage” plus the awe-inspiring technology are foregrounded, but purportedly “wrapped up” in an immersive “package.” I am inclined to believe that this kind of equation never adds up — and that it’s never in fact meant to: from the “sensational melodrama” of nineteenth century stages and early-twentieth century screens (as explored by Ben Singer) to 3D techniques and “immersive” video games today, the attraction of all such spectacles consists in the maintenance of tensions between realism and a feeling of awe at the sight or spectacle of realism (itself no longer beholden to the impression of realistic-ness), for example, or between immersion and amazement at the power of a medium to involve us (recognition of which takes place outside the space of immersion). Batman Live is above all a spectacle of this sort, and the paradox of its “liveness” is — for those who take pleasure in such paradox, at least — not so much a shortcoming as a productive element of the attraction, which itself is inextricably bound up with the fragmented dispersal and plurimedial lack of coherence that characterizes Batman qua serial figure.

Well, in any case, it was all good fun…

Bowie Turns 65: Pop-Star Iconicity and the Serialization of Self

David Bowie turns 65 today, and among the various birthday tributes and other pieces written for the occasion is this article by David Hudson, appearing in mubi.com’s “The Daily” column: “Bowie @ 65“. Most interesting, to me, is Hudson’s identification of “Bowie’s #1 lesson in staying power: Create a persona and then kill it off with the next one.” Hudson is right, I believe, to single out what amounts to a principle of seriality as the open secret of Bowie’s success — a principle taken up, as Hudson also correctly observes, by Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince in the 1980s. As I’ve recently argued, it’s precisely this principle — with Bowie as a direct influence, no less — that Lady Gaga has begun adapting to the changed medial parameters of twenty-first century convergence culture (see here for a summary). I’ll have more to say about this sort of serialized celebrity soon, but for now: Happy birthday to one of the original progenitors of pop stardom qua serial media remix!