Here is the abstract for Dominik Maeder’s paper on the panel “Digital Seriality” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:
Serial Interfaces: Publishing and Programming Television on Digital Platforms
Dominik Maeder (University of Siegen)
Digital streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Watchever are frequently dubbed “the future of television” due to their technical features of increased selectability, flexibility, and user-centred generation of programming flows. Few scholars, however, have actually analyzed and theorized the aesthetic forms through which these platforms arrange and organize their “content” or the operations that the websites’ interfaces enable with respect to well-established accounts of television programming.
In this paper I shall argue that digital streaming platforms not only host and influence the production processes and aesthetic forms of television series, but that these platforms themselves perform a specific kind of spatio-temporal seriality on the level of their interfaces. This seriality of interfaces can be described, following Manovich (2001), as a conceptual form that is located between narrative and database logics and that permits databases themselves to appear as potential narratives. In so far as the arrangement of content in digital platforms is also a screening of meta-data (cf. Chamberlain 2011), we may more specifically locate the interfaces’ seriality as a result of the automated observation and algorithmic organization of media consumption (cf. Adelmann 2012). This algorithmic automatization, as will be demonstrated with regard to Netflix’s House of Cards, lends itself to a phantasm of the non-human production of the “new” and thereby closely connects to a very modernistic conception of industrial seriality.
Adelmann, Ralf. “‘There is no correct way to use the system.’ Das doppelte Subjekt in Datenbanklogiken.” Sortieren, Sammeln, Suchen, Spielen. Die Datenbank als mediale Praxis. Eds. Stefan Böhme, Rolf F. Nohr, and Serjoscha Wiemer. Münster: LIT, 2012. 253-268.
Chamberlain, Daniel. “Scripted Spaces: Television Interfaces and the Non-Places of Asynchronous Entertainment.” Television as Digital Media. Eds. James Bennett and Niki Strange. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. 230-254.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2001.
Dominik Maeder (M.A.) is a research assistant in Media Studies at the University of Siegen (Germany). He is writing a PhD thesis on Televisual Governmentality and has published several papers on the aesthetics of TV series, reality TV, and transmedia television.
Abstract for Florian Groß’s talk at the symposium “Imagining Media Change” (June 13, 2013, Leibniz Universität Hannover):
The Only Constant is Change: American Television and Media Change Revisited
“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. Goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” This is how 1960s adman Don Draper describes a slide projector in the historical television series Mad Men, and his pitch is also a potent way of describing the medium itself. From its development out of radio and film to its present convergence with digital media, television’s interaction with other media and processes of media change was often linked to its negotiation of the future and the past, progress and retrospection, and innovation and nostalgia.
This paper argues that in order to understand the future of television and the potential results of its increasing interaction with digital media, an understanding of the medium’s past as well as television’s own understandings of its past is instrumental. In this context, Mad Men’s historiography and its attempt to unearth and create historical material helps us to come to terms with the layers of television’s past whose residues always coexist with the medium in transition and continue to influence the shape of televisual things to come.
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
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 Homeland, The 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.
Over at the media commons site in media res, what promises to be a great theme week on “Conspiracies and Surveillance” has just gotten underway. All of the contributions sound exciting, and among them is one by our very own Felix Brinker, who’s up tomorrow (Tuesday, April 9) with a piece on the “logics of conspiracy” in American TV series. (And in case you missed it, make sure you check out the longer text on the topic that Felix allowed me to post here recently.)
Here’s the full lineup for the in media res theme week:
Monday, April 8, 2013 – Jason Derby (Georgia State University) presents: Scandalous Conspiracies: Making Sense of Popular Scandal Through Conspiracy
Tuesday, April 9, 2013 – Felix Brinker (Leibniz University of Hannover, Germany) presents: Contemporary American Prime-Time Television Serials and the Logics of Conspiracy
Wednesday, April 10, 2013 – Meagan Winkelman (University of Oregon) presents: Sexuality and Agency in Pop Star Conspiracy Theories
Thursday, April 11, 2013 – Perin Gurel (University of Notre Dame) presents: Transnational Conspiracy Theories and Vernacular Visual Cultures: Political Islam in Turkey and America
Friday, April 12, 2013 – Jack Bratich (Rutgers University) presents: Millions of Americans Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist
Each day’s contribution, consisting of a video clip of up to three minutes accompanied by a short essay of 300-350 words, is designed to serve as a conversation starter aimed at involving a broad audience in discussion of key topics relating to the topic of “Conspiracies and Surveillance.”
The Internets are all abuzz still following the kickoff this past Sunday of the third season of HBO’s flagship series Game of Thrones. There was a great deal of online anticipation in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the season premiere, fed in part by a set of trailers (above, as well as here and here, for example) that circulated on Youtube, in the twitterverse, and beyond. And following the actual airing of the show, records were allegedly set for the most illegal downloads of a television episode, while discussions, analyses, and reviews continue to proliferate across fan sites, blogs, and news media.
(As a preliminary note to those who are either weary of reading such pieces or who are avoiding them due to spoilers — fear not: this post is neither concerned directly with the latest episode, nor will I give away anything that could ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)
Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to comment on an aspect of the series that I’ve been thinking about (and which I recently wrote about in the more general terms of serial complexity and affect theory as applied to contemporary television). Specifically, Game of Thrones derives much of its momentum, I think, from an interplay between a continuing, complex narrative (in Jason Mittell’s sense of “narrative complexity”) and relatively discontinuous, punctuating moments of affective appeal — a directly corporeal, often visceral, sort of appeal that constitutes momentary “lines of flight” from the story’s ongoing line of development. Like much of HBO’s serial fare, these moments of affect often concern violent and/or sexualized body images which, while not completely devoid of narrative relevance, also exhibit a sort of surplus value as images. In other words, they not only serve the representational functions of depicting significant events and contributing meaningfully to characterization, etc.; over and above that, they also assert a strong presentational and extra- or para-narrational facet, the function of which is to engage the viewer’s body more than his or her interpreting, cognizing brain. Such body images — for example, in narratively gratuitous sex scenes, images of painful injury, torture, or beheading — resonate with the viewer’s own bodily sensibilities, serving to titillate or to arouse a sense of physical vulnerability, anguish, panic, or disgust.
Seen from afar (so to speak), in the overall context of a television series like Game of Thrones, the interplay between narrative development and these moments of bodily affectivity results in what I have described as a “contrapuntal” relation between the two: narrative continuity is punctuated, interrupted by body images that exceed any dramatic motivation, thus constituting more or less insular, episodic forms in the midst of the serial stream; but these islands of affect are (at least potentially) themselves elements in a serial progression that exists in parallel to that of the narrative (and following a very different temporal logic). Repetition and variation of body spectacles can thus be just as important as narrative suspense as a means of ensuring viewer attachment over the course of long serial arcs.
Of course, some series are more successful than others in their employment of such contrapuntal seriality, and there are certainly a wide variety of styles and modes of implementing the counterpoint. Some series are anything but discreet as they shift gears between narrative and body-based affective appeals (and in this regard, they resemble musicals or pornographic films as they move from one more or less self-enclosed “number” to the next). And certainly, some of this can be seen in Game of Thrones, but my overall impression of the series is that it works with a relatively tight integration of affective and corporeally self-reflexive appeals into the informationally complex storyworld and the unfolding tale of rival houses, subtle intrigue, and uncertain outcomes.
A particularly poignant example of contrapuntal integration is provided by episode 7 of season 1, “You Win or You Die,” where we see the following conversation between Jamie and Tywin Lannister:
Set in any other situation, this conversation — which neatly exemplifies the informational complexity of the series — would have a completely different impact. Sarah Hughes, writing in The Guardian‘s TV & Radio Blog, sees the “skinning and disembowelling [of] a deer” here as a “heavy-handed bit of symbolism given the deer is the sign of [rival] House Baratheon,” and I think she’s right to see the visual component of the scene enacting a layer of complexity beyond the content of the verbal. It’s not only a symbolic dimension, though, that is here overlaid upon the Lannisters’ discourse; in addition, I suggest, a dimension of visceral and dermic appeal spreads itself out as the very milieu within which the characters’ words sound out materially. The innards of the deer are more than just a sign: they are matter, and their material image transmits an affective force, establishing a material relation with our own viscera. The forceful separation of the animal’s skin from its muscles emphasizes, moreover, both the stubborn durability and the ultimate finitude of the organic body, arousing a diffuse affective awareness of the corporeal basis upon which our discursive subjectivities are erected. And all the while, royal politics are being discussed in detailed, lofty, and eloquent language. The scene conveys a sense of the unconscious drives that lend momentum to conscious pursuits and political “plots,” conveys a sense of the base and physical “will to power” animating social conflict. And it communicates this “message” by way of a tight contrapuntal integration of narrative information and bodily affect, thus self-reflexively exemplifying the series’ own larger strategy of instrumentalizing affect, infusing the complex (at times, overly complex) narrative with an appeal to animal nature, and in this way crafting a form of serial complexity that partakes equally of the discursive and affective.