All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part One)

In the summer of 2012, I paid a visit to my friend Jason Mittel who was spending his sabbatical year in residence at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, where he joined a group of researchers working on historical and contemporary forms of serial entertainment, headed by Frank Kelleter. While I was there, we discussed an advanced copy of the chapter on media engagement for my then forthcoming book Spreadable Media and I did a public lecture sharing early ideas about Comics and Stuff, which I hope to finish up the summer. But for me the most valuable part of the encounter was getting to know the members of the research unit on “popular seriality – aesthetics and practice”:  they gave me a glimpse into their individual and collective research, around which we had a lively and rigorous exchange.

Some years later, Frank Kelleter has released a new anthology, Media of Serial  Narrative, which brings together a collection of outstanding essays that emerge from the research group over its multiyear history. Contributors include Jared Gardner, Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, Scott Higgins, Jason Mittel, and yours truly (an essay about world building in and around L Frank Baum’s Oz books). The collection ranges  from print culture in the 19 century to Hollywood serials to contemporary television, games and Transmedia franchises. The book makes the case for the centrality of seriality as an underlying aesthetic principle shaping much popular entertainment, offering new critical and theoretical vocabularies for understanding its narrative logic and cultural functions. Such work contributes much to our comprehension of the formal, industrial and ideological dimensions of popular entertainment.

Over the next few installments of this interview, Kelleter provides a cogent overview of some of the book’s core insights about serial narrative, moving back and forth between contemporary and historical examples, between theory and application in ways that represents the strength of the collection as a whole.

HJ: Let’s start with a bit of back story. What can you tell us about the origins and history of the Popular Seriality research network?


FK: The Popular Seriality Research Unit started in 2010 as a group of 13 scholars from different German universities. We came from different disciplines, too, but all of us were fascinated by stories that never seem to end but then simply disappear one day, or stories that always come back looking the same, but then after the tenth time, or the hundredth time, they’re not the same anymore. The German Research Foundation gave us a large grant for six projects, and so for three years we got to watch a lot of television and read a lot of comics. But most importantly, we used these first years to hook up with like-minded scholars from all over the world—chiefly the US, however—and suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in this amazing international network of people and projects and schools of thought, all trying to understand serial popular culture. Our sponsor was satisfied, too, and we received another generous grant for three more years. At the time, we already knew that this would be the final season, because that’s the allowed maximum for Research Units in Germany, six years. So we added another seven projects, some of them reaching back into the 19th century, others about digital games, non-fictional seriality, and other topics.


HJ: How did this book emerge from the network’s ongoing investigations?


FK: In 2013, when we got the follow-up grant, the group’s core activities moved from Göttingen to Berlin. The book was conceived at this time, at the moment when we were both branching out and already beginning to think about the end. All in all, it seems appropriate that Media of Serial Narrative is coming out now, shortly after our big valedictory conference in 2016, but it’s not a conference volume. The book almost feels like a condensed summary of the Research Unit’s work, within and without the German core group. So we’ve got collaborative chapters that are based on projects from our first funding period, such as Ruth Mayer and Shane Denson on serial figures, or Christine Hämmerling and Mirjam Nast on what they call “quotidian integration.” And then there are chapters that are more explorative, because they’ve emerged from brand new projects, such as Kathleen Loock and me writing on film remakes as serial forms. Some of the contributors were Fellows of the Research Unit in Göttingen or Berlin or both, such as Jason Mittell, Sean O’Sullivan and Con Verevis. And we’ve got chapters by close collaborators, such as Jared Gardner, who’s been a tremendous inspiration for our comics projects, or Scott Higgins, a good friend of our cinema projects.


HJ: Why study popular seriality across genres, media, nations, and historical periods?


FK: To study seriality means to study things in motion. It’s more of a kinesiological task, if you will, not so much an ontological one. So the study of seriality is often the study of specific temporalities. Rhythms, speeds, frequencies, the timing or non-timing of pauses, intermissions, and gaps, but also larger historical conditions like the timeliness or untimeliness of modes of production and reception—all these kinetic concerns are essential to make sense of how serial stories make sense.


HJ: How are you defining the concept of popular seriality?


FK: I would preface any definition by pointing out that serial stories usually move forward in adaptive feedback loops with their own effects. This kind of feedback can be more or less direct; it’s not necessarily a matter of audiences immediately influencing a narrative—there are also more indirect forms of interaction between storytelling and story consumption. So I’m not making a populist argument for fan autonomy here, but I want to highlight that serial storytelling is evolving storytelling. And evolving storytelling is always dispersed storytelling. In other words, seriality (both in its episodic and its progressive manifestations) necessitates a certain division of labor and it usually provokes all kinds of authorization conflicts.

So, pointing out the importance of feedback loops is not the same as claiming that serial storytelling is democratic storytelling. Rather, we’re saying that series and serials can observe their own effects. They watch their audiences watching them—and they are able to react. As developing and proliferating stories—as stories that are not easily programmed toward a predetermined ending or an ending that would be really final, without potential further resurrections—series and serials are virtually forced to adapt to their own consequences, to the changes they effect in their cultural environments.

Here is a definition, then (with the term “series” referring to both episodic and progressing formats): series can be defined as self-observing systems. And self-observing systems always produce theories about their own motions—they do so in order to keep moving. Likewise, series usually experiment with formal identities and they “think” about their own possibilities of continuation. However, when I say that series are “doing” these things, I don’t mean that they are intentional entities. Of course series do not act like human beings—or instead of human beings. But they involve people and intentions. Just think about what it means that the producers of a specific serial text—the writers, illustrators, actors, photographers, marketing managers, and so on—are sometimes much younger than the series in question, and that they will often express a sense of practical commitment to “their” series rather than a sense of originating authorship.


HJ: What can popular seriality teach us more generally about the nature of popular culture?


FK: The larger argument here is that all serial forms are such entities of distributed intention and that they all tend to generate, in historically specific ways and forms, what I would call reproductive intelligence. In fact, this process can be observed not only in the evolution of individual series but in the evolution of popular culture at large. So when we focus on seriality in our study of popular culture, we will sooner or later be looking for vocabularies that help us describe popular culture’s systemic dimensions, its reproductive intelligence … which can include all kinds of reproductive stupidity too—and representational violence and injustice.


HJ: Given the centrality of seriality to many different media, why has there been so little scholarly writing on this topic?


FK: A lot of scholarship uses serial texts to make some argument or other. But it’s rare for these studies to truly engage with the seriality of their material. So you get a lot of articles and papers and talks about “the representation of this-or-that in X,” with X being a serial text. And that’s valid research but it’s not seriality studies.

At the other extreme, you find the scholasticism of both narratology and axiomatic master-thought. So there are formalist typologies that basically see seriality as a narrative device, with all sorts of classificatory problems and solutions in tow. In rhetorical competition with this approach but following a similar logic, you have the writings of Sartre or Deleuze or Adorno and their continuations in academic storytelling.

Both types of scholarship have given us absolutely useful vocabularies to make certain distinctions—tempting vocabularies, too, because they’re so easily re-applicable once you’ve overcome the initial difficulty of learning their production code. Narratological terminology and philosophical rhetoric are great time-saving machines. But they also tend to define seriality as a fairly abstract “principle” or “force” or “structure”—or, in the case of Sartre, as an axiological term that serves to uphold a somewhat questionable theory of “mass culture.” For Sartre, the concept of seriality is basically a scholastic tool to solve a scholastic problem, the problem of aligning an existentialist script with a Marxist script. And that’s true for a lot of theoretical employments of terms such as “series” or “seriality” or even “repetition” and “variation.” Philosophies of art and culture often take the concept of seriality as a given: as something that can be used to explain things rather than something in need of explanation, something in need of historical retracings. It’s like the reduction of kinetics to ontology again.


Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).