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

HJ: A key claim here is that seriality in its modern sense emerges from 19th-century print culture. Explain. Doesn’t Homer produce works that can be understood in terms of their seriality? FK: Stories told in installments are probably as old as human culture. So, yes, manifold structures of repetition and variation can be identified in Homer, in medieval story cycles, in picaresque and chivalric novels, and so on. The specificity of modern (or “popular”) seriality reveals itself when we begin to think of seriality not as a narrative device but as a cultural practice. The medium of print and its affordances are crucial here, because print allows for a heretofore unimaginable production of “intimacy at a distance” (as Horton and Wohl called it). As Daniel Stein shows in his chapter, this is exactly what we witness in the first newspaper novels of the 19th century, starting with Les mystères de Paris.

Newspapers are important in this regard because they tremendously speed up the process of synchronizing the most heterogeneous spaces and demographics—a process which then comes to describe itself as “modernization.” This, at least, was Benedict Anderson’s point, when he argued that the print revolution afforded the idea and the reality of the modern nation. And Harold Innis had something similar in mind when he said that large territories first became governable with the invention of modern communication machines that coordinate time and space.

HJ: How do the stories published there differ from, say, story cycles involving recurring heroes, found in the Classical world for example?

FK: It’s certainly possible to compare narratological structures in classical storytelling with popular seriality, but in the early 19th century, we see an entirely new and distinct temporal regime come into existence that has everything to do with a media revolution that leads us from periodical newspapers to broadcasting media to digital media, each with their own specific synchronicities and non-synchronicities: with their distinct seriality practices, that is. We can call this larger system of continuous reading/viewing “print capitalism” or “media capitalism” or simply “popular culture”—and depending on which description we choose, we can critique it or celebrate it—but in all cases it’s important to see that serialization takes on different functions, and hence different meanings, when it operates within new technologies, even if their formalisms resemble earlier conventions.

For instance, think about the news as one of our most ubiquitous serial forms, and then think about what it meant for the evolving function and the evolving meaning of something appearing as “news” when the technologies of newsmaking switched from event-based media (such as the pamphlets of the early modern era) to increasingly fast-paced periodical accounts (such as weeklies and dailies). Ever since this happened, the newsworthiness of a piece of information has been heavily co-determined by the media logic of regular publication, and not just by the novelty or relevance of the information itself. In other words, the modern newspaper, as a serial publication, is forced to produce news even when nothing strikingly new has happened. And after a while it needs to do so daily—it needs to do so always, not just on certain ritualized occasions. Newspaper novels and almost all later types of popular seriality follow similar time constraints: episodes are typically written under a strict deadline, and the deadline very much modernizes the good old game of repetition and variation, encouraging new practices of standardization and multi-authorization, for example.

HJ: How might we think about the cultural status ascribed to serial texts?

FK: For the longest time, popular-serial texts have not been particularly interested in cultural status—and when they have achieved it, they commonly did so in non-serialized form, for example, when a serialized novel was republished and reworked as a bound book. So, historically speaking, if popular-serial texts have resisted canonization, this is because they’ve often not sought it.

If you think of traditional serial formats—newspaper novels, dime novels, comic books, TV shows of the network era—it becomes clear that in their aesthetic self-conception, indeed in their very materiality, these products never meant to become validated objects of cultural memory. Instead they aimed at rapid reception. As commodities, their prime interest was to attract as many readers or viewers as possible, in as short a time as possible, and then to quickly make room again for new offers.

That’s why, materially, they didn’t even imagine the possibility of future storing or archiving. Printed on cheap, almost deliberately unsustainable paper, or broadcast without back-up copy into the living rooms of anonymous viewers, entire genres and periods of popular seriality have become unavailable to us, because they were never meant to be seen again, let alone be analyzed by future historians. Popular culture always has this deep investment in the present moment.

So, whenever canonization takes place, it has to circumvent certain formal, material and experiential features of the canonized material. An important technological prerequisite is the existence of sustainable and generally accessible storage media. Derek Kompare, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell have written about how the DVD box set has helped canonize certain TV shows—and, even more importantly, how the prospect of DVD releases has prompted TV serials around the turn of the millennium to try out, or in some cases to mimic, narrative techniques that can be aligned with culturally validated practices, such as complex but coherent plotting, narrative closure, overt stylistic experimentation, deep psychological characterization of figures, and so on.

But that’s not the end of the story. Clearly there’s another change underway in our own time, when the notion of cultural status itself is becoming increasingly problematical, because a text’s value now isn’t necessarily dependent anymore on the material distinctions of specific media forms but can also be associated with a text’s interfacing accomplishments in a system of textual co-presences within one and the same medium (acting as a super-medium).

HJ: Seriality seems to be one of those traits that gets dismissed when talking about soap operas but praised as one of the defining traits of today’s “quality television.”

FK: It is telling that in the 1990s and 2000s, many academic observers of the new “complex” television shows of the time thought that they were reading “novels.” Unsurprisingly, this comparison was particularly widespread among scholars who were trained in doing exactly that: reading and teaching novels. So, for a while it became a topos almost in certain intellectual circles to preface your professional interest in, say, HBO series by declaring that you usually don’t watch television or that you don’t even own a television set. The term “quality television” is best understood here as a legitimating term, not a descriptive term, because it implies that the most valuable type of television is the one that looks the least like television. But TV seriality, even in explicitly artistic programs, is usually not about epic scope or integral completion but about explorative movement. Twin Peaks understood this early on.

So when seriality gets dismissed in soap operas but praised in supposedly novelistic shows, the meaning of seriality itself is shifted toward more oeuvre-like notions, especially the notion of a whole that is made up of parts. And this is not just a question of literary scholars starting to watch a few television shows. We find similar moves within television studies.

Issues of gender and class play an important role here, I would say. They always do when we talk about legitimacy and prestige. I think this largely explains why soap operas—very complex and highly self-reflective narratives—have seen so little cultural valorization, even within television studies, at least in the sense of valuing soaps in their aesthetic and formal achievements as serial television (rather than valuing their populist use-value).

Conversely but accordingly, the “soapy” qualities of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire—say, their employment of melodramatic scripts and effects—have been systematically overlooked until critics like Robyn Warhol, Linda Williams, or Amanda Lotz pointed out that the most highly acclaimed (early) examples of digital-age television all shared one characteristic: they all told sentimental tales of white masculinity in crisis. Jason Mittell takes up this point in his chapter on Breaking Bad, when he discusses the melodrama of Walter White as a “‘women’s film’ told in reverse.”

HJ: Jason Mittell here suggests the challenges of interpreting serial texts, since meaning often rests on how an idea gets worked through across the entire work, and the full implications of an action may not be revealed midstream. So, what are critics to do with serial texts?

FK: I think whatever they do, they should try to respect the fact that they are dealing with serial texts. I wouldn’t want to argue for a unified methodology or research agenda. Marxist critics will do Marxist work, ethnographers will do ethnographic work, feminists will ask feminist questions. But in every case, the material comes with certain praxeological traits—Latour would say: with certain “prepositions”—that should be respected and accounted for, so that we don’t turn our objects of study into mere illustrations of pre-established assumptions or arguments.

And that’s where Jason Mittell’s point about endings becomes important, because when Jason reminds us that critical assessment of a serial text must remain fluid as long as that text is progressing, he’s not saying that we have to wait for the finale to uncover “what it all means,” like the last scene of a whodunit. Rather, the final episode is important for our assessment of the series “as a whole” because afterwards, no more additions can be made, at least not by the narrative itself, not until this narrative is revived again or reinterpreted in later versions.

So, the ending of a serial text is not necessarily its conclusion, and certainly not its solution. But it is the moment when the narrative—at least for a while, sometimes for a very long while, sometimes for ever—stops being able to react to its own effects, as serial narratives are wont to do. The feedback loop turns into a concentrated point of dispersion, so to speak, a launching pad. If storytelling continues, it has to continue now outside the bounds of the original core text—consider the many different versions of The Wire that have been circulating in public arenas after the show’s final season.

So, what are critics to do with serial texts? I would say, anything that seems important but let’s remember that we are dealing with moving targets. This means that even when these stories have come to rest now, they once existed as lively networks of multi-authored practice. This has always been their textual reality too.

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).