The Ends of Serial Criticism

13Jun13

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first stop on my return trip to Germany was to give the keynote address at the Popular Seriality Conference in my old hometown of Göttingen. I plan on incorporating this talk into my final chapter of Complex TV, but want to share it here first for any feedback or suggestions. (It was written for oral presentation, so obviously the many references to the talk itself and venue will be excised as revised for the book.) As always, comments are appreciated!

The Ends of Serial Criticism

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here in Göttingen, speaking at this conference. As many of you know, I lived here for a year, working with the Popular Seriality Research Unit, where through their hospitality and the generosity of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, I was given the space, time, and inspiration to work on my book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. When Frank Kelleter extended the invitation to deliver this keynote, I thought the most appropriate topic would be on endings and conclusions, as I assumed I would be done with the book, and thus ready to reflect back on a completed work from a point of closure. Alas, I’m not, so I stand here today in a state of almost completion, ready to be done but not quite there yet. Nonetheless, my serialized work in progress is available to be read and commented upon via MediaCommons—and hopefully this final chapter on Ends will appear there soon, transforming my project from serialized process to bounded product.

Today, I do want to talk about ends, in two meanings of the word. End can mean “the final part of something” or “a goal or result that one seeks to achieve”[1]—and in this case, the end of my book is both its conclusion and my goal. Reflecting on my own ends (although hopefully not in the terminal sense of the word) is quite an appropriate topic for the end of the book, as I have argued, and will argue in this concluding chapter on conclusions, that serial endings tend toward the meta, reflecting upon themselves as narratives in their waning moments. This was true of Six Feet Under, which concluded by focusing on the parts of its story it wouldn’t be telling, witnessing the deaths of every main character to extend its thematic and poetic norms onward beyond its own conclusion. This was true of The Wire, as its final season explored how stories are both told and ignored by the press and the police, including in its final montage an image of the lying and shallow journalists receiving the type of award that The Wire itself never received. This was true of Lost, which spent its final season playing elaborate storytelling games of “what if?” in its highly authored alternative universe, while the core narrative reality ended back where we started, with Jack lying alone with only a dog for company. And this was true for The Sopranos, whose final shot makes sense both as a representation of Tony coming to a bad end and a reflexive commentary on the storytelling itself reaching an arguably bad end—or at least an end that denies a finale’s typical goal of satisfaction, much to Sean O’Sullivan’s delight.

So as the Popular Seriality Research Unit comes to an end—or at least a pause in awaiting the pick-up for a second season, rebooted in a new locale—my return to Göttingen feels like another technique commonly seen in the final seasons of television serials: the curtain call, bringing back a departed character from a previous season for a brief cameo. Thankfully my character was not killed off when I left Germany last year, so I return not through a fantastic contrivance enabling resurrection, nor a dream sequence or flashback, but as someone returned from an offscreen exile. In searching for a model of how I might return to this scholarly serial, I was inspired by The Wire’s resolute realism, turning to Nick Sobatka’s brief return from the witness protection program in a scene from the final season, where Nick appears to curse out the politicians and developers who have sold out his waterfront shipping docks.

After realizing this would be quite a rude way to return to Germany, I found a more appropriate inspiration from The Wire in the character of Prez, who returns for one scene in the final season a bit older, more weary and jaded, and now bearded.

Why do serials seem to embrace reflexive meta-storytelling so often in their final seasons, and can this explain why I feel so inclined to talk more about my experiences and process rather than actually presenting my research? Television creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds by the final season, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own experiences, as well as offering closing arguments to prove the relevance and missions of their series. Finales and endings tend to be excessively hyped to elevate expectations for both viewers and creators, and thus the pressure to stick the landing seems unusually high for an ongoing serial. The metafictional finale is one way that producers come to terms with the ends of their storyworlds that have been shaped by years of cultural circulation and conversation that are distinctive to the serial form. While the conclusion to Complex TV is far less hyped or even noticed than a television finale, I do feel like giving a keynote address amongst this lineup of international luminaries qualifies as excessive hype. And like television showrunners looking toward the end, I do feel like I’m being held captive by my project, and the only way out is to through the mirror of the meta.

So what are the ends of serial criticism? For most scholars analyzing a media text, the typical core research questions are “what does it mean?” and “why does it matter?”. Thus the brief scene of Nick’s return on The Wire might be interpreted as a moment of class conflict, communicating the disenfranchisement of working class Americans, where politicians and their wealthy supporters use the police force to squash dissent, and even deny individuals like Nick any identity beyond “nobody at all.” Those textual meanings can be contextualized within the larger cultural field of contemporary capitalism, class struggle, and political power to highlight why such moments matter beyond just representations within a television series. These are important issues of culture and politics that certainly do matter and deserve their central place in the field of media studies. However, these are not the questions that have motivated my work in Complex TV.

Instead, I have focused on two related but distinct questions: “how does it mean?” and “how does it matter?” To answer the first question, I use historical poetics to understand the formal storytelling techniques employed by television series, placing those choices in the contexts of the industry and creative personnel to understand why meaning-making happens the way it does in these televisual texts. The second question requires a focus on the cultural circulation of these programs, considering how critics, viewers, and fans continue the signification of serial television beyond the texts themselves—at times, such circulation makes series “matter” in the explicitly material sense, creating paratexts that further the processes of meaning-making. By fusing historical poetics and cultural studies, I have tried to offer a better understanding of how serial television programs work as both aesthetic texts and cultural practices.

For some critics these questions are sufficient, providing ample room to explore issues of form and function that seem to matter for television seriality. However, many media scholars conceive of the field as dedicated to uncovering meaning and analyzing cultural politics, and thus a project that focuses on the “how” as its end goal is insufficient unless used as a means toward answering other questions. I find myself in the middle of this debate—I am sufficiently interested in the “how” to dedicate much of my work to studying poetics and practices, but believe that questions of meaning and power are important enough to want them to be part of my scholarly equation. I see the historical poetic approach I have been exploring as both an end to itself and a means to get toward different ends.

So today I want to shift goals from the rest of my project, considering how we might use some of the ideas I developed in the rest of the book to address questions of power and politics. Thus I’ll shuffle these questions into two new ones: “what does it mean through how it means?” and “why does it matter through how it matters?” In other words, how can we use historical poetics and cultural circulation to better understand questions of meaning and political significance? Uncontroversially, I think that having a more robust account of how television storytelling works should give us a deeper understanding of its meanings and cultural power, but as I will demonstrate, accounting for the formal mechanics and cultural practices of seriality makes politicized textual analysis much more complex.

Let me introduce one case study by playing a video clip without any context.

This is the opening segment of Homeland’s first season finale, “Marine One,” which aired on the premium cable channel Showtime on December 18, 2011, where Sgt. Nick Brody creates a video to explain why he planned to die as a suicide bomber while killing numerous American politicians and military personnel. To try to make sense of this clip, we need to consider it in multiple contexts, as that is certainly how it might be variably consumed. For a few viewers (including some in this room), this may have been the very first moment of Homeland they have seen, making for quite a confusing viewing experience. Assuming that we recognize it as belonging to a fictional program (which would be clear in the next few seconds as the story continues), the clip is still marked as “authentic” via excessive mediation—the visible viewfinder symbols, red “Record” indicator, black-and-white image, and direct address to the camera all connote that this is actuality footage being made within the storyworld. Sgt. Brody’s tone and emotional intensity convey that he is telling the truth, or at least what he believes to be true. And if true, it is a radical statement: accusing the Vice President of being a war criminal, responsible for and covering up the deaths of 82 children, and claiming that an act of violent retribution is the patriotic duty of a U.S. Marine.

Of course, most viewers saw (or will see) this footage in a broader context following eleven hours of storytelling, stretched out over two months of screen time (or less if consumed after its initial airing). Throughout the season leading up to this moment, we questioned whether Brody had been turned to work for his captors, witnessed his conversion to and faithful practice of Islam, saw via flashback the brutality inflicted upon Brody during his captivity, and eventually discovered his plot to become a suicide bomber against Vice President Walden. Most importantly here, we had witnessed the event that turns him firmly against against his government: a U.S. drone bombing destroys a school in Syria and kills 82 children, including terrorist leader Abu Nazir’s son Issa, whom Brody had lived with as his teacher and friend. After the attack, Nazir shows Brody the Vice President’s news conference where he denies that any children had been wounded in the bombing, thus inspiring Brody’s act of vengeance. For viewers like myself, this serial context validates Brody’s statements and beliefs such that his video declaration of patriotism through terrorism rings emotionally true in a fashion that seems utterly out of place on commercial American television.

In the context of its original airing in fall 2011, Homeland’s first season marked the first time that many of its viewers had seen the issue of drone strikes debated on television—press coverage of the issue was quite marginal within American media, growing some in frequency and depth of coverage in late-2011 after one high-profile strike, but it would still remain a specialized “fringe” issue reaching only dedicated news consumers until it became more openly debated in 2013.[2] By dramatizing a drone strike, visualizing the death of innocent children, and having a sympathetic white American empathize with the victims, Homeland offers dramatic fuel for a dissenting view against American military action that was typically found only on the extreme anti-war left and never on mainstream television.

In this context, what is the political meaning of this clip? As it begins the episode, it is a shocking moment of emotionally motivated outrage, giving legitimacy to the perspectives of terrorists who see themselves as victims of terrorism carried out by the American military. We have come to care about Brody as a character, seeing him as deeply flawed and (despite his denial in the video) broken, but also justified to take extreme action against a corrupt and arguably criminal administration, thus marking this video as a radical statement that viewers are invited to endorse or at least consider as valid. However, the episode continues by showing Brody leaving the memory card with his confessional video for his terrorist allies, and then carrying out the plan to become a suicide bomber within a military bunker to kill the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, CIA leaders, and numerous other politicians, military personnel, and civil servants. Brody does attempt to trigger the bomb, but it fails; after repairing the bomb in the bathroom, he gets a phone call from his teenage daughter Dana who inspires him to give up his plan in the name of family, as he realizes what his suicide attack would do to his wife and children. The episode ends with Brody shifting plans to become an agent of Nazir from within the government, rather than violently disrupting it. This development serves the dramatic needs of seriality, as it allows Brody to continue to the next season as well as sustaining the dual espionage and romance plots between Brody and Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent who is convinced that he is a traitor. But it also shifts the terms of Brody’s dissent away from the political and toward the personal, where his familial connection to Dana eclipses his ties to surrogate son Issa. If the opening video frames an act of anti-American violence as the duty of a patriotic Marine, the episode’s conclusion defangs such radicalism to reframe Brody’s dissent as a simpler act of revenge for a loved one’s death, and shifts our allegiance back to Carrie and her unquestionably patriotic pursuit of Brody and Nazir.

But season one is not the only context for this video, as it reappears nine months later (as originally aired) in Homeland’s second season. The video appears in five of that season’s twelve episodes, creating a serialized ripple effect for everyone who watches it. In the season’s second episode, CIA Division Chief Saul Berenson discovers the video hidden among the belongings of a suspect in Beirut, and shows it to Carrie in the next episode, who reacts with flooding emotion as she realizes her discredited accusations against Brody were correct. The fourth episode begins with Saul showing the video to his boss at the CIA, David Estes, to confirm that Brody, who is now a Congressman and likely Vice Presidential candidate, is a traitor. In these reiterations of the video, the meaning transforms from a statement of political dissent into a piece of evidence for American agents fighting terrorism—the sentiments that Brody expresses are irrelevant and not repeated on-screen, as all that matters for the CIA is how it proves that Brody is a traitor who must be stopped. The video’s radical politics are erased as it becomes an object within the investigation, and the drama focuses on how they will catch Brody and what the consequences of his betrayal might be. In Robert Allen’s use of the terms, the video switches from a syntagmatic element that moves the plot forward, to a paradigmatic element to trigger character reactions and emotions—and notably these reactions do not consider Brody’s arguments that resisting American military hegemony might be viewed as a form of patriotism.[3] The serial succession of characters viewing the video invokes Homeland’s reflexive impulse as established in early episodes, where viewers saw themselves mirrored in Carrie’s video surveillance of Brody, emphasizing how much the series is about the act of watching characters watch other characters in their most intimate and unguarded moments; regular viewers have learned that such scenes depicting one character watching another on a screen matter.

The fourth appearance of Brody’s video in the second season is when Brody himself sees it in episode five, “Q & A.”. Captured by the CIA and interrogated to learn what he knows, he is forced to watch his own confession after denying any involvement with Abu Nazir or knowledge of Issa; the scene is visualized here via the appropriately meta-representation of surveillance cameras as we watch Carrie watch Brody watch himself. Watching the video serves both as a paradigmatic trigger for Brody’s emotional reaction to his past, and as a plot device to create a compelling procedural game for the rest of the episode to see how Brody and Carrie attempt to out-manipulate each other. This episode completes the video’s depoliticization, as Carrie frames Brody’s betrayal within the realm of the personal, both in his love for Issa and Walden’s individual monstrosity for ordering and covering up the drone strike, but avoids the political debate of whether the United States itself is culpable for such military action and whether it can be seen as noble to resist such American dominance. By the end of the dramatically compelling episode, it is clear that Carrie and her CIA colleagues are the good guys, Brody wants to redeem himself by helping them, and the violence that should be decried are the acts of individual “monsters” like Vice President Walden and Abu Nazir.

The video’s final appearance (thus far) in the second season finale restores its political function, but reinscribed into dominant hegemony: after an explosion at the CIA building, Al Qaida releases the video to the U.S. media to frame Brody for the attack, marking its radical sentiments as clearly villainous and foreign by disassociating them from the sympathetic figure of Brody himself. This disassociation is reinforced as we watch Brody’s family viewing the clip on television, where the shock of daughter Dana underscores the sense that this is not who Brody is now, if he ever really had been. This is the last we’ve seen of the video so far, but when Homeland returns in September, it might generate even more serial iterations to spin out new interpretations and contexts.

So within these broader serial contexts, what is the political meaning of Brody’s video? Is it a radical critique of American military policy, an irrational statement by a grieving and broken man that might later be retracted, or the ventriloquized voice of Arab terrorists speaking through a brainwashed soldier? The only answer I can give is that each of these interpretations could be correct, depending on when you ask—Homeland’s serial timeframe changes the video’s meaning, even though the video itself remains intact. And this is the challenge of trying to analyze meaning in a serial text: it changes as you watch it, or how it means shapes what it means. Its past is not undone, for despite its later reframing, the initial airing of Brody’s video still conveyed a radical critique that doesn’t fully disappear, either within the storyworld or the minds of viewers. Yet any attempt to account for Homeland’s political meanings must remain open and unfinished until the series concludes, as it has demonstrated a willingness to revisit and revise its politics quite drastically.

This need to wait for an end is not equally true of all series—it seems pretty clear after the first season of The Wire or 24 which side of the political fence each will be pitching its tent, but both do shift some concerning particular issues, like gender representations or the role of ethnicity. But for a series like Homeland, whose politics are more ambiguous and thus more in need of interpretation, any analysis before it ends must be contingently grounded only within that moment of storytelling, not an overall perspective. Such a need to wait for finality is not because a conclusion provides ideological closure and thus resolution, but because it simply means that there’s no more time to revise and resubmit its positions.[4]

We can understand these serial instances of political reframing through the concept of articulation, as defined by Stuart Hall as both discursive utterances and politicized connections between distinct elements.[5] In this formation, dominant forms of political ideology are forged by the contingent linking of social practices to cultural meanings, which can frequently shift and transform within new contexts—Brody first articulates a terrorist bombing to American patriotism, then Homeland rearticulates the video to anti-terrorist pursuits and eventually to condemn terrorism and frame Brody as wrongly-accused, solidifying the dominant notion that terrorists are Arabic outsiders, not white Marines. Serial articulation depends on the practice of reiteration, where repeating and reframing helps define the linkages that are maintained and discarded over the course of a series, highlighting how the political interpretations of any series are always subject to revision and recontextualization.

This mode of altering and revising a political perspective through serial reiterations is not the only way that a meaning can be rearticulated throughout a series. Another important factor is how distance reshapes a narrative event over time. Take another serialized moment that I remember shocking me for what it said about America’s military policies: in the second season Lost episode “One of Them,” we see a flashback to Sayid’s time during the Persian Gulf War. While we have known that he was in the military and functioned as a torturer, in this episode we learn that he was trained, encouraged, and paid to torture by the U.S. Army. When this aired in 2006, representing the American military condoning torture was quite controversial and taboo, even more so by the suggestion that such policies dated back to the 1990s. Future episodes of Lost never retracted, contradicted, or revised such political meanings, but rather simply ignored them: Sayid’s alliances with the U.S. military were never referenced again, and that aspect of his history simply receded into the background over the next 82 episodes. I’m sure that most Lost fans view this bit of narrative history as simply another detail in a vast array of character information, not a lasting political critique that significantly shapes their view of either the series or American military policy, suggesting that serial storytelling can emphasize or ignore particular meanings simply by the amount of attention afforded to them through serial reiterations and articulations.

The Homeland and Lost examples focus on the question of “how does it mean?” as a factor in shaping a program’s politics, where serial poetics impact interpretation. To explore “how does it matter?”, or the ways that a program’s cultural circulation over the course of the series shapes political significance, I’ll turn to an issue I’ve written about some before: the gender politics of Breaking Bad. There is no doubt that it is a male-centered show, as the drama revolves around Walter White, with a secondary focus on his surrogate son Jesse Pinkman. The female characters exist nearly exclusively in relationship to Walt and Jesse, as romantic, family, or professional connections. The series is primarily about Walter’s dramatic journey toward amoral criminality, as he rationalizes his actions to provide for his family, following what his fellow criminal Gus tells him: “What does a man do Walter? A man provides for his family.… And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”[6] Such overtly patriarchal rhetoric, contrasted with the hideous actions Walt does toward others and eventually toward his family itself, articulates the hollow, rotten core of traditional masculinity as portrayed on the series. While we are aligned with Walt and can sometimes empathize with his struggles, he eventually steps over the line to pure villainy and object of narrative contempt—and our understanding of the program’s gender politics shifts as the serial unfolds.

Walt is not alone in his journey, and the role played by his wife Skyler is particularly interesting. We perceive Skyler mostly from Walt’s point of view, which starts as loving affection tempered with growing frustration as she serves as an obstacle to his self-realization as a “real man” via his criminal alter-ego Heisenberg. If we regard the series as a gangster drama where Walt’s success in the drug enterprise is the purported goal, then Skyler can be viewed as an obstacle. But complex serials feature multiple story threads that invite us to follow and shift character connections; thus if we focus primarily on Skyler’s character’s arc, Breaking Bad becomes a very different type of gendered tale, offering a melodramatic account of deception, adultery, and ultimately an abusive, dangerous marriage in which Skyler is clearly the victim, not the villain. For instance, the episode “Fifty One” from the most recent season shows Skyler struggling to resist Walt’s abuse and protect her family in a dramatic confrontation more in keeping with a domestic melodrama than a gangster story. If we focus on Skyler’s perspective in scenes like this, Breaking Bad partly functions as a “women’s film” told in reverse, narrated through the rationalizing perspective of the abusive spouse whom we only slowly grow to recognize as the villain. Of course, the series as a whole is not Skyler’s story. Walt is Breaking Bad’s protagonist, so we are invited to see his perspective on his marriage and share his singular knowledge of his actions and motivations. Yet Skyler’s story is there, creeping towards the narrative center as the series progresses, while Walt’s performative iterations of his patriarchal role and masculine prowess begin to crumble and erode, in our eyes if not his.

For me, it is impossible to watch such episodes and not side with Skyler, deepening my animosity toward Walt and what he has become (and maybe always was), and offering a critique of Walt’s damaged masculinity. But the long arc of Walt’s perspective has inspired a large portion of Breaking Bad’s fans to dislike or even hate Skyler, treating her as the series’s true villain—for one of many instances, a Facebook page called “Fuck Skyler White” has more than 27,000 fans, with posts and comments dripping with violent misogynistic hatred. For such viewers, their Skyler hate is unwavering, prompting vitriolic comments where they seem to be rooting for Walt to abuse her or worse, and even extending such violent fantasies to actress Anna Gunn. Series creator Vince Gilligan has stated his perspective on this issue, calling the internet’s den of Skyler-haters “misogynists, plain and simple,” and suggesting he sees no other way to justify such antipathy toward a character who is often a voice of reason in the face of Walt’s amoral selfishness.[7] At this point in the series, we stand a crossroads, with eight remaining episodes waiting to conclude the story and issue a moral perspective on this conflict—for me, it is hard to imagine Breaking Bad’s final episodes redeeming Walt and blaming Skyler for his crimes, as it has become progressively more apparent how much damage his ego-driven actions have wrought. While one contingent of fans will be disappointed in any outcome where Skyler is treated sympathetically or Walt is forced to suffer for his abuse, my own viewing investments yearn both for Walt’s suffering and for the series to articulate enough of a meta-commentary to shame and disgrace those viewers who wanted him to be even more abusive toward Skyler.

But we can’t dismiss anti-Skyler sentiments as simple misreadings, whether driven by misogyny or more rational perspectives, as we must acknowledge that the ways people make meaning around an ongoing serial do matter, even if they seem to be “wrong” by standards of authorial intent, critical analysis, moral judgement, or basic human decency. Hating Skyler is a significant part of Breaking Bad’s cultural circulation, and thus an aspect of its gender politics as articulated, if not textually intended or justified. And no matter how effective the eventual ending might be in shaming Walt and his fans, these cultural practices of hating Skyler still matter, even if they were all renounced and deleted from the web at the program’s conclusion. Seriality is comprised by the gaps between episodes, when contingent meanings come to matter in often material ways, and we cannot ignore such in-process interpretations and paratextual traces—such serial practices of articulation, however contingent, are how a series matters, which shapes why it matters.

So what are the gender politics of Breaking Bad? I would never call it a misogynist text, and might even argue that it is a feminist series critiquing deep-seated assumptions of patriarchy (I’ll withhold firm judgment on that until it concludes). But whatever intents we might attribute to the series, it is a text that has prompted misogyny, both by attracting such people to its audience and by triggering hateful reactions amongst some viewers, and such cultural practices cannot be simply overridden or invalidated by a nuanced textual analysis. I have no firm answers as to what to do with such issues of vastly different interpretations and cultural practices, aside from insisting that we acknowledge them as significant and, in a word, complex.

It is telling that I have left these questions of cultural politics to the end of my book, despite how central they are to the field at large, as it highlights how such analysis is both too easy and too hard. It is fairly easy to interpret a television program using the field’s well-established tools of critical analysis, isolating the particular episodes and moments that best support your argument and opinions without leading to much far-reaching insight besides calling a text ideological and/or progressive.. But once you account for how serial television works over time and across various cultural sites, it becomes hard to say anything about a program’s politics with any conviction that is not draped in contingency, partiality, and competing perspectives, leaving me with that most shameful conclusion for an academic: “I don’t know.” That is not to suggest that we not try to understand issues like Homeland’s perspective on patriotism or Breaking Bad’s take on patriarchy, but such questions require us to reframe what we mean by “understanding” itself as a serial endeavor—always in flux, replete with gaps and ellipses, and frustrating in its incompleteness.

Speaking of frustrating incompleteness, let me return to the topic of my book. I think the most significant way that my book is “political” is at the meta-level concerning publishing practices. This is small-scale politics, not looking to overturn capitalism or renounce patriarchy, but to affect a change in how scholarly knowledge circulates. I often hear scholars frame their political critiques as “staging an intervention” around a given issue, as if calling attention to a text’s politics will give hegemony a long overdue wakeup call and force it into rehab. My ambitions are much more modest, as I hope that by posting my book online it will allow more people of all kinds to access it, allow readers to serve as peer reviewers providing feedback on a draft, and inspire other scholars to undertake their own innovative publishing projects—and in that way, it intervenes into how academic publishing typically operates, and seeks to rearticulate the ways that scholarship circulates. Most relevant for this conference and my talk, the online version of Complex TV is “serial criticism” in two ways: it is a critical work about serial texts, and it is criticism published serially. I’ll conclude by returning to the meta-level about the ends of this latter aspect of serial criticism.

I began posting chapters to MediaCommons Press in March 2012, launching during an SCMS workshop that I was participating in remotely from my living room in Göttingen. I posted a new chapter every two weeks or so until I left Germany in June, posted the eighth chapter in August, and took an unplanned hiatus until last month, when I overcame scheduling overload and writer’s block to complete the ninth chapter. Once I rework the material from this talk, I should have the final chapter posted within the month, marking a conclusion to that part of the serial publication process. However, I’d contend all academic writing is implicitly serialized, with installments developed for presentations, teaching, articles, and chapters to eventually build up into a larger project, and often continue thereafter into new spinoffs and reiterations. The gaps between installments are hopefully productive for authors, incorporating feedback and further reflection into the next iteration. The main difference in my approach was clearly marking each chapter as part of a whole and releasing them openly in succession, allowing anyone who was interested to follow the book’s development as an explicit serial.

Although I am not quite to the book’s end, I think I’m ready to reflect on its ends, at least concerning its serial publication phase. I chose to serialize the book largely in response to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s experiences publishing her manuscript all at once on MediaCommons Press, as she found the later chapters generated far fewer comments and page views than the early ones. [8] I had hoped that serializing would build momentum and interest rather than having it dwindle, but it fell short of that goal: both page views and comments declined as the publishing progressed. Of course that is consistent with the ratings for most serial television, where a slow decline is normal over the course of a season, and momentum only comes later when it is released on DVD, so perhaps there will be a big online boom once the book comes out. And of course the more than 20,000 unique visitors to the site thus far surpass the number of people typically browsing an academic book, although I have little way of knowing how much of the book people read, aside from the 40 people or so who have commented.

A secondary goal for serial publishing was to gain some understanding of the serial creation process itself, as I wanted to experience what it is like to have part of a work released while still attempting to create later installments. I had hoped that the feedback from early chapters would help me both revise those parts for final publication, which is distinctly unlike what serial television creators do, and inspire improvements in subsequent chapters, which is more common on television—and both outcomes proved to be true. I also hoped that having chapters circulating when they were ready rather than waiting for the entire book to be done would help gather interest and impact other scholarship, and this has been the most successful part of the process; in recent  chapters, I have even cited publications that cite the online version of the book, creating an infinite citational loop. The knowledge that the book was already being read while writing it was inspirational, creating motivation for me to push forward as well as giving me an easy place to send people looking to learn more about what I was working on. Chapters of the book-in-progress have been taught in at least seven different courses, ended up on at least one graduate student’s preliminary examinations, and even got mentioned in The New Yorker. Since writing an academic book is typically a highly isolated and lonely process, this publicly circulating model definitely made me feel more like I was part of an ongoing conversation and community. And it has the added benefit of providing an open record of how at least one author develops a monograph, providing information for junior scholars on the writing process that is typically invisible and obscured.

Of course, this also meant that when I ran into trouble, anyone could see it. Had I not been posting chapters online, I’m pretty sure I would have finished writing the book before I left Germany, as I could have dedicated the time that I spent formatting the website, responding to comments, and revising old chapters toward finishing the final sections. And my nine month hiatus felt very public, as it felt that I was letting down a community of readers through my stalled momentum—although since only three people have commented on the latest chapter, I’ve since learned that I was the only person who was particularly eager to move forward! But such failure can be extremely productive, as the chapter I was struggling with transformed radically during my break, shifting from being broadly about Genre to more specifically focused on Serial Melodrama, in reaction to some new scholarship that was only published during my long, dormant winter; had I finished writing it back in June, the chapter would not have accomplished what I think the new version does.

So facing the end, and getting appropriately reflexive about my ends, I’m left wondering how to conclude, both the book and this talk. I’m tempted to look to my subject matter for inspiration from television finales. I could follow Lost and offer some grand moral statement, or mimic Six Feet Under and posit how each of you will die. Or perhaps I’ll ape The Sopranos and cut-off in the middle of a sentence. But instead, I will look for inspiration from the finales of Homeland and Breaking Bad, which exist only in the realm of infinite possibilities and potential, avoiding the inevitable disappointment of finality by remaining still unfinished. While I do sincerely hope that my book ends—and I guarantee you that this talk will quite soon—the practice of serial scholarship pauses rather than concludes, as we find ourself revisiting material, revising arguments, and spinning off in new directions. And thus I’ll end my talk with the three sweetest words for a scholar of seriality: to be continued.

 


[1] From New Oxford American Dictionary, contained on Macintosh computers.

[2] Tara McKelvey, “Media Coverage of the Drone Program,” Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, February 2013, http://shorensteincenter.org/2013/02/media-coverage-of-the-drone-program/.

[3] Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

[4] For more on the role of serial narrative and ideological closure, see Laura Stempel Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[5] Lawrence Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation : An Interview with Stuart Hall,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (1986): 45–60.

[6] Breaking Bad, “Mas,” season 3, episode 5, originally aired 18 April, 2010, AMC.

[7] Quoted in Lane Brown, “In Conversation: Vince Gilligan on the End of Breaking Bad,” Vulture, May 12, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/05/vince-gilligan-on-breaking-bad.html.

[8] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011).

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3 Responses to “The Ends of Serial Criticism”

  1. 1 Akhila Shankar

    This was a wonderful read, particularly the bit about Homeland. While the series is a critique of USA’s military policies, I think shows like Homeland really reflect on the insecurity that drives their foreign policy too and contemporary TV shows (movies for that matter) are a very interesting way to gauge the political environment in a nation. The American TV industry manages to do this in a way no other country does.

    I’v been working on some research related to this for my Master’s, particularly focusing on TV shows as an unconscious reflection of socio-political issues. Would love for you to check it out some time: http://akhilashankar141.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/the-choices-we-make-the-lies-they-spin/


  1. 1 Complex TV: Ends | Just TV
  2. 2 To Be Continued | Jason Mittell on Serial Criticism | New England Review

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