For reasons unknown, my longtime Facebook friend and all-around terrific human being Frank Kelleter invited me to Berlin for the international conference on Popular Seriality, an academic event that ended a long-running project funded by the German Research Foundation. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a specialist on seriality, I guess I also wouldn’t say I’m not a specialist on the topic. And since a whole bunch of awesome folks, some of whom I know from other contexts, were also part of the impressive line-up, I was happy (and more than a little flattered) to accept.
Since the invitation had been to be part of the closing panel, reflecting on the conference rather than really contributing to it, I felt lucky not to have to prepare a presentation in advance. But as the conference progressed, I soon realized how fiendishly difficult it really was to say something –anything!– in five minutes or less (!!!) about a three-day conference that ranged from gender studies to 3D-printing and from graphic novels to porn parodies. So I spent the last half of the conference frantically putting together a short talk that said something about what the event had been like for me as a newcomer, together with some broader generalizations on the politics of serialization. Here it is.
“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
These famous lines from the pilot episode of The Sopranos have been on my mind from the moment I walked into this room last Wednesday morning. In this dark, mildly oppressive, and quite chilly basement where we’ve witnessed the culmination of a decade’s worth of research projects on popular seriality, Frank Kelleter’s helpful initial mapping of conceptual frameworks was preceded by a lovely montage of pictures taken over those many years. Looking at all those photographs, I felt the bizarre and obviously irrational tingling of a weird sense of nostalgia for events and experiences of which I had never been an actual part. My initial response as the latest possible newcomer to this group therefore did indeed resemble Tony Soprano’s elegiac sense of nostalgic self-pity: the glory days are behind us, the money has been spent, the battles have been fought, the spoils have been divided, the bar is closed, the fun is truly over.
As we have seen in some of the panels and workshops over the past few days, global capitalism’s post-historical, post-industrial, post-ideological, post-cinematic, post-televisual, post-narrative, seemingly post-everything mood does seem to haunt may debates about our media landscape. In this sense, Tony’s lines obviously resonate not only as a metatextual reflection on a rapidly changing media landscape, and on HBO itself as something that is “not TV,” but also as an articulation of a structure of feeling I would describe as specific to post-industrial capitalism. As John Caldwell pointed out just yesterday, the precarious nature of working conditions under global capitalism makes life unpredictable, unstable, and sort of terrifying, not only for media industry professionals, but also for the humanities’ increasingly beleaguered position within the neoliberal university.
In this context, where older distinctions between cult and mainstream, mass media and niche audiences, high and low culture, public and private space, work and leisure are constantly collapsing, colliding, and overlapping, I do find it understandable and in some ways even productive to feel at least a little nostalgia about the stability and predictability of the age of industrial capitalism and its more normative mass media, whether we’re pining for morning-after water cooler talk in the workspace, eulogizing the political ideal of television as a meaningful cultural forum, or simply bemoaning the difficulty of teaching a generation of students who seem to lack a shared media vocabulary.
But as we all know, nostalgia is also a deceptive and potentially dangerous sentiment. If today’s volatile and confusing media landscape tempts some of us to mourn the passing of television as a truly mass medium, we must also, as Robyn Warhol has so helpfully pointed out, avoid glorifying a monolithic media-industrial era that we shouldn’t want to return to, even if we were somehow able to. The key contradiction of our own age seems to me the radical proliferation of difference and variety in industrial media production on the one hand, and a political and social context where alternatives to capitalism have become entirely unthinkable on the other. As many papers and discussions in this room have underlined, a critical interrogation of the production, distribution, and consumption of popular seriality in this context is clearly more important than ever.
So I think we can take some degree of comfort in this, both in relation to the premature announcement of the death of television, to the alleged “post-everything” status of our larger media landscape, and to the end, a little less than an hour from now, of this research project: just as the creative and industrial production of serialized media will continue uninterrupted, indeed, totally unaffected by whatever we think about it, the professional and social bonds that have emerged out of the popular seriality networks will also clearly continue – with or without the inspiring guidance of our wonderful host, author figure, and Popular Seriality showrunner Frank Kelleter.
Let me then close this rambling reflection on an absolutely delightful conference by running into the ground even further my laborious TV series metaphor: while I had expected this conference to play out like the incomprehensible final episode of a long-running series that I had somehow totally missed, it felt instead like what we’ve been describing so fashionably as a full-drop season. The experience of spending the past three days amongst this awesome group, chatting, making new plans, drinking too much, and sleeping too little, really has been a bit like binge-watching all of Popular Seriality, or, to use the terminology Jason Mittell has suggested, the compressed viewing of almost a decade of astonishing research. Therefore, counter to my initial frustration about being late to the party, coming in at the end, and assuming, as Tony Soprano did, that the best is over, I instead leave Berlin full of energy and excitement over a whole range of projects that are certain, in one way or another, to be continued.