Popular Seriality: Coming in at the End

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. Continue reading

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‘Must-Watch’ TV and immaterial labor

Sure, we’ve all bought into the ‘New Golden Age of TV’ rhetoric that has come to surround the past 15 years of prestige drama, esp. on premium cable channels like HBO. Yet television, which in my experience at least was mostly associated with leisure and relaxation, has never felt so much like work. Keeping up with all the shows your friends, colleagues, and social media assure you is ‘unmissable’ has become very close to a full-time job, especially when you include all the great writing that’s being done on the topic. Besides forming a kind of renaissance of artistic production, our TV landscape more than anything else expresses the logic of immaterial labor and ubiquitous biopolitics, forming a most enjoyable distraction from the material reality of crisis capitalism.

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TV Talk

It was my great pleasure to appear as a guest on the new episode of Dutch podcast Onder Mediadoctoren (‘Amongst Media Doctors’), where the topic was binge-watching. This monthly program brings together Dutch media scholars reflecting on contemporary topics that range from reality TV to the relationship between sports and politics. Host Linda Duits preferred the term ‘marathon-watching,’ but since I have less of a problem with pathologizing fan behavior (including my own), I feel pretty comfortable with the inherent ‘unsavoriness’ of the binge-watcher. Together with TV scholar Vincent Crone and political commentator Chris Aalberts, we had a great discussion on the current state of serialized TV drama, discussing changing patterns of viewership, shifting media hierarchies, and the way digitization has created what I describe as an ‘On-Demand Generation.’ Listen to the discussion if you understand Dutch, or if you simply want to amuse yourself by the hilariousness of hearing me speak such an obviously silly-sounding language.

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Writing is Hell

A few weeks back, I decided to force myself into production mode for my book Tales of Empire, the manuscript of which is due in October. My semester being as busy as it is with teaching, other writing and editing jobs, public lectures, and another book to get done before August, my strategy was similar to the way I got my dissertation done: a daily minimum production of 500 words or more. Only this time, I decide to be a bit harder on myself, and make it a seven-days-a-week commitment, with no exceptions. I kept this up for fifteen consecutive days, resulting in nearly 10,000 words of rough but probably usable material now ‘in the bag,’ so to speak. Using the hashtag #500wordsormore, I even made it something of a public event, finding support from some others who face the same productivity dilemmas every day.

Having reached the point where I felt I’d made a lot of progress but had also exhausted the ideas I had ready for now, I took the past week off to focus on reading, grading, and thinking some more about structure, tone, and direction. But as of tomorrow, I’m back on the wagon, churning out words on the page that will in any case lead me somewhere. My motto for this gonzo approach used to be Truman Capote’s famous quip about Kerouac: “It isn’t writing at all; it’s typing.” But the other day I came across this quotation by poet Robert Hass, which sums it up even better:

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The Greatest Superman Story Ever Told

A few years back, I included in one of my short blog articles a reference to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and Zach Weiner’s absolutely magnificent take on the contradictions inherent in superhero mythologies. I still consider that short satirical comic the best Superman story ever told, spanning decades (centuries?) and dealing wittily, even poignantly with the Man of Steel’s implied impact on human history.

Weiner’s most recent approach to the legend is a darker, most cynical affair, hilariously depicting an exchange between a jaded, chain-smoking Superman and some poor kid who just wants to believe. Again, the playful and perfectly staged comic perfectly captures the sentiment that most often interferes with my own enjoyment of such fantasies, culminating in this brilliant line, with far broader implications: “A piece of advice about the world: if a fight goes on a long time without serving its stated purpose, its stated purpose is probably a lie.”

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Janelle Monáe’s transmedia Wondaland

JanelleMonae_TheElectricLadyIn trying to come up with some case studies for my book about the politics of world-building that are neither too obvious nor depressingly conservative, it occurred to me that my recent obsession with Janelle Monáe‘s ongoing series of concept albums might be worth thinking about. Across her first EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and two full-length albums The Archandroid and The Electric Lady, the soulful young diva moves elegantly across a wide range of musical styles, all the while (more or less) narrating the story of her alter ego Cindy Mayweather, the android from the future who has fallen in love with a human.  Continue reading

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“Game of Thrones” roundup

As the fourth season of HBO’s insanely popular fantasy series approaches, the number of articles devoted to the franchise is unsurprisingly in the process of exploding. A few highlights:

  • Over at Film Freak Central, Jefferson Robbins dissects the blu-ray release of the third season with eloquence and wit, managing to provide a fresh and most stimulating perspective without descending into either sarcasm or hyperbole. In other words: his review manages to articulate what is really good about Game of Thrones while also identifying its weaknesses.
  • io9.com features a more typically exuberant piece on why GOT has created an atmosphere in which “All Men (And Women) Must Freak Out.” But the article actually offers a fairly convincing theory on how the franchise’s combination what it calls “the dystopian/apocalyptic craze” and its “nostalgia for awful history” make it just the right drama for our times of “environmental disaster and political corruption, without actually facing up to the world we live in.”
  • Also at io9.com, a short piece references this article on “naive cynicism,” criticizing the show for its worldview in which others can always be counted upon to act badly. This is a point I’m rather tempted to agree with, as my experience of reading all the novels ultimately suffered from the absence of any clear positive goals or values available in this particular world. (And no, I’m not counting Daenerys’s quest to free the slaves.)

Indy-meme

 

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2013: Professional Film Commentary

In respectful homage outright plagiarism of the highly esteemed Bill Chambers, editor and archbishop of Film Freak Central, I’ve compiled a quick list of the films I saw that were released in the past year. His yay/whatever/barf ratings system suits my reductive sensibilities perfectly, and may even serve to breathe some semblance of life back into this ailing blog of mine. (Links go to my capsule reviews on Letterboxd.) Continue reading

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On “The Queen of Versailles” and the contradictions of capital accumulation

the-queen-of-versailles-poster-714x1024This week, I finally watched to the end last year’s popular documentary The Queen of Versailles, which had been sitting on my to-watch shelf for far too long. While I had initially been drawn to it by its fun, snappy trailer, the impression it left also removed any sense of urgency in watching it: I assumed it would be a fast-paced freak show done in a mode similar to MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, simultaneously satirizing and glorifying the most outrageous excesses of the filthy rich. Productions such as this tend to foster the kind of structural disavowal that typifies capitalist ideology: mocking the excesses of the extremely wealthy while taking a superior attitude that makes the spectator a non-complicit voyeur of their actions. Such productions celebrate and even mythologize capitalism by allowing the viewer to imagine that he/she would never stoop to such ridiculous behavior if endowed with equal riches.

But my viewing experience of The Queen of Versailles turned out very differently. What initially seemed like a freak show about skeezy “time-share tycoon” David Siegel and his abundantly procreative trophy wife Jackie slowly but surely transforms itself into a systematic dissection of what Marx famously described as the internal contradictions of capital accumulation. Continue reading

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Comics legend’s seal of approval

2000adSince I recently discovered that a video recording of my big Kubrick interview existed online, I’ve been googling my own name more frequently. And this morning, I was sort of stunned to find that Pat Mills, creator of legendary British comics publication 2000 AD, had blogged about Capitalist Superheroes. He talks about the book briefly in his latest blog post, stating that “it was good to see this book once again delineate how these costumed crusaders have a questionable and unwholesome role in society. They are so much more than a harmless power fantasy designed for our entertainment: in reality a disguise and an endorsement for much that is wrong on our planet.” He then proceeds to cite in full several passages from the book that he liked particularly. Many thanks to Pat for the nice words, which couldn’t have come from a more flattering source!

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