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Serial Pleasures: The Influence of Television on the Victorian Novel

  • John Plotz

…plus d’informations

  • John Plotz
    Brandeis University

Corps de l’article

Clock Time

Love it or hate it, Christian Marclay’s The Clock forces audiences to think about movie time as something that never stops. The Clock is twenty-four hours of film synched as closely as possible to actual clock time. It depicts time on screen as it’s actually unfolding for the real you, minute by minute. When it is 10:15 am in the theater you are sitting in, you see a wall-clock from the movie The Breakfast Club: it reads 10:15.

Possibly The Clock intrigues and unsettles viewers because it threatens to collapse the dividing line between what Herman Melville called “chronometric” and “horological” time. In Melville’s Pierre, those two words respectively describe the hour as reported by the ship-board clock brought from Boston and as signaled by the sun overhead in the Bay of Bengal: one is truth by mechanism, the other by nature. Marclay’s trick is to push the mechanical (chronometric) to such a height of technical perfection that the gap between the two times seems to disappear.

Gilles Deleuze’s description of “virtual reality” as something real without being actual (e.g. the blinding of Oedipus on stage) has never seemed so germane, nor so insidiously undermined (Deleuze; cf. Levy 45-64). In The Clock, the virtual is made up of a dizzying series of scenes from various films edited together. Its chronometric time moves along at exactly the rate of the actual, horological time, without the fragmented depicted world ever becoming real in any other way except for this synchronicity.

Marclay’s technique succeeds by emphasizing what for centuries now readers and viewers have responded to in narrative works. All long-form narrative is virtual when it comes to temporality, because it relies on creating a palpably disjunct time inside the narrative. The story’s chronometer starts to tick, and the horological creep of the actual sun across the reader’s actual sky fades away. To borrow Samuel Beckett’s formulation in Molloy, inside a novel it can be midnight and rain can be beating against the windows—even though “It was not midnight. It was not raining” (241).

Audiences at least as far back as Aristotle’s Athens have responded to long-form narrative’s capacity to establish a prevalent second time that becomes the (partial) basis of its audience’s own subjective time for as long as that audience remains committed to the narrative. In five clock minutes, all the time it takes to read three pages by J. R.R. Tolkien, I slog for days across the plains of Mordor, growing weak and thin. Arguably, the failure of short-form narrative to generate such a divergent sense of temporality is a crucial taxonomic distinction between short story and novel, between “a sketch” and “a show.” In short forms (lyric, short story, skit), readers can zero in on a problem, identify a character’s peculiar problem (a violet half-hidden, a telltale heart under the floorboards). What short forms cannot do, though, and what all long-form narratives readily allow, is to catch their audience up in the ebb and flow of action, so that they are (gradually) encouraged to think and feel with a character as a set of events approach, peak, and then recede in importance.

It’s stunning in its ordinariness, the way that we have all trained ourselves to align our time-sense with the alternative velocity of time passing offered by any long-form narrative, be it epic, theater (which keeps the Aristotelian unities of time and space less well than we sometimes presume), romance, novel, or film. So it is that audiences feel a visceral jolt when The Clock comes along to readjust, painstakingly and mechanically, the experience of time passing within the art-work so that it aligns (better to say, seems to align?) with time passing in the world outside.

TV Time

I have been emphasizing Marclay’s debt to the forms (epic, theater, romance, novel) that precede narrative film. What if we flip the approach, however, and think about The Clock as a movie that firmly situates itself in the era of TV? (This essay, for heuristic purposes, focuses not on the medium of TV as a whole, but on serialdrama, the half-hour and hour-long shows filmed, broadcast, and sometimes renewed on a seasonal basis). The Clock helps clarify the way that generic expectations for long narrative forms generally have been profoundly shaped over the last few decades by serial TV.

The serial age is upon us, and we have not fully reckoned with the implications that seriality has for the kind of “real-time” felt omnipresence that The Clock picks up on. The second-by-second, parkour-like feeling of 24 (always on the go, leaping from death-defying scene to scene with the tumbling inevitability of domino chains falling) is clearly an extreme instance of this sensation of “ongoingness”—like The Clock in this if nothing else, 24 plays around with the synching of virtual and actual time. Extremes are often revelations, though, about the characteristics of their tamer cousins. Since the childhood of those now entering middle age (M*A*S*H and prime-time soaps like Dallas are useful reference points), serial drama has offered total worlds. Sign on for a full tour with The Wire, Friday Night Lights, or even one of the creaky antecedents like Hill Street Blues and you gain access to a communally shareable imaginative world (a Baker Street, a Chtulu, a Middle Earth) on its terms and (increasingly in recent years) on your own.

More and more television drama has turned into an all-over occurrence, in the Jackson Pollock sense: only the “non-differential treatment” that Pollock applied to his canvases is now applied to us, watching. As long as the episodes last, a show we love can reach us whenever and however we want it, chunked into the units that please us best. Some people like a three-minute snippet from the Daily Show, while others “click for the drip”—which is how a friend of mine describes watching episode after episode of Desperate Housewives on her Roku player. When one episode ends, she clicks “Watch next episode” and the next week’s events flash before her (in fact, even to describe the next episode as “the next week’s” probably no longer makes sense). Technology undergirds this change in a variety of ways, some as simple as the fact that three decades ago most television stations stopped signing off at night: waking on the couch at 4 am you can go right on watching more or less what was on at 10 am.

Substantive generic differences certainly remain between various sorts of TV shows. A series with an overdetermined narrative arc (Lost, but also The Wire or even Deadwood) demands one kind of absorption, while a very different sort is required for the rattling hail of episodes of Arrested Development, which incarnate the succession without sequence that George Eliot saw as the epitome of the magic-lantern show, and the antithesis of a novel (“images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze”; ch. XX). Wilhelm-Meister-like plotting that makes a determinedly forward-moving show like Lost reveal its analogue to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s revelation of a secretly fate-shaping “Fellowship of the Tower” should not be equated with the Groundhog Day-like Gilligan’s Island (“Oh, man they were almost rescued . . . again!”). But the two isotopes of seriality (deeply designed sequence on the one hand, almost compulsive repetition on the other) can be thought of as variations within a format, distinct isotopes that are nonetheless recognizably the same element.

Television as a medium has recently ceased to be the default “real time” of our culture when it comes to second-by-second news-reporting. The OJ pursuits and 9/11’s of the future, as well as the breaking political news, even of the press-conference variety, seem likely to be primarily mediated by omnipresent mobile computing, not by living-room (or waiting-room) TV sets. However, over the last few decades, and increasingly over the last few years (ever since HBO, with The Sopranos, introduced the possibility, and hence the virtual necessity, of watching episodes out of sequence, and incredibly rapidly) TV drama has staked a claim for everyday “liveness” (Auslander) no other venue for aesthetic experiences (no theater, no printed book, no movie theater) can possibly match.

My point is that long-form narrative television—I am calling TV drama “long-form” not because it lasts 30 or 60 minutes, but because (in varieties ranging from the bildung logic of Deadwood to the almost pure iterativeness of a Welcome Back, Kotter) its seriality ensures a sustained, often years-long, engagement between viewer and depicted world—has trained its viewers to a very different relationship to depicted time from that which prevailed in the golden age of drama, romance, the novel, or even the pre-TV Hollywood film. Roughly between Birth of a Nation and Apocalypse Now, the Hollywood narrative film functioned in a viewer’s ordinary life as a deeply desired, often dearly-bought state of exception: an interruption in the ordinary business of life, an immersion into two hours of darkness, guided by a logic all its own and its own glacially dripping or frenetically speeded up pace. Hollywood film, argues Noel Caroll, was formally defined by a given film’s capacity to generate suspense by opening up a set of questions about possible narrative alternatives and then to close them down, creating a sought-after closure that made every film, like every novel, convention-bound as it might be, an exercise in distinction.

Television drama, though, from its very beginnings offered a profoundly different way of establishing rapport with viewers. The serial offers you something that no true Hollywood hit before The Godfather had in mind: near-infinite expanse of the represented world, near infinite repetition. One result of that ubiquity and omni-divisibility of television is that film too has altered to reflect what we might call its hyper-iterability.

It was thanks to television’s commitment to pervasive seriality that film (think of the ritualized annual screenings of It Happened One Night, Miracle on 34th Street and The Wizard of Oz) began to claim the immortality that serialization and subsequent syndication ensures. (Serial films such as Les Vampires and The Thin Man existed, but did not dominate their medium till the age of TV.) The Godfather, then, is the true predecessor of the fabulous success of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Men in Black; serial film for the era of serial TV.

In other words, I’m proposing that The Clock is not so much an avant-garde response to the chronometric/horological logic of film (and novel) time as it is Marclay’s way of playing catch-up to the truly enviable all-over power of television today, in which every minute of a viewer’s day can be occupied by some suitably quantized piece of televisual entertainment. The Clock may be a subtle deconstruction of film time but it is also a bold attempt to see whether an art film could aspire to the all-over pantemporality TV has achieved.

The Clock, then, far from being an outré conceptual experiment, helps elucidate the ways in which our categories and our theories for making sense of narrative generally are in the process of being reshaped, perhaps radically reshaped, by the apogee of serial TV as a dominant cultural form. And one of the most striking effects of those changes has come in a very indirect form: in the reshaping of how critics and scholars conceive of the normal temporality of other forms of narrative. That is, the effects of all-over serial TV as the dominant long-form narrative are palpable not only in how we talk about the present, but also in accounts of aesthetic categories more broadly.

We need to recognize that Marclay’s desire to align his experimental with the dominant (serial-TV driven) narrative logic of our day is more common than we let on. Not only that, such aspirational alignment has the potential to be an intellectual problem, if it leads to accounts that overstate the resemblance between narrative logic in our age and earlier times. Noticing what the age of serial narrative TV has done to our understanding of Victorian novels is one helpful way to make sense of how much the age of seriality and all-over temporality has begun to reshape our conceptions of how narrative operated in ages past.

How Serial are Victorian Novels?

I should have liked it to continue indefinitely, to keep coming out always, to be one of the regular things of life.

James 685

Theodora may be a figure of fun in Henry James’s sardonic dialogue about Daniel Deronda, but in this remark at least she speaks for a side of Victorian sentiment neglected during the mid-twentieth century, when long-form narrative success was epitomized by The Sound and the Fury—or by Gone with the Wind. The pleasures of always repeated sensations, like the felicity of an indefinitely prolonged courtship that Tess enumerates in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (happiness would be “you always courting me . . .” she tells Angel; ch. XXXII) are in some fascinating ways the inversion of the “felicity” that only the tell-tale compression of pages can provide in Northanger Abbey.

This sensation of iterativeness, of repetition bound up with everydayness—and both bound up with the format in which many Victorian novels first appeared—was long slighted in critical accounts of the “age of the novel.” A generation ago in his Way in the World Franco Moretti defined the bildungsroman as coercive and regulatory in part because its narrative arc was always shaped towards a neatly definitive and hence conservative ending. Nowadays, however, a critic concerned to characterize the basic narrative structure of the Victorian novel would be unlikely to issue the same indictment. It’s been a welcome development of recent times that scholars have drawn our attention to the role that such serialization played then—and its affinities to some of the roles that TV plays now (cf. Caroline Levine on the “narratively networked sublime” of Bleak House). The everydayness and indefinite continuation of narrative (its non-evadable all-over aspect) pervasively shapes recent critical accounts whether they stress the physiology of reading (Dames) its material basis in book history (Price) or the importance of a psychology in charting its capacity to train sympathy novelistically (associationist for Winters, Adam Smithian for Greiner).

Moretti highlights closure as the salient element of the era’s narratives, but more recent critics are likelier to stress ongoingness as the essential allure, characterizing the novel as a cultural given that is very much like life, death and taxes in its omnipresence (and unlike death and taxes in producing pleasure by the sensation of a protracted present moment that it induces: “to keep coming out always”). And further avenues for productive research on such affinities still remain. One productive way that such comparisons might be explored at greater length is between serial TV in its current form and those Victorian novels that changed their generic category midstream (on the conceptual slippage between sketch and novel, cf. Garcha). Charles Dickens’s evolving notions of character and action in his generically protean The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club is one intriguing example; another is the way that Elizabeth Gaskell’s provincial sketches for Household Words became Cranford, sketch going into novel in ways that might be intriguingly compared to some of the formal developments when a show unexpectedly gets “picked up” for another season.

So, where exactly does such scholarly acuteness about the serial features of the realist novel come from? Of course, part of the retrospective affiliation of TV with Victorian forays into their version of seriality is simply symptomatic of the way that emergent cultural trends are frequently validated by reference back to extant aesthetic media and forms. This is a tendency that David Simon memorably lampooned in an episode of The Wire (season 5) called “The Dickensian aspect.” In Simon’s telling, only ambitious journalistic parasites who invented grim urban myths or the credulous boobs who lapped up those inventions would be tempted to label the reality of The Wire’s Baltimore “Dickensian” (cf. Ivan Kreilkamp’s piece in this issue).

There is more going on in the present-day retrofitted attention to Victorian seriality, however, than the simple propinquity of Dickens as a useful cultural antecedent—available either for film (cf. Sergei Eisenstein’s effort to claim him) or television drama. There is a widespread effort afoot now to stress serial over volume publication when it comes to making sense of Victorian fiction’s impact in its own day as well as in our own. In Small World, David Lodge jokes about a thesis written on “The Influence of T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare” (52).

Are we now facing “the Influence of Mad Men on Trollope”? That’s not intrinsically a bad thing—any more than it was bad a century ago when Eisenstein memorably singled out certain formulaic and typological features of Dickens and started scholars thinking about “the influence of Eisenstein films on Dickens.” But we should not be fooled into thinking that our present lens is a perfectly clear one, with which the past can be studied with limpid accuracy. If we allow features of our own intellectual habitus to pass unremarked, we run the risk of mistaking ideas that are products of our own peculiar Wire-inflected worldview for the salient features of a bygone age.

There are costs as well as benefits to this recalibration of our scholarly instruments. It will be a boon to studies of American “Realism” if Frank Norris’s serial intentions (in The Octopus, The Pit and their never-written sequel about wheat in Europe) should come more to the fore; and it’s striking how acutely and extensively Anthony Trollope has been analyzed (and serialized for television!) in recent years. However, we risk losing something when we move away from those heartfelt debates (waged through successive Penguin Introductions) as to whether Bleak House should be thought of as a single, a dual or a multi-plotted novel.

Thinking of the Victorian novel as a presumptively serialized undertaking also risks dulling our critical acuity when it comes to reading novelists like Henry James and Thomas Hardy. That is, in emphasizing the “Wessexness” of Hardy, the New York-edition agglomeration of James, we miss overlooking what is visible when we focus on their individual works as experiments concerned with isolated cases. Novels by James and Hardy isolate lives—and carefully enumerate the other non-narrated lives that cluster around a story’s edge—because the dignity accorded to a single life, or a related cluster of lives, can only be erased by reading a character simply as one case among many others. By the same token, Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola are inspirations to a certain kind of aggregative worldmaking, but would we want to focus the same lens on Gustave Flaubert or Stendhal novels, which conjure up their cases and singularities according to a very different logic? We need to be careful not to Wire-ify Eliot’s, or Charlotte Brontë’s fiction.

Looking closely at how present-day TV serials operate can prove helpful for bringing out persistent features of Victorian-era worldmaking projects that depend on creating a world that’s larger than any single book, in which particular plots run together to form a larger sense of overall inescapable plotting—e.g. Balzac, and Zola after him (it’s nice to imagine The Wire titling an episode “The Zolaesque element”). On the one hand, TV serials can be understood as a series of unrelated episodes—cf. the final line of the film The Naked City, and the inspiration for the 1958-63 series that followed: “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them” (what I referred to as the succession-without-sequence of Arrested Development). On the other hand, there is also a strong impulse embedded in serial forms that tends towards the slotting of individual lives into pre-ordained categories, individually diverse and yet ultimately formally indistinguishable.

This serial-abetted impulse to taxonomize, so that narrative principally serves as fodder for the classifier with her microscope and neatly pinned specimen boards, will often be (as “social critique” shows like The Wire make clear) formally Naturalist in certain ways. Yet the iterative serial with or without Naturalist outrage baked in has the power to make particular contingencies into events with less magnitude than is allowed by what we might (using the same retronym process turned guitars into “acoustic guitars”) call “nonserial” novels. The nonserial novel, in many ways the practical norm of the nineteenth century, has a distinctive formal disposition to center around one plot, one set of linked outcomes that are arrayed in a determinable relationship with one another and pegged towards the resolution that readers (thanks to the “telltale compression of pages” in the right hand) can readily foresee in the abstract, even while its exact particulars remain undisclosed.

It is this distinctiveness in the long-form narrative era dominated by the novel (the non-serial novel) that we run the risk of overlooking or understating in an era dominated by serial TV and its presuppositions. Certainly, a new set of interpretive possibilities, especially for writers such as Zola, Balzac, and Trollope, is opened up by stressing the importance of seriality. Overdo the reading of the novel’s seriality, though, and you risk losing sight of a range of ways of thinking about the non-iterative, logic also built into nineteenth-century novels, especially in those whose work depends on radical departures between novels.

“The Dickensian Aspect” of The Wire—and vice versa

I wouldn’t wish to obscure the great continuities between the mid-Victorian England in which Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot novels were published serially in journals, separately in parts and bound as volumes and our own day of TV, film and (both on paper and digitally) a still-thriving fiction industry. Institutions of political power and of higher learning, domestic customs, social mores and even certain aspects of the culture industry (The Atlantic Monthly!) persist in many ways unaltered from Disraeli’s day. But we also need to consider carefully the importance that the enormously collaborative work of serial TV production has come to play in shaping the most-consumed long-form narratives of our day—the vast creaking Hollwood-cum-network machinery that shapes the fate of individual characters, the politics of given episodes, and the renewability of shows from season to season (as Lost’s narrative changed when its creators discovered they had two extra seasons to accommodate their plot). All of which chart a genesis for artworks that cannot readily be equated with the parameters for novel composition and (multi-modal) distribution in the Victorian era. Frederic Jameson’s casual description of The Wire: “so this is a series, or a serial, like those by Dickens” (360) is a revealing instance of the slippage of formal categories required to make a part-published novel more closely resemble a multi-year television show, with its ensemble cast, its inherently multi-plotted skeleton, and perpetual uncertainty as to whether any given season will be the show’s last.

As Walter Benjamin formulates the challenge of the historian in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” all observers are both doomed and privileged to historicize only by way of their own moment: “To articulate the past historically . . . means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (255). There is no pure view of the novel of 1870 that would not be shaped by the cultural impulses of the observer in 2012 (or 1970, or 2112). There is no such thing as a perfectly adequate historicism. But that’s no reason not to historicize the present as thoroughly as the past. Rather than attempt to subtract our current concerns when we study Victorian narratives and the sites of their production, we are better off making sure we understand how our own current habitus might shape what we (or others in the same habitus) are liable to notice. One result of such an understanding might be to lead us to a healthy suspicion of any claim that too easily seems to discover in the work of a previous era the exact precursor or exemplary analogue of a current media form: the actual lineaments of The Wire’s seriality are obscured more than they are clarified by thinking of Dickens’s novelistic part publication as its antecedent.

What drives the turn I am describing, towards stressing the seriality of the various cultural forms that a century and a half ago formed the analogue, if not the lineal ancestor, of serial TV? When Moretti anatomized the novel’s tendency towards closure, he was offering a rigorous intellectual critique that could split open the form and hence rupture its ideological entailments. Does the turn towards perceiving seriality today have similar underlying impulses, similar political implications? (I am grateful to Caroline Levine for formulating the question in this way). There may be underlying political answers to that question, but I have a more prosaic one: the professoriat is now, perhaps more than ever, haunted by the need to “only connect.” We (like Chris Marclay) work with a hypothetical audience in mind, interlocutors easy to bore and hard to please. I doubt I’m alone in being haunted by an image of undergrads gazing blankly at me, faces grown slack as I prose on George Meredith’s wit or Richard Jefferies’ apocalypticism (In 2000, my chair greeted me with “Just remember, when it comes to enrollments, the nineteenth century is now the new eighteenth century”).

The quest to make our texts “relatable,” though, can lead us astray; isn’t there also something to be said for “only Disconnnect”? It would be a pity if, lulled to sleep by a steady diet of 30 Rock, woken in the morning by a quick dose of Portlandia, we saw nothing but seriality and all-over temporality when we looked back over Victorian novels. Today we look back at canonical accounts of the realist novel from mid-20th century (even by such brilliant scholars as Lionel Trilling, Georges Poulet, Theodor Adorno, and Mikhail Bakhtin) and notice how heavily the shadow of High Modernism falls, how profoundly its peculiar combinations of lights and shadows determines what’s visible in antecedent novels of the nineteenth century. In retrospect, the current preoccupation with seriality’s importance in parsing the realist novel may well seem like a very valuable piece of evidence about “the way they thought then”—back in 2012.

However, I’m not too worried. The current shift towards stressing a pervasive logic of seriality, and away from considering the radical differences that can make each novel, well, intellectually novel is simply one current in a turbulent ocean of scholarly disputation. The experimental ethos of Dickens and Eliot (each work different in subtle and profound ways from its predecessor) will also continue to thrive among literary scholars, who are blessed, or cursed, with a professional deformation that leads them to prize the unexpected (even perverse) argument with some of the same passion with which they long clung to elbow-patches and sherry. Intellectual experimentation ought to continue—will continue, willy-nilly no matter how cemented the dominant critical consensus appears to be. Neither academics nor the “mainstream audience” is in danger of being utterly paralyzed by new forms. Little rings true in Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalizing assault on a monolithic “culture industry” as an elite vehicle of social brainwashing: my vision of the “all-over” is not theirs.

The absence of a monolithic panopticon, however, doesn’t mean that we cannot be “conditioned” (the term is Hannah Arendt’s) by our cultural context in ways that we can only counteract by the most careful and rigorous thought. Charles Tilly’s concept of cultural repertoires—particular moves a society is liable to make and intellectual paradigms its members are likely to invoke—is helpful in waking us up, helping us notice which of our observations stem more from our surroundings than they do from our reasoned assessment of the putative object of our observations. The surprising, enduring appeal of critics like Erich Auerbach (spotter of Woolf’s stocking), Dorothy Van Ghent (gimlet-eyed assayer of Dickens’s animate objects), Roland Barthes (apologist for Sade’s fiction) and George Orwell (unlikely lover of Kipling) lies in each writer’s capacity to brush narrative works not only against the text’s own purported grain, but also against the grain of the critic’s own day.

We are not enslaved by our time, but we are ineluctably shaped by it. Our actions and our thoughts rewarded socially in any number of subtle ways when they pull along lines laid down by strong cultural forces like serial TV drama—no matter how contingently such forms actually evolved, no matter how odd the rules by which they hold sway over us. Even if we don’t want to tear down those forms, we ought to do our best to pull clear enough of them so that we can grasp them in their entirety—as they look from without as well as within. That’s a reason to credit artists like Chris Marclay, who can make the art he does because he’s keen-eyed enough about the serial logic of TV both to satirize it and to make use of it.

Such critical distance, though, depends on our continued sense of what’s different about the art-forms that prevailed elsewhere and elsewhen. Keeping an eye on those earlier forms that ran in other directions can generate a liberating sense of untimeliness (cf. Nietzsche’s “untimely meditations”). We might think of this move towards untimeliness not as the pure detachment of a Cartesian observer but as a studied semi-detachment. That semi-detachment—which doesn’t preclude enjoying large quantities of serial TV—depends on continued critical thinking and an open-eyed willingness to seek out cultural forms shaped in a very different time and place.

Parties annexes