At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, which I was fortunate to visit just before writing this afterword, a recent installation set out to illustrate the artist’s impact over a period of fifty years. Displaying Warhol’s works alongside those of 60 other artists, the exhibit featured a grouping entitled “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality.” As the accompanying catalogue explained, “Warhol’s democratic tendencies” made him a “promiscuous” consumer who “granted equal stature to all of his images regardless of their sources, from popular culture to art history” (Rosenthal et al. 183). Exemplifying this viewpoint were iconic works such as Warhol’s Baseball (1962) and Marilyn Monroe’s Lips (1962), Gerhard Richter’s Administrative Building (1964), as well as Andreas Gursky’s more recent Prada I (1996). The latter features an arrangement of designer shoes, backlit and displayed on the shelves of a platform in a tasteful shade of pale green. Viewing these works, I readily noted the give-and-take between artists “consumed by images” and determined to consume them in return through artful “appropriation” and “abstraction” from the worlds of sports, government, Hollywood, and designer fashion (183). But what was the element of “seriality,” I wondered?
If that was harder for me at first to discern, it was doubtless because the term “seriality” had acquired particular resonances through my work on serial novels—those quintessentially Victorian artifacts—and, more recently, serial television, which, as Caroline Levine shows in the introduction to this special issue, has become a noteworthy feature of our turn-of-the-millennium culture. It is worth clarifying, however, that while the importance of seriality to Victorian studies is, by now, obvious to me, that realization did not grow out of my early training as a scholar and teacher. To be sure, my years in graduate school in the early 1990s coincided with the strong textual focus of the new historicism as opposed to the material object emphasis of, say, book history. Nonetheless, impressive scholarship on Victorian seriality was already available, including N. N. Feltes’s classic Modes of Production of Victorian Novels (1986); Linda Hughes and Michael Lund’s The Victorian Serial (1991); Robin Myers and Michael Harris’s Serials and Their Readers 1620-1914 (1993); and, eventually, Graham Law’s Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000) with its important focus on the newspaper serialization of non-realist genres.
I suspect, therefore, that my inattention to seriality was less to do with methodology than with less mutable features of Victorianist study. As a graduate student preparing for oral examination, I reached such a fever pitch of reading that I took on The Princess Casamassima in little more than a day, hardly pausing to notice that the first readers for this baggy monster had patiently awaited the fourteen installments published in The Atlantic Monthly between September 1885 and October 1886. In the late 1980s, when I did my first stint as a teaching assistant, professors of the Victorian novel did not hesitate to devise undergraduate surveys in which students read triple-deckers such as Our Mutual Friend (May 1864-November 1865), The Eustace Diamonds (July 1871-February 1873), and Daniel Deronda (February 1876-September 1876) at a rate of about one every three weeks. As a new-minted assistant professor in 1995, I asked my students to read Bleak House (March 1852-September 1853) in four weeks. More than a decade later, while taking a break from the essays in this special issue, I turned to a piece in the New Yorker, in which George Packer describes his determination to readThe Way We Live Now. Noting that it took him almost as long to read this leviathan as it took Anthony Trollope to write it (29 weeks), Packer concludes that Trollope “wrote in an age of unthinkable attention spans” (“When the Money Gets Too Big”).
No doubt. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the original audience for The Way We Live Now took more than twice as long as Packer to read Trollope’s longest work. Purchasing it in monthly parts between February 1874 and September 1875, these early readers were unlikely to finish The Way We Live Now in less than 18 months. Thus, according to Hughes and Lund, nineteenth-century readers turned to serial fiction not because they had hours of attention to devote to consuming lengthy novels at a clip, but because the increasingly hectic pace of modern life, inside and outside the parlors, clubs, libraries, shops, kitchens, and bedrooms in which they read, enhanced their appreciation of “slow, steady development in installments over time” (275). We might think, for example, of how the narrator of Middlemarch (December 1871-December 1872) reminded her readers that while the novelists of the eighteenth century wrote “when the days were longer,…when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evening,” mid-nineteenth-century writers like herself had no time to “linger” over “copious remarks and digressions” (Eliot 91). Moreover, since Victorian serials proffered continuing stories “over an extended time with enforced interruptions,” part of the pleasure of reading them was taking part in collective anticipation for the latest installment along with the spate of page-turning, discussion, letter-writing, reviewing, and more discussion which followed. As Hughes and Lund suggest, “We need…to see the serial taking place amidst many different texts and many different voices” (1, 11). By such measures, we scholars who woof down triple-deckers in a matter of days are more like those viewers who “binge” on the latest season of a television series in “a lost weekend” (Farber) than we are like the nineteenth-century readers who took up installments over many months. Indeed, even the contemporaries who preferred to borrow volumes from circulating libraries were (somewhat like the DVD renters of our own day) likely to adopt a more leisurely pace than we scholars generally do.
What I soon realized at the Andy Warhol museum, therefore, was that the kind of seriality which matters to postmodern art differs not only from Victorian seriality, but also from the kind that serial television cultivates today. As expressed in works such as Mona Lisa (1963), Warhol’s seriality contested art world conventions such as the hierarchical relation of painting and photography and the elitist pretensions of abstract art. His signature use of silk-screened paint to translate iconic originals into playful variations on a theme gave visual expression to the loss of aura described in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Quoting Jean Baudrillard, whose postmodern theory riffed off Warhol’s acts of “murdering the original,” Rosenthal et al. situate Warholian seriality as an artistic intervention into the mechanizing, ornamentalizing, and commodifying effects of repetition (Baudrillard qtd. in 109). Fredric Jameson, who used Warhol’s art to introduce his landmark study Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), identified it with “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” (9). To be sure, seriality-as-repetition offers certain redemptive achievements: for example, the serendipitous beauty that Gursky’s Prada I rescues from high-end consumerism. But this emphasis on an aesthetics captured from the transitory and banal is quite different from that evoked by long-form serial narratives.
To make this point is to isolate what I take to be a key question for this special issue. For it is to raise the possibility that television, in adapting certain formal elements from Victorian serial fiction, has devised a new expression of the “cultural logic of late capitalism”—or at least one distinct from postmodern art. That this key difference derives in part from the impact of duration over time is a point that another book on serial media, Robyn R. Warhol’s Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (2003), helps me to demonstrate. Though it appeared too early to discuss the advent of “quality” television in the wake of acclaimed shows such as The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), and Deadwood (2004-2006), Having a Good Cry explores the effects of long duration on serial narratives of many kinds. Whether in mid-Victorian novels like Trollope’s or popular soap operas like As the World Turns (1956-2010), long-form serial narratives, according to Warhol, instill a resistance to closure which prolongs and intensifies the relation between audience and text by structuring “what bodies do in time and space” (R. Warhol 72). In doing so, such narratives encourage the cultivation of what we might call a serial habitus—an embodied rhythm through which surges of reading or viewing are followed by interludes of discussion, contemplation, and anticipation of the new.
This habituating ebb and flow interrupts the postmodern proclivity for flat, depthless superficiality. According to Jameson, postmodernism bespeaks a “crisis in historicity” borne of the problem of time and temporality “in a culture increasingly dominated by space and spatial logic” (25). And for Giorgio Agamben, echoing Benjamin, the fundamental dilemma of this condition is the inability to translate the wearying “jumble of events” into communicable “experience” (Agamben16). Warhol’s serial art confronts this state of affairs by punctuating it; like the artist himself, his works seem to ask, “Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” By contrast, long-form serials enunciate their duration in time—not only by pausing between installments, but also by creating dialectical movement between the synchronic part or episode and the longer arc of the novel (or novel sequence) and the season (or sequence of seasons).
That is not to insist that a repetitive seriality cannot narrate; Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe’s Lips and Nine Jackies (1964) tell stories about America’s female icons to which the most detailed biographies can only aspire. Nor is it to allege that long-form serial narratives cannot repeat. Nonetheless, whereas short-form repetition emphasizes collapsed historicity and fragmented experience, long-form narrative, in consciously stretching over time, carefully produces meaning within it. The horizons of experience it constructs—if unable single-handedly to ensure what Raymond Williams called “full and active ‘awareness’” (127)—belong both to characters and to audiences. By contrast, Warhol’s experiments in film and television were emphatically anti-narrative, e.g., the unwatchable god’s-eye diegesis of Empire (1964) and the ephemera of reality television. Whereas the latter constructs an atomized voyeur hungry for stimulus, long-form serials appeal to a more communal subject: not just the body of a reader but a body of readers. We thus find John Blackwood writing in 1875 that he was considering “an interval of two months” between the parts of the forthcoming Daniel Deronda because the experience of Middlemarch had taught him that “it takes the public a long time to digest and fully appreciate the value of such food” as George Eliot offers, and to “talk to their neighbours about it” (qtd. in Martin 216). Not only enabling, but in some ways also depending on conversation for their success, long-form serials build interactive audiences; they have a capacity, however limited, to constitute publics unified by shared investment in a common and ongoing experience.
These generic features—rhythmic habitus, temporal dialectics, communal dialogue—are intensified in serials such as The Wire and Mad Men (2007-) which hark back to the realist aesthetics of nineteenth-century fiction. To make this claim is not to suggest that realism either is or was the only serial game in town. Nonetheless, as several contributors to this special issue illustrate, to explore “Television for Victorianists” is in part to consider how recent shows have adapted classic realist modalities to serve contemporary ends. Thus, for Susan Bernstein, what HBO’s In Treatment (2008-10) shares with Middlemarch is a transferential realism that invites us “to work back and forth between fiction and felt experience” in the interests of a lived practice of “widened fellow-feeling.” Less ethically utopian, though still aesthetically compelling, is the renewal of Victorian provincial fiction which Amy King finds at work in Friday Night Lights (2006-). Through a West Texas that King likens to the pastoral worlds of Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, the show constructs a quotidian particularity that stands in for the nation at large. In her contribution to this issue, Caroline Levine describes two modes of realism at play in nineteenth-century novels and “quality” television. By zeroing in on sociological realism such as Bleak House or The Wire as well as historical realism such as Adam Bede (1859) and Mad Men, Levine demonstrates two ways in which realist representation—so far from a machinery for naturalizing the status quo—produces shock and defamiliarizing surprise. And while Sean O’Sullivan is interested in a refusal of satisfaction intrinsic to serials of many kinds, it is perhaps no accident that he chooses realist examples like Middlemarch, Great Expectations (1860-63), and Mad Men to make his case.
In yet another essay centered on realism, Liz Maynes-Aminzade comes close to the critical stance that informs my own work on this topic. She identifies Dickens’s Bleak House as a mid-century template for the “stranger narratives” discernible in recent serials. Like their Dickensian precursors, acclaimed shows such as The Wire and Breaking Bad (2008-) elucidate how characters connect through dense multiplot worlds, thus enabling audiences (but not characters) to glimpse the structures underlying modern experience. Though Maynes-Aminzade does not cite Jameson, her analysis squares with the Jamesonian premise (indebted to Georg Lukács) that experimental art forms find new ways to concretize material realities—especially those, like the transformative impacts of capitalism and imperialism, which are difficult for individuals to cognize. For while such macrosociological effects are deeply felt at the level of individuals and communities, they are nonetheless too large in scope, complex in result, and long in duration, to be fully visible to local perception. Art thus steps into a cognitive hinterland, giving aesthetic shape to dimly perceived structures of experience.
This insight was a key impetus for The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty and Transnational Experience, my forthcoming book. While most of the study is devoted to the mid-Victorian-era formal experiments of Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Wilkie Collins, and Trollope, two concluding chapters follow realist aesthetics further into the longue durée of capitalism and imperialism: one on E. M. Forster’s romances of the European South, and the other on Mad Men’s latter-day reinvention of serialized realism in naturalistic form. In describing the occurrence of pre-Zolaesque naturalism in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), Trollope’s The Prime Minister (1875-76), Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Mad Men, I am deliberately exploring a realist modality that many scholars (following Lukács and Jameson) have taken for a decadent expression of bourgeois reification. Thus, in concluding my book by comparing two archetypes of Judaized exile—Ferdinand Lopez and Don Draper—I am not illustrating the “influence of Mad Men on Trollope” (as John Plotz might surmise), but, rather, pointing to the continuities between mid-Victorian-era and present-day variations on modern alienation. Both The Prime Minister and Mad Men develop their stories through slow diegesis, punctuated by dramatic outburst—alternately attracting and disturbing their audiences. But in making that case, I do not mean that the Tory vision of empire to which Trollope’s novels responded in the 1870s is identical to the American Century elegized in Mad Men, any more than that either or both are identical to the French Second Empire of Flaubert’s novel. Whereas Lopez is ambiguously figured as a “secret Jew,” Draper, while clearly not a Jew (or passing black man, or queer, or madwoman), palpably experiences himself in the position of all of these unassimilable subjects. Don is, thus, a “virtual” Jew—a “baby in a basket” whose self-invention is both comparable to that of the stigmatized Lopez and expressive of the ever-greater fungibility that neoliberalism demands of its subjects.
In much the same way, Mad Men’s artful use of cinematic devices such as close-ups, flashbacks, cutting, music, montage, and voice-over are comparable but non-identical to the use of focalized narration, free indirect style, narratorial aside, and dialogue in the nineteenth-century novel. (That Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner delights in thinking of his series as a “novel” does not make the contrasts any less salient.) Nonetheless, despite substantive differences of many kinds, Madame Bovary, The Prime Minister, Daniel Deronda and Mad Men exemplify a recurrent geopolitical aesthetic that explores metropolitan lifeworlds from the standpoint of strangers within. As serialized narratives of capitalist globalization, they not only proffer naturalistic pictures of “real life,” but also capture the real-life experience of inhabiting long-evolving structures that challenge our limited capacity to grasp and communicate ongoing histories.
The importance of history and historicity is clear also in Ivan Kreilkamp’s and John Plotz’s contributions to this special issue. As I read these incisive, cautionary pieces by scholars whose work on nineteenth-century literature I admire, I realized that these were not simple calls for Victorianist scholarship to stay focused on nineteenth-century contexts. No doubt all of the contributors to this special issue would agree that in a world in which even journalists for the New Yorker describe the reading of a Trollope novel as though it were an event, it would be a mistake for Victorianists to underread the nineteenth-century archive. As Kreilkamp notes, “in our urge to recognize genuine connection, we should also acknowledge discontinuity and rupture, counterweights of rejection, disavowal, parody and sheer difference.”
What would be especially problematic, he suggests, is a Victorianist effort “to define a continuous, genetic genealogy that might lead from Dickens” to early filmmakers like D. W. Griffith “and then on to our own 21st-century filmic mutations.” But if “Television for Victorianists” teaches us anything, it is that the scholars connecting Eliot with In Treatment or Gaskell with Friday Night Lights are decidedly uninterested in either genealogy or film. Nonetheless, Kreilkamp’s reflections on Victorianist anxieties about the present provide a valuable opportunity to consider our work as nineteenth-centuryists in a twenty-first-century world. Indeed, both this essay and Plotz’s should spur much-needed discussion within the field about the relation of Victorian studies to the present day.
That is true even though Kreilkamp’s brief discussion of David Simon, the creator of The Wire, may be the most debatable part of his essay. Quoting a 2009 interview with Simon, Kreilkamp perceives “a sense of our contemporary world drawing away from a previous epoch governed by print culture and everything associated with it, including certain forms of sentimental investment in characters” (Pearson). When Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, recounts how an editor asked him to find a “Dickensian” story about “some cute kid” in order to “win a prize” (Pearson), Kreilkamp rightly observes that the editor’s use of “Dickensian” was “a code term for the cynical foisting of the values of liberal humanism.” He goes on to suggest that since Simon drew on this event for the last season of The Wire, Victorianists comparing the show to Dickens’s fiction should recognize that
The Wire is in fact explicitly engaged with Dickens and the Dickensian, but in a mode of resistance and disavowal rather than embrace. For The Wire to be properly realist, its writers seem to feel, it must reject the realism of a previous era as not realism at all but a hollow sentimentalism. (last emphasis added)
Kreilkamp thus implies that Simon’s remarks provide evidence not only of The Wire’s engagement with Dickens but also of the show’s “resistance and disavowal.”
Although comparatist scholarship should indeed consider salient differences as well as connections, Simon’s interview, I suggest, warrants a closer look. For in some ways it confirms Maynes-Aminzade’s belief that The Wire inherits Dickens’s groundbreaking focus on the structures that bind “the interacting lives of…connected strangers.” When asked, for example, if “a major thrust of the series was the idea of institutions versus individuals,” Simon agrees: “Reform becomes more and more problematic because the status quo is arranged…to maximize and to exalt…short-term profit—over long-term societal benefit and/or human beings.” Although his preferred literary analogies for the show are the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, he also tells us that the writers he sought for the series “were novelists who were doing researched fiction…in an urban environment” (Pearson). Thus, while Simon disclaims the direct influence of any particular novelist from the past, he is arguably no more determined to resist or disavow the forms of Victorian realism than he is to insist that The Wire is the product of a “world drawing away from…print culture.”
Asked specifically about critics’ admiring comparisons to Dickens, Simon replies, “I understood what they meant by Dickensian…You get this sort of scope of society through the classes…But that’s true of Tolstoy’s Moscow. That’s true of Balzac’s Paris. It’s been done a lot in a lot of different places.” When queried on the “ironic” appearance in the show of an editor who demands “Dickensian” stories, Simon agrees that it “was a little bit of tongue-in-cheek satire on the show directed at people who were using Dickens to praise us.” He thus makes clear that he fully distinguishes between the use of “Dickensian” as a cynical code term and the “Dickensian” “scope of society” commended by The Wire’s enthusiasts. Specifying his own dissent, he explains:
Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out.
Simon thus offers a critique of Dickens’s political limitations of the sort that extends at least as far back as Arnold Kettle. It is a criticism, moreover, which is demonstrably more pertinent to Oliver Twist than to the later works, especially Bleak House, to which The Wire is usually compared.
To my mind, then, the notion that Dickens always “punks out” in the end—however accurate a description of any particular Dickens work—is insufficient to demonstrate that The Wire “must reject the realism of a previous era” as “hollow sentimentalism.” To make that case requires evidence from the show. And if one did appeal to The Wire, one would doubtless want to consider the powerful investments in character which the show elicits from viewers on behalf of any number of charismatic figures (Omar, Cedric Daniels, Stringer Bell, et al.) and tragic victims (including Season 4’s Randy, a “cute kid” who pays a terrible price when his would-be benefactor, Carver, is no more successful in negotiating Baltimore’s foster care system than are the friends in Bleak House who seek refuge for Jo). Thus, while the show may come across as “very cynical about institutions and their ability to reform,” says Simon, “it’s [not] at all cynical about people. On the contrary…it embraces the idea of everybody’s humanity at the same time that it says, “Oh yeah, we’re fucked” (Pearson).
Do such remarks point to a fictional world whose humanism is, as Kreilkamp suggests, “fundamentally alien” to the kind Victorian novels evoke? One can imagine different ways of approaching the question. While the task of comparing the structures subtending “everyone’s humanity,” then and now, seems to me rewarding, in undertaking it we would do well to bear in mind that not every echo of Victorian literature necessarily signifies a “straightforward tribute” to the nineteenth-century past (Kreilkamp). Thus, while the project of “Television for Victorianists” is not quite the “dangerous nostalgic fantasy” that love of nineteenth-century literature proffers in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), scholars inspired by this enterprise should consider the possibility that some elements of nineteenth-century fiction may not survive the transition to twenty-first century forms. Or as Plotz puts it in a comparable analysis, “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.’”
Kreilkamp’s distinctive contribution to this special issue thus explores “hostile” adaptations of Victorian culture such as South Park’s spoof of Great Expectations and Ishiguro’s dystopia (in which study of Daniel Deronda provides the illusion of humanity for characters reduced to “bare life”). His powerful essay suggests that readers today, not unlike the “glass-eyed automatons” in South Park, are “radically cut off” from the world of Eliot’s fiction, part of a “new reality” in which “the Dickensian” at best stands for irreversible loss and, at worst, self-delusion. That this may be a sobering reflection does not make it any less acute. When Kreilkamp speculates that South Park’s satire may express “the nostalgia of media workers for their days as English majors, looking back” at a “way of life organized around…long, prestige-granting print narratives,” he seems to imply that our work as Victorianists, laboring to facilitate nostalgia in the next generation of satirists, entails an unavoidable sadness. It may be little consolation that, unlike Ishiguro’s clones, most of us finish our essays on Daniel Deronda.
By and large, the essays in this special issue seem to me to suggest the strong potential for a non-reductive and non-naïve comparatism that oscillates between print and television without collapsing millennial viewers into latter-day Victorians. But we cannot simply ignore the daunting disconnect between the nineteenth-century novel and a world whose iconic text is the 140-character tweet. Under such circumstances, while “Television for Victorianists” need not be a delusive project of Victorianists for Television, it is just as surely not the Holy Grail.
Whereas Kreilkamp advises Victorianists to make room in their analyses for “sheer difference,” Plotz seeks to ensure that serial television’s mesmeric spell does not lead today’s scholars to “neo-Victorianize” Victorian literature by neglecting those aspects of nineteenth-century realism which serial television does not obviously illuminate. As against the quaint idea that serial narratives enable audiences “to think and feel with characters as a set of events approach, peak, and then recede,” Plotz introduces “TV Time.” Christian Marclay’s The Clock is the herald of this 24/7 temporality—a homogenous time made more totalizing through digital technology and the advent of limitless serial content. The locus classicus for this 21st-century TV OD is 24 (2001-13), a show that uses the 24 episodes of each season to represent 24 hours in the single day of the life of a counter-terrorism expert. But a less elegant instantiation is the viewer whose “clicks for the drip,” as she binges on Desperate Housewives (2004-12), erase the weekly intervals between the show’s original broadcasts. On this account of the “serial era,” shows like The Sopranos, so far from Victorianesque installments over time, have ushered in a world of junkies, jonesing for their next dose of “near infinite repetition” (Plotz).
It is worth noting, however, that the postmodern condition Plotz puts forward is more descriptive of the digital age in toto than the sub-subset occupied by “quality” television. It is surely no accident that none of the contributors to this special issue discusses mainstream television such as Desperate Housewives and 24—or even high-quality series without a significant realist component such as Lost (2004-10), Rome (2005-07), or Boardwalk Empire (2010-). Instead, the shows that interest Victorianists have relatively limited mass appeal; Mad Men’s largest single audience thus far was 3.4 million (a mere quarter of the 12.4 million viewers who tuned into AMC for the Season 3 finale of The Walking Dead [2010-], a comic book thriller). The Wire’s even more selective audience never reached 2 million (compare to the 13.5 million who watched Desperate Housewives in 2009 or the 27.7 million who turned on CBS for Ashton Kutcher’s 2011 debut on the comedy show Two and a Half Men). And while the shows that attract Victorianists continue to be watched long after their original airdate, they clearly cater to a self-selecting audience that appreciates their writerly ambitions.
Victorianists working on television might therefore do more to distinguish between the relatively highbrow shows that interest them by and large, and the non-televisual media so central to turn-of-the-millennium postmodernity broadly conceived: for example, massive multiplayer online roleplaying games like World of Warcraft, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or the phenomenon of messaging one’s friends throughout the day via texts or “apps” such as Foursquare. By theorizing “TV Time” so as to integrate diverse media, Plotz’s treatment of the “serial age” combines the repetitive seriality enunciated in Andy Warhol’s art with the more temporally nuanced, narrative seriality that interests Victorianists. In doing so, Plotz blurs the differences between “near-infinite repetition” and a serial habitus conditioned to the rhythms of prolonged viewing, intermediary reflection, and communal discussion. To be sure, long-form narratives resist closure by appealing to audiences over time. Nevertheless, finitude of various sorts—the exit of key characters such as Salvatore Romano or Stringer Bell, the finales of every season, and the conclusion of shows as a whole—are as crucial to the serial experience as were the endings of important Victorian serial novels (see O’Sullivan in this special issue).
In my own case, the buzz around “quality” television altered my longstanding habit of watching no television shows at all. Much like the stories Robyn Warhol recounts in Having a Good Cry, when my pregnancy-related symptoms resulted in a temporary incapacity for reading while exercising on a treadmill, I took a friend’s suggestion to try The Sopranos and began watching an episode every day (a pleasant complement to the episodic quality of pregnancy itself). In the decade since that first encounter, serial TV-watching has overtaken movie-viewing in my non-reading and non-working hours, since the combination of one-hour installments and a narrative arc spread over weeks or months affords extra-viewing pleasures of many kinds. For example, couples or friends who rarely read the same books may enjoy discussing shows like the CBC’s Intelligence (2005-2007) or Showtime’s Brotherhood (2006-08), as did my husband and I when Netflix’s algorithm recommended them to us. Since both shows were canceled, the hardest part of watching them was the disappointment of following characters whose storylines were prematurely curtailed. Viewing much of the Syfy Channel’s Battlestar Galactica (2004-09) enabled me to take interest in a genre I seldom read and to converse with enthusiastic students and colleagues. But some shows that worked for friends did not work for us; we never made it past the first two episodes of Lost, Entourage (2004-11), or Justified (2010-). Showtime’s Weeds (2005-12) was fun for a while though we eventually lost interest. I found the first season of Homeland, HBO’s award-winning drama, surprisingly hard to watch. The Hour (2011-), the BBC’s stylish effort to fictionalize its own history, first seduced and then disappointed me. And Downton Abbey’s hagiographic depiction of the British aristocracy made me wince—though I watched two seasons and can understand why others enjoy this “guilty pleasure.”
Since I don’t have a premium cable subscription, I watched these shows when they became available for DVD rental or internet streaming. Such asynchronous viewing left me searching online for conversations to read after the fact, while seeking out nearby enthusiasts for live (if often retrospective) discussion. These dialogues, I imagine, were comparable to the kind which surrounded Middlemarch when its volumes were on loan from the circulating library as well as the kind that surround the reception of standout novels and films. But the likelihood of finding a television series of common interest is much greater than that of contemporary fiction—especially among friends and family members outside of literature departments. Then, in 2009, when writing and blogging on Mad Men became part of my work, it became the first and, for the most part, the only show that I watch as it airs—often in the company of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. The cultivation of my serial habitus, in other words, did not entail a rigorous regime of watching the newest shows at weekly intervals. Mostly I have found my own intervals in which my “clicks for the drip” are paced out for viewing in the evening hours, during leisure or exercise, on a quasi-daily basis.
I should make clear, however, that while these experiences with serial television catalyzed my interest in Victorian-era seriality (much as In Treatment sparked Bernstein’s new way of thinking about Eliot), only a few of these shows reminded me of nineteenth-century fiction per se. In addition to The Wire and Mad Men, the first season of Big Love (2006-11)—a show about a polygamous family in contemporary Utah—had the thick domestic webs and strong characters of a good Victorian realist novel. But by the second season, in which elaborate plotting overtook this domestic focus, the show put me in mind of Wilkie Collins’s lesser novels before ceasing to draw any Victorian parallels at all. Though they are of interest to Maynes-Aminzade, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad do not recall me to nineteenth-century writing. Like television scholar Dana Polan, I think that The Sopranos is too formally plastic and self-consciously postmodern to offer an ideal comparison for Victorian fiction—a point that may also be relevant to the fourth season of Mad Men. Breaking Bad is so heavily dominated by its male hero’s entrée to the byzantine world of transnational drug trafficking that it is more like a latter-day imperial adventure-cum-black comedy than any realist work I can think of.
The shows that strike me as the most “neo-Victorian” are, for the most part, those featuring not only realist characterization, but also strong female as well as male characters, cumulative narrative arcs, detailed local settings (I would liken the Providence depicted in Brotherhood to the metonymic West Texas of Friday Night Lights and the Baltimore of The Wire), and sociological networks of the sort that interest Levine and Maynes-Aminzade. The most recent example to claim my attention is Engrenages (2005-)—translated as “Spirals” though the French is closer to “Cogs” —a police procedural and character study that is so Balzacian in its capture of bourgeois professional life in neoliberal Paris (none of the characters has any “private” life to speak of), that watching it has kindled in me a deeper interest in Balzac.
Does this experience substantiate Plotz’s belief that “the age of seriality…has begun to reshape our conceptions of how narrative operated in ages past”? To some degree the answer must surely be yes. But to my mind the potential pitfalls are manageable and, to some degree, operative for any particular approach (one might also worry that book history or biopolitics will alter our perspective on nineteenth-century literature, but that does not mean that we should reject these optics). Precisely because our world is so decidedly engaged in postmodern theory, form, and content, the opportunity to cross temporal boundaries seems to me to be as potentially illuminating as were the spatial crossings that transnational methodologies of various kinds opened up for Victorianist practice in the last decade or so. Far from anachronistic, a cross-temporal Victorian studies has the capacity to enact a nuanced historicism that combines synchronic comparison with diachronic thinking across the longue durée. This is precisely the kind of dialectical criticism which John Kucich, for example, has called for to succeed the largely synchronic New Historicist practices of the 1980s and 1990s. Such work offers the potential for enhanced historicity in opposition to the atemporality and “end of history” narratives favored by neoliberalism.
It is a truism of our times that we are divided from our nineteenth-century forebears by a veritable Maginot Line of epoch-making discursive and material structures signified by the prefix “post.” We are not only postmodern but also postcolonial, poststructuralist, and (in the United States and Europe) allegedly postsocialist and postindustrial as well. But surely we need not hasten to eternalize these structures or absolutize the neoliberal temporality that accompanies them. Timothy Egan, a columnist for the New York Times, has made a similar point in the domain of journalistic commentary: “Real-time, 24-hour news coverage prompts real-time, 24-hour anxiety,” he wrote in the midst of the breathless prognostications that followed on the Boston Marathon bombings, “but it doesn’t have to lead to real-time, and flawed, 24-hour conclusions.”
Though Mad Men’s limited impact on our culture will hardly ensure us a reflective punditocracy, the show deliberately confutes the 24-hour conclusion even while convening an army of on-the-spot commentators eager for weekly post-mortem and speculation. Since each episode is part of a carefully structured narrative arc, even the most hardcore binge viewer must devote thirteen hours of close attention to mastering a single season. And since the seasons are cumulative, a comprehensive understanding of Season 6’s events (unfolding as I write) will require 65 hours of prior viewing just to begin—complete with references to the Book of Exodus, Dante’s Inferno, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, and period media too numerous to mention. Does anyone doubt that the viewers of such television, no matter how quickly they mainline each season, will be better and more historically aware readers of Victorian fiction than ones whose customary “drips” consist of non-stop texting or first-person shooter games? Indeed, merely posing the question makes me wish that some of my less literate students would set upon engrossing themselves in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, or even Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, or 24.
As for Victorianist scholars, what better task than to follow Kreilkamp in meditating the extent to which nineteenth-century forms can exist “as something more than a relic of a vanished world of print culture and liberal humanism.” In doing so, we might perhaps consider what it means that in 2012 some of the most-discussed films were based on nineteenth-century novels (Anna Karenina, Les Misérables) or took place in nineteenth-century settings (Lincoln, Django Unchained). Like much serial television, such movies may well confirm the commonplace of the postmodern penchant for pastiche and nostalgia. But can we rule out the possibility that at least some of the interest in nineteenth-century motifs expresses a new historicizing impulse or resistance to the 24/7 temporal regime? To miss out on such micropolitical alternatives in the name of a purified Victorian studies would be, I think, to punk out in the end.
My thanks to Jennifer Burns and Terri Weissman for their wonderful collegiality and feedback on the topic of postmodern art.
Warhol’s focus is not seriality per se, but a range of affect-inducing media of which serial narratives provide an important sub-group. Although her particular interest is the narrative production of effeminacy, Warhol’s examples include many important precursors for a “quality” television phenomenon that (like nineteenth-century realist fiction) is formulated with both male and female audiences in mind—e.g., Masterpiece Theater renditions of Victorian novels; Neil Simon’s satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; early “quality” shows such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, thirtysomething and Ally McBeal.
These thoughts on long-form television seriality and its likeness to the serial novel are indebted to Mittell, “Serial Boxes,” and O’Sullivan, “Old, New”; see also Goodlad, Kaganovsky and Rushing, “Introduction.”
For discussion of repetition in “Tomorrowland,” the final episode of Mad Men’s fourth season, see Goodlad and Rushing, “Groundhog Day.”
In John Plotz’s terms serial narratives are both “horological” (taking place in the viewer’s time) as well as “chronometric” (constructing their own intra-diegetic temporality).
See Law on the large quantity of non-realist serials such as “penny dreadfuls” circulating in Victorian newspapers; both R. Warhol and Mittell have described the compelling serial effects of non-realist television media from the “forensic” series Lost to television soap operas.
That is true even though it is likely clear how much “quality” television borrows from cinema to enhance its gravitas. For an essay (by a non-Victorianist) which ties Mad Men to the films of Antonioni see Rushing. The would-be genealogist in search of mid- and late-twentieth-century serial television precursors might turn to soap operas (as does Robyn Warhol), as well as to “quality” situation comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, nighttime soaps such as Dynasty, or high-end network series such as L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, or the one-off miniseries Murder One.
One potential difficulty with this biographical approach, of which Kreilkamp is well aware, is that television combines the work of multiple writers, actors, directors, camera operators, set designers, and so on. Simon himself describes the show as a “synthesis between what the actor brings and what the director brings and what the writer brings and what the crew makes you capable of in a given day. It’s very communal” (Pearson).
I set aside the challenge of finding a “heroic lawyer” anywhere in Dickens’s oeuvre—Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities perhaps?
On Mad Men’s audience see Goodlad, Kaganovsky, and Rushing, “Introduction.”
For more on this topic see Goodlad and Sartori.
Lauren M. E. Goodlad is Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Professor of English, and Provost Fellow for Undergraduate Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her books include Victorian Literature the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society, Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, and the 1960s (co-edited with Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing), and The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience (forthcoming with Oxford UP). She is also the editor of and a contributor to an ongoing multi-authored series of posts on Seasons 4-7 of Mad Men on the Unit for Criticism’s weblog, Kritik.
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