Research Unit "Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice"

Director: Prof. Dr. Frank Kelleter, American Studies, FU Berlin

Project Website

Serial narration is widely regarded as a defining characteristic of popular aesthetics. In studies of popular culture, the connection between seriality and popularity is often considered to be so obvious that questions are rarely raised concerning the specific nature of popular serial narratives, the cultural and historical circumstances they presuppose or support, and the differences between popular seriality and serial structures in other cultural fields. The Research Unit "Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice," funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), addresses these questions by investigating the forms, dynamic processes, and functions of serial narration within the field of popular culture. Popular culture is understood here as a field of practice (first arising in European-American contexts at the beginning of the nineteenth century) involving the production, perception, and use of aesthetic artifacts that are addressed at mass audiences, depend upon technological media, and whose functions are predominantly commercial. Our approach distances itself in a twofold manner from established theories of popular culture and attempts to mediate between them:

(1) In the perspective proposed, seriality is not conceived as formal decomplexification or as an expression of the culture industry's manipulative ideologies. We aim to do justice to the market orientation of industrially produced narratives by describing popular seriality as a form of standardization and schematization that, precisely because of its reproducibility and broad base of appeal, continually generates novel possibilities for formal and experiential variation and continuation. One of the Research Unit's crucial interests consists in reconstructing the historical, cultural, and narrative dimensions of such differentiations, both systematically and on the basis of case studies.

(2) The legitimacy of popular culture will not be deferred to acts of clever reinterpretation on the part of competent recipients (as in numerous theories from the field of Cultural Studies). The Research Unit understands popularity neither as an exclusive property of products nor as a pure consequence of everyday practices, but as a historically evolving context of interaction between formal-material conditions and experiential-ideological positionings and negotiations. Thus, questions concerning the production, reception, and effects of popular seriality are integrated with (rather than added on to) questions concerning popular seriality's position in a space of cultural distinctions and lifestyles.

During its first three years of funding (2010-2013), the Research Unit's six initial sub-projects investigated the following questions: (1) Which narrative forms and techniques are characteristic for popular series ("narration")?; (2) Which actor-roles and acts of reception are encouraged or initiated by serial narratives specifically in the realm of popular culture, in contrast to other cultural fields ("distinction")?; (3) Which cultural-historical conditions are required or promoted by popular series ("history")?

At the level of "narration," processes of recursivity – that is, the continual readjustment of possible continuations with respect to what has already been narrated – proved to be essential to popular seriality. As a result, it became clear that narratological approaches to popular series must be systematically correlated with actor-oriented and cultural-hermeneutic perspectives, in order to adequately describe the multifaceted, historically specific, and narratively significant feedback loops between ongoing narration and ongoing reception. At the same time, it became apparent at the level of "distinction" that the oftentimes normative opposition, posited in many cultural studies approaches, between production (usually seen as restrictive or manipulative) and reception (usually seen as emancipatory or resistant) insufficiently accounts for the high degree of permeability that can be found in popular series between textual and paratextual or between professional and amateur practices. Concomitantly, field-theoretical hypotheses, following Bourdieu, were only partially confirmed by the material; our ethnographic subprojects unearthed a more dynamic spectrum with regard to the uses and enjoyments of popular series. Thus, it proved helpful to think of popular-serial practice according to the model of an actor-network. Following this model, popular series can be understood as self-dynamic cultural agents (in Latour's sense), comprised not only of acting persons and institutions but also of action-conducting forms, objects, and media. Consequently, at the level of "history," the significance of a cultural-ecological perspective came to the fore, i.e. an approach that analyzes the development, since the nineteenth century, of popular series as commercial and typically collaborative narrative formats in correlation with the evolving "affordances" of their media-technological and institutional environments.

In accordance with these considerations, the seven sub-projects of the second funding phase (2013-2016) aim to provide (1) a firm historical grounding, (2) a conceptual consolidation, and (3) an expansion of the field of objects under investigation. Three subprojects are devoted to the early history of serial popular culture in Germany and the United States, specifically: the era prior to the Civil War when a newly commercial American popular culture came into existence (serial city mysteries); the latter half of the nineteenth century in Germany with its corresponding but culturally specific developments (German-language periodicals); and the early twentieth century, when such structures consolidated themselves in the perceptions and descriptions of a new technological "mass culture" (early American film serials). Two subprojects continue the analyses of popular serial distinction (the authorship of series as a profession) and evolution (remaking as retrospective serialization); these subprojects aim explicitly to deepen and refine the conceptual findings of the first project phase. Two subprojects approach new objects with a view to closing gaps in existing research: They focus on the specificity of digital seriality in the twenty-first century (computer games) and on non-fictional formats of popular seriality (reality TV).

Methodologically, the Research Unit integrates approaches from American Studies, German studies, literary studies, media studies, cultural history, and ethnography. It is based at Freie Universität Berlin, with additional sub-projects located at the universities of Göttingen, Hannover, Karlsruhe, and Tübingen. Grant for the first funding period: € 1.85 million; grant for the second funding period: € 2.15 million. In addition, there's a number of Associated Projects with independent funding.