Captivating Aspirations: Re-mediating the Era of Mass Incarceration in the New Golden Age of Television (1997-2017)
Dissertation in Culture
First supervisor: Prof. Frank Kelleter
Second supervisor: Prof. Martin Lüthe
Third supervisor: Prof. Markus Kienscherf
Deploying a framework derived from a combination of Nicole Rafter’s notion of Popular Criminology, Frank Kelleter’s theorization of Seriality Studies, and Jason Mittell’s model of Complex TV, this dissertation explores a select corpus of “quality” television programs produced over the years 1997-2017, often referred to as “the new golden age of television,” as they seek to address the contemporary crisis of American mass incarceration. These programs include the dramatic series OZ, The Wire, Orange is the New Black, Queen Sugar, and the documentary 13th. Pointing out that American television drama and news programs prior to this period largely avoided substantial coverage of institutionalized mass incarceration in favor of covering spectacular crimes and punitive political rhetoric, it argues that these series had to go elsewhere to find inspiration, borrowing conventions and modelling themselves upon archives, media, genres, and epistemological domains which are at times quite distant from television’s own relatively autonomous sphere of representation. It therefore pays attention to these series’ serial aspirations – that is, the cultural work which they set out for themselves – as they “re-mediate” forms and knowledge from these distant domains, thereby allowing us to trace out complex webs of cultural signification.
Likewise, it allows us to investigate the unconventional routines of circulation and reception they activate as they continuously re-negotiate their own distinct serial aspirations and cultural politics in a media ecosystem and industry context increasingly defined by niche fragmentation, competitive differentiation, and technological innovation. Couching its investigation of each program within a guiding question intimately related to its own para-textually avowed or narratively implicit serial aspirations, this dissertation explores the ways in which these texts interact with and re-mediate knowledge about mass incarceration in ways which make that knowledge both more available as popular culture and more amenable to cultural critique.
It finds that although these programs have contributed to rising public awareness about issues surrounding mass incarceration, it will take more than that to turn the tide on the decades of institutionalized racial discrimination, neoliberal abandonment, and punitive populism which gave rise to the era of mass incarceration. Instead, both television and the citizens it serves will have to aspire to produce a complex, critically-oriented popular culture which, more than merely providing entertainment for increasingly fragmented and polarized audiences, instead actively facilitates informed democratic deliberation.