A materialist phenomenology of TV in the age of the hyper-seriality

review by Mike Wayne

Dennis Broe , Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2019.

Dennis Broe’s Birth of the Binge is a fascinating and thought-provoking synthesis of critical methods that produces an all-too-rare materialist phenomenology of television, here focusing on the recent transformations in seriality. The sub-title of the book, The End of Leisure, immediately strikes one as provocatively counter-intuitive. Surely, watching television and leisure are synonymous? In fact, leisure time under capitalism is a deeply ambiguous social experience, and it is one of the merits of this book to really explore this.

The book’s argument is structured into three parts. Part one, called ‘Metaseriality’ considers the broader social, economic, political and industrial structures that have shaped television from its initial emergence to what Broe contends are new forms of hyper-seriality (essentially a further round of capitalist colonisation of culture). The second part of the book ‘Serial Specificity’ is made up of two chapters. The first explores the concept of seriality in philosophical discourses and cultural antecedents (including the novel and film) going back well before the technology of television. Broe skilfully weaves a number of television serials into this broader discussion of, for example, Nietzsche and Zola, including an extensive discussion of The Fugitive (1963-67) as a case study of a series that both typified serial tv in its time while also anticipating later trends. In the next chapter Broe explores the formal specificity of contemporary serial television, using Justified (2010-15) as a case study. In the final part of the book, ‘Serial Auteurs and the Possibilities of Industrial Resistance’ Broe turns to the concept of authorship to explore the extent to which the new serial form, within the industrial capitalist logics of the production context, can be used to advance a cultural politics that challenges dominant ideological formations. Here Broe takes Joss Wheedon’s Firefly and Dollhouse as examples of a critique against authoritarianism and militarism. He also turns to J.J. Abrams’ notably short-lived efforts Revolution (2012-14) and Believe (2014) as examples of the possibilities and limits of resistant practices.

For those of us at a certain age, television is synonymous with the ‘Golden Age’ of regulated capitalism that was widely known as Keynsianism. More so than film—if by ‘film’ we mean a distinct apparatus of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption outside the home—television implants itself in our early life and memories, a familiar and ever-present co-presence in our daily rituals and family interactions. For me, watching Lost in Space on the black and white television in my parents’ room with my sister, remains a powerful affective image floating up somewhere from the past. Perhaps the role of television in our early experiences may be one reason why the medium seems to so often disarm critical discourse in academic literature and why a cultural populism and barely concealed fanzine mentality still fighting yesterday’s war against high cultural elitism, remains prevalent, although thankfully absent in Broe’s contribution to the scholarly literature.

Those fragments of memories floating up and their imbrication with the cultural texts that the medium mediates, constitute what Bernard Stiegler calls tertiary retention. Stiegler, the French phenomenological philosopher of technology and experience, provides Broe with a key resource in his conceptual architecture. Stiegler defines primary retention as sense perception, secondary retention as the filtering of sense perception through memory and tertiary retention as mass media experiences that become ‘technologies of memory’ (p.18). Stiegler calls the current era one of hyper industrialization—the extension of the kind of logics that dominated the Fordist capitalist economy into the digital economy and through that into the inner recesses of our subjectivity. The spread of mass media increases the power of tertiary retentions in our lives, never more so than in the daily consumption of television.

Seriality, the powerful new form for television drama, is defined both as a mode of distribution and consumption. Broe also lays out its formal structures such as multi-character narratives, generic hybridity, self-reflexivity, complex temporal arrangements, and story arcs lasting a season or even the entire series. Such seriality cultivates a new mode of reception known in the vernacular as ‘binge watching’.

A danger lurking for Broe in his use of this term and others such as ‘addiction’ and ‘apathy’, is that he may be skirting perilously close to the kind of class-connoted opprobrium of earlier discourses on television that I suggested above have been definitively eclipsed. That older discourse also used notions of ‘addictions’ or  'zombie' tv viewers who were 'brain dead'. Perhaps European hackles might rise faster in this regard than U.S. ones. Indeed my initial hesitations around this language of addictions were initially reinforced by early intimations that Broe was going to argue that television as the extension of the logic of capital was also contested by the figure of the writer and/or director. Broe might have more explicitly distinguished his project from these earlier struggles for distinction around high and low culture since any similarities between his book and those earlier models are in fact superficial. Instead, Broe’s discourse maintains a necessary ambivalence: attraction and repulsion, positive and negative, affirmation of possibilities, critique of many of the standard practices and norms. Television is made in fact for dialectical analysis.

Broe achieves this theoretical swerve around the habitus of an older middle-class distaste for television by combining Stiegler’s phenomenological analysis with critical political economy. In a highly unusual move, Broe insists that the television audience is also and always a worker or dependent on the wage-labour economy. The viewer’s dual identity allows Broe to map out links between the audience of U.S. television and the fate of the U.S. worker in the last fifty years or so. Broe notes that prices on key goods for well-being such as education, health care and food are increasing while prices in virtual and digital entertainments are falling—perhaps as a symbolic compensation for real world scarcity as jobs decline, precarity rises and real incomes fall. By 2015, a majority of U.S. workers were approaching or were actually below the poverty line (p.41). The once stable television schedules that helped structure family life around children’s time, family time and adult time, have exploded along with the neo-liberal decimation of the family itself. It is in this sense that the book’s subtitle about the ‘end of leisure’ comes to make sense. Certainly it’s the end of one mode of leisure and its re-fitting to a new modality of life within capitalism. Leisure as secure free time has indeed been eroded. Today ‘leisure is being filtered through and fitted to work.’ (p.53). Television as streamed service accommodates the new reconfiguration of ‘leisure’, snatched on the go via mobile devices or late at night:

‘time shifting, a boon to the consumer, is often necessary for the harried worker…for whom prime time’s three-hour block of leisure has long since disappeared’ (p. 109).

I personally would have liked to have seen Broe expand and explore in more detail his thesis on the destruction of leisure as a relaxed experience clearly demarcated from work. There is for example a sociological literature that could have reinforced the philosophical and political economy mapping of this experience and which indicates that while the quantity of leisure time has increased, the sense for survey respondents is that the quality of the leisure time has decreased, as 'Americans report feeling increasingly harried now compared with 40 years ago.’ Broe’s argument about how the new formal strategies of serial television build on past techniques to ‘hook’ audiences into the series could also have explored a sense of entrapment viewers sometimes feel. They may simultaneously realise they have both committed valuable leisure time to a series and also  have concluded that (as with so many products of the capitalist culture industry) it actually is not very satisfying and probably not worth carrying on—yet, they feel pressure to continue because of their prior temporal investments.

The language of television as addiction and as a kind of consumer equivalent to and extension of the logic of capitalist accumulation is explored further in a fascinating chapter on autism. Broe argues that approximating the condition of autism, exemplified by the Sheldon Cooper character from The Big Bang Theory, ‘is more and more subliminally implied as an appropriate response to the intolerable conditions of the contemporary conjuncture’ (p.72). Relational patterns and even our neural pathways are being reconfigured as certain skills and capacities are downgraded (such as being able to empathise and relate to people) and others upgraded (such as obsessive-compulsive focus on work problems). Unfortunately this trend will only have been reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis.

Orphan Black contains all the “narrative tropes that combine to form the new seriality, including an acceleration of genre hybridity; multiple timeframes, consisting of flashbacks, -forward, and -sideways; and layering of the narrative that may include reflexivity in the service of a continuing metanarrative."

Shifting to narratological analysis, Broe points to the fundamental ambivalence of television seriality. It at once extends the logic of hyper-industrial capital yet provides resources through which cultural-expressive forms can reflect critically on their own conditions of emergence. Broe traces the development of seriality back to earlier literary forms, Monet’s serial paintings on subjects, and the emergence of serialization in comic strips, radio, film and early television.

Broe cites Gramsci to cast seriality as a war of position between creative talent and the networks, but more substantively he explores different philosophical understandings of seriality to suggest philosophical-political options. Seriality can mean something like Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’ in which patterns of repetition with superficial differences amount to ‘seriality as capitalist mundanity’ (p.8). Alternatively, Sartre has a more ambivalent conceptualization of seriality as both commodified fragmentation and potential emergence of collective identity. This is used ‘to describe the constant battle between art and commerce in the commercial television arena’ (p.141). The formal complexities of serial television can be used to

‘critique the society as a whole in mapping the totality of social experience or, whether under the sway of the network or streaming service, to veer towards a simple repetitious eternal return.’ (p.174).

This struggle can be seen in the first season series that breaks the mould and does something critical, only to be tamed and made ideologically safe from the second season onwards, as in the cases of Arrow and Hell on Wheels.

The final part of the book is devoted to the key agents that can turn seriality as eternal return into seriality as a critique of capitalist logics. They are the ‘showrunners’, the key drivers behind the series concept, typically writers and/or directors. This marks a welcome return to questions of authorship and the relative power that accrues to certain talent that has become ‘hot’ i.e. that creates in capital a certain dependence on it, since creative talent has what capital does not. This is what I have called, adapting Marx, creative variable capital (labour power in its qualitative and not merely its quantitative dimension) that might produce use values critical of the system while producing (exchange) value for it at the same time.

Broe’s own formulation of this is in terms of Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘the author in discourse’—which tries to find a point of mediation between the old bourgeois isolated artist transcending their context on the one hand and the other extreme of the death of the author in favour of merely discursive codes on the other. Broe’s version of the ‘author in discourse’ sees the author as

‘a mediator of overlapping discourses where the individual facts of his or her life involve these imbrications in political, aesthetic, philosophical and historical representations that are expressed in their work.’ (p.213).

Broe explores the author in discourse in relation to the work of Joss Wheedon and J.J Abrams. Broe concludes appropriately with a dialectical model in which serial television is conceived as both ‘palliative’ and critique, ‘with a Nietzschean serial current moving toward perpetual (and addictive) repetition and a Hegelian current moving toward a more progressive definition of a totality for the purpose of understanding’ (p.246). Unlike many a Netflix series, The Birth of the Binge is certainly worth the investment in consumption time.