Talking TV series and psychoanalysis with Ryan Engley, Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College and one-half of the ‘Why Theory’ podcast.
To listen to the Why Theory podcast is to sit in a room with a warm professor-student-turned-friendship duo. With a palpable tone of fondness and special ability to translate complex concepts into understandable hour-long thought-snacks, Ryan Engely and his former professor Todd McGowen ‘bring together continental philosophy and psychoanalytic theory together to examine cultural phenomena.’ If you haven’t listened to Why Theory already, give it a go. It’s a blast.
As an avid listener, and in the way that stars align, Ryan has been frequently citing his work with seriality – a topic that became front of mind during the pandemic. Not only through the increase of streamed TV consumption, but the whole pandemic playing itself out like a soap opera you can’t turn away from. Not unlike US politics, and the country’s current protests and unrest, cancel culture spectacles, the varying global reactionary measures to the Covid-19 virus’ spread, or the ever-transforming media forms (journalism included)…to give a short list. The psychoanalytic words of ‘To Be Continued…’ are hovering all around us.
With the nature of the series in the air, I reached out to Ryan to find out more about his insights and Serial Theory (which I definitely thought was a thing before our conversation.) Here is Part One of the interview with Ryan, which first appeared in my research with INC.
For those unfamiliar with Serial Theory, what are the major texts and what are the major ideas? Is there a definition to offer?
This is a great question that gets at the heart of what is fascinating to me about seriality. I’m not certain a theory of seriality exists (more on this in a moment because this is what I am trying to articulate in my own work).
Broadly speaking, I think the first line of Shane Denson’s entry for Seriality in the Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory is an excellent starting point:
“Seriality is a formal property and/or organizational principle that is commonly associated with ongoing narratives, recurring patterns, and periodic publication schedules.” (684)
To unpack this a little, the study of seriality typically breaks down into three main approaches:
- The Study of Narrative, specifically inquiry into Form, Genre, and Analyses of Discrete Television Series or, say, Victorian Novels.
Jason Mittell’s Complex TV is a major text and touchstone here. Linda Williams’s work on serial melodrama too (see: On The Wire). Caroline Levine’s book Forms is worth a mention, though it has become controversial, in a sense, because critics have said it endorses political quietism through its main claim that phenomena is just a play/ interaction of forms (there is a semi-recent issue of PMLA that goes into some depth on all the various scholarly disagreements with her work, including her own defense of the initial project). Lauren Goodlad’s essay in Mad Men, Mad World does an excellent job of using the study of Victorian seriality to comment on a particular series’ deployment of serial realism.
- The Study of Audiences, specifically inquiry into Reception Theory and the Practices and Engagement within Fandom (e.g. fanfic).
Frank Kelleter’s work is important here, particularly his introductory essay to the edited collection Media of Serial Narrative, “Seven Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality.” Kelleter’s claim is that seriality is not a narrative formalism but a group practice. Matt Hills has also written really interesting things about Cult TV fandoms for a while. A foundational text in this approach to the study of seriality is Jennifer Hayward’s Consuming Pleasures.
- The Study of Social or Group Formation.
The major text here is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Iris Young’s “Gender as Seriality” is an extension of Sartre’s notion of seriality as a theory of social formation. It’s also arguable that Karl Marx is thinking about seriality in his critique of capitalism (Shane Denson mentions this in his definition of seriality) but—more interesting and less commented on—is that in the Foreword to the French edition of Capital he expressed concerns about its serial publication. As opposed to the full volume releases Capital had in its initial German release and later English translations, Marx had been convinced to publish Capital serially in France. “In this form,” he writes, “the book will be more accessible to the working class, which to me outweighs everything else.” However, he thought the inability of French readers to move on at once to the next section could lead to misreadings or misunderstandings. Marx writes:
[due to serialization] it is to be feared that the French public, always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.
Marx’s concern here is strictly at the level of form. In other words, introducing the serial form to a previously “closed” work creates a confrontation with the gap. This is not just a temporal publication gap. Serial publishing opens up space that admits for so many more questions than answers (this is clearly Marx’s concern in the above passage).
The line about the French public having their ‘passions aroused’ is interesting too. It’s impossible to tell if this is what Marx had in mind, but serial publication had already been arousing the passions of French readers for a few decades. Balzac’s The Old Maid kicked off serial publication of literature in France in 1836—coincidentally (but also teasingly non-coincidentally) the same year that Dickens publishes the first serially written novel in English, The Pickwick Papers—and Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris famously, though possibly apocryphally, inspired eager readers to wait at the docks for shipments of the new installment to come in by boat. I say “possibly apocryphally” because this image of a mob of people waiting for the next installment of a 19th century serial has also been used to describe readers of Dickens in England and readers of Harriet Beacher Stowe in the United States.
But we miss the point if we are looking for historical accuracy. Even if it is not literally true that these things happened, this image of a mob of people—with aroused passions—waiting for the next installment of their favorite serial is a common way of understanding what serial publications “do” to audiences. We see the same thing today with (pre-COVID, of course) lines of people waiting for the next Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe film, the online petitions of enraged fans disappointed in the ending to Game of Thrones, and so forth. This is how a temporal gap becomes better understood, in my reading, a psychic gap—or a gap defined far more by psychic and emotional investment in a serial thing than the length of time that separates one installment from another (Ed note. More on the gap later). I think Marx is absolutely on the cusp of understanding this though, interestingly, there is no real consideration of the psyche in his work writ large (it’s not his fault he was born before Freud)
Now, the thing you’ll notice here is that while there is overlap between these three approaches there is not a singular theory that coheres them. That is where I see my work intervening.
Your book ‘To Be Continued’ (working title) is one of, if not the, first works to connect seriality with psychoanalysis. When did you first make this connection and what was your big revelation?
I should first mention that there is a book by the great feminist psychoanalytic theorist Juliet Mitchell called Siblings: Sex and Violence that discusses the ‘repetition’ unique to twins as representing the formation of an uncanny series.
My work is perhaps the first to look at psychoanalysis and seriality at the level of form and subjectivity, but part of my argument is that this is actually a central part of both Freud’s and Lacan’s work. My ‘revelation’ here was a slow-process but it began with television. I have always been fascinated by television—relevant personal history note: my family used to make a viewing schedule starting in the fall of each ‘TV season,’ which we kept displayed prominently on the fridge—and a big step in my project was to see that television and psychoanalysis are exactly the same thing.
I’m being a little glib, but when I was working on my MA Thesis it occurred to me that Freud’s notion of the death drive mapped pretty well onto the idea of TV re-runs. Briefly, Freud’s idea of the drive is a ceaseless repetition of the same that, nonetheless, generates the conditions for us to ‘die differently,’ as Alenka Zupancic has recently put it. One might look at TV re-runs and say, ‘But it’s exactly the same.’ Not so! Often content is cut out of re-runs from the original broadcast to allow for more commercial breaks. Sometimes episodes are aired in syndication out of their original sequence (this used to drive me crazy as a kid).
Today, we are seeing American television episodes pulled from streaming rosters for a variety of reasons. The Simpsons pulled an episode from syndication, DVD printings, and Disney+ that had Michael Jackson as a guest voice and, of course, many series are pulling episodes that display characters in blackface. So, the TV re-run, something that literally promises to be a re-doing of something previously aired, can be seen to have difference woven into it.
My MA thesis documented all these little connections between big psychoanalytic concepts and either television narrative or viewer engagement. It wasn’t until beginning my dissertation work that I had a lightbulb moment that seriality was the thing that tied all these together. I was reading Studies on Hysteria, the first major psychoanalytic work, when I came across this passage where Freud was bemoaning a problem with the analytic method. He always found that the session would end too soon. It always seemed like the analysand was about to say something important or get into a new topic when—Oh, look at the clock? The time is up. He likened this experience to reading one’s favorite serial story in the newspaper. Right when the heroine is about to make the decisive speech or a shot has rung out, he writes, you come upon the words ‘To Be Continued.’ I was floored. It’s one thing to apply a concept to a text but what I discovered was that one could excavate from Freud’s and Lacan’s work a theory of seriality that cuts through concerns with narrative, reception, and group formation (the three major realms that seriality studies occupies today).
In my reading, Freud figured out in 1895—the very beginning of analysis as a psychiatric method and psychological science—that psychoanalysis has a serial problem. This would mature in his writings and in Lacan’s to be about the ‘end of session,’ or, in other words, ‘How does analysis come to an end?’ (The major Freud text here is probably Psychoanalysis: Terminable and Interminable.) If you think about the popular uproar at the end of previously loved television series—The Sopranos, Lost, How I Met Your Mother, Game of Thrones, to name a few examples—you see another area where television and psychoanalysis are aligned. The important thing to realize is that this is not just a homology between a theory (psychoanalysis) and a text (television series). Instead, what psychoanalysis and television explore is the confrontation with the serial form.
In serial media, a common misconception is that the big finale, the grand genius piece of the narrative, is predetermined from the beginning. However, this is generally not the truth. Instead, the storyteller is writing the text as it is being consumed. I see a parallel here between serial texts and the development of social media platforms – which have not arrived at their current malevolent state by a grand master plan from the outset. Quite the opposite, they have morphed through ad hoc moves and a kind of trial and error…’Let’s try this thing and see if/it works.’ How do you feel about this evolution and what does it (or its similarity to serial media) say about current societal contexts?
Twitter is a serial media form par excellence. It masquerades, at times, as a radically episodic form, however. How often does a single tweet go viral? That’s an unfortunate appeal to anecdote, but I’m certain you see it happen all the time. It gives Twitter the appearance of being singular—like a joke with a setup and punchline—rather than what it really is: a series of 1s. The point of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and the like is to drag your finger to find newer/ more content. In other words, you see one thing and then another one thing, and then another one thing and then (etc.). This is sometimes called “infinite scroll.” What I like about Reddit is that when I get to the bottom of the front page, I am done with it. They remove this from the Reddit app, which allows for ‘infinite scroll,’ but the point is that social media—which insists on its own internal seriality and the way it generates ‘infinite content’ (YouTube will never run out of a ‘next video’ to show you)—feels like it goes on forever.
Now, all of this might make for benign talk about ‘serial platforms’ but, with Donald Trump, you have a U.S. Presidency run like a serially evolving Twitter meltdown. So it seems as though the oppressiveness of ‘infinite scroll’ is running the most powerful country on earth into the ground. But even that metaphor doesn’t help us because the ground is like the bottom of the front page of Reddit. Instead it’s a live exploration of Haruki Murakami’s great line that ‘hell has no bottom.’
I don’t want to end on a dispiriting note here because, really, it is the failure to see the serial structure at work that makes the alt-right use of social media feel so oppressive. The solution might be the one that Lacan develop for analysis. He was thrown out of the International Psychoanalytic Association for developing what he called the ‘short’ or ‘variable length’ session.
What this meant, at a practical level, is that Lacan had in mind Freud’s problem with the session ending just because of the time. This isn’t meaningful at all. So, what Lacan tried to do is ‘punctuate’ his analytic session. The second his analysand said something that exceeded them (i.e. said/ admitted/ implied more than they ‘meant’), he would end the session. This is how Lacan tried to achieve meaning ‘against’ the serial situation of analysis; he tried to find the right place to put the period at the end of a session’s sentence, so to speak. Maybe this is what we need to do Trump and the alt-right. So the task isn’t just to ‘resist’ but to ‘punctuate.’
What other particular insights are offered on seriality beyond Freud and Lacan?
It’s possible that the first theory of American television is offered by Edgar Allan Poe in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’ The essay is (some have argued facetious) about how he writes poetry, but for our purposes it’s important to note that he focuses on two important terms: brevity and totality.
What he proposes is that successful fiction should resolve all narrative intrigue and do so for a reader ‘in one sitting.’ In the first line of this essay he explicitly calls out Charles Dickens and the idea of the cliffhanger that Freud wrote about in the negative in Studies on Hysteria (though it’s not clear that Freud thought cliffhangers were bad period. He certainly thought they were an unfortunate feature of analysis). Interestingly enough, Lacan’s theory of how a series forms—through the gaps in its construction—is articulated through extended reference Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter.’ Also, in case this isn’t common knowledge, Freud loved Charles Dickens. The first gift he ever gave Martha, the woman he would later marry, was a copy of David Copperfield (which he thought was Dickens’ best novel).
Today with streamed TV, entire series of shows are offered up in a single drop rather than drip fed over time to an audience. In a way it’s a decided continuation of the serial format rather than making it redundant. What are the differences and similarities between contemporary streamed series and traditional TV dailies/weeklies? Why have these platforms opted to stay with the series well messing with the old temporality of distribution?
Today the most successful streaming series are long movies and the most successful films are tv episodes. Producers and showrunners have, in recent years, said things like ‘Game of Thrones is an 82 hour movie,’ ‘Transparent season 2 is a ten-hour movie,’ and the trope is so well-known that popular critics like Alan Sepinwall and Alison Herman have written lightly polemical arguments against this idea (the main point being that this heralds the ‘death of the episode’). So where is ‘the episode’ today? It’s in Marvel movies. Every Marvel Cinematic Universe film tells a discrete singular story that nudges ahead a larger narrative a little bit.
Then, after ten, fifteen, twenty of these ‘episodes,’ comes a two-part ‘finale’ that concludes the whole larger arc. We used to just call this ‘a television season,’ particularly American television. I think this really takes us back to Poe. Streaming has completely leaned into the cliffhanger model and film series have leaned into the episodic totality model. Binge seriality is interesting to me for this reason because what it tries to do is erase temporal gaps between episodes but, instead, installs larger temporal gaps between seasons.
I’m wondering how ‘binge watching’ relates to serial media? (Is it a mark is a ‘good’ series? An irresistibility implanted in human nature? Death drive? Embedded element designed by the creators?)
The serial form inspires bingeing whatever that form is. Freud wrote a letter to his wife about reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. He was so captivated that he “discounted a few hours sleep” so he could race to the end. Now, by the time Freud read Daniel Deronda it had been collected in a bound volume. He wasn’t reading it monthly or in installments. And yet, the cliffhanger type feeling originally designed to entice someone to read the next installment a week or a month later is precisely the same thing that propels one to finish the same serial as quickly as possible. In my current manuscript, I talk about Freud as a ‘binge reader’ and possibly the first theorist of binge media.
Your work theorises ‘the gap constitutive of seriality,’ as previously mentioned. Could you explain ‘the gap’ and its importance and function in both seriality and psychoanalysis? How does ‘the gap’ manifest in our psychic lives?
This is a point where the narrative theorists (Sean O’Sullivan and Jason Mittell, especially) and I agree: the serial gap is the constitutive element of seriality. Where we diverge on this point is important: in narrative scholarship, this gap is figured strictly in its temporality. The serial gap is literal, it is a weekslong or monthslong gap, that enables fan engagement with a series in a variety of ways (consuming ‘paratexts,’ engaging in online discourse about an episode or season, writing fanfic, or organizing petitions to get a network to totally do a show over again, for example).
My point is that there is a homology between the gap in the psyche noted by psychoanalysis (e.g. a slip of the tongue, a mishearing, or the fundamental misrecognition that takes throughout our whole lives as a result of our mirror image) and this temporal gap. So, the temporal gap engages our psychic gap. This is how we live with a series. This is how something like the phenomenon of a ‘headcanon’ takes places.
Briefly, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, ‘headcanon’ is the phrase fans use to fill in gaps on a series. Most of the time this actually amounts to close reading, where fans see an ambiguity in how Character X got to Location Y and reason that they were likely doing Something Consistent with Their Character. Where things go awry is when a series fills in those gaps and the ‘official answer’ is rejected in favor of someone’s ‘headcanon’ answer. I don’t think this is an idiosyncratic experience of ‘some viewers,’ I think this is a synecdochic example of how we all engage with serial media.
Radically episodic media, like how Poe theorized the short story, aims at totality. Seriality, in narrative, aims at creating openness in its structure for future storytelling (this is why the series finale is rarely, if ever, written before a show is aired, as you rightly pointed out). My gambit is, as I wrote above, that if we see the gap constitutive of the serial as being homologous to the gap constitutive of the subject, then we can bring together the disparate pieces of seriality studies as a field. The serial gap understood as gap-in-the-psyche is an element that cuts through the narrative, audience, and social dimension of seriality studies as such.
This is Part One of a two-part interview with Ryan. Stay tuned for Part Two where we go deeper into Netflix and algorithmic relations to seriality. In other words, ‘to be continued…’
 This is where the title of my proposed book comes from, though the title may change. There are a couple of essays and longer works already with that title. But we’ll see! Maybe having an “original” book title goes against the spirit of the re-run.