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Managing Mass Culture: Serialization, Standardization and Modernity, 1880-1940


Leibniz University of Hannover, April 23 to 25, 2015

The conference will address mass media and mass culture with a focus on the period between 1880 and 1940. It will investigate the ways in which mass-medial phenomena engage with and are predicated upon modes and formats, concepts and ideologies of seriality, and it will investigate how these engagements manifest in film (in particular film serials and remakes), comics, pulp literature, and other popular products in the serial form. We are especially interested in the intersections between cultural and industrial structures of serialization, and in the role that discourses of social engineering, psycho-technics, policing, and surveillance play for the emergence and unfolding of a serialized mass culture of entertainment. 

The conference starts from the observation that modernity's mass culture is inextricably entwined in structures of capitalist production and distribution, and that this enmeshment is both expressed and reflected in the serial formats and narratives of comics, pulp literature, film serials, or film remakes. The complex structures of serial cross-reference that are at work in these popular forms challenge established vocabularies of intertextuality or intermediality, as they come to pass not only on the level of expression and representation (by way of motifs, icons, themes, patterns, or styles), but are much more fundamentally entrenched in the industrial, economic and technological apparatuses of a mediatized mass culture. Modernization brings about proliferation, distraction, and dispersal - contingency - and modernity's big social challenge consists in establishing structures of regulation and organization that do not stifle the flow of production and distribution while keeping chaos at bay. The objective is to habituate the individual to the contingent conditions of modernity rather than eliminate contingency altogether. Technical media play an immensely important role in this context, both in their function as means of recording reality and as tools to process reality's complexity without engaging in reduction and abstraction. The apparatuses of mass-cultural entertainment prepare people for the requirements of modernity in all of its complexity and they open gateways for individual and collective positionings within modernity. 

Modernity's serial narratives engage in cultural work that goes far beyond mere representation. Serial forms chart modernity in its complexity and contingency, fashioning spatial and temporal grids of orientation by means of their references to a 'before' and an 'after' or a 'meanwhile' and 'elsewhere'. Serial knowledge, which is always both complicated and vague, generates a sense of familiarity and orientation by means of signals, cross-references, allusions, and associations rather than taking recourse to clear-cut doctrine or systematic delineation. Thus serial practices can be understood as expressions and negotiations of a larger culture and social framework of standardization, surveillance, and management. 

The conference is hosted by members and associates of the research unit Popular Seriality: Aesthetics and Practice.

Organizers: Ilka BraschRuth Mayer, Christina Meyer