The Sense of an Ending in Serial Media

While World of Warcraft is an exemplary piece of media in terms of demonstrating the consistent peripeteia of late capitalism, I don’t believe that it’s the first or only piece of media to do so. Several forms of serial media, specifically television shows and comic book series, have been around for decades and have been producing narratives that indicate a constant state of peripeteia since the 1930s. General Hospital, which began airing in 1963 and continues today, is one of dozens of soap opera series that depict the constant, extreme personal crises of its characters. There is no sense of an ending for General Hospital–seasons end with major crises, generally, but plots bleed into each other and there never seems to be a moment of rest, let alone an ending. Comic books are another medium that invokes peripeteia on a consistent basis. Even the apocalyptic narratives referenced in Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending frequently show up in these stories, only to have deus ex machina endings that allow the story to continue. There is no sense of an ending in the DC and Marvel universes–characters frequently die and are resurrected, and wars and genocides only change the circumstances so that the narrative can continue.  In  my opinion, these examples call into question when society began thinking of the world as a constant peripeteia, and how much of that concept actually has to do with distributed networks.

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5 Responses to The Sense of an Ending in Serial Media

  1. danwillisdan says:

    There’s a wonderful term I learned recently, and any comic book fan will probably already be familiar with it. “Retcon” is short for retroactive continuity, and it refers to the convoluted manipulations of plot that are necessary to maintain continuity within a universe, so that two apparently contradictory events can coexist. For example, in a soap opera a character may return and reveal that they faked their own death. This allows the showrunners to re-introduce a beloved character even though they technically ‘died’ in a previous episode. To me, retcon is just one of many mechanisms by which a company can do violence to a piece of art in order to serve capitalistic concerns. The dialing down of ‘apocalypse’ between the announcement and roll-out of WoW: Cataclysm isn’t necessarily traditional retcon, but it allows Azeroth to maintain its ability to facilitate millions of players at once. Profitability supplants narrative integrity as always!

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    • epiratequeen says:

      Capitalistic concerns are definitely driving all of the pieces of media I mentioned. I agree with the idea that retconning does violence to a piece of art, changing back what’s already been changed. However, I’m not sure that applies to the Cataclysm expansion and techniques in other media that make permanent changes to the fictional universe. These changes may serve capitalistic concerns, but they also enhance the narrative.

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  2. This post brings up some interesting points, as does the first response. I would urge you, however, to return to Kermode’s first chapter in The Sense of an Ending, as I think he actually addresses many of the concerns you bring up clearly and definitively. Recall that it is the persistence of a sense of historical ending, the persistence of apocalypse even in the face of its disconfirmation or failure to arrive, that Kermode emphasizes. I would say something similar is occurring with regard to seriality. Yes, serial narratives don’t end, but just as the apocalypse doesn’t happen, this doesn’t prevent serial narrative from producing meaning through a sense of an ending. This is also to say that retcons work a lot like revisions to prophecy: all sorts of convoluted narrative machinations are necessary to maintain coherent narrative structures in the face of prophetic disconfirmation in precisely the same way that narrative machinations are necessary to maintain narrative coherence for stories that can span, in the case of some comics, over seventy-five years. In other words, as Kermode demonstrates, it is the sense of an ending that matters more than having an actual end. What do you think?

    (Also, recall how Kermode claims that modernity’s sense of perpetual crisis in fact originates nearly two-thousand years ago in the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine.)

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    • epiratequeen says:

      I understand some of your points. During your talk, I had some difficulty seeing the difference between the points you made about the trailers for the Cataclysm expansion and the understanding within comic book fan communities that when a character dies, they will inevitably come back. In both cases, the end or apocalypse is hinted at but fails to happen. After looking through Kermode’s piece and thinking through it again, I think the difference is that the sense of an ending in comics is created through the narrative, even though it never actually follows through. In WoW, the sense of an ending is present in the trailer but never actually occurs within the universe’s narrative. It’s difficult to see the difference initially because the outcome is essentially the same.

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      • The big difference for me regards medium-specificity. Comics are narrative media; there’s no denying that. Though they often don’t necessarily have an actual ending, as Kermode demonstrates and I tried to point out above, this is and has never been a problem in that they still provide a sense of an ending. WoW, on the other hand, though it ostensibly “has” a narrative, and yes, it does function as you say, the narrative is actually just a wrapper or a shell containing, covering over, or obscuring the underlying protocological structures of the game, where the real meaning lies. As I was suggesting, the Cataclysm trailer gives the illusion of a narrative, and there very well might be one, but that isn’t where the heart of the game is. The meaning the game makes does not depend upon the narrative wrapper but on procedure. You can’t say this for serial narrative in the same way. The real difference is at the heart of the medium itself (remember McLuahn), and it involves the fact that comics are still read, whereas WoW is enacted.

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