The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television
Author: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006
Review Published: October 2007
According to Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her book The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, some folks in our visual, networked, post-postmodern culture are feeling rather anxious about the death of print, especially the death of "the novel." Well, this complaint, as Fitzpatrick points out, is hardly anything new, but her book posits that the current wave of anxiety over the fall of the novel arises from new cultural currents and discourses, namely those of a burgeoning electronic media -- television, in particular. She illustrates this tension between print and media by foregrounding, in the introduction to the book, an incident on the Oprah Winfrey Show in which novelist Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections), decided he did not want his book to become stamped an "Oprah Book Club" selection, and in which she accordingly cancelled his appearance on her show, actions that apparently caused quite a stir in both literary and media circles, pitting as it did "high culture" vs. "mass culture."
Later in this introduction, the author claims that her book will focus on "the cultural purposes served by the repeated proclamations of the novel's untimely demise" (2). The book, she says, will "explore the critical and novelistic representations of television and other electronic media with an eye to unpacking the complex ways in which those representations function" (8). This is an engaging possibility for a thesis, even though I have to admit I wince when I see the word "unpack" (which she uses twice in the book -- it reminds me of an extremely eager young professor I had in a graduate course on the postmodern novel). Fitzpatrick, I think, was and is a big fan of postmodern theory, though she claims to be more of a retro-Structuralist-slash New Historian (she strives to model "a new critical practice that pays careful attention both to cultural milieu and to textual particulars, moving between closer readings . . . and the broader historical, cultural, and technological context for that fiction" (7)). The reason I say she is a practitioner of postmodern theory is because she takes great pains -- great pains, pages of pains -- to define each of her terms, qualify all of her theoretical practices, and justify every nuance of her critical approach. Now, some readers will no doubt eat this up -- I personally am too old, or just too anti-intellectual, I guess, to wade through the jargon that identifies one as a competent academic "theoretician."
Fitzpatrick goes on to neatly outline the chapters of her book, a scholarly practice of the sort I mention above, and that I now find tedious in general, but which she handles rather well. Chapter one will "locate the anxiety of obsolescence," which, she claims, may be observed in "recurrent declaration of the death of the novel, the parallel assertion of the threat of new media technologies, and the postmodern condition" (8). Chapter two will explore discourse about "the machine," chapter three, "the spectacle," and chapter four, "the network." The final chapter will provide the reader with the social implications of this anxiety.
Here, I began to get slightly confused, because there seemed to be more than just one "focus" emerging in this book. Nevertheless, I found Fitzpatrick's additional theses also intriguing, for initially I thought that she meant that she would be examining the current streams of novel-writing culture, and perhaps cultural discourse at large, for the different complaints that are being lodged there -- complaints mainly targeting visual media. I thought the book would also explore in some depth why these complaints were being made. Fitzpatrick hints that the moans ("whining" she later calls it) about the death of the novel are largely being made by white males, and as such reflect a sort of Bloomian Anxiety of Influence -- in which the true fear is not a fear of television, but a fear of what television represents, an absorption of a heretofore elite literary culture by the "masses" -- read women and marginalized minorities. Ah! I thought, now here is a real thesis I can sink my teeth into! A compelling idea, one that is encapsulated perfectly in that Oprah incident, and which simply reeks of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 19th century whine about that "damn'd mob of scribbling women" (a quote invoked in chapter one).
And so I proceeded happily into chapter one, which proved a very good summary of Hawthornian moments in the past, incidents throughout the history of printed text in which writers have felt threatened that the role of the novel was coming to its end, or was at least in an undignified decline. As Fitzpatrick says, "Each new technological form threatens those that have gone before. Images threaten print; photography threatens painting; film threatens the novel; television threatens film; the Internet threatens television" (36). She also provides a compact compendium of the world of postmodern theory; a handy review if one is not familiar with the field, or if one (like me) has sort of abandoned that kind of reasoning post-graduate school. On page 41 of the book, thirty pages into her first chapter, she begins a series of self-referential comments that continue throughout the rest of the text and which I found for some reason (again, perhaps since I left the intellectual hotbed of graduate school, my mind has turned to jelly) completely annoying -- to the effect of, "In what follows, I similarly explore that history ..." My note to myself in the margin was "just DO IT! SAY it!"
Finally on page 47, the author gets to the heart of what she really wants to do, and that is, as she told us earlier, some close reading of some novelists who are expressing most eloquently the type of anxiety discourse she says is swirling around us right now. She says she will examine the works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo (using them as representatives of a "larger cluster of postmodern U.S. writers") and look at how they talk about the relationship between the novel and television. Then she goes on to clarify just who can be considered a postmodern writer, etc etc, again dancing the scholarly dance to make sure she fully "defines her terms" and protects herself from critical nit-pickers. Again, she brings up that tantalizing idea that what is really going on with these white guys (and they are mostly white guys) is not truly an anxiety about t.v. taking over the American mind, but rather a version of "beset manhood" (50), a term coined by Nina Baym in her discussion of a perceived emerging dominance of women and minority writers in the mainstream of contemporary fiction, a proliferation that, in the minds of some, sounds the death-knell of truly "good writing." The chapter concludes with an analysis of the character of Bill Gray in DeLillo's Mao II and a bit of an examination of Pynchon's Winthrop Tremaine from The Crying of Lot 49 -- both characters, she says, are doomed, marginalized, and ignored.
The primary thrust of chapter two, entitled "Machine," is the anxiety created by the encroachment of technology and the notion that, while a text-reading public is a concerned, interactive social body, a wired public is an impotent one, concerned more with the machines themselves than with the information they provide. However, Fitzpatrick poses a more interesting idea here, as well; while the development of technology is often viewed as a "masculine" enterprise, it is also a "social force" that "threatens the subject with feminization." Television, she says, is viewed as draining away the masculine leaving a "vacuum" of the feminine (61). Thus we have the image of pasty-faced, flaccid adolescent males avoiding the physicality of sports in favor of "passive" video games. She briefly reviews the history of stories of technology gone out of control (from Frankenstein to The Matrix), and then announces that this chapter will focus on the machine "as it is mobilized" within the novel of obsolescence, namely Pynchon's V. Unfortunately, the chapter reads a bit like V. The basic thesis, which is that "the machine-human conflict serves as a kind of foil for anxieties about the dangers of the feminine" is not only never made clear, but is drowned in excess verbiage (97).
Chapter three, "Spectacle," manages to take one of my all-time favorite scenes from literature, DeLillo's "most photographed barn in America" in White Noise, and reduce it to more white noise. Fitzpatrick actually does a brilliant close reading, which explicates the scenes "chain of spectation," and makes much of the camera and its reproductive, objectifying power, but I was hard pressed to find the connection between this and any of the theses she introduces in her text. Eventually she makes a connection between Jack Gladney's Hitler studies and what she says are racialized concerns in the book -- concerns that illustrate "the obsolescence of the white male in the face of this ethnic onslaught and the obsolescence of the writer in the age of the image" (139).
In the end, Fitzpatrick does circle back to her initial concerns and reiterates the image she sets up at the outset of the book (the Oprah/Franzen opposition). Here she finally gets to the issue that I found initially most interesting and provocative -- that culture now associates mass culture with women "while real, authentic culture remains the prerogative of men" (Huyssen in Fitzpatrick, 205). She also turns her focus from what she terms "first wave postmodernists" to a "second wave," which includes, most notably, David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison. She wonders if these younger writers, born after the advent of television, share the same anxieties about the death of the novel. She begins with "New White Guys," who, like the older cadre of postmodernists, feel marginalized by a culture that is more politically correct in trying to pay attention to voices on the margins (209).
If this review reads like a simplistic book report, with more summary than analysis, it is because I simply did not find much of substance to think about in the book, and probably because I found myself continually resistant to the manner in which the ideas were presented. In the end, I felt I had gained no new insights into any of the novels mentioned in the book that I was familiar with, and didn't find my interest piqued enough to want to go to the novels I hadn't yet read to see if they did indeed bring up the issues Fitzgerald claims they do. As mentioned earlier, I found the jargon frustrating, and equally frustrating was how the author continually brought up interesting points that I wanted illustrated and "proven," but that she never conclusively (at least for me) demonstrated. At least, if she did demonstrate them, I couldn't find them written in an organized fashion. This book will appeal, I think, to the folks who read Deleuze and Guattari in their spare time. I am, sad to say, not one of their ilk.
Pam Kincheloe is an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. She teaches writing, composition, and literature to deaf and hard of hearing students. <email@example.com>
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