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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

 REVIEW 1: M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo
 REVIEW 2: Pamela Kincheloe
 REVIEW 3: Laurie N. Taylor
 REVIEW 4: Lisa Weckerle
 REVIEW 5: Sarah Whitehead
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kathleen Fitzpatrick

"Television thus serves both as a representation of what has gone wrong with U.S. culture and as a more comfortable site for the displacement of anxieties about human difference" -- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, 230.
With many publications removing book review sections and the Modern Language Association calling for changes in evaluation for academic scholarship [1], a book on anxiety, obsolescence, and postmodernism is particularly relevant to the historical and cultural moment. Unlike many arguments on new media that situate old and new as opponents, Kathleen Fitzpatrick's The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television examines the underlying anxieties of as well as the hyperbolic arguments against new media, showing who and what those arguments serve. Asking not how or if print culture is being destroyed by new media, but instead exploring how and who those proclamations of death serve, The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an excellent critique of a variety of topics, including postmodernism, media studies, and the concept of print culture. The Anxiety of Obsolescence leverages this critique to conduct a rigorous examination of serious literature and new media that is relevant to all fields of humanities scholarship as well as to the current cultural moment.

The Anxiety of Obsolescence is divided into six chapters, including the introduction. While the chapters are titled more closely to new media -- "Machine," "The Spectacle," "Network" -- the book focuses heavily on novels and print culture to show how novels and print culture are alive and well. Working from this life -- or living-death as the anxiety would have it -- Fitzpatrick interrogates print and new media, examining the disconnected reality of print and print culture with the story of the death of print.

The introduction situates The Anxiety of Obsolescence in relation to the anxiety over the book's loss of influence over culture and to Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. This framing is useful because it shows how new media connect to a larger media tradition as well as how the argument against the new is often actually an argument of definition so that the elite may retain their positions of power. Where Bloom claimed that poets must learn to throw off the writings of earlier poets in order to establish their own writing, Fitzpatrick shows that the current rhetoric on print media argues that writers now must defend their writing against that of inferior writing forms -- television, film, online, and any non-extended narrative. Fitzpatrick rightly notes that these arguments are employed by those already in power who wish to shore up their positions against newcomers and change. In order to support her analysis, Fitzpatrick studies the textual specifics and cultural contexts for several novels.

The first numbered chapter, "Three Discourses in the Age of Television," covers media history and the current discourses in use about the death of the novel. Each of the discourses -- "the death of the novel, the threat of new technologies, and the rise of postmodernism" (47) -- uses obsolescence to create a safe space for the supposedly threatened form they protect. This chapter establishes the interconnections by which each of the discourses connects to technological concerns as those connections exist to mask the greater underlying concerns about challenges to high or serious literature by the masses. In order to do so, Fitzpatrick offers an excellent critique of postmodernism, explaining its usefulness in some areas and its use to obscure other concerns -- like issues of otherness. Fitzpatrick also counters possible arguments that could be offered. For instance, Fitzpatrick mentions that Paul Mann's "'death-theory' is used within the avant-garde to 'terrorize' writers into finding the new within the conditions of its own impossibility" and that it could be looked to as a counterargument. However, Fitzpatrick explains that this avant-garde approach does not apply to the anxiety of obsolescence because the anxiety of obsolescence makes those writers in power more powerful (57).

The next three chapters, "Machine," "Spectacle," and "Network," each deal with an aspect of technology used to create the anxiety of obsolescence in relation to novels of obsolescence by postmodern authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Part of Fitzpatrick's critique lies in the definition of these postmodern authors -- who are labeled postmodern by a variety of sources based on stylistic and thematic concerns even though other women authors showing the same concerns, like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Kathy Acker among others, are not as readily included. "Machine," "Spectacle," and "Network" offer close readings of DeLillo and Pynchon's novels in context with culture, media, and technology to show how the novels create and enact anxieties of obsolescence. These chapters are important supports for the larger argument, and show how seemingly traditional close readings can benefit from explorations of cultural readings. More importantly, they provide the structure necessary for the final chapter.

"Obsolescence, the Marginal, and the Popular" drives the core argument home, showing that the anxiety of obsolescence is rooted in a fear of change or "contamination" by the masses or marginalized writers -- "women, African Americans, Asian Americans, gays and lesbians, among others" (217). Further, this chapter shows how the anxiety of obsolescence is empowered by the use of irony, especially as irony "loses its critical edge and instead becomes reactionary, a means of avoiding change through avoiding the serious and painful exploration of sensitive human issues" (210). The final chapter brings together the many threads flowing through the book, and further explains the reasoning behind the book. The prior chapters offer close readings of authors most often labeled "postmodern" (white male authors). The final chapter extends the analysis to explain why other authors operating within print culture like Toni Morrison should be included within the label postmodern as well as explaining why these authors -- operating in the same genre -- do not exhibit the same anxiety of obsolescence. Unlike the "postmodern" authors, other postmodern authors (in terms of stylistic and thematic concerns) neither exhibit nor use the death-of-print anxiety because their works are concerned with social realities and with the essential relationship to text -- not as undermined by new media -- as a closed space of textual power to which marginalized groups must fight to acquire access.

While Fitzpatrick's The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an excellent critique of current anxieties over the changing status of print and the falsity of many of these anxieties as created by those who serve to benefit from that fear, the most important part of the book is beyond the book. In demystifying the anxiety over the loss of print culture as a loss of people reading, The Anxiety of Obsolescence shows how print can be transformed through digital media, with much of the book online on a website by the author, available as a "Search Inside this Book" on Amazon.com, and with information on library holdings for the print version available on WorldCat and through Google's Book Search [2]. Each of these shows that avenues for fostering print culture are changing, just as print culture itself is changing. However, instead of being negatives that weaken the great print culture, this means that more people have access to more information, thereby strengthening the power of the printed word -- however it may be printed. The rise of digital distribution is also changing other aspects, as with online booksellers now offering print-on-demand services for out of print books, again strengthening the longevity of print.

The changes to print are further extended into and through other media. Audio, video, and text programming from classes, scholars, and authors proliferate on Youtube, iTunes, and other media sites. As print culture spreads into other media, so too does Fitzpatrick's analysis. In order to deal with the changing status of print, especially in relation to academia's needs, Fitzpatrick also helped found MediaCommons, “a network in which scholars, students, and other interested members of the public can help to shift the focus of scholarship back to the circulation of discourse” (MediaCommons, "About") [3]. The Anxiety of Obsolescence performs this goal because Fitzpatrick's book moves beyond the closed circuit of print scholarship and into the networked realm of public discourse, offering all potential readers multiple means to access and discuss the materials. This networked approach to print culture proves the existence and strength of print culture while also showing the evolution of print culture in relation to other media. This approach also verifies the relationship of print scholarship to media scholarship, as well as the relevance of traditional scholarship in a digital age. The Anxiety of Obsolescence is an important book for any new media, literary, or humanities scholar both for what it contains and what it performs as a proof-of-concept for scholarly communication about print, in print, and beyond print [4]. Those benefiting from the anxiety of obsolescence will likely continue to propagate it, and this anxiety will continue to add to other anxieties, including anxieties about the power of academic discourse. While these anxieties will continue to be fed by others, the content and action of The Anxiety of Obsolescence will help abate these anxieties by offering solutions. In all, The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an excellent and important critique of textual materials and of the production of scholarship and provides a model that academic scholarship should strive to emulate.

[1] See the "Campaign to Save Book Reviews" from the National Book Critics Circle and MLA's 2006 report from the "MLA Task Force on Evaluating for Tenure and Promotion."

[2] The author's website for the book contains available segments as does Amazon's web site for the book. The book is also listed on the online library catalog searches through WorldCat and through Google Book's catalog search.

[3] The MediaCommons "About" page explains the site's purpose, and the site itself is a work in process performing that purpose. Other supplementary material is available on Fitzpatrick's blog, and on Vanderbilt University Press's website, which links to the author's website so that readers can read large sections of the book even prior to purchase.

[4] Indeed, even this review on the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies further validates the manner in which digital distribution reifies the power of print by placing printed works into a larger space of discourse, made larger by digital access.

Laurie N. Taylor:
Laurie N. Taylor is the digital projects librarian in the University of Florida's Digital Library Center, researching digital media and creating digital projects which she blogs about on library.gameology.org. Her current research includes studies of horror video games and methods to digitally represent and contextualize archival materials.  <lautayl@uflib.ufl.edu>

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