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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

In my first ever Ph.D. graduate class, "Performing Autobiography," I listened to a group of more experienced, more confident grad students who were excitedly sharing their favourite episodes of A&E's popular series Biography. Some liked the "rags to riches" angle, while others enjoyed the schadenfreude of a good girl gone deliciously bad, a la Heidi Fleiss. I was about to chime in when the only other first-year student turned her panic-filled eyes to me and whispered, "I don't think I should be in grad school ... I haven't seen enough television." I smiled. I had, after all, seen plenty of television -- clearly I was well-prepared for grad school.

I begin with this anecdote because it contrasts with one that Kathleen Fitzpatrick shares in her insightful book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The Novel in the Age of Television. She relates that in graduate school when she offhandedly revealed "I was raised by the TV set," the professor responded coolly that he could tell (8). Graduate school is a site of deep textual submersion; we are baptized with literature -- journal articles, textbooks, student papers, books, dissertations. These two anecdotes highlight the uneasy relationship between the textual forms of knowledge and the televisual forms (that some elitists would not even consider to be knowledge).

The tension between the textual and the televisual plays out in many forms, one of which is the claim that the novel is becoming obsolete in the age of competing media such as television, film, and the Internet. In The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Fitzpatrick analyzes the discursive function of the novel as an endangered art form. Rather than limiting herself to the essentially unanswerable question "Is the novel dead?" she asks an infinitely more interesting question: What is the effect of claiming that the novel is dead or obsolete -- what cultural purposes does it serve? Fitzpatrick argues that the claim that the novel is declining serves to validate and protect the privileged position of the novel and novelist within a rapidly changing cultural hierarchy. Furthermore, she posits that electronic media functions as a comfortable resting place for projecting anxieties about cultural diversity encroaching onto the purview of the traditionally white male novelist.

Through a close textual analysis of the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Fitzpatrick explores how the postmodern novel depicts, interrogates, and, to some extent, indicts technology. She explains her choice of Pynchon and DeLillo as driven by their literary influence, but also by their status as white male novelists: "The anxiety of obsolescence both requires social privilege to be mobilized as a discourse and conceals the repressed anxiety that the threatened disappearance of the privilege engenders" (20). Fitzpatrick posits that because women and minority writers have traditionally been excluded from canons of literature and centrality of culture, the nature of their anxiety cannot be the anxiety of being displaced. In fact, portraying all novelists as marginalized by electronic media is in some ways an attempt to cash in on the cache of being a female, minority, or other traditionally marginalized writer. It is as if the famous white men are shouting, "Hey look, I can be marginalized too! Aren't we're all marginalized?"

The novelist's position in regard to the dominant culture becomes even more important in later chapters as Fitzpatrick posits that the anxiety about technology expressed in Pynchon and DeLillo's novels is related to anxieties about being displaced as white males. For example, the claim that identity is not static, for example, allows the white male to shed the cultural baggage of privilege which may leave him excluded from new interests in literature from traditionally disenfranchised groups. Fitzpatrick deftly illustrates "the ways in which anxieties about theoretical discourse, and fears of social change even more, are repressed and replaced by a more palatable and seemingly progressive technological concern" (20).

Chapter one discusses three concepts that circulate within the anxiety of obsolescence: the death of the novel, the fear of electronic media, and the discourse of postmodernism. Fitzpatrick traces how the impending death of the novel has been invoked throughout the history of the novel itself. Drawing on Barth's "The Literature of Exhaustion," she surmises that by claiming the novel is dead, critics and novelists create "a protected space around the novel -- and, not incidentally, the novelist -- in which the form and its practitioners are kept safe from the encroachments of the changing contemporary world" (26). In reference to fears about electronic media, three principal themes are delineated: anxieties about machines, spectacle, and interconnectedness. These themes also provide the structure for chapters two through five.

Chapter two explores how fears about the human-machine relationship circulate within the writing of Pynchon and DeLillo. This chapter delineates four themes of technophobia: the disappearance of borders between human and machine, the displacement of desire onto machines, the alienation from humanity resulting from becoming mechanized, and the creation of the synthetic human object. Fitzpatrick adroitly uses Donna Haraway's conceptualization of the cyborg and the ensuing "border war" between organism and machines to examine the human-machine hybrids that appear in Pynchon and DeLillo's novels and to interrogate the linkage between humans and humanism (Haraway 150). She also shows how the cyborg and the trope of the machine relate to fears about the marginalized other: "The machine-human conflict serves as a kind of foil for anxieties about the dangers of the feminine" (97).

The third chapter focuses on the fears of spectacle as articulated in terms of commodification, ideology, and simulation. Fitzpatrick notes that "by repeatedly pointing to the dangers that the image ostensibly presents to a literate culture, the novelist of obsolescence is able to reclaim the primacy of the text" (102), thus one of the cultural purposes of anxiety is revealed. This chapter highlights how theorists and the novels themselves position images as evanescent, deceptive, and dangerous. Drawing on Mitchell's idea of "ekphrastic fear," Fitzpatrick illustrates how the three dangers of spectacle are expressed in the novels. First, spectacle objectifies and commodifies reality through the process of looking and the photographic apparatus. Second, the camera invokes violence both by its recording of violence and its inherent perpetuation of ideologies within its visual form. Finally, the cable nature of television creates a reality and masks its own status as representation of reality, thereby leading to an inability to tell the difference between reality and simulacrum.

In chapter four, Fitzpatrick shifts to fears about the network as a threat to individuality including concerns about communication, organization, and massification. She states: "The network generates not increased communication but impossibility: the impossibility of distinguishing information from noise; the impossibility of determining the source of any message; the impossibility of interpretation" (161). From a communication perspective, Fitzpatrick raises an intriguing question about how networks blur distinctions between noise and message, resulting in chaos that can be (mis)interpreted as order and order that can be (mis)interpreted as chaos.

Chapter five, "Obsolescence, The Marginal, and The Popular," is the most satisfying chapter as it both summarizes the major arguments of the book and expands into new territories. The chapter begins by examining the highly publicized conflict between author Jonathan Franzen and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and then proceeds to discuss the work of newer postmodernist writers like David Wallace and Rick Moody. However, the crowning jewel of this chapter is its exploration of the relationship between Toni Morrison's novels and television: "Where Morrison's writing evidences anxiety about television, then, that anxieties stem not from the changes it has wrought within U.S. culture but from its sustenance of that culture and the ways that television supports a racist, patriarchal status quo" (221). The Morrison section crystallizes the complex ideas that Fitzpatrick has sought to make throughout her project, and it does so with great command of theory and literary analysis.

What makes The Anxiety of Obsolescence compelling is Fitzpatrick's ability to apprehend theory and apply it to the postmodern texts of DeLillo and Pynchon. She deftly invokes Haraway, Bloom, Jameson, Barthes, Postman, and other theorists to support her arguments and observations throughout the book. Fitzpatrick is especially skilled in translating and extending theory. For example, she leverages Bloom's "The Anxiety of the Influence" to support her claims about white male hegemony and anxiety, but then recontextualizes Bloom in light of the postmodern condition. As Fitzpatrick notes, "these precursors are no longer perceived to be anywhere near as threatening as what's coming next" (6).

While I certainly understand the need for limiting the scope of the project, I found the title of the book -- The Anxiety of Obsolesence: The American Novel in the Age of Television -- to be a bit misleading. First, the book focuses almost exclusively on a particular category of American novels -- the postmodern novel. Second, I expected a broader interrogation of how the novel functions in society and culture in relation to the presence of television. For example, what purposes do novels serve and why is television threatening to make them obsolete? While these concerns are discussed in the opening and closing chapters, the book itself is primarily focused on how the postmodern novelist depicts his own anxiety of obsolescence in the face of new media within the language of the novel. Let me be clear: this subject makes for an intensely engaging and theoretically satisfying study, just a bit different from the one I expected. In addition, readers should note that while there is some discussion of television itself, "the age of television" is defined by Fitzpatrick as constituted by various electronic media (camera, radio, film, video, Internet).

Another area for improvement would be to include more introductory information about the novels themselves, as well as clarifications (and reminders) of scenes and characters. Readers who are not familiar with the work of Pynchon and DeLillo may not be able to fully appreciate the close textual readings that Fitzpatrick performs.

The Anxiety of Obsolescence has much to offer to readers interested in cultural studies, English, media studies, communication, social sciences, and humanities. It is also recommended for fans and critics of DeLillo and Pynchon, as well as those aspiring to become a novelist in the age of television. Finally, the level at which the book is written makes it most appropriate for faculty and graduate students -- both those that watch "too much" or "too little" TV.

Barth, John. "The Literature of Exhaustion." Atlantic 220 (August 1967): 29-34.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto." In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Lisa Weckerle:
Lisa Weckerle is an Associate Professor in Speech Communication at Kutztown University. She teaches courses in Performance Studies, Women's Studies, and Latino Studies. Her research interests include interdisciplinary uses of performance, new media, and the adaptation of novels in film and performance.  <weckerle@kutztown.edu>

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