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
Two common questions among media theorists and cultural critics are exactly how does media affect our society and to what extent? These issues are so important that they become a part of our education curriculum. For example, a required freshman course at my college has students reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, where students learn criticism of the mediated world. The book is a challenging read for many reasons, the biggest being that Postman criticizes all the things that are important in their daily lives: TV, internet, entertainment, etc. I have often wished for a text that explores the other side of the issue, one that argues that the word is not dead and the killer was not technology. Kathleen Fitzpatrick gives us a starting point for that dialogue.
In The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, Fitzpatrick takes on the issues surrounding the death of the novel. Throughout the text she focuses on a few select male authors who have a reputation of being the "serious" writers of their time, showing the reader how they propagated the myth that the novel is in danger of dying, if not already dead, thanks to technology (specifically television).
The stage is set in the introduction where the explanation of the novel of obsolescence takes place. All the hype that "the novel is dead" is coming from writers and critics (3). Oddly enough, many authors seem to believe that their works are not a form of media, or entertainment, which could boil down more to an issue of definition than anything else. Instead, they view their works as a form of high art, wondering if the public is lacking the capability of appreciating their novels. These same writers do not acknowledge that there are lackluster novels gracing the shelves of our modern bookstore; rather, they shift the focus to television and how it lacks quality. Fitzpatrick desires to raise the bar, bringing us back to "the critical practice of close reading" (7), where the reader considers culture of the times and the novel. Instead of blaming "the mindless feminized masses" or the television itself (7), she seeks to explore what authors have to gain by placing the blame where they do in the first place.
The remainder of the book is divided into five chapters. Chapter one, "Three discourses on the age of television," thoroughly covers the history of the novel's supposed death, as well as the origins of the novel. The reader learns that the novel went through the same criticism as television does now, being "blamed for many of the ills of youth culture" (14). Fitzpatrick also begins to formulate the argument that despite laments over the novel's death, those laments are a farce, propagated by the authors to make their work seem more valuable, drawing more attention to the novel through the heroic ideal of one man standing against the onslaught of technology. This argument is carried throughout the book.
Chapter two, "Machine" explores the perceived erosion of masculinity/humanity due to the machine world. Authors and cultural critics tend to equate masculinity with humanity, thus:
"Spectacle," the third chapter, shows that mass media can be interpreted in many ways, and the doing of such in the novel of obsolescence displays the author's true bias, since these authors interpret mediated communication as a negative influence on society. One issue raised by such writers is the argument that the word is more "real" and has more meaning than the image. Chapter four, "Network," explores the connectivity of machines to machines, and then us to those same machines. The electronic and cultural impulses carried by a tangle of wires -- the idea that individuals are connected across time and space -- result in fears about information overload difficulties in communication, and the eruption of chaos. All of which the novelists, Fitzpatrck discusses, find threatening to their world of seeming simplicity, the good old days when there was order. Finally, chapter five, "Obsolescence, the marginal, and the popular," summarizes Fitzpatrick's intention for her book and further discusses the elitism present among "serious" authors. She also revisits the issue of the American novel being an all white, male genre -- something briefly explored in chapters one and two, but not fully developed or supported.
My main concern is when Fitzpatrick discusses networks. In chapter four, information theory is brought forth as a model of communication. Specifically, Fitzpatrick looks at two communication models -- Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's Mathematical model (155-158) and Stuart Hall's Encoding/decoding model (156-158). Shannon and Weaver are accused of "erasing human interaction from their model" (158). However, their model was not intended to be used in the way it is being presented. As Shannon worked for Bell Telephone, he and Weaver originally developed this model for describing telephone use (McQuail & Windahl 1993). Looking at Figure 1 (on page 156) the reader can see how this model captures information theory -- as in how information gets from point A to point B though technology/specific medium. The model explores, to my eyes at least, the functionality of a medium, not the content of the message or the sender(s) and receiver(s). The question Fitzpatrick raises about the roles of perception and observer, as well as the issue of chaos, seem irrelevant, since the model was never designed to address such issues.
Stuart Hall's encoding/decoding model is presented rather vaguely as well (156-158). Originally designed to "emphasize stages of transformation through which any media message passes," (McQuail & Windahl 1993, 174), specifically in reference to television, as Fitzpatrick acknowledges (157), it seems to be a poor example to explain network theory. If we look at a network as "patterns of roles and relationships" (Baker 1992, 328), a definition used for describing organizational networks, then we can see where the two models presented here fall short. The figure representing Hall's model (157) clearly shows how a message is transformed into some sort of meaning in both the sender's and receiver's eyes, but does not specifically address the network of humans and machines. This makes for a weak argument, especially since the chapter focuses on the connectivity of us to machines, machines to machines, and the roles that each plays. Shannon and Weaver's model is designed for eliminating chaos (failed communication), but more in the manner of how the technology should operate rather than how the observer interprets a message. Hall's model does look at message interpretation but the reader is stretched in trying to understand the author's goal in presenting it with network theory. Perhaps I gravely misunderstand Fitzpatrick in this section, thus showing that Hall's theory can be applied to books, not just technology, where the sender and receiver's "lack of equivalence results in distortion" (McQuail & Windahl, 1993, 147).
The ultimate goal of this text was to provide the reader with an effective argument: that it isn't necessarily television that killed "serious" literature. Focusing on only a few novelists and their works, while giving many excerpts and explanations about what those novels were about, might be too frustrating to use in an interdisciplinary classroom, especially if one is unfamiliar with those works yourself, as I was. The book provides an alternative opening for all disciplines to discuss the clash between the written word and technology, which has become an increasingly important issue, as scholars, cultural critics, writers, and students continue to ask: Is the public "incapable of reading the serious novel with the attention and care it deserves?" (4). Despite Fitzpatrick's misunderstanding of the communication models mentioned above, I did find this book overall to be a good stepping stone: a useful resource for myself, as I look for counter-arguments to cultural critics such as Postman.
Baker, W. (1992). The network organization in theory and practice. In Nohria, N. and R. Eccles, (Eds.), Networks and Organizations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 327-429.
McQuail, D., & Windahl, S. (1993). Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication. New York: Longham Publishing.
Sarah Whitehead teaches Critical Thinking and Public Speaking at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY. Her research interests are in gender studies, media effects, and weblogs. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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