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Chapter 1: Three Discourses on the Age of Television

Ending is a way to proceed.
–Paul Mann

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “The death of the novel is here again,” writes Natasha Walter in a 1996 report on the state of the British publishing industry. “It’s a standing joke among newspapers’ literary editors trying to find a story. Shall we commission the ‘books are out’ piece, or shall we commission the one that proves ‘books are back’?” (Walter). This endless–and ostensibly meaningless–circulation and recirculation of the tale of the novel’s demise, like the similar omnipresence of the narrative that connects technological advance with cultural decline, suggests the underlying import of such articles: rather than shedding light on the status of the book on the contemporary scene, these obituaries and rebirth announcements might serve different cultural purposes, whether merely filling column space for tired literary editors or providing ammunition in more strenuously fought culture wars. Their recurrence thus bears careful examination. This chapter situates the major conceptual formations that undergird the anxiety of obsolescence.[1] Neither technophobia nor the literary novel’s obituary is new; each historical reappearance of these discourses simultaneously undercuts the gravity of our contemporary mobilizations of the notion of obsolescence and reveals the ideological work that those mobilizations perform.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In addition to the death of the novel and the threat of new technologies, the third cultural narrative this chapter confronts–the third constitutive element of the anxiety of obsolescence–is the discourse of postmodernism. Postmodernism is founded in the very concept of obsolescence–obsolescence of the modern, of the individual, of History with a capital H, of Truth with a capital T. Postmodernism is also a discourse of discourse, the very self-reflexivity of which produces the inwardness that the contemporary novelist requires for his project of self-protection.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What follows is an analysis of these three intersecting discursive formations that uncovers the “relations,” as Foucault suggests, among expressions of concern about cultural change that surface in a wide range of fields.[2] The breadth of such discursive formations, in achieving the level of the commonplace, results in a quantum shift in the relationship between discourse and truth: such statements cease merely to describe reality and instead begin to create it.[3] In thinking about the “cultural discourses” of the late twentieth century, I focus not simply on the recurrence of a particular set of aesthetic or scientific or philosophical themes that surface in multiple contemporary locations but on the means by which those statements and ideas may be thought of as doing something–in this case, creating and perpetuating a set of hierarchical relations among cultural texts and, not incidentally, a set of power relations among cultural producers.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Such an analysis, however, must avoid the tendency toward totalization that large-scale cultural theories too often exhibit, accounting instead for the conflicts and complexities of contemporary lived experience. After all, if the discourses I examine uniformly create the reality within which I exist and the consciousness through which I understand that reality, can my discourse about them escape the epistemological structures and ideological strictures I am attempting to investigate? For instance, can I cease being postmodern long enough to critically examine postmodernism? The answer lies in the distinction theories of ideology draw between dominance and hegemony: the true significance of cultural discourse lies not in how the social world is controlled by it but in how that world is led to consent to it. Moreover, the efficacy of such discourses resides not in their univocality but rather in the negotiations among their multiple voices.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In fact, these discourses are most riven with contradictions precisely when they lay the greatest claim to totality. Stephen Connor, for instance, approaches the question of postmodernism’s self-reflexive inescapability through a paradox that festers at its heart. One is repeatedly struck, he points out, by “the degree of consensus in postmodernist discourse that there is no longer any possibility of consensus, the authoritative pronouncements of the disappearance of final authority and the promotion and recirculation of a total and comprehensive narrative of a cultural condition in which totality is no longer thinkable” (10). Such a set of contradictions, inherent in many such contemporary discourses, does not undermine the significance of those discourses but instead creates the field on which paradoxical ideological concepts do battle. Statements that declare the novel dead are, as Walter pithily points out, chronically replaced by equally authoritative statements that celebrate the novel’s revival–and are often embedded, as we shall see, in the very texts whose demise they announce. In the technological debates, “declinists” and “neo-Pollyannas” are present in roughly equal numbers, the voices on each side equally loud (Stephens 231). Each requires the other for the discourse to be complete; the shifting balance between the two sides works to define the cultural environment in which the discourse operates. The importance of the anxiety of obsolescence, then, lies less in revealing how these discourses about the media control contemporary notions about the postmodern novel than in exploring how contemporary use of those discourses illuminates the cultural ideologies within which we, as readers, operate.

  • [1] See, on the history of death discourses, Mann, and on the history of technological obsolescence: McLuhan; Stephens; Levinson; Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation.
  • [2] See Foucault, Archaeology, in which the author argues for the uncovering of “[r]elations between statements (even if the author is unaware of them; even if the statements do not have the same author; even if the authors were unaware of each other’s existence); relations between groups of statements thus established (even if these groups do not concern the same, or even adjacent fields; even if they do not possess the same formal level; even if they are not the locus of assignable exchanges); relations between statements and groups of statements and events of a quite different kind (technical, economic, social, political)” (29).
  • [3] See ibid., in which Foucault argues that discursive formations “define not the dumb existence of a reality nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects” (49).
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