Introduction: The Anxiety of Obsolescence

Print is undead.
–Stuart Moulthrop

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and has been since the invention of television.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 So, at least, seems to be the argument made by a range of cultural critics, both from the Right and from the Left, both academics and public intellectuals, both those who publish in highbrow venues and those who publish in more popular locales, both those who write fiction and those who write nonfiction.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What all these cultural critics have in common, by and large, is print, and the belief that Gutenberg’s medium and the literature that it has made possible must be saved from the twentieth-century technologies–among which they number television, of course, but also film and the Internet–that threaten to end more than five hundred years of print’s dominance in Western culture and drive it into obsolescence.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 One may infer that conflict between print technologies and electronic media exists from the media and pundit attention to what seems an otherwise insignificant event: In late October 2001, Oprah Winfrey withdrew the invitation she’d earlier extended to Jonathan Franzen to appear on her show as a featured book-club author. This unprecedented disinvitation rocked the literary world and produced a round of accusations, vilifications, and finger-pointing from folks on both sides of the issue. Was Franzen right to suggest his discomfort with the Oprah seal of approval on the jacket of his book, an indication of the questionable effects of corporate intervention in literary production? Was he being an elitist jerk when he bemoaned the other mainstream Oprah selections with which his book would now be lumped? Was Oprah too easily offended by Franzen’s ill-thought-out comments, and too ready to flex her quite significant media muscle? Or did she respond in the only way that made any sense by releasing an author uncomfortable with the milieu into which he’d been thrust from his obligations to that milieu, in order to protect her audience from condescension? At base: Was Oprah’s Book Club hopelessly middlebrow, catering as it did to an audience of Middle American television watchers, or did it perform a significant cultural service in introducing important books to people who might not otherwise have found them? Was it a monolithic mass-branding machine that tyrannized bookstores into shifting their sales priorities, fronting Oprah’s choices and ignoring the unselected masses, or was it a miraculous means of getting people to go into bookstores and buy books? Finally, given the conflict’s fallout–Oprah discontinued the book club altogether a few months later, while Franzen stayed on best-seller lists across the country–what, if anything, does the Oprah/Franzen flap reveal about the ongoing relationship between high art and mass culture, or about the precarious existence of publishing between literary and corporate production? Whatever conclusions one draws, the issues at stake–and particularly those that suggest an inevitable conflict between print values and the values promoted by television–cut to the heart of the serious novel’s seemingly tenuous position in contemporary U.S. culture.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This book is about that seemingly tenuous position. I explore the ways the novel has been represented throughout the postmodern era as under threat in U.S. culture, driven into a state of near obsolescence by the electronic media developed during the twentieth century, most notably television. More important, however, I’ll focus throughout on the cultural purposes served by the repeated proclamations of the novel’s untimely demise.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As an example, take a 1997 editorial published in a Web journal called Bold Type. The author raises an unnerving question that many writers and scholars in the age of electronic media find themselves repeatedly confronting: “Why . . . does the book’s influence over popular culture appear to be ever-waning?” Despite the hint in this quote that such a decline might be no more than mere appearance, the author takes it for verifiable fact: “The book today is the underdog; one must root for the written word” (Weissman). In this evocation of a sporting match, the editorial imagines the current media ecology to be a scene of conflict, with winners and losers, in which the book seems destined to fail and thus must rally backers to its side. A certain irony hangs about this argument, given that it appeared on the Internet. On the one hand, using the Web to make this pitch for print culture’s survival only serves to call attention to the electronic sources of the book’s apparent demise; on the other, the book’s presumptive foe–wired, virtual, and overwhelmingly visual–is here conscripted as its champion, a service that calls the very supposition of conflict into question. The alliance between the two forms is nervous at best, as indicated by the oddness of the journal’s title, Bold Type: though the publication may be about ink-on-paper type, it is not composed of it, and thus it serves to champion a medium that it itself eschews.[1] The purposes of the alliance, however, and further of the journal’s suggestions of the book’s need for cultural support in an era in which it is beset by larger, more powerful foes, become quite clear upon discovering that Bold Type is a publicity organ of Random House. The publisher, beset by anxieties about its own future, employs the media ostensibly arrayed against it to ensure continued support for the objects it produces; moreover, by declaring the book endangered, the publisher can rally readers to its side, encouraging them to prolong the existence of print media by purchasing the publisher’s books.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The Internet is merely the latest of the competitors that print culture has been pitted against since the late nineteenth century. Threats to the book’s presumed dominion over the hearts and minds of Americans have arisen at every technological turn–or so the rampant public discourse of print’s obsolescence would lead one to believe. This conventional perception of the book as an endangered species among rival media rests at the heart of my investigation but is not itself the object of my inquiry. The question taken up by The Anxiety of Obsolescence is not whether print culture is dying at the hands of the media, but rather what purposes announcements of the death of print culture serve, and thus what all this talk about the end of the book tells us about those doing the talking. The very existence of this book, in fact, declares its author’s position on the issue: the book is not dead or even dying. Rather, the growing pains of old media when confronted by new are all too easily–and sometimes purposefully–mistaken for death throes. This is perhaps especially true of the contemporary era, a “postmodern” world characterized by exponential technological acceleration. The average computer becomes obsolete in two to three years. Last year’s whiz-bang cable-ready picture-in-picture television is destined to become a relic in short order, undone by the full implementation of HDTV. DVD and the DVR have all but replaced the VCR. And just when we finally finished converting that old vinyl collection to CDs, the Los Angeles Times announced that format’s imminent death (Boucher).[2]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The purposes that these latter instances of talk about obsolescence serve are embarrassingly evident: the planned obsolescence of consumer goods is a capitalist institution worth billions annually. Talk of an old format’s death will inevitably help sales of a new format. But what purpose does the discourse of the death of print serve? And, more pointedly, why has this discourse been picked up by those presumably least likely to benefit from it–contemporary novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo? We are inundated with screeds from the popular, the literary, and the academic spheres that decry the debasement and replacement of the book and its attendant form of typographical literacy by something often loosely characterized as “the media.” The book and its main champion, the writer, are repeatedly represented as latter-day Quixotes, tilting at the windmills of mind-numbing, dehumanizing, overpoweringly visual forms of entertainment and communication. The main locus of blame for this literary decline is, of course, television, but such metaphors of media in conflict have recurred throughout the last dozen decades. Late nineteenth-century observers imagined that the photographic image declared the realism of painting and the novel obsolete; later, film similarly fought with the novel for dominance of the narrative form. Television threatened film’s position in the 1950s and 1960s; now the Internet may well be threatening television’s centrality in the home.[3] New media repeatedly threaten to take the place–or the audience–of old. But none of these media, according to the popular wisdom, is more threatened than the book.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Such conventional concerns about the book’s imminent demise are more than a bit specious, as a cursory look at the urban and suburban landscapes of the late 1990s and early 2000s reveals. A Borders or a Barnes and Noble has arisen (or will arise) on every corner in major metropolitan areas, as well as in most small towns. The virtual landscape gives us evidence as well: not only did amazon.com revolutionize the Internet, but it did so by selling millions of unmarketable items, if all that end-of-the-book hype were true. These merchants are not striving in some altruistic fashion to promote the Arnoldian cultural uplift of literacy against a debasing mass culture but are responding to existing markets and creating new ones. Stated most plainly, and most platitudinously, more people are buying more books than ever these days.[4] Given this growth of the market, how can one imagine the book to be an endangered species? And, not incidentally, whose interests does it serve to claim so?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Perhaps only a certain form of book is disappearing. Maybe only “high” literature is under siege, and perhaps only the serious writer need be concerned. This is the underlying contention of Bold Type‘s editor, indicated by an oblique reference to the electronic media that are threatening typography:

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The public seems to want to devour culture as if using the high-speed dubbing feature on a VCR. It is consumption without absorption, a simultaneous informational overload and reductionism that is directly at odds with the extended narrative literature provides. (Weissman)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The literature of “extended narrative”–the serious novel–is thus the primary object of Bold Type‘s rescue efforts. What literary fiction is being rescued from is even more enlightening: it requires protection not just from the films and television that come together in the VCR, but from the “public” that has become attuned to those newer media. In this slippage between the failings of the electronic media and the failings of its audience, an inevitable elitism begins to creep to the surface. The public, accustomed to the sound bite, is apparently incapable of reading the serious novel with the attention and care it deserves. And thus, as the editorial continues, it becomes evident that Bold Type‘s goal is less to liberate that public from its VCRs and return it to the joys of reading than to separate the book from that public, to create in its supposed obsolescence a minority of devoted readers who are that much more devoted because they understand that they are a minority: “In this more marginal context,” the author suggests, “it may be that writers will be liberated and literature as an art form will flourish anew” (Weissman). What will save the novel is thus not a return to the cultural center but an entrenchment on the edges, in which the cachet of marginality serves to create a protected space within which the novel can continue as art by restricting itself to those few readers equipped to appreciate it.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This elitism, however, is usually confined to the subtext of such discussions of the novel’s obsolescence. The surface language is explicitly that of conflict, and in particular of conflict between the novel and television, in which the novelist serves on the front lines of a cultural war. Metaphors of literary production as a scene of violent conflict are not new. Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence, developed a theory of modern poetry as an Oedipal struggle in which the poet–always male, of course–must confront and kill his poetic “fathers” in order to bed the Muse and thus reach artistic maturity. This battle, Bloom claims, is “a battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads” (11). A “strong poet” is one able to overcome his anxiety of influence by using such strategies as misreading, completion, and correction in his confrontations with the work of the precursor. However, Bloom is quick to point out that the work of this strong poet, the poem that he produces, “is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety” (94); in fact, “[a] poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority” (96). The poem is not a working-out but an embodiment of the anxiety of influence, reflecting that anxiety in its repeated engagements with the work of the precursor. Yet, as Bloom also seems to acknowledge, this anxiety, translated from the modern to the contemporary scene, is no longer focused solely upon poetic precursors. “In the contemporary poems that most move me,” he admits, ” . . . I can recognize a strength that battles against the death of poetry, yet also the exhaustions of being a latecomer” (12, emphasis mine). The contemporary poet’s anxieties thus cannot revolve entirely around belatedness but must actively confront the apparent imminence of poetry’s end.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The Anxiety of Obsolescence bears an obvious debt to Bloom. It is important, however–in a move that may ironically resemble the influenced poet’s attempts to separate his work from a predecessor’s–to suggest a number of key distinctions between Bloom’s work and my own. What Bloom’s theory lacks in its at times claustrophobic concern with the insular world of literary history is an exploration of the source of the poet’s anxiety about the death of poetry. Given that the postmodern novel obsessively engages with the encroachments of the surrounding culture, understanding the function of its concerns about obsolescence requires a different mode of reading. The hermetic world of writers reacting with and against one another no longer exists–or worse, where it exists, it no longer seems to impact U.S. culture at large. And thus the scholarly community, as well the novelist, must give up the luxury of purely literary-historical models of creative production to confront instead the role of literature in a larger culture. It is no longer sufficient to examine the relationship of a writer to his precursors, because these precursors are no longer perceived to be anywhere near as threatening as what’s coming next. As Joseph Tabbi has pointed out, “what has changed” in the age of electronic media “is not the book per se but the way that books can be read now. The end of books is more accurately the end of academic readings that isolate texts from the larger media ecology” (“Review”). Models of reading that are exclusively literary-historical must give way to models engaged with culture, technology, and media in an era in which these are thought to threaten literature’s very existence.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 It is equally important, however–and it may seem odd to need to point this out at the outset of a work that is in significant part literary criticism–to treat the novelist’s perceptions of his culture, and his use of the discourses already in motion about and through that culture, as primary texts that require analysis rather than as authoritative interpretations. Too often, scholars and others take at face value the positions of critique the novelist adopts with regard to television and other forms of mass culture without exploring the ways these positions misread and misconstrue those media objects. In so doing, much recent scholarly work on postmodern fiction threatens to collapse the distinctions between the representational practices of fiction and the analytical practices of criticism and theory, treating the former as if it were doing the work of the latter. Such a treatment of fiction as theory allows the critic too easily to avoid asking difficult ideological questions about the novels. Fictions are, after all, crafted representations of a culture, not explanations of it. For this reason–much as hermeneutic modes of interpretation have been called into question in recent scholarship (due to a mistaken sense that they privilege “authoritative” readings and treat the text as though it were separable from the larger cultural sphere in which it exists)–The Anxiety of Obsolescence calls for a return to the critical practice of close reading. This is not a call for a return to the New Criticism, or for any form of regressive movement away from “theory.” Instead, The Anxiety of Obsolescence models a new critical practice that pays careful attention both to cultural milieu and to textual particulars, moving between extended close readings of a number of important contemporary U.S. novels and the broader historical, cultural, and technological context for that fiction, in order to return our critical attention to representations and to the specific ideological formations with which those representations interact.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The same mode of reading is necessary in confronting other cultural representations of television, including scholarly and popular criticism of the form. Often, the positions that such writings take with regard to television conceal a critique of television’s audience, as if the real problem in contemporary culture were not the media but the mindless, feminized masses that have given media texts cultural centrality. This slippage in the critical discourse, when read in conjunction with similar representations in postmodern fiction, begins to suggest that television, the apparent source of the novelist’s fear of obsolescence, may in fact be a convenient screen for some other, murkier anxiety about instability in social relations. For these reasons, critics of television must likewise be read as engaging in representational practices and thus, like writers of fiction, must be observed with an eye not simply to their meanings but also to their functions.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 As for my own position as cultural critic: in much of what follows, I appear to support the claims of television at the novelist’s expense, given that I return repeatedly to the self-protective and potentially elitist impulses that lie beneath the anxiety of obsolescence. I do not at all intend to suggest through this critical approach that the novelists I discuss are wholly wrong, that television is blameless in contemporary culture, or that the media haven’t appropriated a significant and at times troubling percentage of U.S. brain space. I intend, rather, to resist the knee-jerk vilification of television so endemic to literary culture and to explore instead the purposes that such vilification might serve. I can perhaps illuminate my own position through a brief confessional anecdote. Scholars all bear the scars of their educational histories and attempt to expunge those scars in their own work; like so many, I can trace my scars back to graduate school. Years ago, in a master’s-level seminar, I inadvertently let slip my long-standing fondness for television: “I was raised by the TV set,” I said, attempting to explain something or other. “I can tell,” my professor responded, stunning me into silence. What does that mean?, I wondered. The only answer that made sense, given his tone, our surroundings, and the topic at hand, was that the pleasure I took in the medium explained my flightiness, my superficiality, my lack of serious education, my hyperactivity, my terrible vocabulary, or some other equally heinous flaw visible to the scholarly community. From that moment, I almost kept my mouth shut where television was concerned.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 But not quite. Rather than take my television viewing into the academic closet, I decided to proselytize, to redeem the tube from its troublingly condescending association with the boob, to educate the visually illiterate–and to do so from within what seemed then the hushed gentility of an English department. The novel, after all, is my first love, and the joy I have taken in its pages–I am never so happy as with a novel in my lap so weighty I have difficulty standing–has been neither diminished nor tarnished by the pleasures that I’ve drawn from television. The entire trajectory of my work to date has had as a key goal the demonstration of the peaceable coexistence of literature and television, despite all the loud claims to the contrary. Recent academic attention to certain television series, including most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, begins to suggest either that the academic world is catching up with me, or that it is now safe for scholarly fans of television to emerge from hiding.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In what follows, I 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. In Chapter 1, I survey three major areas of cultural conversation, at the nexus of which I locate the anxiety of obsolescence: the recurrent declaration of the death of the novel, the parallel assertion of the threat of new media technologies, and the postmodern condition.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The next three chapters take on, in turn, three major conceptual categories through which the postmodern novelist comes to understand and classify television: the machine, the spectacle, and the network. In Chapter 5, I return to the Oprah/Franzen conflict to expose and explore the social implications of the anxiety of obsolescence. It is no accident, I believe, that this conflict’s “literary” figure is a white man, while the “televisual” position is occupied by a woman of color; the conflicts between media forms have always been about conflicts between dominant and emergent subjectivities.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 It is important to remember that the anxiety of obsolescence is not new in depicting the cultural scene as one of conflict among competing media. While the bulk of this investigation is geared toward an examination of the novelist’s fear of television, these same anxieties crop up whenever one form of communication or expression begins to feel threatened by a newer form. As Neil Postman argues:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Surrounding every new technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. (Technopoly 18)

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 This crisis appears even where the assault is largely imaginary. The implications of the anxiety of obsolescence, then, reach well beyond the confines of traditional literary criticism. The ways we speak and write about new media–and particularly the means by which we express our concerns about the world that new media forms are eroding or leaving behind–may reveal more about our own entrenched cultural ideologies than they do about the media themselves. In paying careful attention to this discourse, we can dismantle both our technophilia and our technophobia to see what other terrors they might hide.


24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [1] The distinction that I am implying between typography and screen fonts may suggest a rather unimaginative notion of what might constitute a “book” in the future; my intent in drawing this distinction is to focus attention on the cultural objects as they exist today. I will, however, encounter the possibilities presented by the e-book in Chapter 1.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [2] On the battle over HDTV, see Joel Brinkley, Defining Vision. One must of course note the irony in the fact that these very references will themselves shortly be obsolete.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [3] On these battles between media, see Green-Lewis; Stephens; Boorstin; Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind; Postman, Amusing; Owen.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [4] See Ken Auletta: “Since the time when the book industry started calling itself an ‘industry,’ it has been in a state of ‘crisis.’ And yet, whatever the crisis, there have always been people prepared not only to buy books but to buy more books than anyone had ever bought before” (Auletta 50). But in The Death of Literature Alvin Kernan argues–presumably without irony–that the sheer quantity of books published is in part responsible for reading’s demise (138). I consider this point further in Chapter 1.

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