Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 11, 2008

“Three Discourses on the Age of Television” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age, p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 8:53 pm

The Anxiety of Obsolescence and the Literary Critic

presented by Esther Prokopienko

English 576: Literature in the Information Age

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Three Discourses on the Age of Television.” The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2006. 11-57. Also available online.


The Novel is Dead. Long Live the Novel.

Anxiety of Obsolescence– the apprehension expressed over the possibility of a cultural or social item becoming redundant, usually because it has been made so by a new technology

Fitzpatrick’s Response- Things with cultural value never become obsolete, instead, they find a particular niche from which to operate.

Examples: Poetry, painting, black-and-white photographs, horse-powered equipment

Fitzpatrick’s Position: Instead of developing further anxiety over the purported death of the novel (which has been said to be dying since shortly after it began), critics should “consider what the messenger…might stand to gain from the proliferation of the message” (p 16)

Postmodernism and the Novel– without a doubt, critics have long feared the death of the novel, and what it will mean for society. However, those who have studied the evolution of the novel have found that:

“the novel continues to matter, though in a mode more cultural than literary” (17)

“the novel is not dying but democratizing” (17)

more skeptical critics find that “the modern novel represents a devolution of the literary into the sociological” (17)

The Postmodern Novel-what is often represented in the postmodern novel is an intrinsic anxiety over the future role of the critic, as a part of the anxiety over the future role of the novel. Often, anxiety over the technological obsolescence of an item is standing in for the fear of cultural and social obsolescence

in their discourse on the death of the novel, postmodern writers are concerned about how new technologies will dehumanize (‘the machine‘), about the interplay between illusion and ideology (‘the spectacle‘), and anxiety over the potential loss of the individual (‘the network‘)

the machine– concepts of humans as forms of machines replace Romantic concepts of humans as ‘natural’

the spectacle– fear that new technology would blur boundaries between the real and the fictitious, causing viewers to believe something that is not true, making it, in effect, a lie

the network– fear about the growing inter-connectedness of society that would force the individual to become dominated by the mass 

postmodern novels write the critic and academic’s anxiety of obsolescence, however, the writing about what happens when writing becomes irrelevant is still writing; it continues in the same tradition that they are writing about the end of

“By depicting the genre as an endangered species, critics and novelists alike have built a protected space around the novel- and, not incidentally, the novelist” (26)


Responses to Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick has been commended for her production of a book that is “particularly relevant to the historical and cultural moment” (Taylor). But, even more than the concepts in the book itself, the presentation of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence has inspired a great deal of discussion in academic communities about the future of academic publishing. Other than bound print form, Fitzpatrick’s book can also be accessed and searched online at her website (though the book is not presented in its entirety), as well as through Google Book Search, and she continues to engage with the book and her ideas in her blog, especially in some of her now-archived posts.


The Anxiety of Obsolescence and Special Topics in Calamity Physicsby Marisha Pessl

Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is teeming with the anxiety of obsolescence experienced by the academic crowd.  Blue’s father asserts the cultural value of his employment when he says:

Is there anything more glorious than a professor?… a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life…. He organizes the unorganizable.  Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on….Scaffolding to which we may cling!  Even if it isarbitrary, without it, we’re lost  (Pessl 12)

Despite this assertion of his value, he seems to drift through life after his wife’s death, taking unimpressive jobs and creating uninspiring research.  Yet, he continues to drill Blue in the importance of academic success, as if without being the top performer in the world of formal education, she will be nothing. 

 Blue’s position in the novel is particularly interesting, as well.  She generally follows her father’s instructions on the importance and way to be a great, memorable individual, though she admits that often what her father wanted for her often imposed itself on what she wanted for herself without consulting her personally.  When Blue begins spending time with the Bluebloods, she begins to behave in (non-academic) ways she would never have thought of behaving previously.  She notes:

Naturally, if Dad knew about my attitude, he would’ve called it “stomach-turning conformity,”  maybe even “a disgrace to the Van Meers”…. Yet I saw it as thrilling, Romantic, if I allowed the current to take me along the “willowy hills and fields,”  or wherever it wanted, regardless of the consequences (see “The Lady of Shalott,”  Tennyson, 1842). (Pessl 153)

This passage is quite appropriate for Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s reading of the function of postmodern literature, because while Blue is talking about how much she enjoys being able to “not think anything but shrill girlish expressions,” she is reflecting upon it in a rather academic way, the very academia she is claiming to be forgoing.



Movies: Being John Malkovich and Stranger than Fiction

being-john-malkovich.jpg stranger-than-fiction.jpg

Both of these films express the anxiety of obsolescence, and investigate the ways in which fears of the mechanization of the human, the confusion of reality and fiction, and the impact of living in a fully networked environment.

Since Eric already did a reading of Being John Malkovich, let’s look a little more closely at Stranger than Fiction. The premise of the film is that Harold Crick, a quiet IRS employee, one day begins to hear a woman narrating every aspect of his life. The narrator turns out to be a British writer, struggling to finish her novel, starring the protagonist Harold Crick, in order to avoid becoming obsolete as a writer. Unsure what to do, Crick visits a psychologist, and then a literary expert in an attempt to understand the situation that he is in. Played by Dustin Hoffman, the literary expert decides that Crick is stuck in a tragedy, and the only way he can save himself is to make the story into more of a comedy by falling unexpectedly in love.

Here is a clip of the beginning of the film:

Note how Harold Crick has become very much like a machine, his entire life revolving around the correct computations of numbers and routine activities, an essential fear postmodernists often express. What the film does, as well, is transgress the lines of reality, because Harold Crick is represented as a real man living an independent life, but he is also a created character designed by a novelist. Crick is trapped in a battle between his own control of his destiny and the power of the novelist to fit him into the formula of a traditional tragic plot. 

Not Just Academia

An aspect that Fitzpatrick does not delve into in her article (and I think in the book as a whole) is the fact that the anxiety of obsolescence applies to other fields outside of literature, and to individuals outside of academia.  Throughout history, the farmer (or the agricultural worker) has had to contend with his or her position in a world where technology has repeatedly made the individual more and more obsolete.  First there was the iron hoe, then the horse-driven plow, a bit later the tractor, then all of the myriad engine-powered articles of farming equipment.  This is a battle that continues today.  In this article  from the NY Times, there is anxiety over the effect that increased biotechnology will have on the individual farmer. 

However, it is important to note, as I think Fitzpatrick would have, had she investigated the topic, that despite the constant anxiety of obsolescence experienced by farmers for many centuries, farming still exists, and it is still an important part of society around the world. 


In short, there has always been anxiety about the future of any object that appears threatened by an emerging technology, but those objects generally are never forced into obsolescence.



  1. I think a lot of the trouble with the movie Stranger Than Fiction lies in the attempt of Dustin Hoffman’s character to strictly define the line between “Tragedy” and “Comedy” in a premise where even the line between “Fiction” and “Reality” is severely blurred. Harold Crick is indeed part of the “machine” from the very beginning, and as his character comes to terms with his inevitable mortality, Harold begins to develop a greater sense of who he is as an individual and what freedoms exist outside of this “machine” (e.g. an opportunity to fall in love). When Harold’s “maker” allows her protagonist to continue living in the end, the novel doesn’t become “obsolete” exactly, but what’s interesting here is the reaction of this new alteration, as represented by Hoffman’s “Eh, it could’ve been better.” Thus here we have a circumstance where a continuance of “the machine” might have resulted in a continuance of the quality of “the novel.”

    On a side note, I was not a big fan of Stranger than Fiction (Sorry if you are. Nothing personal.), but “mad props” (as the contemporary vernacular goes) to your citation of Being John Malkovich. Excellent, insightful movie on exploration of the whole “self” concept. Bravo!

    -Eric 🙂

    Comment by auldlangsyne24 — February 12, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  2. Esther,

    Thank you for outlining an article I had no time to read! I just wanted to comment on your comparison of the anxiety of obsolescence to the plight of farmer.
    I think you raise a very interesting point about how farmers have survived. I wanted to throw in my own point about this. The American Farmer has been in continual decline since the 19th century, but has stayed alive. Additionally, the Green Revolution radically changed the way that farming is carried out (new type of seeds, planting technology, etc.). While I think you are right that the farmer has survived in spite of changes, we must recognize that farming, at least in America, has both radically declined in numbers and variety. If this is the case for the true novelists in the info age, would the amount of novel work being produced become radically reduced? Additionally, would this increased specialization of novel writing lead to a homogenization of styles?
    I’m not saying writing is the same as farming!, but it popped in my head.


    Comment by Louis Cortina — February 12, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  3. Louis,
    I agree, the farmer does not hold the position he (and she) once did in America. My father (a farmer) would love to just go on and on about it forever. But, I think that your point about the decline of the farmer despite his persistance is valid in terms of Fitzpatrick’s article. The farmer, much like the novel writer, has not had to become homogenized in terms of style, but instead the opposite, tailoring to a very, very specific, but loyal, niche market. Farmers cannot survive any longer by growing his own grain, and raising dairy cows, and pigs, and sheep, etc. Instead, he was forced to choose one basket to put all of his eggs in, if you will. If we think about poetry, we can recognize that not all poetry appeals to everyone, but instead that those who like a certain style tend to really, really like it. The novel will not maintain a widespread glory as time passes (if it really ever has), but instead it will be be beloved to it’s individual audiences (the romance novel readers, the sci-fi readers, the academic readers, etc.).

    Comment by Esther — February 17, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  4. Hi Esther!

    I’m glad that you outlined the article. It helped me follow it a little bit easier when I read through. I liked your “in short” comment at the end. I think that people in general are scared of becoming obsolete, which makes them worry about technology making object obsolete. Perhaps if there were not so many robots taking over the world people wouldn’t be so scared of being out done by technology. I personally think that we all should embrace technology…although I’m very scared of robots taking over the world.

    I must be out of the loop because I haven’t even heard of Being John Malkovich. I’ve seen previews for Stranger Than Fiction, but have yet to see it. Maybe I’ll pick it up at Blockbuster soon.

    Comment by Allison — February 18, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

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