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.


January 21, 2008

that is soooo postmodern

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age, p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 7:42 pm

While this novel is hailed as a prime example of postmodern fiction, I was not enchanted by it. It is painfully, obviously, postmodern, with fragmentation of the subject, a creative narrative mode, and the loss of a connection between the individual and lived history, so on and so forth. But, it is in many ways an academic novel, and I would argue that its accessibility for the general public is fairly limited. I couldn’t cruise with it until I figured out that trying to link all of the Inverarity remarks was a waste of energy, since, despite what common sense told me, he and his estate were not what the book was about.

Throughout the narrative Oedipa Maas is occupied by her desperate attempts to understand herself and and her place in life, that is, when she is not otherwise occupied by the drama of getting laid. Oedipa seems to think that if she can understand where she is in life, she will know how to proceed both in life and as executor of Inverarity’s estate. This sense of misdirection on the road of life smacks strongly of Fredric Jameson’s ideas of a postmodern world. Using the metaphor of a city, Jameson feared that, in a postmodern world, all traditional markers would be removed, leaving people to feel alienated and unable to mentally map where they were in the city or their position in relation to any tradition markers, such as buildings or street names. (see Postmodernism: the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, ~ p51) As if to give credence to his theory, Oedipa’s first reactions to San Narciso, a town basically run by Yoyodyne technologies, is that it is, “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts,”(Pynchon 13) and later, looking down on the city from a hill;

she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute in San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. (Pynchon 14)


Looking at a model of a printed circuit such as this one, it is easy to see how amazingly coordinated such a circuit is from above, but if one is aware of how much information is stored in that small square, it quickly becomes dizzying when one imagines navigating the complex channels of communication.

This inability to navigate the channels through which information travels is a problem that continues to plague Oedipa. Creating an obsession with finding out the truth of the relationship between the Thurn & Taxi and the Tristero private mail delivery systems, Oedipa is transferring all of her anxieties about herself onto a project and questions that would seem to have a conclusive answer. However, Oedipa finds it impossible to find the answer to the question of who controls the secret non-government mail delivery systems that she witnesses in operation, and in her quest she begins to look everywhere for her answers, including such sources as a play by a possibly fictional playwrite, where the line that most interests her is highly compromised in it’s authenticity.  Even the symbol that inspires her to investigate the matter, the muted horn, has been adopted by other organizations, misconstruing it’s original meaning and purpose.

As the answers to her problems fail to become clear to Oedipa, she begins to fear that she is perhaps hallucinating, or that the entire question of a modern-day private mail delivery system is a hoax that Inverarity has set up to fool her. She reveals that her belief and faith in the idea of a true history that has been documented and can be recalled at anyone’s convenience is shaken.

By the end of the novel, Oedipa has grown very little, except in her awareness of the lack of a norm for her to fit into. She is still lost within the channels of information, “it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer” (Pynchon 150). But this acceptance of instability has given her some sense of peace.  She no longer trusts in the power of any one particular person, such as her whacko therapist, to sort everything out, but instead simply embraces the idea that:

It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance.   But it was a calculated withdrawal….since they could not  have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world.  (Pynchon 101)

This is the obvious answer to Oedipa’s tumultuous quest to discover the solutions to her problems, and works marvellously for the novel.  But, as a  member of the real world, I am left asking “why?”  Why do they have to exist in a separate, silent, unsuspected world of covert mail delivery?  They aren’t saying anything of interest to the government in their letters, if Fallopian’s letter is any indication.  It’s not even a form of resistance towards the USPS.  So why? This entire operation, and all of it’s murderous disagreements over territory or whatnot, seems to have no goals or long-term purpose.  So why bother?  And if you’re going to say that it’s not about the mail, it’s a metaphor for literature, I’m going to disagree with you.  And perhaps I’ll write a book explaining why.  Later.
Things I wanted to discuss more:


connecting the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow (p85)

sex in the book

“…it doesn’t mean anything. Wharfinger was no Shakespeare” (p60)

“members of the third sex” (p89)

November 24, 2007

Shaun, the not-quite dead.

Filed under: p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 9:02 pm

I was afraid that I was pretty dumb when I watched this movie and didn’t really ‘get’ how it was an important piece of postmodern commentary. Then, I watched a video of the main characters being interviewed on a morning radio program (here), and then went to my old standby, Kim, to see what she had to say. I am relieved to say that I said ‘duh’ when seeing what the radio show guys got out of it, and it really tickled me to witness Kim’s curt, exhausted, and utterly apathetic response to the film. Apparently, I’m not really missing anything, it’s all right there for us to see, open and available to the masses. Now watch, this is going to come back to bite me in the bum.

Zombies. They’re here, and they are sort of a problem (only sort of). The film is apparently saying that, in many ways, we are all zombies in the way that we live our lives.  For the most part, we’re all just going through the comfortable routines and habits, the same things day in and day out. Is this post so very different from all of my others? Are the papers we’re all working on so very different and groundbreaking in relation to the last set of final papers we wrote? Despite our greatest hopes and dreams, I would argue that they pretty much are not.

What we need is an event that will separate the men and women from the zombies. (I’ll let much of that statement go to be digested by someone else). And, like Shaun, this event will provide the opportunity to become leaders. For others, the Eds of the world, a zombie takeover of the city will only prove that we have no higher calling, and that videogames and shelter really are among the best things in life. I guess that Shaun of the Dead proves that in society, it really does ‘take all kinds’.

Of course, nothing can be quite as simple as I outlined above. While Shaun did take the zombie takeover of London to show what kind of stuff he was made of (even if it meant shooting his mom), none of this ambition seems to continue into his life after the quelling of zombie rage. Sure, he gets Liz back, but was simply knowing that he could be (if absolutely necessary) decent enough to give her the patience for the gads of indecent or lackluster qualities that he displayed on a daily basis?

This movie really asks us to step into an alternate reality. I was just about to affirm that I would find my partner-in-crime absolutely terrible to live with if he really continued to do all of the things that I hated, patient only because once I saw him protect me (but not four other people) during a zombie attack. Then I realized that I have been referring to this entire zombie situation as something like a background to the main events. I think a ‘real’ zombie attack would probably garner a bit more of my attention. Who was it that said that in postmodern narrative we don’t even question the existence of parallel but obviously different worlds, like, um, zombie worlds?

November 16, 2007

Apex~ Struggle is a Really Crappy Name

Filed under: p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 11:11 pm

Really, I hate naming the town ‘Struggle’. But that’ s not what I’m here to deal with.

In finishing the novel we were supposed to try and hold onto the threads of the metaphors the novel (because apparently it is acting independently of its author?) is playing with. One of the things we began to discuss in class was how Nomenclature Guy sees himself within the corporate structure, and within society as a whole.

In terms of his not-whiteness, NG is certainly conflicted about his racial identity. Sometimes, he refers to himself as a “brother,” but in other instances makes a very clear distinction between him and Regina’s ‘people’. I guess it might be comparable to me recognizing my relatively shared race with someone from Australia, but would not regard our histories as familialy connected within the last century or two.

With the idea of Muttonchops and Scary Housekeeper Lady being the underbelly of Freedom/Winthrop/New Prospera/Struggle’s society, but the ones that the city needs in order to survive as a community.  These people, however, aren’t the movers and shakers that NG regards himself as.  Where these two ‘types’ come together is when you encounter the nomenclature whiz kid who is never invited to the Christmas party.  But, again, I am stuck in a position where NG places himself very much outside of this realm. He is winning awards, so would obviously be invited to the Christmas parties, since his absence would certainly be noted.

Why is NG outside of the roles that he sees all of the other ‘marginalized’ or, perhaps, black segments of society stuck in (the necessary but unappreciated social infrastructure)?  At the same time, he also, occassionally, sees himself as closely tied into this social stratum of individuals.  He uses the colored Apex bandages, but they only cause him to allow his toe to fester and causes him to lose the toe.  But, in the long run, the damage is primarily psychological, or psychosomatic.   I can’t make all of the pieces fit together.  Perhaps they are not supposed to.  That’s it, this is the postmodern perspective– there are many simulataneous truths, since life is not a pointed, clear and concise narrative it is possible that there are numerous and probably paradoxical truths.  Oh, sly, sly.

November 15, 2007

Apex~ the hidey game (2)

Filed under: p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 9:59 pm

Something that really struck me about this middle portion of Apex Hides the Hurt was the black vs. white dichotomy in Freedom/Winthrop/New Prospera.  I know we discussed it a bit in class, but, probably because it’s a major focus of my paper, I sensed some serious colonization/postcolonization discourse vibes.

The entire recorded history of the town is based on a tradition of dispossession.  Those who discuss it suppose that the story truly begins with Winthrop’s entering of the area, but that is certainly not the case.  Before Winthrop, there were the people of Freedom, but before them, it is very likely that there were some other natives, especially since the the town was located on such a valuable river that could connect it with the rest of the world.

So, there were the natives, who are never mentioned, who are displaced (I assume) by the black settlers who begin to refer the the area as “Freedom.”  Though not original to the land, they become, through generations of living, closely connected to it, and when Winthrop enters the picture, they appear to be ‘natives’ of the area as far as he is aware.  And, much like the settlers of Freedom had done, he colonized the indigenous people and imposed his own ideals on the village.  In the same vein, when Lucky enters the town, he does his own version of colonization, except this time it is not a clear distinction between white and black ideas, but instead it is a colonization through imposing technology.  As one of the characters notes, Winthrop has become a “company town”, in exactly the same process that it had first become a freed slave town, and then an American dream town in the frontier spirit.

A specific part of the text that sparked all of this takes place when Regina is giving the nomenclature consultant, or as I like to call him, Nomenclature Guy, a tour of the old and new parts of the city.  In defense of her support for calling the town Freedom once again, Regina tells the story of how each section of town could be identified by how the streets were named.  She said, “How you know you’re home is when you see your name on the street” (128).  My immediate thought was that Albie probably felt exactly the same way, but with a different set of names.

After all that, my mind is teeming with questions about the pre-Freedom people that were likely to have lived in the area, and I am wondering about how each supporter for the town’s name is coming to the table with different arguments as to why their name is most appropriate, but that all of these individuals are using the same techniques that they claim to detest in the others’ approaches, but no one is taking a moment to self-reflexively investigate what their names are about beyond a very specific emotion reason.  If that sentence makes any sense.

Personally, I think New Prospera is a crappy name, and not ‘just old enough to be cool again’ because Florida developments are teeming with names like that.  What the town needs is something like Apex, something that sounds great and can come to mean something to the people, but doesn’t have any background of potentially offensive meaning.

November 10, 2007

Apex ~ Number 1

Filed under: p()5t^^()d3,~]\[ — estherspace @ 3:15 pm

I am soooooooo excited to read Apex Hides the Hurt.  It was one of those books that I saw it hit the ‘new’ shelf at APL, but never could find the time to consume it.  So, thank you KM for the forced reading!

Oh, where to begin.  Structurally, this looks and acts very much like the novels I am used to reading.  There are chapters, an obvious plot, and a fairly smooth narrative.  This book does not make itself at all inaccessible to the ‘average’ reader.  Perhaps this accessibility is an important aspect of posmodern ideals, since it is not reserved for consumption by the elite. 

Now to the good parts.  Nomenclature consultant- it’s one of those jobs that can seem really dumb, but wowee, if they do it well it is really frightening.  Let’s just think about the globalization we are currently experiencing. 

globalization.gif This cartoon speaks to the power of a name.  What are these (markedly colored) natives being bombarded by?  Not by ideas of free trade and democracy, but instead by (markedly white), easily identifyable representations of America.  Obviously, we are winning the people through imposing the ‘American lifestyle’ upon them until they become as equally dependent upon their daily regime of Coca-Cola and McDonalds as we have. 

Back to Apex, the primary character admits that, “it was not the first time he had been saved by the recognizable logo of an international food franchise, its emanations and intimacies” (37), attesting to the fact that everyone develops this (psychosomatic) dependency upon the familiar and, in many ways, controlling ideas of what something can represent.

So, what if there was a breakdown between sign, signifier, and signified?  Because, while the re-naming of a town can have the economically advantageous outcome of boosting community morale and encouraging investment, it can also go the other direction if the wrong name is chosen.  What if the word ‘chair’ no longer represented our understanding of what a chair was?  What if New Prospera is not an appropriate new name for Winthrop?  Is it possible that by re-naming the town New Prospera it could result in not a revival and rebirth of faith in the town, but instead it would produce a breakdown between the idea of what something is and the reality of what it actually is, which would ultimately create a loss of faith and goodwill between the consumer (citizen) and the coordinator (the government). 

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