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Review / Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Literature & the Idiot Box
By Anne Shulock '08

The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television
 By Kathleen Fitzpatrick Associate Professor of English and Media Studies
 Vanderbilt University Press / 268 pages / $34.95


She sounds like a typical teenager: she LOVES to watch television, frequently reads blogs, updates her own blogs, and thinks the YouTube phenomenon is fascinating. But Kathleen Fitzpatrick is no high-schooler-she is an associate professor of English and media studies at Pomona College who believes that "students have to come to terms with the media and have to take the popular as seriously as the things that we think of as elite culture ... It has such impact on our lives and how we function day to day."

 Fitzpatrick, who has been with Pomona since 1998, has expressed her academic interest in popular media through projects that examine the relationship between traditional print culture and new technology. Her 2006 book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, reveals contemporary novelists' discomfort with new media's flashiness, seductiveness and democratizing power. Her Web-based project "MediaCommons" seeks to update scholarship and academic publishing to take advantage of the new media environment.

In Defense of the "Idiot Box"
"I adore watching television," says Fitzpatrick. "Part of its richness for me is in the ability to treat it as a subject worthy of greater conversation." Fitzpatrick majored in English as an undergraduate, but for graduate study wanted to explore the relationship between contemporary fiction and contemporary television programming. Of the schools she applied to, only New York University took her candidacy seriously. But, she says, "This is not to say that a certain portion of the faculty in the English Department didn't look askance at me-they really did."

Fitzpatrick has long been frustrated with how television does not get the same respect as novels. One day at NYU, Fitzpatrick was talking with someone about the problem when "this idea popped whole cloth out of my head. I said, 'It's like Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence except in reverse ... It's not that you can never achieve something because the writers who have gone before you are so huge that you can never do anything original, it's that in fact what's coming after you is so new that everybody's only paying attention to that, and nobody's listening to you anymore.'" She termed this inversion "the anxiety of obsolescence" and made it the focus of her dissertation.

In the dissertation and subsequent book, "on which I spent more years of my life than I would want to admit," Fitzpatrick shows the unease that modern novelists like Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow, V.) and Don DeLillo (Underworld, White Noise) have with technology. They create characters like V.'s Fergus Mixolydian, who designs a "sleep-switch" that operates the television in response to Fergus' level of awareness. This makes him an extension of the television and, as Fitzpatrick writes, "a literal rendering of the general couch-potato syndrome into which so many intellectuals have imagined the United States sinking." These images troubled Fitzpatrick, who explains in the introduction that a key goal of her work has been "the demonstration of the peaceable coexistence of literature and television."

Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Many critics and authors do not have such an optimistic view, and Obsolescence describes how the perceived threat of new technology has found expression in proclamations of the death of the novel. People claim that "everybody's watching stories on TV, nobody's reading stories in print anymore," but Fitzpatrick argues that authors are the ones declaring the novel's death, and doing so in order to create an endangered, and therefore valued, space for themselves within society. Fitzpatrick takes wolf-criers to task with a social critique, charging that they focus on new media developments' impact on American culture "to obscure other, unspeakable anxieties" about social trends that are more threatening "to the hegemony of whiteness and maleness" than to the novel.

Publication Frustration
For all Fitzpatrick's faith in the continuing strength of print, her own book almost did not get published. Her manuscript received enthusiastic reviews, but during her rewriting process the dot-com bubble burst, negatively affecting university endowments, particularly budgets of university presses and libraries. Presses reduced the number of titles they published, and as an unknown author Fitzpatrick struggled for more than a year to find a publisher, eventually working with Vanderbilt University Press. During this frustrating ordeal a colleague suggested that she simply publish the manuscript and the positive peer reviews online. He added, "Of course I understand why you can't do that"-the book would not be officially sanctioned by the academic community-but the comment got Fitzpatrick thinking: "Well why not? Why can't we develop an officially sanctioned, seal of approval, fully peer-reviewed university press, except entirely digital?"

Making MediaCommons
Following this breakthrough, Fitzpatrick posted on thevalve.org, a group literary blog, "what amounted to a manifesto for why scholarly publishing, particularly in the humanities, needs to move online ... and what the kinds of structures that are available for blogging can do for scholarly publishing." After reading the post, Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book contacted her about his Institute's interest in starting an electronic scholarly press, asking her point-blank: "What do you need to make it happen?"

So, for more than a year Fitzpatrick has led a team working to produce MediaCommons, now in development on the Web at mediacommons.futureofthebook.org. She hopes to fully launch the site in fall 2007. The concept has evolved into more than just an electronic press. The site has three features: a blog, which discusses developments on the site, media and publishing-related issues; proposals for large-scale projects that Media_Commons will undertake; and "In Media Res," a weekly feature for which a scholar posts a short video clip with comments.

As Fitzpatrick explains, "One of the hopes with this feature ("In Media Res") is that media scholarship can start happening at something like the speed that media actually moves. One of the ongoing jokes in television studies of late is that this year has been a very good year for (scholarship on) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite the fact that it got cancelled three years ago."

It's All Going to the Blogs
With MediaCommons, Fitzpatrick is rethinking how features of the Internet and blogs can change how scholars produce and publish work. Fitzpatrick has been keeping her own blog for more than four years and assigns blogs to students in her classes. She finds them helpful in increasing communication among students and scholars. "It can be very isolating to sort of close yourself in your office and do your own work," she says, noting that scholars who have gotten involved in group blogs find that consistent interaction and feedback enhances their productivity.

She wants MediaCommons to be a network where people can post ideas and articles, read scholarly works, give feedback, post sample syllabi and participate in discussions. The use of trackbacks, a technology borrowed from blogs, may also change the scholarly process. Trackbacks work by creating two-way links between sites when one references another. In scholarship as it occurs now, someone can read a text and "trace conversations backwards in time through bibliography and works cited," Fitzpatrick explains. "But if we're publishing online and if we're using a technology like trackback, you would also be able to track conversations forward in time by seeing that this particular article has been cited by all of these other scholars." New technology can also change the look of a text. Working online lets scholars include links to other pertinent texts, from articles to video clips and "create a porous border around text ... and bring things into its frame."

Reimagining Peer Review
For all its potential to improve scholarly work, online publishing does face a challenge in the traditional reward structures of academia. Fitzpatrick explains that while she has been writing "in and for electronic spaces" over the last four years, it is print-oriented writing for which faculty usually get rewarded with tenure and promotion. A motivation for MediaCommons is to press the academy to "let go of 'we have always done it this way'" and realize that new approaches to publishing might actually have advantages.

One goal of MediaCommons is to re-imagine the peer review process to increase its usefulness while keeping it "sufficiently serious for promotion and tenure committees." As peer review functions now, a scholar submits an article to a journal, the editor sends copies to reviewers (without the author's name on the article), and the reviewers send responses to the editor. "It's not productive on a certain level for two people who are not the author of the text to be having a conversation about it without the author really being involved," says Fitzpatrick. "It seems to us to be a potentially destructive process." MediaCommons' goal is to "transform the peer review process from being one that's fundamentally about gatekeeping, as it is now ... to a post-publication review process ... that guides reception."

The Times They Are A-Changin'
In The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Fitzpatrick devotes a chapter to "the network" created by new technology and resulting "fears about the disappearance of the individual as he or she is wired into a potentially fascistic mass." But Fitzpatrick thrives on creating networks among scholars and interconnections among various interests-and these interests include both understanding the changes that new technologies induce in the broader culture and shaping those changes. Of her projects with blogs and MediaCommons, she says, "People at the college in particular but in the academy more broadly seem really poised and ready for something new like this. People are waiting for it to get done." 
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by Pomona College
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