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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
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
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?"
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
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."