Anthony Enns questions Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s link between an anxiety about the displacement of male privilige and the fear of new media technology in postmodern fiction.
Electronic Media, Identity Politics, and the Rhetoric of Obsolescence
Electronic Media, Identity Politics, and the Rhetoric of Obsolescence
Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, is framed by a discussion of the controversy surrounding the inclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections on the list of Oprah’s Book Club recommendations and his subsequent criticism of the club, which resulted in his disinvitation from Oprah’s talk show. While Franzen was ostensibly concerned about having a “logo of corporate ownership” on his book, thus suggesting a critique of capitalism and its influence on the literary marketplace, Fitzpatrick argues that this concern actually masks deeper anxieties about the declining power of white male authors in contemporary culture: “Franzen resists Oprah because of the threat that her viewership poses to the seriousness of his position as cultural producer” (204). Fitzpatrick thus concludes that Oprah’s Book Club does not represent the threat of corporate power but rather the democratizing power of mass media:
Television’s democratizing reach is dangerous to the novelist in part because of the power it wields to level disparities in access to cultural products, exposing the writer to the scrutiny - and, indeed, the judgment - of others who may not be like-minded, who might exist in the terrifying spaces beyond the writer’s personal knowledge, and who might for that reason understand his universalizing view of the human condition to be an ideological construct conditioned on privilege. (205)
This statement essentially summarizes Fitzpatrick’s project: to show that anxieties about technology actually mask deeper concerns about the rising power of minorities and their potential to displace the authority of the white male power structure.
The Oprah-Franzen episode also frames this discussion in terms of debates about canon formation and the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow fiction, and Fitzpatrick explicitly cites Nina Baym’s 1981 article “Melodramas of Beset Manhood” as a model for her own argument. In this article, Baym describes the inherent sexism that informs theories of American literature, and she argues that white male novelists have historically been seen as engaged in a continuing “struggle for integrity and livelihood against flagrantly bad best-sellers written by women” (130). According to Baym, this narrative has largely been fueled by literary critics like F. O. Matthiessen, Lionel Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler, who describe “the essential quality of America” as “its unsettled wilderness and the opportunities that such a wilderness offers to the individual as the medium on which he may inscribe, unhindered, his own destiny and his own nature” (132). The American experience is thus seen as inherently male, while women represent “the encroaching, constricting, destroying” force of society (133). At the same moment when “feminist critics are discovering more and more important women,” therefore, “theorists have seized upon a theory that allows the women less and less presence” (139). Baym is particularly critical of theories like Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” which obscures the important contributions made by women writers by solely “defining literature as a struggle between fathers and sons” (139). Fitzpatrick’s book (whose title also recalls and undercuts Bloom’s famous phrase) similarly critiques postmodern American fiction by looking at the ways in which the perceived threats posed by electronic media actually “mask inadequately repressed fears of the social other” (231). As Fitzpatrick explains, the postmodern “novelist’s perception of his struggle against obsolescence is unquestionably connected to these earlier authors’ struggles for ‘integrity and livelihood,’” the only difference being “the shift from ‘flagrantly bad best-sellers written by women’ to television as the mass medium that male authors must struggle against” (231-232).
Fitzpatrick’s central argument thus links Baym’s approach to concerns that are very much at the core of the electronic book review. In her introduction, for example, she cites Joseph Tabbi’s founding manifesto, “A Review of Books in the Age of Their Technological Obsolescence,” in which he states that “what has changed 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.” Tabbi’s essay seems to contradict Fitzpatrick’s thesis, however, when he adds that “there’s a technological subtext to the declining prestige of authors and literary canons.” This argument is largely indebted to William Paulson’s essay “The Literary Canon in the Age of Its Technological Obsolescence,” in which he speculates about the role that technology plays in recent canon debates: “[W]hereas arguments over the canon may have largely, or at least initially, been political, the possibility of such arguments and their ultimate destination may have more to do with giving up or transforming some of the characteristics of print culture than with including the excluded” (230). As computers gradually replace the personal library, for example, the “mental habits fostered by attention to a slowly evolving core of printed texts” may no longer be “educationally appropriate” (231). While the canon debates never addressed such issues directly, Paulson concludes that technological changes make such debates not only possible, but essential: “If decanonizers did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them” (231). Fitzpatrick’s book effectively reverses Paulson’s formulation by arguing that overt technological concerns actually mask more covert political fears and a resistance to new media thus represents a resistance to the inclusion of minorities in the canon.
While it is conceivable that these two fears might be connected and a desire to preserve printed books might also imply a desire to retain a traditional notion of the “great books” of the western canon, it remains unclear whether either of these concerns remains timely. The obsolescence of print certainly provoked heated debate when Robert Coover heralded “The End of Books” in his 1992 essay in The New York Times, but it would seem that this issue no longer inspires the same sense of dread that it did more than fifteen years ago. Baym’s call to include more works by women writers in the literary canon also had a profound sense of urgency in the early 1980s, when her essay was originally published, but it seems that such concerns inform every anthology or syllabus on American literature today. Fitzpatrick does not try to suggest that critics like Matthiessen, Trilling, Fiedler, and Bloom still possess the same degree of cultural authority that they once held, but she does seem to suggest that her book is responding to a contemporary backlash against decanonization. Rather than examining the assumptions underlying the work of contemporary literary critics, however, she locates this threat securely within the literary works themselves, as certain postmodern texts (Fitzpatrick primarily focuses on the work of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo) employ technological anxieties in order to promote the reconstitution of a more traditional and exclusive model of the canon. Since many of these novels were published prior to the canon debate itself, it is not clear how they serve as evidence of such a backlash, yet it is important to note that this focus on literary works rather than the work of literary critics represents a significant departure from Baym’s original project. It is worth considering, for example, the assumptions about the function of authors and critics that underlie Fitzpatrick’s own argument: have authors assumed the role of maintaining an elite literary establishment that has been abandoned by literary scholars and critics, or have these critics effectively become superfluous as literary works construct their own critical narratives and assign their own value within them? The contemporary relationship between authors and critics and the question of how it has historically been shaped would seem to be rather complex, yet Fitzpatrick does not provide any clear account of this development other than to suggest that “[t]he hermetic world of writers reacting with and against one another no longer exists,” and the “scholarly community … must give up the luxury of purely literary-historical models of creative production to confront instead the role of literature in a larger culture” (6). The sense of urgency, in other words, is that the fears expressed in these novels are “already in motion” in the broader culture, and they thus serve as “a comfortable site for the displacement of anxieties about human difference” in contemporary society as a whole (230). While Fitzpatrick’s argument mirrors Baym’s method of deconstructing critical narratives of literary history, therefore, it does not address the function of the literary establishment or suggest ways in which it could be reformed - other than to imply that this institution is itself obsolete.
The book is organized into five chapters, which address various discourses concerning the perceived threat posed by new technologies and the ways in which these anxieties are represented in postmodern novels. The first chapter examines the rhetoric of obsolescence that surrounds the very concept of postmodernism itself. It summarizes a wide range of critical texts, such as John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies, and Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature, which each conceal “fears of social change” behind “a more palatable and seemingly progressive technological concern” (20). Fitzpatrick argues, in other words, that critical attempts to depict the novel as “an endangered species” actually represent an attempt to protect both “the form and its practitioners … from the encroachments of the changing contemporary world” (26). Fitzpatrick identifies three particular technological concerns that are frequently addressed by postmodernist writers: “technologies of mechanization have produced concerns about dehumanization; technologies of image production have been greeted with concerns about illusion and ideology; and technologies of interconnection have confronted concerns about the loss of the individual” (27). Chapters two, three, and four discuss how each of these concerns manifests in various postmodern novels, and in each of these chapters Fitzpatrick reiterates her claim that such anxieties mask deeper fears connected to social change and the displacement of white male privilege.
The first chapter also establishes the rationale for employing television as “a metonym for something broader that might be characterized as the ‘electronic media’ ” (36). This would appear to be a strange choice, as contemporary discussions of the novel’s obsolescence more often focus on new information technologies like the computer. Fitzpatrick explains that television is intended to refer to “all media forms (including photography and film) that participate in or are defined by the machine, the spectacle, and the network” (36). This statement seems to lack a certain historical and technological specificity. It is unclear, for example, whether the cultural discourses surrounding photography could be easily mapped onto debates about television or whether cultural debates about television reflect the same concerns as more recent debates about hypertext and new media writing. The argument most often made concerning the impact of photography on literature, for example, is that it encouraged a greater degree of literary realism, which would seem to be at odds with Baudrillard’s well-known theory about television as a realm of endless simulation that conceals the absence of the real. The other classic argument concerning television - that its hypnotizing gaze potentially serves as a form of surveillance, pacification, and mind control that reinforces the centralized power of totalitarian regimes - would also seem to contradict the claims made by the proponents of new interactive technologies, who more often stress their ability to decenter authority, destabilize power structures, and promote democracy through the free exchange of information.
This lack of media specificity is frequently problematic, as Fitzpatrick’s close readings of particular novels seem to assume from the start that the effects of all media technologies are essentially identical and postmodern novelists consistently represent these technologies in a negative light. These assumptions often simplify rather complex issues. While novels like Pynchon’s Vineland depict technologies like film, television, and digital media in a variety of different ways, for example, Fitzpatrick concludes that these technologies are all complicit “with centralized forces of control” (178). Critics like Hannah Möckel-Rieke point out, however, that in Pynchon’s novel, unlike television “film is intended to reveal a physical memory as a kind of visually unconsciously truth which can be held against the lie of political discourse” (55). Digital media similarly serve a more ambiguous function within the narrative: “Digital media form the core of a post-industrial, international capitalism, represented by the Chipco corporation, and on the other hand support tendencies of ‘retribalization.’ In doing so, they become a constitutive part of local and virtual communities which in the book are portrayed as core residues for a power ‘from below’ ” (64). By overlooking these distinctions and suggesting that the novel’s more overt criticism of television automatically encompasses these other media technologies, Fitzpatrick’s reading seems to miss many of the finer nuances of Pynchon’s media critique. The danger of such oversimplifications is also stressed by critics like Brian McHale, who complicates the notion that Pynchon is simply “conducting a jeremiad against TV” (125). McHale argues instead that television functions in the novel as an “ontological pluralizer” (130) that allows Pynchon to create a cognitive map of postmodern culture itself: “TV is a privileged model or metaphor for the whole of the society that produces and consumes it” (133).
A possible motive for neglecting these distinctions would seem to be that they potentially weaken the book’s primary argument, which depends on the questionable premise that Pynchon and DeLillo’s novels are fundamentally anti-technological. Another reason, however, might lie in the fact that Fitzpatrick’s critique of the rhetoric of obsolescence also represents a critique of postmodernism itself as a rhetorical tactic for preserving white male hegemony. Fitzpatrick describes postmodern theory, for example, as a “self-protective gesture” made by “white male critics” who felt threatened by the rise of “identity politics” in the 1980s and who subsequently attempted “to find prolonged political relevance in a radically changing social structure” (46). Such a description clearly contradicts the claims made by critics like Andreas Huyssen, who defines postmodernism as a rejection of “the canonized high/low dichotomy” of modernism (Huyssen viii). Fitzpatrick does not explicitly address this argument until her final chapter, where she claims that postmodernism actually represents a continuation of the modernist project by other means:
[T]hough Huyssen argues … that these boundaries between high and low, between art and mass culture, have dissolved in the contemporary era, one must ask for whom such boundaries have fallen, if indeed they have. Though it is now clearly possible for “high” artists such as Jonathan Franzen to appropriate the forms of mass culture formerly stigmatized as “chick lit,” is it similarly possible for participants in the “mass” - watchers of television; readers of chick-lit - to partake of the objects of “high” art? (219)
Fitzpatrick thus concludes that modernist fears about “an infiltrating, infecting mass culture” have “not diminished” (219). While critics like bell hooks argue that postmodern fragmentation allows previously privileged social groups to experience the same sort of “deep alienation, despair, uncertainty, loss of a sense of grounding” experienced by minorities (27), Fitzpatrick sees postmodernism as preserving “a position of centrality,” “dismissing the social interests of writers previously marginalized,” and “claiming that position of marginality or ‘decenteredness’ for itself” (220-221). According to Fitzpatrick, in other words, postmodernism actually reinforces traditional social hierarchies, which makes it indistinguishable from modernism itself. Rather than looking at the ways in which Pynchon and DeLillo employ the aesthetic form of television as a way of cognitively mapping postmodern culture, therefore, Fitzpatrick seems to suggest that postmodernism only exists as a theory in order to displace identity politics. In short, Fitzpatrick neglects to make finer distinctions between the functions of various media technologies in these novels because she is ultimately not interested in technology itself as anything other than a metaphor for these other social fears.
In the second chapter, Fitzpatrick focuses on the figure of the machine and the fears of dehumanization that it often evokes. Fitzpatrick argues that such concerns actually conceal deeper anxieties about the loss of masculinity in contemporary culture:
[T]he humanity that is alienated through its dealings with technology is inescapably masculinist, bound up in centuries-old tropes of the liberal subject as both rugged individualist and committed citizen … . [T]echnology becomes one among many social forces that threaten the subject with feminization [and] the question of an alienated ‘humanity’ serves as a foil for concerns about a decentered, fragmented masculinity. (61)
Women are thus seen as being “responsible for the culture’s increasing mechanization,” and “the loss of agency … feared in a machinic world is a masculine agency” (74). This claim is supported through close readings of Pynchon’s V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. The mysterious woman known simply as “V.,” for example, gradually transforms her own body into a “clockwork assemblage,” and she “reduces all of what remains of the human to mere elements in a machine” (89). At the end of the novel, Herbert Stencil articulates his own vision of V. as a fully synthetic woman:
[S]kin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic; both eyes glass but now containing photoelectric cells, connected by silver electrodes to optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain exquisitely wrought as a diode matrix could ever be. Solenoid relays would be her ganglia, servo-actuators move her flawless nylon limbs, hydraulic fluid be sent by a platinum heart-pump through butyrate veins and arteries. Perhaps … even a complex system of pressure transducers located in a marvelous vagina of polyethylene; the variable arms of their Wheatstone bridges all leading to a single silver cable which fed pleasure-voltages direct to the correct register of the digital machine in her skull. (Pynchon 411-412)
Fitzpatrick notes that Stencil’s description is overtly misogynistic, and she cites several other examples in the text that similarly reflect a sadistic drive on the part of the male characters to transform women into machines. The plastic surgeon Schoenmaker, for example, is obsessed with operating on Esther in order to transform her into a “living doll” (Fitzpatrick 83). Benny Profane also expresses a desire for “an electronic woman”: “Any problems with her, you could look it up in the maintenance manual. Module concept: fingers’ weight, heart’s temperature, mouth’s size out of tolerance? Remove and replace, was all” (Pynchon 385). Fitzpatrick thus concludes that Profane, like the other characters in the novel, is searching for a woman who will present “no resistance - or at least none that can’t be ‘measured in ohms’ ” (97).
While this interpretation of Profane’s motivation is certainly convincing, Fitzpatrick surprisingly argues that Pynchon’s novel completely condones the misogynistic fantasies expressed by its characters. Although she notes that Stencil’s “imaginings are clearly those of a character, not necessarily of the author,” she immediately adds that “they nonetheless demand consideration; as Stencil’s historical project parallels Pynchon’s, so his mediating consciousness reflects upon the author’s own” (96). Fitzpatrick similarly implies that Pynchon is ultimately responsible for these misogynistic views because “Stencil’s imagination is carried out within Pynchon’s imaginative prose” (97). I am not sure how to interpret these statements, as they seem to preclude any possibility of satire. Fitzpatrick’s own reading would seem to suggest, on the other hand, that Pynchon incorporates these misogynistic views in order to illustrate and critique the patriarchal drive to control and dominate women. If so, it would seem possible to interpret the novel not as a representation of “the dangers of the feminine” and the fear of a “masculine loss of potency” (97), but rather as a critique of the male obsession with potency and the belief that it can be augmented and enhanced by technological means.
The third chapter focuses on the theme of spectacle and the perceived threat that images pose to the primacy of writing. Fitzpatrick summarizes various critiques of television culture, such as the work of Neil Postman, Guy Debord, and Jean Baudrillard, in order to address three key dangers that are most often attributed to images: 1) “the image is thought to further a worldview in which things take precedence over ideas” (112); 2) “the spectacle … replicates the most dangerous aspects of ideology, setting the stage for explosive violence” (113); and 3) “the spectacle … [creates] a new reality that finally supplants the ‘real’ to which its viewers have lost access” (114). Fitzpatrick adds that postmodern novelists like DeLillo frequently depict how the proliferation of images through optical media “supplants the ‘real’ ” as well as the potential power of the written word to counteract this effect. In his essay “The Power of History,” for example, DeLillo claims that there is “always another set of images for you to want and need and get sick of and need nonetheless, and it separates you from the reality that beats ever more softly in the diminishing world outside the tape” (63). Fitzpatrick points out that this claim bears remarkable similarities to Baudrillard’s simulation theory, and she interprets DeLillo’s novels as an attempt to recuperate this “disappearing profound reality” (115). In her reading of Mao II, for example, Fitzpatrick argues that DeLillo presents the threat posed by photography by describing the ways in which the modern society of the spectacle has effaced writers and the written word. According to Fitzpatrick, the photographs taken of Bill Gray, the reclusive author, turn him “into a trading card, something that can be owned rather than understood,” and the image “drains the world of meaning by erasing its connections to the real” (129). By reducing the writer to an image, in other words, photographs effectively silence the authorial voice, and Gray’s eventual disappearance thus represents “the final vanishing of the writer in an image-driven culture” (129). Indeed, the novel describes many ways in which photographs are employed to consolidate political power, and Gray himself complains that having his picture taken makes him feel that he has become “someone’s material,” a “consumer event” (DeLillo, Mao II 43). However, it would be wrong to conclude that he is simply trapped by photography or that photography consistently threatens to destroy writing; rather, photography also allows Gray to escape from the trap represented by his own seclusion. Gray has invited the photographer, for example, because he wants “to break down the monolith I’ve built,” which makes him “afraid to go anywhere” and keeps him from writing anything new (44). Rather than foreclosing his access to the real, in other words, photography actually enables Gray to escape his isolation and more fully engage in the outside world. There are also moments in the novel when writing and photography are depicted as complementary methods of engaging with the real. This is most clearly illustrated at the end of the novel, when Gray’s sympathy for the boys that have been indoctrinated by the terrorists in Beirut is explicitly paralleled with the photographer’s attempts to take a picture of these boys (203, 236). These moments seem to demand a more subtle reading of the role of optical media in the novel, and they illustrate the dangers of equating the effects or different media, like photography and television. Rather than simply describing images as either positive or negative, in other words, their value would seem to depend more on whether they are employed for the purposes of indoctrination or liberation, and photography would thus seem to represent yet another potential conduit to “the diminishing world outside the tape.”
A more pressing question, however, is how this issue relates to the book’s primary argument. This remains unclear until Fitzpatrick turns to White Noise. Critics frequently discuss how this novel illustrates Baudrillard’s simulation theory, yet Fitzpatrick argues that the anxieties about the image represented in this novel actually conceal “fears about race and ethnicity” (139), and she asserts that the title could also be interpreted as a reference to “the noise … made by the novel’s white males as they are surrounded and displaced by members of other races” (137). This sentence echoes Tim Engles’ claim that “White Noise can be read as a novel about the noise that white people make” (755), yet Engles argues that the characters in this novel are not “overt racists,” but rather they “demonstrate the common American tendency to foreground race in their conceptions of other people by immediately conceiving of racialized others in racial terms” (767). Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, interprets this tendency as evidence of the characters’ underlying racist attitudes. For example, Fitzpatrick claims that Jack Gladney’s racism is revealed at those moments when he attempts to determine the ethnicity of others, like his son’s friend Orest: “He might have been Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, a dark-skinned Eastern European, a light-skinned black. Did he have an accent? I wasn’t sure. Was he a Samoan, a native North American, a Sephardic Jew?” (DeLillo, White Noise 208). For Fitzpatrick, this scene illustrates the “threat that lurks in visually perceived but uncontained otherness” (140), while for Engles it exposes the “relationality of identity-formation” and contradicts the “white fantasy of autonomous individualism” (760) by depicting Gladney’s gradual realization of his “habitual reliance on” and “the eroding reliability of traditional American racial categories” (763). Fitzpatrick also argues that the novel attributes this tendency to categorize others in racial terms to optical media, like television: “The realm of the visual … is accused of doing violence both to cultural systems of representation and to the culture’s sense of the human, making such desires to visually categorize and classify people inevitable” (140). The connection between visual media and the visual categorization of others becomes particularly evident, according to Fitzpatrick, when television is associated with images of Hitler: “Hitler - and thus the most virulent form of ethnocentric violence - is at the heart of the electronic media and its participation in images of terror; television, as the primary purveyor of the dominant ideology, carries his message of whiteness and maleness twenty-four hours a day” (139). In other words, the novel portrays electronic media as inherently racist and as the source of the characters’ racist attitudes, yet the characters also critique television in order to deflect attention away from their own racism: “Hitler makes it possible for the novel’s characters to blame their ‘fears and secrets’ on television, rather than being forced to acknowledge their difficult, often inappropriate origin in human difference” (139). Unlike Engles, therefore, Fitzpatrick does not read the novel as intentionally foregrounding and criticizing the construction of white identity, but rather she interprets the novel’s critique of television as a tactic that allows DeLillo to conceal his own racist agenda and preserve the space of the novel as the realm of white male privilege. While Fitzpatrick’s theory certainly provides a new and highly provocative approach to understanding the significance of race in White Noise, the logic of her argument is often confusing, and I still have difficulty understanding how the novel’s explicit critique of racism on television could somehow also be interpreted as a means of concealing and implicitly promoting that same racism.
Chapter four examines the discourse surrounding the media network and the perceived threat that it poses to writing. Fitzpatrick defines the network as the merging of electricity and information, which gave rise to cybernetics, information theory, and the concept of information entropy. She also adds that these new theories of communication led to anxieties concerning the potential failure of communication systems and the breakdown of individual subjectivity. Fitzpatrick outlines three particular questions raised by these developments: 1) “If accurate and complete communication is impossible in a networked culture, might that impossibility have ramifications for print-based communication as well?” (154); 2) “is the network’s chaos a disintegration of order - entropy - or a complexity that masks a minute, even fractal, ubiquity of order that may spontaneously emerge into a new form of being?” (154); and 3) “is the individual threatened with extinction and replacement by an infinitely interconnected ‘hive mind’?” (154-155). The concept of the network thus “represents a threat to individual agency” as well as “the individual ability to communicate” (163).
Most of this chapter is devoted to examining how Pynchon and DeLillo incorporate the concepts of information theory and systems theory in their novels. While Fitzpatrick does an excellent job of outlining these theories and explaining how they inform the literary texts, it is not clear how her readings differ from the work of previous critics. Fitzpatrick’s claim that The Crying of Lot 49 represents an “overflow of information” (165) that threatens to hasten “the entropic decline into meaninglessness” (169), for example, seems to represent a rather conventional way of interpreting this novel. More importantly, however, it is unclear until the end of the chapter how this discussion relates to the book’s primary argument. In her section on “Massification,” however, Fitzpatrick addresses how fears of an interconnected “hive mind” also serve to reinforce traditional social hierarchies:
It is not accidental that, in a nation in which individualism is represented as the political ideal, otherness is often equated with the loss of individuality; the television network, in binding a disparate citizenry together, thus threatens the loss of the individual’s primacy and the equation of the privileged form of the individual - white, male, Western - with those others he has for so long dominated. (199)
Fitzpatrick supports this claim by returning to Mao II and its descriptions of mass events like the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the mass wedding at Yankee Stadium by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Fitzpatrick points out that Karen, who was herself a Moonie and took part in the mass wedding, also has a deep affinity for television. As Gray points out, “She’s smart about people. Looks right through us. Watches TV and knows what people are going to say next. Not only gets it right but does their voices” (DeLillo, Mao II 65). According to Fitzpatrick, however, Gray fails to realize that “Karen in fact bears a striking resemblance to the television; she does not understand people but channels them. She is the multiplicitous and yet demultiplied subject of the future” (197, emphasis in original).
While Fitzpatrick is obviously correct in suggesting that there is a close connection between Karen’s activities as a Moonie and her intuitive understanding of television culture, there are several other moments in the novel when the notion of a “hive mind” is represented in far more ambiguous terms. Karen defends the concept of a mass wedding, for example, by arguing for the value of empathy:
The point of mass marriage is to show that we have to survive as a community instead of individuals trying to master every complex force. Mass interracial marriage. The conversion of the white-skinned by the dark … . I know all the drawbacks of the Moon system but in theory it is brave and visionary. Think of the future and how depressed you get. All the news is bad. We can’t survive by needing more, wanting more, standing out, grabbing all we can … . This isn’t a story about seeing the planet new. It’s about seeing people new. We see them from space, where gender and features don’t matter, where names don’t matter. We’ve learned to see ourselves as if from space, as if from satellite cameras, all the time, all the same. As if from the moon, even. We’re all Moonies, or should learn to be. (89)
As Fitzpatrick concludes, Karen is indeed the novel’s “best example of the death of the individual, the wholly vacated subjectivity created by the massness of the electronic media” (196), and this loss of individuality is linked to the elimination of gender and racial differences, yet it remains unclear whether such descriptions should be interpreted solely as the expression of the perceived threat that the masses pose to a privileged enclave of white male novelists. In other words, rather than endorsing the racist comments made by Karen’s parents during the mass wedding ceremony (“I see a lot of faces that don’t look American” ) the novel seems to suggest that Karen’s notion of a global community made possible by media technologies represents a potentially positive and hopeful vision of the future. This reading is corroborated by the fact that Karen does not simply end up returning to the Moonies, but rather she applies the same philosophy to helping people in the homeless slums of Tompkins Square Park, and her relationship with Gray and his photographer lead both of these characters to develop a greater sense of empathy for the children in Beirut. DeLillo’s novel thus appears to incorporate Baudrillard’s concept of simulation as well as McLuhan’s notion of the “global village” without allowing either of these theories to cancel out the other.
In the fifth and final chapter, Fitzpatrick returns to the idea that television represents a tool for democracy that effectively levels racial and gender differences by comparing Toni Morrison’s attitude toward television to those expressed by young, white, male writers like David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. Fitzpatrick argues, for example, that Wallace’s Infinite Jest reveals “fears … about television’s effect on the writer himself, threatening as it does to trap him and his work in a state of terminal nonseriousness in which there are no problems that can’t be treated with sarcastic detachment” (216). Although Fitzpatrick does not suggest that this novel also critiques the rise of identity politics, she refers to a personal note written to Jonathan Franzen, in which Wallace claims that “the guys who write directly about and at the present culture tend to be writers who find their artistic invalidation especially painful … . And it’s not an accident that so may of the writers in the shadows are straight white males” (qtd. in Franzen 51). Fitzpatrick thus concludes that “writerly anxiety about exclusion from ‘the culture’ seems to circulate around their whiteness and maleness; in their unmarkedness, in finding themselves the New White Guys, these writers feel themselves excluded from a culture of exclusion, marginalized by a culture that is finally paying attention to the voices on the margins” (209). The implied connection between this “writerly anxiety about exclusion from ‘the culture’ ” and anxieties about television is made more evident when Fitzpatrick discusses Morrison’s attitude toward television. Unlike Wallace, Morrison welcomes the potentially empowering aspects of new media, which “can be co-opted … through the adaptation of her novels for film and television or through the inclusion of her novels in Oprah’s Book Club” (229). Morrison thus sees television as “a tool for the promotion of the novelist’s voice rather than a threat to that voice” (229-230). Like her reading of the Oprah-Franzen incident, therefore, Fitzpatrick concludes that white, male novelists critique television in order to mask deeper anxieties about the rise of minority writers, while minorities embrace television because it allows them the opportunity to engage more fully in mainstream culture. Postmodern fiction is synonymous with white male privilege, in other words, because it “works to distance itself from the contaminating otherness of the masses and to retreat into the purity of universal white masculinity” (220).
It is difficult to believe that Wallace truly feels his artistic endeavors have not been validated, but it is even more difficult to understand how such a feeling might be related to his critique of television. The connection that Fitzpatrick draws between these two statements remains somewhat nebulous, just as it remains unclear why Morrison’s work should not be considered “postmodern” even though it exhibits many of the characteristics most commonly associated with this term. Fitzpatrick sidesteps this problem by referring to Morrison’s work as an example of “social postmodernism” rather than “cultural postmodernism” and arguing that “writers operating within a socially oriented postmodernist perspective, like Morrison, do not, by and large, show evidence of the anxiety of obsolescence in their texts” (49). This distinction adds a greater degree of complexity to Fitzpatrick’s argument, yet it seems to contradict her more general assertion that “the discourse of postmodernism is cultural criticism’s expression of the anxiety of obsolescence” (46). If there are socially oriented postmodernist writers who embrace identity politics, in other words, why is it necessary to conclude that postmodernism as a whole is inherently sexist and racist?
A more disturbing problem, however, is the suggestion that the same argument could also be applied to electronic writing. In an on-line response to earlier reviews of her book published by the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, for example, Fitzpatrick discussed her work with the Institute for the Future of the Book (a think tank funded by the MacArthur Foundation to investigate how electronic media could potentially transform educational institutions), MediaCommons (an electronic scholarly network designed to promote new forms of digital scholarship and pedagogy), and her blog Planned Obsolescence. Her work on these projects is informed by a sense that even though the novel may not be dead, scholarly publishing soon will be:
[T]he seeming imminence of the death of the current system of academic publishing … has led me to ponder new kinds of reading and writing structures, new publishing models, new modes of peer review and institutional warranting. These new forms are … certain to be many-to-many rather than one-directional, interactive and discursive rather than silent, social rather than individual.
Fitzpatrick’s electronic work thus embraces the same obsolescence that postmodern novelists like Pynchon and DeLillo seem to fear. Laurie N. Taylor notes that Fitzpatrick’s book also
shows how print can be transformed through digital media, with much of the book online on a website by the author, available as a “Search Inside this Book” on Amazon.com, and with information on library holdings for the print version available on WorldCat and through Google’s Book Search. Each of these shows that avenues for fostering print culture are changing, just as print culture itself is changing. However, instead of being negatives that weaken the great print culture, this means that more people have access to more information, thereby strengthening the power of the printed word - however it may be printed.
By promoting the establishment of social networks that enable free and democratic access to information, in other words, Fitzpatrick’s book actually demonstrates many of the same functions that it ascribes to electronic media.
If Fitzpatrick’s argument is extended to the realm of electronic publishing, however, the implication would seem to be that this technology promotes identity politics more than print, and any resistance to electronic publishing would have to be interpreted as a form of white male paranoia. This is already implied, for example, in Fitzpatrick’s claim that Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies represents “a resistance to the shifting of social hierarchies” rather than a resistance to electronic media (151). While I certainly agree that reports of the “death of the novel” have been greatly exaggerated, and anxieties about new media technologies and the threats they allegedly pose to literature may reflect fears about larger societal changes, it is difficult to accept the conclusion that critiques of technology always function as covert attacks against identity politics. Such a conclusion also seems to ignore the very real existence of digital divides that provide affluent westerners with greater access to electronic resources. While the World Wide Web promises to fulfill Raymond Williams’ utopian vision of electronic democracy, this does not necessarily mean that such a democracy has already been realized or that democracy itself is impossible to achieve within the realm of print. By failing to acknowledge the importance of media specificity and by dismissing critiques of technology as inherently sexist or racist, Fitzpatrick’s book presents an overly simplistic view of the relationship between technology and identity politics, and her approach ultimately seems to shut down the very kind of free and open exchange of ideas that her electronic projects are ideally supposed to facilitate.
Baym, Nina. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.” American Quarterly 33 (1981): 123-139.
Coover, Robert. “The End of Books.” New York Times Book Review 21 June 1992: 1+.
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
—. “The Power of History.” New York Times Magazine 7 Sept. 1997: 60-63.
—. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Engles, Tim. “ ‘Who Are You, Literally?’: Fantasies of the White Self in White Noise.” Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999): 755-787.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2006.
—. “Author Response.” Resource Center for Cybercultural Studies. Oct. 2007. 1 Mar. 2008
Franzen, Jonathan. “Perchance to Dream.” Harpers Apr. 1996: 35-54.
hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990.
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.
McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992.
Möckel-Rieke, Hannah. “Media and Memory in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 43.1 (1998): 51-74.
Paulson, William. “The Literary Canon in the Age of Its Technological Obsolescence.” Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ed. Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. 227-249.
Pynchon, Thomas. V.. 1963. New York: Harper, 1990.
Tabbi, Joseph. “A Review of Books in the Age of Their Technological Obsolescence.” electronic book review 1995. 1 Mar. 2008
Taylor, Laurie N. Rev. of The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Resource Center for Cybercultural Studies. Oct. 2007. 1 Mar. 2008
Karen, we could say, effectively transforms the signs by which we come to know people into objects of perception rather than objects of understanding. According to Walter Benn Michaels, this transformation of the intentional, and thus meaningful, sign into the unintentional, and thus meaningless, mark constitutes the ur-logic of postmodern thought, which is distinguished by its irrational privileging of affective experience over cognitive beliefs. In The Shape of the Signifier), Michaels suggests that through Bill Gray’s figuring of writing as “bits of human tissue sticking to the page” (Mao II 28), DeLillo not only depicts but effectively endorses a “disarticulation of writing from representation” (175). Is it possible, however, that both Fitzpatrick and Michaels err in identifying Don DeLillo’s ideological commitments with those of his fictional creations?
For a rigorous critique of Toni Morrison’s literary postmodernism, see Madhu Dubey’s indespensible Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (U of Chicago Press, 2003). Dubey challenges the conservatism of Morrison’s southern folk aesthetic on the grounds that it naively valorizes a premodern, black, southern, and female, oral tradition as an imaginary solution to problems associated with the alienating experience of modernization - particularly urbanization and print-based literacy. For Dubey, Morrison regularly succumbs to a “nostalgia for the literal” (178), and her desire for abolishing mediation makes her anything but a technological progressive. Rather, in a “postmodern romance of the residual” magic and orality provide the means for forging an imaginary black community that, in reality, remains riven with conflict due to the socioeconomic contradictions inherent to late capitalism.
Amy Elias’ ebr review of Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism was published as part of the Senseless Resistances gathering.
Not only white male authors are wary about television’s impact on the technologizing of the word: In her first public address after winning the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, reluctant feminist icon Doris Lessing deplored the mass media’s effects on literary production. Promising new authors, particularly attractive young women, are marketed as celebrities and “can’t write a second book because they are always on the telephone or having to do some TV thing.” Like DeLillo and Pynchon, Lessing believes that writers must resist much of televisual culture, not least because the exposure and public access it demands intrudes upon and disrupts the solitary “imaginative space” of literary production. “If a writer cannot find this space,” Lessing warned in her Nobel Lecture, “then poems and stories may be stillborn.”
Although it sounds like an inherently noble goal, providing more people with access to more information will not necessarily promote print-based literacy and could actually do more harm than good by proliferating opportunities for oligarchs to circulate misinformation designed to confuse and distract the wired, but functionally illiterate multitude. People need to be educated - and to educate themselves -about how to access, analyze, and assess the validity and the relevance of the multiplicity of information that’s so readily available in the networked society. As a professor of literature, I’m concerned about the not insubstantial number of incurious college students who resist using library databases to conduct research and who must be coerced, through specific assignments that require them to check out and read books, journals, and magazines, into exploring what’s available in the stacks at the university library.