Tales from the Textual Zombie Apocalypse

In the introduction to her text Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick develops a striking metaphor for how academic publishing currently operates and the stagnant form of its major product, namely the monograph: “The scholarly press book is, however, in a curious state, one that might usefully trouble our associations of obsolescence with the ‘death’ of this or that cultural form, for while it is no longer a viable mode of communication, it is, in many fields, still required in order to get tenure. If anything, the scholarly monograph isn’t dead; it is undead” (4).

As Fitzpatrick points out, and as I’m sure many of us are aware, zombie culture is huge these days. Just look at the popularity of zombie-centric texts like World War Z by Max Brooks and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Marc Forster, or the AMC series The Walking Dead, based on the comic-book series of the same name. And of course there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because who doesn’t want a little brains with their Jane Austen?

But I digress. Fitzpatrick expresses some concern for “how far we want to,” and I’d add can, “carry this metaphor,” yet she nonetheless carries it further, stating that “contemporary academic publishing is governed by a kind of zombie logic” that “might be read as indicating that these old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent…” and she goes on, consciously carrying the metaphor to its absurd limit (4).

But however hyperbolic Fitzpatrick’s metaphor may be, I find it to be extremely apropos, given her interest in working toward “a good replacement for the scholarly monograph,” which she asserts does not yet exist because we don’t “seem particularly inclined to allow the book to become a ‘niche’ technology” (5). Her point is well-taken: we cannot expect to survive a textual zombie apocalypse if we don’t create and arm ourselves with the appropriate accoutrements that would open up a can of academic whoop-ass.

One of the key facets of her argument is that perhaps we need to revise our notions of the kind of scholarly work that is sufficient for receiving tenure because scholars are no longer creating monographs as we once knew them; quite the contrary, their projects are increasingly multimodal and “creative” in ways that dramatically challenge universities’ motto of “‘We Have Never Done It That Way Before,’” which Fitzpatrick reiterates countless times throughout her text.

Aside from how scholars are more frequently muddying the “genre” of the “scholarly monograph,” I’d argue that there is another lingering ideology that is essentially the brains-ripe-for-chomping that perpetuate zombie texts: our assumption that texts, either in print or in digital forms, are almost always read not just from cover-to-cover but also in chronological/sequential order. Discussing her findings from her experiment where she posted a manuscript version (sorrynotsorry for the reliance on a print-specific term) of Planned Obsolescence on MediaCommons, Fitzpatrick glosses this assumption when she attempts to make sense of the breakdown of page visits. She admits that “reading online is perhaps a bit more partial and broken-up than we might prefer…but we also know at least anecdotally that most readers of scholarly texts do not in any literal sense actually sit down and read them start to finish” (192-3). Rather, we read them almost as if they were a buffet, scanning the table of contents and indices for what looks appetizing—essentially which portions of that author’s/those authors’ brains we’d like to pick at.

Is academic publishing in a perpetual state of “dead week”?

Thus, we can’t assume that “a ‘pure’ reading process” actually exists, especially in light of how our “web-browsing techniques” are often “fragmented and adulterated” (193), yet it definitely seems like we still do on some level.

Hence our reliance on the printed scholarly monograph.

In a digital environment where we can easily get link-happy and click around haphazardly until our hearts’ content or, as Kylie mentioned in her x1 post, we get through all the tabs we currently have open in our browsers, how can we use this fragmented process of reading to our advantage in reconceptualizing the kinds of long-playing texts, to borrow a music term, we value in the academy? Is there a way that we can use the “persistent ephemerality” of the blog form in creating texts that withstand “planned obsolescence” with a bit more panache?

4 thoughts on “Tales from the Textual Zombie Apocalypse”

  1. Chris,

    Super enjoyable post– witty and thoughtful– and I think your closing question is smart and important. How indeed can we best make use of the “fragmented” reading processes that we *know* are taking place– both in digital and in print worlds? I think you’re really working in Fitzpatrick’s mode here, which is to say: rather than adamantly resisting and failing to acknowledge our current realities in the academy, how can we work *with* these realities to turn them to our advantage? More specifically in the context of your question, how do we acknowledge a multiplicity of reading/writing practices, and think through the best ways to take advantage of these various modes?

    This is something I was considering in my my post this week, especially after looking at MediaCommons’s “In Media Res” project. It seems to me to be an excellent example of harnessing “fragmented” reading and responding processes in order to create focused, engaged bursts of intellectual exchange. In turn, that exchange might lead to a more sustained piece of text– or it might not. There’s (different) value in each kind of reading and writing. The question is, then, how do we make these ‘alternative’ reading/writing practices part of the normal, everyday experience in the academy, and not just a side project that we can participate in during our ‘spare time’ (hahaha)?


  2. Chris,

    I really enjoyed your post. In terms of fragmented reading practice, I think about how I use Wikipedia. Very rarely do I read an entry from start to finish. Rather, I read it up until I see a link that can bring me to another element of a topic that I’m interested in, and carry on with that action. I think that this type of reading can work really well – I can get a fuller picture of something I’m interested in.

    In terms of academic writing, I’m with you – I don’t have an answer yet. It is something, though, that I’m interested in exploring as I compose my digital essay through tumblr. How can I arrange posts and tag posts especially, so that I can satisfy the digital reading practice as something fragmentary but also create something cohesive.

    I’ve still got thinking to do though!

  3. I am interested in the question you pose at the end of your post, too, Chris. ‘Is there a way that we can use the “persistent ephemerality” of the blog form in creating texts that withstand “planned obsolescence” with a bit more panache?’

    I don’t have complete answer, of course, but it strikes me that the “persistent ephemerality” of the blog genre supports an iterative kind of writing, instead of a more recursive form. While we do both kinds of writing (taking one idea through a ton of drafts as well as writing bursts of text that somehow seed new pieces), blogs, it seem to me,

    What is your writing process more like, and what kind(s) of writing process(es) do you value as a comp instructor? Do you see blogging as somehow more juvenile or inferior to monographs?

    1. Janel,

      In response to some of your questions: I’d describe my writing style as obsessive, in that I edit and revise as I write each new sentence, down to the punctuation. As you can imagine, it gets exhausting! But I also don’t usually keep versions of papers, in that I typically overwrite files as I revise/add new information—not just to save my own hide in case of a computer failure but because I don’t always see value in keeping previous drafts.

      And as a comp instructor, I propound the importance of revision and of taking my comments on drafts very seriously when composing the final draft. Notice how I didn’t say “final” drafts because I personally don’t allow after-the-fact revisions.

      Finally, in terms of blogging, I’d say I actually find it infinitely more refreshing than a monograph. There’s nothing that bores me more than having to read a 300+ page monograph about the same topic, especially when the author takes him/herself too seriously and sounds like a pompous windbag. The major issue I have with blogging isn’t even really exclusive to the form, but it’s the tendency to ramble, just because it seems like we have all the space on the web to “rant” about relationship woes, bad days at work, or whatever else.

      Had I more time to teach E110 here at UD, I’d really love to try to have my students “blog” their entire research papers, rather than create a final draft via MSWord.

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