Tag Archives: Jane Austen

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.

zombie-meme
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?

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