Tag Archives: Planned Obsolescence

The Anxiety of Influence, A New Version

Chain-reactionBy publishing The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, Harold Bloom invited both critics and authors to re-read centuries of literary creation as a reactionary act against the haunting shadow of precursors;  a reactionary act from the new author’s side to establish his own voice, already influenced by forerunners, as an original one. Bloom’s theory places a historical anxiety, caused by dead poets, in the centre of both tensions and aspirations of living poets. Each new author is a late-comer shadowed by the whole history of literary creation, haunted by all canonical works, and encircled by gigantic names that have already proved their originality. There is an endless war going on. Driven by the hidden forces of anxiety, a few late-comers succeed in establishing their authorship to become the great precursors for the next generation of late-comers, the rest would be forgotten.

Being the new late-comers of the world of words, we seem to be lucky enough to be the forerunners of an updated version of Anxiety of Influence which does not draw any chronological, linear, or hierarchical lines between subjects and objects. Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy contemplates on the metamorphosed sense of being an author in the digital world while bearing a hidden fear of losing one’s individuality, one’s identity, and one’s distinguished voice. Interestingly enough, this new anxiety is not caused by the precursors any more, as it is the anxiety of being influenced by the contemporary fellows who are suffering from the same anxiety at the same time. This anxiety, according to Fitzpatrick, is partially caused by the fear that “someone else’s opinions might interfere with” the second author’s opinions before letting the second author establish his/her position fully (51). This is not really a pure peculiarity of digital age, even the authors of RW culture could receive influential feedbacks on their serialized or unfinished works before establishing their own intellectual position.  The peculiarity of the digital in this case is the crazy speed by which millions of ideas and words are randomly undercutting each other without establishing any enduring hierarchical orders.

I wonder if the authors’ of digital age are not suffering the historical Anxiety of Influence, described in Bloom’s theory, any more as they are all busy dealing with new fears and challenges of immediate publications and instantaneous responses. Are the shadows of great precursors, those who have been following new-comers for centuries, going to be replaced by the virtual attendance of contemporary rivals who are haunting each other in a collective anxiety? Fitzpatrick’s ideas, along with my personal experiences, imply that a digital author expects to be compared with other digital fellows rather than any non-digital precursors and wishes to establish a distinguished voice in comparison with other digital publications rather than any old canonical works. Fitzpatrick suggests that “we no longer inhabit a world in which originality reigns unchallenged” (78). According to Bloom originality is a distorted offspring of non-original ideas that truly suffered the Anxiety of Influence and tried to get rid of the haunting shadows of the past. I’m thinking about the offspring of our digital anxiety when shadows and authors are coexisting in the same circle without any hierarchical relations in between. Could Harold Bloom, a contemporary and a precursor, be a haunting figure for a blogger who is writing about literary criticism? Or other bloggers, even unknown ones, play a more intimidating role? The new medium seems to  be altering the ancient nature of anxiety.



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?

Fitzpatrick’s Peer Review and Miller’s “Whatever Journalism”

As I was reading through some of text2cloud, a writing project created and run by Richard Miller, I found one “blog post” (do I call it that? maybe article?) entitled “Cut and Paste Reportage: The Rise of ‘Whatever Journalism‘” that stuck with me.

In it, Miller tells a narrative about a school incident that became a Letter to the Editor at a student-run newspaper, which then became a Jezebel article, which then became a HuffPost article, which then became an MSNBC article, which then became a Daily News blurb.

Beyond its trajectory (which definitely provides another example of media that does not necessarily follow Tom Standage’s vertical/horizontal or human/impersonal central source opposition), the story offers an interesting glimpse at contemporary plagiarism practices across digital media. Miller provides an in-depth analysis of each new source’s patch-writing and/or copying practices as the story moves along from site to site. He calls these practices and their products “Whatever Journalism”: news for an audience who is “incurious,” and unwilling to devote time to discover the truth of a situation beyond its initial gloss.

(Actually, it would be fascinating to see how much I just copied from the original blog post, unintentionally and/or due to my lack of sleep.)

After reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Planned Obsolescence, this blog post leapt out at me as a realized example of the niggling doubts I had in the back of my head during her chapter on peer review.

Her ideals of the peer review process, one in which the purpose is, “first, fostering discussion and feedback among scholars with the aim of strengthening the work that they produce; and second, providing a mechanism through which that work may be filtered for quality” (26 on Kindle), is wonderful. Yet, as an ideal, it doesn’t hold up as well when faced with actual, erring human beings.

Her discussion of the “karma”-based Slashdot, “highly male-dominated” as it was, instantly made me think of Reddit (35 on Kindle). In a forum system where you must be up-voted in order to be heard, the community-minded rules ask members to only down-vote a post/comment if they don’t think it contributes to the conversation, not just if they disagree with it. In practice, however, people are constantly down-voted for differences in opinion or even just for attempting to ask a question on an AMA post when other people want to be answered as well. The “karma” or attention greed, coupled with a lack of community-mindedness, can make any subreddit a really annoying place to be.

I was struck by the text2cloud blog post today because it provides another example of a peer review system that has failed somewhat. “Whatever Journalism” is the end result of less-than-ideal human conditions of laziness or, as Miller argues, lack of curiosity. If each member of these news source communities were the kind of tireless, community-minded people Fitzpatrick imagines, these kind of news stories would be stamped out or at least heavily criticized instead of taken as fact.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for the ideal. I do think it’s achievable depending on the size and determination of the community. But we can’t forget that the nature of “peer” review is its dependence on other human beings, wonderful, “incurious,”  and imperfect as they are.

(Then again, perhaps I’m making a logical mistake here by thinking about a subreddit or online news audience as an example of a peer review community. What do you think?)

Twittering in the Wings: On Credentials and Institutional Compliance

While this is probably the textual equivalent of multitasking, I’m going to attempt to respond to Dr. Harris’ observations about critical discourse on twitter, since it actually has a lot to do with what I want to respond about regarding Fitzpatrick. This will all hopefully fit together in a moment.

As simple as it seems, I don’t think the technical allowances of Twitter allow for one-off critical discourse, particularly not when that critical discourse is actually critical. It’s easy to say, on Twitter, that “I really like what this scholar is doing here bit.lylink #tweet #epic”, but rather intensely more challenging to compose a response which might take issue–as my own stilted interactions with Tom Standage show. It’s impossible to fit Joe’s sentiment about the big-name panel in a tweet, particularly when he needs to spend more time on careful wording than concision. “Big-Name Panel was so TEDIOUS #4c14 #yawn #probablyshunnedforever” is not a satisfactory critical response, but it’s impossible to say “Saw Big-Name Panel, which was well-selected, but disappointing. Want to know more about Panelist’s ideas on [Issue-at-Hand], particularly when it comes to [Academic Soap-Box Issue] #4c14 #bigname” without pulling a + or a “(1/2) (2/2)”, which simply wastes more precious characters and risks dissolution in the sea of hashtag-filtered responses.

The perpetual personal surveillance that Twitter builds in doesn’t help, as a person can find your tweet about them even if you didn’t @ them. Twitter is all credentialed gossip, but none of the gossip can stay gossip, and the credentials can quickly become an albatross.

Seems Legit.
Seems Legit.

Twitter seems built primarily for praise, forwarding, or snark. Academic publication, as Fitzpatrick frequently points out, is built for analogous, but strategically different aims (11). Rarely is our praise unqualified (see: all of our blog posts on every author), but academic forwarding, (genteel) snark, and idea development are key–which is precisely why the current academic publication system hardly works better for these purposes than Twitter. Joe can’t tweet that the big name panel was tedious in the same way he can’t really publish a book out of Duke University Press about how tedious the panel was entitled [Big Name Panelist] is Silly. The peers are watching, and the credentials are at stake. An uncareful move might make Joe’s economy of reputation go the way of the Russian actual economy–and thus, academic speech has developed both an “ethical obligation to listen” (43), a means of gatekeeping (Peer Reviewed Publications), and a discourse based more on precision and diplomacy than concision (which is wonderful, but also not suited to microblogging). (For more thoughts on publishing, see Katie’s x5 post and all the comments on it regarding a new system of credentialing, funding, and publication not wholly unlike some of Fitzpatrick’s suggestions).

Fitzpatrick points out that this existing system of credentializing is necessary but restrictive–for instance, the abuse of institutional sponsorship to propagate outdated ideologies is protected by this system–and a more Twitterian, algorithmically-based system is similarly restrictive “bean counting” (47) reminiscent of the disastrous evaluation policies of No Child Left Behind (collective shudder). The disqualification of these open systems wholesale–emblematic in the early-2000s institutional dismissal of Wikipedia even as that publication does not employ this system–is not unlike the myth of Read Only culture I mentioned last week: it is, as Fitzpatrick put it, an artifact of an obsolescence-phobic “political project aimed at intervening in contemporary public life, perhaps with the intent of shoring up a waning cultural hierarchy” (2).

That’s why I’m glad Fitzpatrick gestured towards hybrid systems–while I still plan on writing monographs, it’s nice to think someday I might be able to write an article and put it out on the web for academics to read (since my field has no 100% applicable journal) and still have that publication “count.” Unlike Twitter, the web generally is not structured as to preclude academic forms of writing, and the fact that we tend to ignore that potential institutionally is disappointing. If the academic publication industry is a “zombie” system, shuffling along in an unsustainable fashion, academic writing in *form* and *aim* is less a zombie than (oh boy here we go) a cyborg–something not necessarily integrated with current technology that might be enhanced or reformulated to include it without particular difficulty.

Like the technophobic antagonists in every “Good Cyborg” story ever, though, we have to get over our institutional fear of this technology if we want it to work.

Official Tiny Leaves
Credentials: I Got ‘Em

My point, oddly, is this: the fact that Dr. Harris has no way to properly critique a panel for being tedious or nonproductive is already indicative of the serious problems facing not only academic discourse and publication, but the system of institutional influence and credentials that might allow the abuse of power by those who benefit from being able to be boring on big-name panels.

Case and point: last year I attended a conference on a prevailing issue in academia, and a very powerful, established academic (and Federal Funding magnet) gave a keynote speech on the issue. The speech was a tedious patchwork of outmoded ideology, institutional policy nonsense, statistics from the 1990s, and clearly-appropriated ideas on a series of projected slides. At the end, a room full of normally semi-revolutionary academic activists clapped.

Nobody said or tweeted a word.

Sentence Forming Nathan Fillion