Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Planned Obsolescence”: Like Retinol for the Scholarly Monograph | From Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil

Kathleen Fitzpatrick opens Planned Obsolescence with “The text you are now reading, whether on a screen in draft form or in its final, printed version, began its gestation some years ago in a series of explorations into the notion of obsolescence.”1 

I am now writing a blog post about a book about obsolescence with the knowledge that the very words I am typing are going to become obsolete. So, uh, with that happy thought that in mind…

Fitzpatrick has explored obsolescence as a concept before publishing Planned Obsolescence—namely, in her previous title, “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” which was published in 2006. Her struggles in publishing that book were ironic; at the heart of its argument was the defense of books’ relevance in today’s culture, and yet, she was rejected by presses that she thought would agree with that thesis. 

And nevertheless, she persisted—in large part because getting published is still an important standard by which academics are judged. Though our culture broadly has shifted away from the book in favor of other media, the scholarly monograph is still key for advancement at the vast majority of American colleges and universities. Therefore, the scholarly monograph, she argues, is not dead: it is undead.2

Cue the theme music from The X-Files.

“Undead” here doesn’t necessarily mean that once-popular titles that have fallen off of syllabi have suddenly been reborn from their literary ashes. Rather, Fitzpatrick states that the scholarly monograph is no longer viable as a form, yet it is still necessary. There hasn’t been a new form or a major change to the form which could replace the scholarly monograph as-is, so although we are aware that it is flawed, we continue with the scholarly monograph as it is the best option that we have. Those of you who are rom-com watchers will recognize this as “settling.”

Through five chapters—”Peer Review”, “Authorship”, “Texts”, “Preservation”, and “The University”—Fitzpatrick strips the world of academic publishing down to the studs. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of academic publishing, exploring why it is the way it is and how it got to be that way before mapping out potential new roads to explore in the name of improvement. Fitzpatrick stakes claim after claim as she tackles each new subject, and demonstrates the importance of her assessments and subsequent recommendations with fervor. There’s something distinctly Lorax-ian about her prose; even sections that center on technical knowledge are passionately written and defended.

While much of Planned Obsolescence relies on speculation or predictions, its myriad hypotheses alone are worth considering even without testing and results. Fitzpatrick is doing heavy lifting here by working to push a field forward, and for current and former scholars and academics alike, this book is like a fire alarm. Even though she acknowledges that as every second goes by, her statements lose relevance, it is the fact that she is making them and that we are reading them that makes them more crucial than ever. Putting out a fire from inside the house is a big ask, and yet, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has asked it of us. It’s going to take a whole lot of people willing to fight this fire to keep the scholarly monograph from going completely up in flames.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Because it’s such a hot topic both in general and for this class specifically: How do you think Fitzpatrick would feel about NFTs, as they relate to intellectual property and authorship? 
  2. What’s something that you once loved that is now obsolete? For what reason has it become obsolete, and do you think that there is a potential route for it to be revived?
  3. In Chapter 3, Fitzpatrick writes that “[g]ames may seem a frivolous example of the contemporary academy’s drive to cater to the younger generation’s relatively non-intellectual interests, but it is in fact hoped that patrons who use the library in such a fashion will not only be more likely to use it in traditional ways…but also more empowered to collaborate with one another, breaking the library’s stereotypical hush.” As public historians, creating a product that can be relevant to broad audience—across generations, for example—can be a difficult task. Does obsolescence help or hurt this effort? How can it be utilized strategically?
  4. As historians, we often handle topics and subjects that are considered obsolete. Where do you draw the line between obsolescence being a good thing and being a bad thing?
  5. Is there something about student life that you already consider “undead”? What could possible reanimations or replacements be?
  6. As a student—someone who has experienced university life and academic constraints, even if you haven’t pursued publishing—what is something that you would like to see change about the culture of academia?

Notes:

  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 1.
  2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 4.

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

12 Replies to “Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Planned Obsolescence”: Like Retinol for the Scholarly Monograph | From Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil”

  1. You did a great job with this post Lauren! And the gifs and memes are top-notch! Obsolescence is really interesting here. It sounds weird to hear someone’s words and books becoming obsolete. I feel like its every day where someone brings up “obsolete” tweets from 10 years ago. Anyway, I wonder if Academia works the same way. Do people get fired or canceled from academic jobs based on previous articles or published books? Perhaps Professor Owens might be able to answer this.

    1. Hey, thanks, Joshua! I agree—things age so quickly on the internet. That perennial example, KONY 2012, was 10 years ago, and yet virality online has changed exponentially with the advent of TikTok, trending Twitter topics, and 24/7 news on our wrists and in our AirPods. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old book on a historical topic might just still be the definitive text. If the monograph moved online, maybe scholarly research would move at the speed of teenage dance trends!

  2. Fantastic post, Lauren. Great review of a great book.

    Hot take – just let the monograph die already. Take it out of its misery.

    Like, not completely. Monographs are great for riding the waves of technological obsolescence – if the apocalypse comes and the internet crashes, we’ll be glad to have some paper books that explain where it all went wrong.

    But as Fitzpatrick argues, academic publishing has been in a slow, painful decline since at least the 90s. Let’s get *off* this landslide.

    You wrote – “There hasn’t been a new form or a major change to the form which could replace the scholarly monograph as-is, so although we are aware that it is flawed, we continue with the scholarly monograph as it is the best option that we have.”

    But us late-born millennials and zoomers know that this is no longer the case. We have the internet! We have dynamic websites that can hyperlink footnotes directly to their sources. We have gifs and interactives and embeddable videos. And as Fitzpatrick discusses in her conclusion, there is an open-source alternative to publishing house-based peer review. We’ll need to account for obsolescence, but with institutional support it could be done.

    Academic peer reviewers already do their work for free. Academic authors already forfeit huge portions of their profits – sometimes all of their profits – to publishing houses. Why not open the process up and cut out the middleman?

    Maybe don’t actually take the monograph out back behind the barn – I genuinely enjoy a lot of the books I’ve read, and the format is great in a lot of ways – but it definitely shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for a successful academic career.

    1. Whoo, Jessica—you’re bang on the money. Doubling down on your point about publishing houses, I work for a news organization that frequently reviews new titles. We used to get thousands of books a year (so many titles that we had a standing contract with someone to pick them up periodically and donate them to prison libraries). Since the pandemic, presses have shifted to sending us e-copies. Not only does this lighten my load significantly—and I do mean that literally, because I’m the staff member that handles all of the mail—but it saves presses the cost of postage and gets the titles directly into the inbox of the would-be reviewer. A win for everyone. Now if only we can teach older generations how to rotate PDFs, we could really be on to something…

  3. Great work, Lauren! This book is super interesting and the topic is definitely something I have pondered while in college and grad school. I think Jess said what I was thinking very well – there is so much ease and opporutnity for more learning availble with formats outside of the monograph. Keeping monographs as the pinnacle of academic accomplishment continues to create more inaccessible learning methods, keeping wonderful insights from so much of the population.

    1. Nailed it, Caroline! Accessibility is so major. Most people that don’t use accommodations like screen readers have no idea how easy it is to adjust commonplace materials to make them more accessible. Twitter has just made ALT Text standard on images, too, which is great for those of us (a.k.a. me) who live and die by GIF reactions. It’s awesome to see people embrace inclusivity, although we sure do have a long way to go.

  4. Great post Lauren! Your 6th question really caught my eye.

    Something that really spoke to me was Fitzpatrick’s description of “the academic version of the bottom line” (67). Specifically, that moment when a project is finally entered into a CV. Fitzpatrick states that the purpose of scholarly life “rapidly degenerates from the knowledge that is produced to the fact of the production itself” (67). Of course, since I have extremely limited experience in the world of academic publishing, I offer very little in the way of a solution. However, I did enjoy what Jessica and Caroline have said above me. Perhaps, its time to put the monograph out of its misery?? Certainly, something needs to change…

    1. Ooh, great point. This relates back to what we’ve seen in our Practicum course, too, and Nina Simon speaks on this a lot; the second a museum is opened is the second it starts dying away. It’s wildly depressing if you let it be, but I suppose “momento mori”, eh?

  5. Lauren this was such a great post, and holy moly did this concept mess with my brain! When I was growing up, I was really obsessed with this website that let you design fake nails (largely because it was the only thirty minutes of the day when I was allowed to use the computer). This website is completely gone now and I don’t think the format is even compatible with any laptop. It is just crazy to think that such a huge part of my childhood could vanish because it became obsolete.

    1. Evie, I think I know exactly the website you mean! Wow, what a throwback. And boy, do I miss Flash games.

      For me, the one I miss the most is The Amazon Trail—a MILLION times better than Oregon Trail, because it’s 3D-immersive. I got it in a cereal box and I’ll miss it forever.

  6. Good post Lauren. I definitely agree with everyone so far. We should let the monograph die. I feel like it limits people’s ability to be open minded and creative freedom. Monograph makes professions like academia inaccessible to the public. It limits ideas and resources to everyone out of academia, maintain Eiffel Tower.

    1. Too true, Sherrell—I can’t even tell you how many titles my parents look at and are like, “you actually read that?”.

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