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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- Is there something about student life that you already consider “undead”? What could possible reanimations or replacements be?
- 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?
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 1.
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org