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?


  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

Readings, Part I: Planned Obsolescence

Planned Obsolescence

Note: This is part one of the readings, just the book. Click here part two for the articles.

The system of academic publishing doesn’t need to become digital, it needs to undergo a digital revolution. Looking at the different stages of academic publishing from peer review, to authorship, to texts, to preservation, to the university as publish, Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers models to learn from and experiments to attempt. Using a variety of horror and monster metaphors, this work looks at the inherent flaws in academic publishing, and that the clinging to of prestige and authority is slow suicide by scholars.

              Peer Review

Peer review has not only become a critical part of publishing but affects the tenure and promotional tracks of professionals. This tradition is not as old as many would think and comes from a state censorship attempts in the 18th century. Fitzpatrick offers models including Slashdot, Philica, and MediaCommons to suggest physical ways in which the process of peer-review could be updated and improved by moving to digital formats. But ultimately, the cusses of these models depend on experimenting effective ways to create quality review made by quality reviewers, but an accompanying change to the mindset: “not simply on being smart, but on being helpful.”[1]


Fitzpatrick begins this chapter by looking at what an author is, using Barthes and Foucault. The chapter examine how digital formats, especially the blog, have already being to change the meaning of authorship. Fitzpatrick asks readers to consider the malleable nature of blogs, that show the process of thinking and the interactive nature of comments and updates, as productive avenues to the future. Remix culture is also brought in as a new possibility for scholarly work, as well as looking at multimodal scholarship: audio and video among others. Again, a change in attitude is suggested away from the individual, and towards a productive collective, and “to understand the collective not as the elimination of the individual, but rather as composed of individuals.”[2]


Text serves as the basis for digital scholarship now and for the past six hundred years, but eh way in which scholars use text has not caught up with the times. This chapter opens with a critique of current electronic reading mediums: chiefly PDFs and e-books. Both of these mediums can be essentially summed up as “pages under glass,”[3] in which active reading and reader interaction is impossible. Fitzpatrick also notes the potential of hypertext, of decentralizing the structure of books to reflect natural thought progression. This can be confusing for readers used to traditional structures, and also takes away some of the authority of the author (which, as explored in the previous chapter, may be a good thing). This chapter ends with a case study on CommentPress, which sought to bring the social activity of reading to the forefront. While it ultimately failed due to technical concerns, CommentPress set up important lessons:

“CommentPress grows out of an understanding that the chief problem in creating the future of the book is not simply placing the words on the screen, but structing their delivery in an engaging manner; the issue of engagement, moreover, is not simply about locating the text within the technological network, but also, and primarily, about locating it within the social network.”


This class has discussed before the issues of digital preservation. Data can become corrupted or glitched, but there is also a materiality to data that makes it muss less fragile than many think. Yet the preservation of digital materials is a serious consideration that will only become more difficult and time consuming the longer we wait. Scholars need to understand the standards by which data is maintained and the metadata that keep it from becoming lost. Two case studies, LOCKSS and CLOCKSS are two models for preserving large amounts of data. But for these to be successful, there is a significant amount of communal investment that needs to occur.

              The University

Finally, Fitzpatrick looks at ways in which the University publishing system can adapt to the changing times. The first suggestion is to allow open access to work, or to shift away from profit-driven models. The case study on a multimodal journal, Vectors, is used to show the potential of a digital-age journal, but it constantly struggles with funding issues. For new modes of publishing to be found, at some point Universities are going to need to invest in experimenting. They might also re-consider the relationship presses have with institutional libraries, scholars, and how their mission fits in with their parent institution. Fitzpatrick’s hope is that university presses “must be treated as part of the institution’s infrastructure, as necessary as the information technology center, as indispensable as the library, organizations increasingly central to the mission of the twenty-first century university.”[4]

              Some Questions

  1. Why is peer review important? What benefits come from this tradition?
  2. Does co-authorship or communal feedback really remove the authors authority? Does Foucault seem like a super pretentious person?
  3. What is to gain from creating texts with interactive elements? What are potential dangers?
  4. How can scholars contribute to the process of preservation?
  5. Do Fitzpatrick’s suggestions for the future of the university press seem feasible?

[1] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, New York: New York University Press, 2011. 46.

[2] Ibid, 74.

[3] Ibid, 93

[4] Ibid, 187.