Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Excerpt

The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its
place.

—Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”

In many cases, traditions last not because they are excellent, but
because influential people are averse to change and because of
the sheer burdens of transition to a better state.

—Cass Sunstein, Infotopia

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, which culminated in my being asked to address the term as part of the workshop “Keywords for a Digital Profession,” organized by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students at the December 2007 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Chicago. However jaded and dispiriting the grad students’ choice of “obsolescence” as a keyword describing their own futures might appear, the decision to assign me this keyword was entirely appropriate. My work has circled the notion of obsolescence for quite a while, focusing on the concept as a catch-all for multiple cultural conditions, each of which demands different kinds of analysis and response. As I said at the MLA workshop, we too often fall into a conventional association of obsolescence with the death of this or that cultural form, a linkage that needs to be broken, or at least complicated, if the academy is going to take full stock of its role in contemporary culture and its means of producing and disseminating knowledge. For instance, the obsolescence that I focused on in my first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, is not, or at least not primarily, material in nature; after all, neither the novel in particular, nor the book more broadly, nor print in general is “dead.” My argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence is, rather, that claims about the obsolescence of cultural forms often say more about those doing the claiming than they do about the object . . .

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