Response to “Electronic Media, Identity Politics, and the Rhetoric of Obsolescence”

While I certainly agree that reports of the ‘death of the novel’ have been greatly exaggerated, and anxieties about new media technologies and the threats they allegedly pose to literature may reflect fears about larger societal changes, it is difficult to accept the conclusion that critiques of technology always function as covert attacks against identity politics. (Enns)

When I first read Anthony Enns’ extremely long review of my book, published early in March on electronic book review, my initial thought was that he just hadn’t read it very closely, and therefore mistook carefully qualified claims for gross generalizations. But gradually it began to dawn on me: his review may be less a misreading than an enactment of precisely the anxious response that I outline in the book. It’s the best explanation I can come up with for the many conflations, reductions, and misinterpretations in the review: I think I touched a nerve.

The review is filled with such oddities in its reading, but I’ll start with the quotation above, drawn from the review’s final paragraph. I would certainly never have suggested any such conclusion; after all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes cigars bear embarrassingly obvious phallic associations. Cigars can be fetish objects, standing in as a partial approximation of the repressed object of desire, or they can be tools of power, stinking out the ladies so that the men can chat amongst themselves. So with many other objects and representations.

In case you haven’t read it (yet!), the central argument of The Anxiety of Obsolescence is this: claims made by certain postmodern novelists, as well as certain literary critics, that the novel is being shoved out of cultural centrality by television and other forms of electronic media are not simply greatly exaggerated, but are in fact motivated by a desire to protect the novel from its apparently imminent demise by creating a cultural wildlife preserve of sorts, a protected space on the margins of society within which the novel can reclaim its prestige. This invocation of the novel’s contemporary marginality, however, when coupled with the desire to recapture its formerly elite status, might be seen to suggest another repressed source of these anxieties about the novel’s future, such that technological change comes to stand in as a more palatable substitute for certain kinds of social change, and particularly the kind of change that seeks to give voice to women and people of color who have historically been relegated to the margins of U.S. culture.

Enns’s enactment of the anxiety of obsolescence surfaces in his tendency to reduce a complex and hedged argument to a blanket generality about covert racist and sexist impulses attributed to particular authors or critics. Arguing that such impulses exist would be an all but fruitless exercise, doomed to failure not least because of its flirtation with the intentional fallacy: how on earth could I know what the authors I read think? Anything in the book that suggests that I’m claiming such knowledge should certainly have been revised out of existence, in favor of claims such as the following, which I present in the course of making the parallel argument that the dominant thread of postmodernist theory bears the same relationship to contemporary critical discourse as does the novel of obsolescence to the contemporary literary scene:

This does not mean that postmodernist critiques, whether theoretical, critical, or fictional, bear no import for the writers I describe as social postmodernists; as bell hooks suggests, such critiques can “open up new possibilities for the construction of the self and the assertion of agency” (par. 10). However, where such critiques are used to undermine the notion of agency, and where they appropriate the language of marginalization, these critiques have the (perhaps unintentional) effect of closing down the possibilities for radical liberation on the part of previously disenfranchised subjects…. Pynchon and DeLillo deploy the discourses of cultural postmodernism with the effect not simply of appropriating the experience of marginality to the writer’s cultural position, and not simply of obscuring the specific sociopolitical import of social marginality, but with the further effect of camouflaging an at times troubling set of sociopolitical concerns. (50)

The difference between what Enns says I said and what I actually said is the difference between intent and effect, between an understanding of racism and sexism as contained within and put into practice by the individual and an understanding of these ideologies as fundamentally systemic, institutional, and as such part of the individual’s unconscious interpellation into the dominant social order. It’s also a difference between always and sometimes, and to misconstrue my claims that sometimes critiques of new technologies are underwritten by ideologies that are less than progressive by saying, as does Enns, that I am “dismissing critiques of technology as inherently sexist or racist” is to refuse ideological critique altogether.

I could quibble with any number of Enns’s readings of my readings, but I don’t want this response to degenerate into that kind of hairsplitting, as there are a couple of larger issues that I’d like to address. For instance, I want to acknowledge Enns’s concern about the absence of “a certain historical and technological specificity” to my argument. Perhaps I could have done more to delineate the specific media formations that the argument encounters. But there are key moments throughout the text when I do focus on the differences in treatment that media forms from photography forward receive in the novels I explore, moments that seem to have gone missing in his reading. And, as I point out in the first chapter, the book treats representations of television as metonymic, standing in for a broader range of ideas about “electronic media.” This is not to suggest that television, the actually existing technology, becomes the apotheosis of such forms of mediation, but rather that the idea of television is used in numerous representations as a stand-in for media-in-general by serving as a nexus for the three key assumptions about media technologies that the book explores: that the mechanicity of the media has dehumanizing effects on its audience; that the spectacle conveyed by the media distracts the audience from the “real”; and that the networks through which media communicate undermine individualism, resulting in a passive, shapeless, deluded mass.

Enns, however, also takes issue with my choice to focus on television as the exemplar of the “new electronic media” threatening the novel’s displacement, given his sense that “contemporary discussion of the novel’s obsolescence more often focus on new information technologies like the computer.” Absolutely true — but in the period I’m focused on, the period between the early 1960s and the mid-1990s when the majority of the novels I explore were published, television was far more culturally central than the computer. There are hints of computers-to-come in some of those texts, but they’re largely television-obsessed; so why wouldn’t I explore what those representations in particular can tell us about the period?

Perhaps this choice, I’ll note with no small irritation, would have seemed a little less belated had the book actually made its way into print with anything like timeliness. Instead, as I’ve written and spoken about elsewhere, its publication got held up by the post-dot-com-bust collapse in academic publishing; the press that held the manuscript under review for ten months during 2003 dropped it when the editor was overruled on the editorial board by the marketing guys, who argued that the book posed “too much financial risk to pursue in the current economy.” Afterward, I found many other academic presses in the same boat, drastically cutting their lines in the humanities due to financial exigency. The paradox implied in having difficulty publishing a book that makes the argument that the book isn’t a dying form led me, as I noted in my talk at this year’s MLA, to begin contemplating the possibility that my argument was a bit off the mark, that perhaps even if the book isn’t an obsolete form, one specific kind of book — the scholarly book, or perhaps even more specifically the first scholarly book — might be in the process of becoming obsolete, not technologically but institutionally speaking. This is one of the primary concerns behind the MediaCommons project — attempting to find a viable future for book-length scholarly publishing.

Because of that, the odd jumps in logic that lead Enns to suggest that my recent electronic work “embraces the same obsolescence that postmodern novelists like Pynchon and DeLillo seem to fear,” and that the extension of my argument into electronic publishing would imply “that this technology promotes identity politics more than print, and any resistance to electronic publishing would have to be interpreted as a form of white male paranoia” — well, this just baffles me. If electronic publishing were written about in the same ways that, historically, television has been written about — as producing a degeneration in public discourse to the lowest common denominator, as reducing its users to passive, stupefied boobs unable to comprehend much less enjoy the more sophisticated delights of high literary culture — then yes, I might be prone to interpret such representations as related to the anxieties of a waning cultural elite, and to suggest that the overwhelming but not exclusive whiteness and maleness of that elite might not be incidental to the anxieties, given the potential diversity of voices that electronic publishing could present. But typically, if anything, the internet has been over-praised for its democratizing potentials, and (until relatively recent work by folks like David Silver and Lisa Nakamura, at least) under-critiqued for the ways that a white male technocratic elite has often been able to control the boundaries and formations of acceptable discourse thereon.

Which leaves me, finally, with the curious fact that though Enns’s review was posted on ebr early last month, I only found out about it when Google alerted me to its existence last week. If electronic publishing offers us any truly utopian potential, it lies in the possibility of dialogue, of multi-directional critical conversations. It’s hard not to feel that ebr missed an opportunity here, precisely by failing to open the lines of communication.

3 thoughts on “Response to “Electronic Media, Identity Politics, and the Rhetoric of Obsolescence”

  1. I’ve left out many people from my next-to-last paragraph; “folks like” might suggest that I wasn’t attempting to list them all.

    And no, I haven’t. A fascinating phenomenon, but with almost zero penetration in the US, so far as I know. (I think our cell phones needed to suck less, first. Now that the iPhone SDK’s been released, perhaps somebody’ll invent a decent feed reader for it, after which the iPhone novel will not be far behind.)

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