Obsolete? The Novel and the University in the Digital Age

Last semester’s course on Contemporary American Fiction turned out to be a success, with good effort and engagement from the students and interesting conversations each week.  It was a “hybrid” course, my first time teaching in such a format. The course met in person Mondays, and online on Wednesdays.  I was skeptical, but the format actually turned out to be fruitful and relevant to the subject matter of the course, which I gave the subtitle “Obsolete?: The University and the Novel in the Digital Age.” The course itself turned into a mixture of short-form digital writing (with discussion board conversations each week), long-form reading (five novels altogether) and more polished, formal writing (with short review essays due every two weeks).

With the online discussions on Wednesday it was obvious some students were just phoning it in with perfunctory responses to the first comments they came across. But I let that slide. Just putting some words together each week was good practice in developing a discipline of reading and writing.  Serious writers learn to write consistently whether they “feel like it” or not, and I think that’s what they were learning to do with the weekly assignments.

So I wanted to record a few thoughts about the books we covered:


The Anxiety of Obsolescence –  I assigned this book to add some more theoretically dense critical writing than the students might be used to.  Fitzpatrick’s book was one of the main texts I had in mind for this course when I designed it.  The very form of the text that we used, Fitzpatrick’s own online version of the book, is a clever experiment in merging theory and practice.  Much has changed since 2006 when it was published.  The collapse of bookstores, even the corporate chains, and budget cuts to libraries shows that fears of obsolescence are not entirely unfounded.  But I liked the way that Fitzpatrick unpacks some of the cultural meaning behind declarations of obsolescence; mainly that they often come from gatekeepers (yes, often straight white men) who find their power and influence being challenged by the hordes of commoners. Again, the  Ferguson protests are another instructive moment. Others have already written about the way that women, and women of color specifically, have wielded social media and used it in interesting ways politically and intellectually, and how they have often encountered vicious responses in these digital spaces.  There’s so much hostility directed at women who have followings, so much resentment that certain women are being listened to and read, and so much of that male anger is driven by the assumption that these women do not deserve such platforms, and that merely reading and listening to them is somehow culturally and politically dangerous, and that therefore these women must be put back in their places and silenced.  Fitzpatrick’s book is a welcome corrective to the reactionaries who warn us that new digital forms are destroying literature, journalism, or intellectual discourse, and she provides a convincing analysis of the sinister cultural politics lurking in those critiques.


Reality Hunger – I know Shields’s book is a gimmick, and there might be other theorists who I could have assigned to get the same critiques into the conversation, but mostly the book was an effective and engaging introduction to some basic ideas about copyright, intellectual property, digital reproduction and writing.  The students mostly resisted his skepticism about the form of the novel.  As wired as they are, they are also not averse to all long form reading.  After all, this is the generation raised on Harry Potter, and raised on the revived interest in say, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia.  Those examples of fantasy writing speak to Shields’s biggest blind spots.  Yes, reality-TV and mockumentary and memoir are prevalent forms, and he gives some sound arguments (by cobbling together the words of others) about why these forms dominate in a digital culture.  But the continued popularity of science fiction, fantasy, vampire, romance and supernatural novels (among other “genre” writing) seems to suggest that there’s still a thirst for fantastic fiction in literary form, and that the generation of social media seems to be interested in more than thinly veiled autobiographical forms of their own lives.


White Noise –   I have written about this novel before (“Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson”) and I thought what I put down about was pretty darned perceptive especially in light of the Black Friday protests that came about later. (Though I didn’t take the argument far enough.)  Many people have complained about the venal consumerism of Black Friday, the sacrilegious corporatization of a sacred Christian holiday, and the awful spectacle of people being trampled to death for cheap electronics.  Despite all of this, it was last year in 2014 that we really saw the first substantial pushback against the gluttonous consumption of the Christmas shopping season.  Black activism did that. And the Ferguson movement brought into stark relief the ways that American consumerism can (and will) be weaponized against movements for justice.


The Human Stain – Reading this book again deepened my appreciation for Philip Roth’s writing.  Yeah, yeah, I know he’s a misogynist prick and I’m not supposed to like him. Yeah,  I watched the PBS documentary Philip Roth Unmasked a couple of years ago when it came out and it occurred to me how many male novelists he cited as exemplars of the form.  But he is undoubtedly important, and much of his writing is genuinely insightful.  Even from a feminist perspective, a novel like The Dying Animal captures so well the changes that the movement brought to the culture of college campuses.  Clearly Roth did his homework about the African-American experience in The Human Stain, capturing the drama of a black family living on the edge of the color line.  The book also articulated so well that hysteria of the Clinton-Lewinsky moment, a moment, which by the way, fell into the realm of “history” for my students.  (Most of them were too young to remember when that was all going down.)  The discussion board conversation about The Human Stain was one of the best, as we talked about the concept of “passing” and racial identification.  My perception of their comments is that they were indicative of a generation raised on consumerism, and trained in the language of choice.  Their consensus about Coleman Silk’s decision to pass for white was that people should be able to choose to identify however they want.  Nevertheless, I also pushed them to consider the ways in which race is embedded in particular histories of white supremacy and anti-blackness, a history which complicates the seemingly benign concept of “choice.” The idea that there are things we cannot choose seems to offend the sensibilities of the young, but understanding the difference between those identities you can and cannot choose is the beginning of empowerment and understanding.


Erasure  – I wasn’t sure how this novel would go over, but it turned out to be one of their favorite books.  Their reactions to it were interesting.  The centerpiece of the novel is My Pafology (later retitled Fuck) a satirical novel based on the plot from Richard Wright’s Native Son, and a parody rife with exaggerated caricatures of the black underclass. I was surprised that some of them found the backstory about literary fiction writer Theolonious Ellison less interesting and less funny than My Pafology/Fuck, but I suppose that is precisely the irony that Everett was going for, and maybe that reaction only serves to reaffirm what Everett was writing about in the first place, and shows how brilliant this novel really is. I shared with them some of my own writing on the book, and I think we had a good conversation about minstrelsy and the fraught history of black cultural performance in a white supremacist culture industry.  Last year another of Percival Everett’s academic novels, Glyph was republished by Graywolf Press.  I will be discussing both of these novels at the upcoming NeMLA meeting in Toronto in early May.


On Beauty – This is a novel that really deserved more than two weeks of discussion.  The students struggled to get through it and I’m sure some of them cursed me for assigning it since it was so long, but mostly they seemed to enjoy it.  I admit I was skeptical about this novel after my first reading a few years ago.  Reading it again, however, I saw the beauty and power in Zadie Smith’s writing, and there were so many great passages I wanted to linger over but couldn’t do so in my push to get through. (Full disclosure:  I’m working on a longer piece about it, so I will have several chances to re-read it again.) The book really does dig into and occupy the academic novel genre.  I would not be at all surprised if it turns out Smith read several of them before composing this one.  On Beauty hits all the conventions of the genre, but delivers them in a fresh and even subversive way.  I loved Smith’s beautiful descriptions of the physical geography of academic spaces, and she nails the absurd pettiness of academic politics.  While reading this novel I also read Smith’s compelling new short story published last year “Miss Adele Admist the Corsets” an inventive take on gentrification-era New York told through the story of an aging drag queen. (The full story was temporarily available on the The Telegraph.)


Open City –  Well, this was a colossal flop.  They HATED this book.  I have to admit; I miscalculated.  Mainly, I think I let my inner New York historian take over and distort my vision of the novel. One of the things that Cole has been so highly praised for with Open City is the novel’s rich, perceptive take on the geography and history of NYC.  Without that context, yes, a reader might see it as just some book about a dude wandering around, seeing random shit and thinking deep thoughts about it.  I did mention that this was in the tradition of the flâneur, and one student happened to be reading Baudelaire in another class.  Despite the negative reactions to it I’m still glad we read it because Cole provided us with a different approach to the novel.  We listened to this interview with Cole where he described Open City as an “idea-driven” rather than “plot-driven” novel, and that seemed to help clarify things a bit.  They still didn’t like it, but I felt like we got an interesting conversation out of it, and selfishly, I was glad to re-encounter what I still think is a luminous and important piece of 21st century writing.   And pedagogically, I felt it became a useful exercise in how to write intelligently, thoughtfully and fairly about a work one doesn’t like.

Along the way we talked about the politics of higher education, and some conventions of the academic novel, and we read Jeffrey Williams’s article “Teach the University.”  I think we fulfilled that concept of teaching the university in this class, by addressing some of the pertinent issues in higher education in our readings of these novels.

No, I don’t have any grand pronouncements about obsolescence to conclude with, but whatever the outcome, the future of the novel and the university is in the hands of the next generation, and I am not without hope.

Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson

Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson

This summer I endeavored to knock a few books off the old “should-have-read-it-a-long-time-ago” list.  Don DeLillo’s White Noise is one of those academic novels that I’ve name-dropped plenty of times before, but still had not read.  So, in early August, comfortably ensconced in my new digs in Jersey, I sat down and dug into it.  A couple weeks later, just before the start of the semester, I found myself assigned to teach a course on Contemporary American Fiction. I quickly assembled a syllabus that included White Noise and leaned heavily toward academic novels, including The Human Stain, On Beauty, Erasure and Open City.  (OK, Open City may not be an academic novel exactly, but I’m hoping that reading it again will help me decide).

While reading White Noise, I was also keeping up with the escalating situation in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Mike Brown on August 9.  Like so many other folks on Twitter I watched what started as a steady stream of tweets by people on the ground in St. Louis turn into a national and international story.

When I came to the end of Section II of White Noise the infamous “Airborne Toxic Event” chapter – I immediately noticed correlations to what I was watching unfold on social media.  The main character of White Noise is Jack Gladney, professor of “Hitler Studies” at the College-on-the-Hill. (Gladney can’t read or speak a lick of German, by the way). Jack, his fourth wife Babette, their three kids, along with their neighbors, have been evacuated from their suburban homes because of a train car spill that has left a mysterious toxic cloud hovering in the area.  Section II ends with the family in a building in nearby Iron City, housed with other evacuees. A man with a small, portable TV set walks around the building and goes on an epic tirade about the media and how it has neglected their plight:

Don’t they know it’s real?  Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reports? Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window at them, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here with your vile instruments of intrusion’…What exactly has to happen before they stick microphones in our faces and hound us to the doorsteps of our homes, camping out on our lawns, creating the usual media circus?  Haven’t we earned the right to despise their idiot questions? (162)

Is this not exactly how things went down in Ferguson?  First there was an outcry that mainstream media was neglecting the story.  But once that mainstream media arrived, and acted like its obnoxious mainstream media self, then came the outcry for the reporters to leave.  The media spectacle produced one particularly indelible image of CNN’s resident black pathologist Don Lemon, surrounded by a group of St. Louis residents giving him mad side-eye.

In fact, the media mess got so bad that journalist Ryan Schuessler voluntarily left the scene, and poignantly explained his reasons for doing so, citing the arrogant selfishness of the talking head divas who parachuted in and immediately started throwing their weight around.

In my class I assigned part of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence to read along with the novel.  Chapter 3 of the book, “Spectacle,” is specifically about DeLillo’s work, and Fitzpatrick uses some noteworthy media theorists (Postman, McLuhan, Baudrillard, among others) to pick apart the media critique in the novel (while also remaining suspicious of how discourses of obsolescence deployed by straight white male writers are too often imbued with specific racial and gender politics). One of the great things that White Noise does so well is to show the discomfiting ways televisionized populations have come to rely on mainstream media narratives to validate their suffering.  From the Airborne Toxic Event, to the people on a terribly turbulent plane ride that managed to make it to the ground unscathed, the novel shows characters repeatedly turning to television news to narrate and give meaning to their own traumatic experiences.

This is a particularly dangerous game for black folks when corporate media is as  hostile to black life as it is.  (Yes, even that so-called “liberal” media who covered the event deflected conversations away from the injustice of a police murder and toward tired, insulting debates about sagging pants and black parenting).  That media attention is a terribly recursive loop that is difficult, maybe even impossible, to escape.  Attracting national attention was absolutely essential to the growth of the Ferguson movement and has resulted in an international outcry against the Ferguson police and their malicious mishandling of both the shooting and the protests. (Their hostility and incompetence are not even up for discussion).  At the same time, Don Lemon and the rest came swooping onto the scene with their “idiot questions” about black behavior, because they know those hot-button topics will generate the predictable ratings numbers and page views that they need to satisfy their advertisers.

White Noise is also a novel that begs to be read through the critical lenses of race and class privilege.  In my own classroom it took a while for students to get around to it – I’m getting better at shutting up and letting them talk things through on their own – but eventually, they hit the key points about race and class that were staring us all in the face.  Clearly these characters are folks whose anxieties, fears and consumption habits are not universal, but are directly related to the level of comfort and privilege that they take for granted.  When the cloud first forms, and before they ever considered having to evacuate, Jack Gladney says:

These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas.  Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.  People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes.  I’m a college professor.  Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?  We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name.  These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith. (114)

That passage conjured images in my mind of the horrors of the 5th ward during Hurricane Katrina, and the projects in Red Hook and Coney Island during Hurricane Sandy (among many other unfortunate scenes).  I noticed some early reviewers of White Noise cited the Bhopal disaster in India, which happened in December 1984, just a few weeks before the novel hit bookstores in 1985.  Bhopal was a real live Airborne Toxic Event, except there were no fancy microbes to clean up the air, and people are still living with the after-effects of the company’s callous negligence some 29 years later.

But I now think about the story of David Hooks– a 59 year old white man in Georgia  – who on September 24 was killed by DEA agents who barged into his house with a no-knock warrant.  No drugs were found.

Surely such things only happen to people in the hood who voluntarily choose to live around drug dealers, right? Surely such things do not happen to polite law-abiding white citizens, do they?  As the Ferguson story grew, white nationalists found a cause celebré in Darren Wilson, raising over a half million dollars (to date) for his legal defense (and, apparently, for lap dances and beers, at his discretion).  But more level-headed white folks have (hopefully) looked at the body armor and tanks and tear gas on the streets of Ferguson and have realized that the urban militarism deployed against the protesters there won’t stay confined to the hood for long. Hopefully they realize now (if Occupy Wall Street didn’t show them before) that all those chickens that people have warned about – perpetual wars in other places leading to escalated militarism in police forces domestically – have indeed come home to roost.

For the most part our conversations about White Noise in class didn’t get this politically topical.  Again, I tried to stay out of the way and let them think their own way through it.  We did talk about race, religion, class and gender.  But they also spoke quite eloquently about the age of television and how televisual media has come to dominate our self-perception. They talked about fear of death in the novel (one of its biggest topics given the whole storyline with the experimental drug Dylar that Babette is taking to quell her death fears), and I was proud to hear them deal with a such a heavy and discomfiting topic with maturity, intelligence and humor.

Consumerism was another one of the big themes we lingered on.  There’s a lot of shopping in the book. DeLillo eschews the pastoral in favor of the bright, sterile artificiality of shopping malls and supermarkets.  In one rapturously written scene set in a massive shopping mall DeLillo writes:

We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments, but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another.  There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives.  I shopped with reckless abandon.  I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies.  I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it.  I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs.  I began to grow in value and self-regard.  I filled myself out, formed new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed.  Brightness settled around me. (83-84)

Here then, is the 21st century.  Maybe it has always been this way.  On one side of town an unarmed black teenager takes six bullets to the body and the head from the gun of a policeman, his lifeless corpse left to rot in the street for hours afterward, the officer who shot him filing no report, and charged with nothing.  Meanwhile, on the other side of town people go from store to gleaming store, shopping for cheese graters and paring knives, feeling good about themselves and their comfortable lives.  The dread of White Noise, the dread that the shoppers try to placate with their shopping, is that maybe the boundary between these two sides of town is far more permeable than they want to admit, or imagine.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen.  The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television.  Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006.