Fighting Obsolescence

In This is Not the End of the Book, Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco note that “a person is only a top researcher in nuclear physics for as long as they can make the effort to understand all the data and keep their head above water” (42-43), and this expression of human limitation seems to hold true as well for the world of the book in general. Authors, readers, researchers, professors, and even the book itself are inevitably trapped in an ever more difficult race against irrelevance. Carrière and Eco describe this phenomenon as “the total disappearance of the present” (55), whereby our knowledge and abilities are continually becoming outdated, while simultaneously requiring increasingly greater effort to maintain and expand them. This creates an interesting paradox in the case of literature, in the sense that while our writing and research is driven along ever more fiercely by the desire to remain current and relevant, it actually has the effect of massively increasing the volume of literary material produced and consequently raising the ‘filtering’ standards by which relevance is determined. In essence, by fighting obsolescence we inadvertently encourage it.

There are perhaps ways of challenging this trend, such as the creation of increasingly numerous subjective literary worldviews to ‘store’ research and books crucial to their perpetuation. Political Science, like many fields, is and has long been driven by the idea of competing worldviews through which the past is analyzed, current events are interpreted, and the future is predicted and anticipated, and because of this has managed to retain a relevant home for even the minutiae of a vast body of political and historical documentation. There is little reason to suppose that this cannot also be the case for English literature, and literature in general, as existing fields of literary criticism have already been extremely successful in encouraging the reading and documentation of ‘obscure’ literature and research, eagerly adding it to their respective bodies of supporting evidence. The expansion of critical theory into increasingly more numerous competing categories and subcategories would thus harness competitive human instinct in ensuring the use and reuse of humanity’s cultural heritage.

There are of course a multitude of flaws in this hypothesis, one of them being the eventuality of what Carrière and Eco describe as the problem of “producing six billion separate encyclopaedias, and thus being utterly counterproductive and actually paralysing” (315). In this sense, the multiplying of discourse would ultimately reach an extreme whereby the actual discursive function would become almost impossible, rendering it simply another case in which pursuit culminates in obsolescence. This ultimate failure bodes ill for the fate of the book itself, because if, as Marshall McLuhan famously put it in his book Understanding Media, “the medium is the message” and the message is obsolete, the book seems inevitably doomed to the irrelevance of over-proliferation. Indeed, Carrière and Eco discuss the example of the Bibliothèque nationale in France, where it was found “that more than two million of the library’s books hadn’t been requested since [the library] was first conceived of” (275), and if the vast majority of all creative effort in the literary field is destined to be little more than accumulated stacks of paper, the outlook for the future of literature appears quite pessimistic.

This leads me to an important question, and while I realize this is a ‘response’ post rather than a survey, I want to break a little with ENGL 503 tradition here and ask each of you to explain, in light of what seems to be the absolute futility of the practice, why – why do we in general, and you in particular, read, write and study literature? Is it because you’re good at it? Is it because you enjoy it? Is it because you believe there is something lasting in the reading/writing/criticizing of a work of literature? Etc.? Also, in light of the fact that I have provided one, albeit flawed, idea in this response, how – how can we escape the literary ‘urge to obsolescence’ that seems to doom all literary work from the moment the writer sets his/her fingers to the keyboard, and would it be positive even if we could?

Whether you are willing to post your answers on twitter, in response to this blog post, or in class, I am sincerely interested in both your why and how, and look forward to hearing about them.

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