Planned Obsolescence: Terrific. Now What?

In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick poses some bold goals. Discussing authorship, she provides these dictums: “We need to think less about completed products and more about texts-in-process; less about individual ownership and more about collaboration; less about originality and more about remix; less about ownership and more about sharing” (83). When it comes to the relationship between the university and the university press, she goes even further: “Universities must recognize that their mission extends to include not just the production of new knowledge through the research done by its faculty, but the communication of that knowledge via university-based systems, which must be supported as part of the institution’s infrastructure in order to relieve them of the untenable burden of cost recovery” (166). While I cannot help but endorse Fitzpatrick’s admittedly utopian vision (194), I’m not sure that I’m the public to which she should write. What I mean to say is that I doubt “we in the humanities” (13) can effect the change Fitzpatrick imagines.

Consider for example her rigorous attention to the peer review process. As a scholar-in-training at the mercy of a fairly dysfunctional peer review system, I welcome new venues for and more inclusive definitions of scholarly work. I’m not opposed to detaching credentialing from the publishing process (32); I’m interested in community-based systems of review that challenge traditional notions of project ownership (43); and I’m receptive to portfolio-based credit systems such as MediaCommons (44). However, I have problem: I write in this system, and it is not my own.

Certainly, departments across the humanities could take a more inclusive approach to what constitutes scholarship. Yet if those in the sciences conform to—and excel at—existing, easily quantifiable modes of production, how do we in the humanities account for fewer traditional publications to increasingly corporatized administrations? I’m skeptical that enthusiastic online engagement is going to get anyone tenure anytime soon.

Fitzpatrick does a superb job showing how the idea of book authorship germinated from massive sociopolitical upheavals during the Enlightenment era (57-9). Given that the current system born of political revolution and has endured for a couple hundred years, I’m unsure how a new cadre of humanities scholars stand to upend the dominant definition of authorship. I fear that it is not, “convincing ourselves that this mode of work counts as work” (79), but convincing others less inclined to see our plight. Am I defeatist? Cynical? Flat-out wrong? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

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