The Literature of Obsolescence

William Gaddis, the author perhaps most concerned with the entropic decay of older systems and organizational principles in fiction, famously taught a class at Bard College in 1979 on “The Literature of Failure.” The books on his syllabus, which included texts ranging from Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, gestured toward an ethic of personal failure or insufficiency—a sense of one’s faulty position within the baroque machinery of American productivity.

The threat of obsolescence takes many forms, and may have marked stylistic consequences. Anxiety regarding what is coming around the next chronological or technological bend can produce works such as Gaddis’s J R, which famously uses 726 chaotic pages of intermingling, unattributed dialogue to contemplate the ways that communication networks fail to uphold basic communication. Other novelists have taken on threats to relevancy that are formal (characters more precisely calculated, structures mapped by math) or metaphorical (getting laid off due to workplace “optimization.”) Viewed through this lens, a literature of obsolescence expands that addresses, at times reflexively, its own sense of being outmoded in medium, characterization, or composition. In the grinding friction between paradigms, however, an unforeseen effect, or evolutionarily untraceable quirk, is sometimes produced: a contorted acceptance of fate, or transcendence of circumstance that is either Zen-like or the acquiescent sign of death.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville

“Bartleby” is Melville’s tale of the eponymous “scrivener,” or manual copyist, whose refusal to work—for a reason now infamous: he “would prefer not to”—eventually degrades into a suicidal lack of interest in everything. Bartleby’s seemingly willful renunciation of self has prompted critics to draw parallels to absurdist literature like Kafka’s 1922 story “A Hunger Artist,” and offer explanations ranging from the supernatural to the psychological. Yet, in many ways, Bartleby simply mirrors the logic of industrialization: he is a single-intentioned tool capable only of dutifully rendering one task. He lives off “a few crumbs” and tries to do away with unnecessary needs like an inspiring view (he stares at a “dead brick wall”) or home to sleep in (he “haunts” the offices instead). The crushing of the copyist’s superfluous individuality is perhaps most tellingly remarked on by the self-styled good Samaritan narrator, who admits offhand that “I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down… to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand.” By the time Bartleby is found peaceably dead in prison, resting “with kings and counselors,” it is uncertain whether he has spiritually ascended or merely abdicated his superfluous physical form.

“The Theater of Cruelty” by Antonin Artaud

Those who have heard Artaud’s 1947 radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God know his shrill, banshee-like voice, which resembles Klaus Kinski at his most unhinged. Though Artaud was at one point a well-regarded silent-film actor—appearing famously in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc —he turned his back on film at the advent of sound, which he thought had stripped film of its gestural force. One can only assume an additional factor was his unnatural, unpleasant voice now rendered clearly. “The Theater of Cruelty,” Artaud’s aesthetic manifesto for the theater first delivered in 1932, in part transfers his conflicted feelings about language’s insufficiency into an over-compensating theory of violent, expressive noise and sensation. His idealized art would turn “words into incantations,” “pile-driving sounds,” unveiling language’s id. By smashing the strictures of meaningful dialogue, Artaud sought “anarchic destruction generating a fantastic flight of forms.”

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon compares the fictitious city of San Narciso—a prototypical aerospace-inflated Southern Californian city of the mid-twentieth-century and beginning point for the novel—to the “circuit card” of a transistor radio. This metaphor of circuitous paths recalls the novel’s central plot, such as it exists, of protagonist Oedipa Maas attempting to unwind the densely bound estate of her late boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. The estate lapses into a farrago of legal misdirects and mysterious corporate ventures that quickly reveal themselves to possibly relate to a secret society, called the Tristero, operating a secret postal service under the slogan “W.A.S.T.E” (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire). Pynchon’s fascination with an underground postal service as the conduit for anarchic insurrection during his Cold War milieu suggests a conscious lapsing back to purposefully inefficient technology to combat a perceived environment of hyper-connection. Indeed, Oedipa’s confused confrontations of the seemingly epic networks of communication around her—the Tristero’s muted post horn logo popping up everywhere from Bay Area bus seats to pins for anti-love self-help groups—accurately frames the experience of being lost in intertwined webs of international allegiance and conspiracy. The complex fear of, yet nationalistic clinging to, surreptitious narratives, and interconnections beyond one’s grasp, is summed up by Oedipa as the allegiance to paranoid myth almost as a new religion: “For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.”

“Mister Squishy” by David Foster Wallace

Wallace’s story “Mister Squishy”—a satirical take on the dehumanizing outcome of quantitative advertising assessment—offers an almost Matrix -like rendering of characters as data. The story follows focus group facilitator Terry Schmidt, an effaced, anonymous man trained by years of rote performance to interact “in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached” as he gauges his group’s receptiveness to luxury snack cakes. His robotism is enhanced by statistical observations like “five of the men were more than 10% overweight.” Further, the narrative reveals a complex, fractal-like embedding of market research plans within larger market research plans, studded throughout with near-illegible clusters of ad-jargon and acronyms. Terry’s unhinged, perversely self-actualizing plan to destabilize the “soft-confection” market with a lethally dosed batch of cakes is couched within a larger terrorist plot orchestrated by advertising higher-ups to rattle and test the facilitators themselves—the latter plot a means to pave the way for the future removal of these facilitators altogether with a mass digitalization dubbed “the coming www-dot-slash-hypercybercommerce thing.”

Agapē Agape, by William Gaddis

Gaddis shaved down his long in-progress encyclopedic history of the player piano into this slim, fictional novella, heavily indebted in style and form to the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Agapē matches Bernhard’s model of “first-person narratives by brilliant but pessimistic men at odds with society,” as critic Steven Moore points out, though here Gaddis follows the stream-of-consciousness musings of a dying man. The book is concerned more largely with automation in the arts, and such mechanization’s perceived impact in encouraging passive entertainment and driving the death of individual, “genius”-driven artistry. (This theory reflects in some fashion Benjamin’s on how mass-replication saps an artwork’s unique “aura.”) A character from Gaddis’s previous novel, J R , coincidentally composing a work also called Agapē Agape, describes the project as “about order and disorder more of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element.”

Casey Michael Henry is currently a fellow at the City University of New York’s Center for the Humanities.