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Obsolescence is fundamental to the experience of modernity, not simply one dimension of an economic system. The contributors to this book investigate obsolescence as a historical phenomenon, an aesthetic practice, and an affective mode.





Thinking out of Sync: A Theory of Obsolescence
In a 2002 Ikea commercial, a woman unplugs a red desk lamp and carries it out of her home, depositing it with a bag of garbage on the sidewalk.1 The weather turns windy and wintry, and the camera lingers on the lamp standing in the rain, its shade and bulb turned toward the window of the house, where the woman sits dry and cozy in the warm glow of a new lamp. A spare piano score emphasizes the sad fate of the unloved red lamp until, suddenly, a man appears out of the darkness. He addresses the camera in an exaggerated Nordic accent. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he says, as the rain drenches him. “That is because you’re crazy. It has no feelings! And the new one is much better.” The man departs and the ad concludes with the Ikea logo. Although the commercial suggests that we are “crazy” to feel sympathy for the old lamp and should instead embrace what is “new” and “better,” the ad in fact highlights the ambiguous dynamics of obsolescence that are the subject of this book. The lamp abandoned in the rain seems so charged with meaning, but the new nonetheless has a much stronger appeal. Obsolescence is fundamental to our consumer practices, our relationship to objects, and our everyday lives, and yet we reflect on it so infrequently.
Babette B. Tischleder, Sarah Wasserman



The Obsolescence of the Human
“How boring to be human.” The sentiment seems to have provoked a sustained, highly publicized mass-cultural fixation on the more and the less than human. On zombies, for instance, as exemplified by the latest over-the-top zombie apocalypse film, World War Z (2003), starring Brad Pitt.1 On aliens, most adroitly deployed by Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp in District 9 (2009).2 On vampires and werewolves, most famously dramatized by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight romances, the first of which appeared in 2005. Bella Swan falls in love with the vampire Edward and befriends the werewolf Jake Black, who himself suffers the unreciprocated hots for Bella. (Edward, like all Meyer vampires, sparkles in the sun. If nothing else makes you envious, this should.) The books have been translated into almost forty languages, and they have been transposed, famously, into an equally popular series of films, The Twilight Saga, a total of five movies across four years, 2008–2012. Twilight is a publishing and Hollywood phenomenon not seen since … well, not since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the first novel published in 1997, the last film screened in 2011, a series where mere humans endure the fate of being diminished to “muggles.”
Bill Brown



Chapter 1. Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Obsolescence, Trash, and American Consumer Culture

In his 1968 story “The Daughters of the Moon,” Italo Calvino writes of a “world where every object was thrown away at the slightest sign of breakage or aging, at the first dent or stain, and replaced with a new and perfect substitute … We went out in the crowds, our arms laden with parcels, coming and going from the big department stores that were open day and night, and … scanning the neon signs that climbed higher and higher up the skyscrapers and notified us constantly of new products that had been launched.” Calvino describes “an enormous wrecking yard” at the edge of New York City, composed of “layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city had used up and expelled so that it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things … Over the course of many years, piles of battered fridges, yellowing issues of Life magazine, and burnt-out light bulbs had accumulated.” The story takes place on “Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire … The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets.”1
Susan Strasser

Chapter 2. Architectures of Obsolescence: Lessons for History

This chapter on obsolescence and architecture begins with an historian’s question about capitalism and modernity. The eminent scholar Eric Hobsbawm, in a 2010 interview, was asked, “to pick still unexplored topics … presenting major challenges for future historians.” Hobsbawm replied with a questi n of his own. “How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development?”1 Hobsbawm directs us to one of capitalism’s contradictions, between the system’s necessity for change, on the one hand, and the human need for constancy, on the other. How are these reconciled? How does capitalism persist, in other words, in violation of basic human impulses?
Daniel M. Abramson

Media and the Digital Age


Chapter 3. Proliferation and Obsolescence of the Historical Record in the Digital Era

From the start some fifty to sixty millennia ago of “behavioral modernity,” the name for the peculiar cluster of traits that define modern Homo sapiens sapiens, humans have been storing things. Lewis Mumford thought that “container technologies” were among the oldest and most underappreciated technologies—such as baskets, vats, bins, reservoirs, salting, smoking, and pickling, and more abstract containers such as family, ritual, language, city, art, and writing, itself probably the most important recording medium in human history. In contrast to “power technologies,” more specifically weapons, which have seen staggering “improvements” over the ages, Mumford noted that container technologies were relatively static and stable.1 Google, for instance, still uses “bins,” “barrels,” and “silos” in its computer architecture, and container technologies of all kinds remain absolutely essential. Indeed, the history of technology is as much about maintenance and use as about innovation, as David Edgerton argues. Old forms persist amid the new: horses were as important as tanks in World War II, and bicycle production has outstripped car production for several decades now.2
John Durham Peters

Chapter 4. Replacement, Displacement, and Obsolescence in the Digital Age

The concept of obsolescence travels with difficulty. A useful if not terribly scientific way to assess the delicate cultural valences the term is subject to is via the “Google image-search test.”1 Entering “obsolescence” and its translations across various languages—each on the appropriate language group’s Google site—algorithmically yields sometimes strikingly divergent image clusters. In German, Obsoleszenz and Veralten rise to the top, with the former triggering images of light bulbs (whose carefully engineered life span evokes the notion of “planned obsolescence”) and mountains of debris, suggesting that the term has an ecological register vis—à—vis excess consumption. Veralten offers a wider range of images, in part because the term is often used to promote the advantages of leasing rather than owning (from houses to copiers), to celebrate classic aphorisms, and to document broken parts. Dutch uses the related word verouderen, but unlike Veralten on, offers endless images of aging humans. The far less frequent phrase in onbruik raken generates a wide range of images to suggest what might best be translated back into English as “disuse” or “nonuse.” Chinese characters generate more positive images on Google. cn, celebrating the patina of age and the warm glow of antiquity. My point is simple: obsolescence enjoys significant semantic slippage, particularly across languages and cultures.
William Uricchio

Chapter 5. The Future History of the Book: Time, Attention, Convention

What is the state of the book today? This is not an inquiry after the book’s health. Questions of the book’s ostensible decline have hounded it for decades, if not centuries, and have variously led to the conclusion that the book is dying, or that it is in the prime of its life, depending. I have argued at length elsewhere that anxieties about the book’s obsolescence are frequently driven by the conservative impulse to shore up the hierarchies between the book and newer media forms (and, not at all incidentally, the hierarchies between those who participate in what we might think of as book culture and those who happily engage with newer media), and I hope in this chapter not to dwell for too long on that phenomenon.1 Rather, I am asking after the book’s physical state, in a different sense: is it solid or liquid—or perhaps more pertinently, does it exist in some altogether ambiguous state? The book has always been, like light, both particle and wave—both material substance and transmitted information. I begin by asking about the book’s physical state in order to open a series of questions—and this essay, I should admit up front, is more question than answer—about what might become of the book, and of our relationship to it, as its material substance changes.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Chapter 6. The Pleasures of Paper: Tethering Literature to Obsolete Material Forms

In her short story “Ragtime” from 1938, Anaï s Nin recounts her experiences during a visit at a Parisian ragpickers’ camp. For Nin’s narrator, the urban underworld forms the landscape of a hallucinatory dream. The story renders the ragpickers’ camp as a paratactic heap of discarded things and makeshift habitations, consisting of demolished buildings, old carts, and shacks. When the narrator peers into a shack, she sees rags: “Rags for beds. Rags for chairs. Rags for tables. On the rags, men, women, brats.”1 The ragpicker seems to know neither time nor agency: in a narrative almost bereft of verbs, humans and things merely accumulate on the urban fringes. While the city dwellers assume that their waste will eventually disappear, the scavengers understand that discarded things only migrate elsewhere. Exposed to this unlikely scenario in which detritus is valuable, Nin’s narrator wonders if it is possible at all to permanently dispose of something. With a knowing smile, the ragpicker answers this desperate query with a meditative song that asserts how “nothing is lost but it changes.”2
Alexander Starre



Chapter 7. The Horror of Details: Obsolescence and Annihilation in Miyako Ishiuchi’s Photography of Atomic Bomb Artifacts

Even now, in Japan, there are “rules of decorum” associated with representing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.1 Even now it is understood that the “art about the bombing should contain an explicit anti-war or pro-peace ‘message,’ or else respond to the tragedy with a sufficient air of gravity.”2 Even now, Hiroshima art that is too cheeky, too stylized, or too playful is subject to reproach. In Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, Lisa Yoneyama acknowledges that “the nationalized remembering of Hiroshima has … never been monolithic or without contradictions” in Japan.3 Nonetheless, she argues,
Whether within the mainstream national historiography, which remembers Hiroshima’s atomic bombing as victimization experienced by the Japanese collectivity, or in the equally pervasive, more universalistic narrative on the bombing that records it as having been an unprecedented event in the history of humanity, Hiroshima memories have been predicated on the grave obfuscation of the prewar Japanese Empire, its colonial practices, and their consequences.4
Jani Scandura

Chapter 8. The Poetics of Patination in the Work of William Gibson

In Jim Jarmusch’s 2009 film The Limits of Control, a character called Molecules tells the protagonist that “each one of us is a set of shifting molecules … spinning in ecstasy. In the near future worn-out things will be made new again by reconfiguring the molecules. Pair of shoes. Tires. Molecular detection will also allow the determination of an object’s physical history. This matchbox for example. Its collection of molecules could indicate everywhere its ever been. They could do it with your clothes. Or even with your skin, for that matter.” Until that happens, however, obsolescence, generally understood as the state of being out of date or no longer in use, will remain the downside of a constantly changing world, in the same way in which nostalgia, as the feeling of longing for objects, people, or situations from the past, is its psychological effect.
Hanjo Berressem

Chapter 9. Untimely: Obsolescence, Late Modernism, and the View Out of Giovanni’s Room

The 1950s require us to turn the calendar pages of the twentieth century. The decade signals more than the halfway stretch of the epoch. These years unfold in the fateful divide between prewar history and postgenocidal reckoning. They additionally witness the geographic divisions of the Cold War. In the process, those flows of goods, processes, and media long described as “Americanization” feed into the ambitions of an “American Century”: a term connoting geopolitical aspirations, but, even more so, evoking a new dispensation of nationally clocked global time.1 Amid all these shifts, the historical span further marks, I propose, a high point of the obsolescence phenomenon.
MaryAnn Snyder-Körber


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