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Planned Obsolescence: Text, Theory,Technology(Universit de Lige, Belgium -December 8-9, 2016)

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Ella Mingazova, Carole Guesse, BrunoDupont

Chips blocking printers after a certain numberof copies, smartphones getting more and morefragile, batteries suddenly losing their autonomy,food assigned an arbitrary expiration date:these are examples of the artificial limitation ofthe lifespan of consumable goods, in otherwords, a mechanism called plannedobsolescence, which dates back at least as faras Bernard Londons 1932 pamphlet: Endingthe Depression through PlannedObsolescence. Planned obsolescence wasthen presented as having a beneficial impact onsociety: forcing people to replace theirbelongings more rapidly would increase salesand thereby stimulate the economy. Throughoutthe twentieth and particularly during the twenty-first century, planned obsolescence as abusiness strategy has gradually gained anegative connotation and become a cause anda symbol of over-consumption (Latouche).

This change in value attached to the concept ofplanned obsolescence highlights its potential asa theoretical concept to help scholars considerthe current cultural context, as it is governed bythe expectation of the new and the celebration

Ella Mingazova is adoctoral student atthe University ofLige and the KULeuven, Belgium. Shehas graduated fromUCLouvain, Belgium,in 2014. Her researchfocuses on duration,aesthetic slownessand scales incontemporary fiction.She has been avisiting scholar atProject Narrative(Ohio StateUniversity, United-States) in Fall 2016.She has co-organized theconference PlannedObsolescence: Texts,Theory, Technology(Lige, December2016).

Carole Guesse is adoctoral student atthe University ofLige, Belgium,where she obtained aMasters degree inEnglish and HispanicStudies. She ispreparing a PhDdissertation on thepoetics of the

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of innovation. Planned obsolescence could, forexample, provide an explanation to theobsession for the new in critical theory thatcharacterizes contemporary literary and culturalstudies: any new theory is rapidly criticized byits detractors, who announce its replacement,often by adding to it the prefix post (post-structuralism, posthumanism, postmodernismand even post-postmodernism).

The central aim behind our internationalconference Planned Obsolescence: Text,Theory, Technology, which took place at theUniversity of Lige (Belgium) on December 8thand 9th, 2016, was to test the potential forplanned obsolescence to become an analyticaltool. The conference focused on thepossibilities of applying the concept of plannedobsolescence in its broadest sense to domainsas diverse as cultural theory, literature, mediastudies, philosophy and architecture. Theconference was bilingual, with presentationsboth in French and English, providing a widearray of cultural and linguistic traditions, asspeakers came from seven different countries.Crossing borders between different scientifictraditions and disciplines, the conference wasthoroughly interdisciplinary, allowing theweaving of some common threads and, thereby,stimulating the reflection on the concept ofplanned obsolescence.

Rethinking ObsolescenceThis attempt extended the already existing butsparse research on obsolescence, as illustratedby Mathias Rollots recent bookLObsolescence: ouvrir limpossible(Obsolescence: Opening Up the Impossible).Rollot argues that the notion of obsolescence asa theoretical tool is radically different from thenotion of destruction. For Rollot, obsolescenceimplies a change of meaning rather than aphysical change (Rollot 17). Whether a clear

posthuman, with afocus on novels byMichel Houellebecq,Margaret Atwood andAndri SnrMagnason. Herresearch interestsinclude poetics,literary and culturaltheories, literarygenres, sciencefiction,posthumanism andtranshumanism. Shehas co-organizedthree conferences:PlannedObsolescence: Texts,Theory, Technology(Lige, December2016), The 9thBeyond HumanismConference (Rome,July 2017), andNarratives of thePosthuman Body(Utrecht, July 2017).

Bruno Dupont is aresearch assistant atthe University ofLige, and iscurrently working ona doctoral thesis inGerman literature. Hisproject aims toassess the influenceof the depiction ofthe computer on theform and content ofcontemporaryGerman texts. He isinterested in therelation between

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distinction between these terms is viablethrough different disciplines and whether it istruly beneficial remains to be investigated. Itcould be argued that even objects struck byplanned obsolescence are not destructed butbecome waste, which is very difficult todestruct.

Paradoxically, obsolete objects would then beobjects that last. Likewise, as Jens Schrterexplained in his presentation, implementingforgetting to digital media and permanentlydeleting information is much more laboriousthan making digital media remember. Everythingthat has ever been posted on the Internetalways leaves a trace, even though it may nolonger be accessible to the user. Surprisinglyperhaps, most of the presentations focused onplanned obsolescence as a phenomenon thatdoes not imply destruction but rather a changein function, an altered relation between anobject/subject and its environment, therebyreasserting the argument formulated by MathiasRollot.

Keynote speaker Valrie Stinon (UniversitParis XIII - Pliade) was invited to discuss therelation between planned obsolescence andspeculative fiction. Her keynote address Nivisionnaires, ni obsoltes: penser les rcitsdanticipation dans lhistoire (littraire) (NeitherVisionary, nor Obsolete: Thinking aboutSpeculative Fiction in (Literary) History) dealtwith archaic science fiction produced before the1950s. Such writings are, perhaps more thanany other genres, threatened by plannedobsolescence: producing a narrative thatimagines a possible future implies the risk offailure. Stinon explained that archaic sciencefiction can be described as either visionary orobsolete. In visionary narratives, something isimagined as possible before it actually (andoften much later) becomes real. This visionaryquality is often partial, as most narratives only

literary and gamestudies, as well as inemerging literarygenres which try totake the digital turninto account. He haspublished on thesetopics in French andGerman and hasbeen a member ofthe Lige Game Labsince 2016. He hasco-organized theconference PlannedObsolescence: Texts,Theory, Technology(Lige, December2016).



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get some elements right. Many speculativenarratives, however, are doomed to be obsoleteas soon as they get old enough to be provenwrong. As highlighted by Stinon, this visionaryor obsolete quality is intrinsically linked with thesocial context of reception of these works.

Kathleen Fitzpatricks conclusion in her keynoteaddress The Future History of the Book: Time,Attention, Convention ran along the same lines.She convincingly argued that our perception ofthe book as becoming obsolete with the adventof new (digital) media has more to say about theenvironment in which the book evolves thanabout the actual popularity of reading, a subjectthat she has discussed at length in her bookThe Anxiety of Obsolescence: The AmericanNovel in the Age of Television (2006). Fitzpatrickwas one of the first scholars to apply the notionof planned obsolescence to the humanities inher discussion of the future of academicpublishing in Planned Obsolescence:Publishing, Technology, and the Future of theAcademy (2011), in which she calls academicpublishing undead, comparing it to a zombie:required, but non viable.

Renewal and the ObsoleteObsolete objects and subjects are dormantawaiting revivification. The conference andparticularly the presentations on video games(Julie Delbouille & Pierre-Yves Hurel), street art(Marjorie Ranieri) and materials used in tertiarybuildings (Rmi Laporte) showed that whatbecomes obsolete does not die but stays inlimbo, out-of-sync. Prior the conference, ourmain interrogation was: Does every object,subject and concept contain the seeds of itsown destruction? As the conferenceprogressed, the central question became doesevery obsolete object, subject and conceptcontain the seeds of its own renewal?

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As highlighted by Vincent Beaubois in hispresentation on the philosophy of GilbertSimondon, no creation exists ex nihilo, andobsolete objects often serve as inspiration andwould therefore be the necessary condition forinnovation. This cyclical view was also presentthroughout the conference through the conceptof repetition, which has been introduced fromthe very beginning of the conference, with LeeNelsons paper. It is through repetition that aproduct becomes a classic, as highlighted byLilli Sihvonen in her paper on the Finnish gameKimble, and, as put forward by KathleenFitzpatrick, it is through reprints that a literarytext becomes part of the canon. The singularityof each object is erased for the benefit of theimmortality of the pro