Useless: The Aesthetics of Obsolescence in Twentieth Century U.S. Culture

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Klarr, Lisa Anne


Jameson, Fredric
Wiegman, Robyn

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In the industrial vocabulary of the nineteenth century, “obsolescence” is regularly cast as a loss; it is the profit forfeited when advances in technology render the current means of production unnecessary. But in the twentieth century obsolescence morphs in both sensibility and cultural meaning, becoming a routine feature of discourses dedicated to the re-invention of the self, as in the declaration of an ad from the New York Times of November 12,1950: “New New a thousand times New (we’d rather die than obsolesce!)” Here and elsewhere obsolescence becomes valued for the distinction it helps to impart: that modernity is about newness, that futurity and commodities are often linked to the ephemeral. For the Futurists, “houses will last less long than we”; for General Motor’s Alfred P. Sloan, automobiles will change every year; for the post-WWII manufacturers of disposable goods, objects like Kleenex will lapse mere seconds after their use. My dissertation “Useless: The Aesthetics of Obsolescence in Twentieth Century U.S. Culture” studies how art acts as a repository for the obsolete, a “home” for the worthless objects, rejected places, and ruined bodies otherwise considered to be useless.

The project is divided into four chapters that trace how the presence of obsolescence in cultural texts produces aesthetic effects that resist, mourn, or disrupt the logic of obsolescence. In my first chapter, “The Totemic: Willa Cather, Mesa Verde, and Modernist Form,” I illustrate how modern artists form a relation to obsolete objects that is sacred. Reading Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House (1925) in relation to her own cross-country journey to Mesa Verde National Park in 1915, I argue that the park, the museum, and the World Exposition all demonstrate the ways in which the U.S. forges a “totemic” relation between its citizens and obsolete indigenous objects in the first decades of the twentieth century. This relation is what motivates the National Park Service to preserve the indigenous ruin and to accrue vast tracks of land and expend Federal resources to assure their continuity; it is also what attracts Cather to these particular objects as worthy of literary representation, producing a “totemic” form that mirrors the form of the National Park. Importantly, the various acts the U.S. is committing contemporaneously in order to preserve the ruins (expelling tribes from ancestral homelands, laying claim to sacred spaces, appropriating funeral objects) is actively under erasure in both the NPS and Cather’s text.

In Chapter Two “Decaying Spaces: Faulkner’s Gothic and the Construction of the Capitalist Real,” I continue the trajectory begun in the first chapter with a focus on how obsolescence impacts modernist aesthetic practice. In particular, I study William Faulkner’s novels As I Lay Dying (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Absalom, Absalom (1932) to illustrate how his literary modernism is not a movement dedicated to the “new” but is instead deeply invested in the objects (and bodies) made “useless” by industrialization. Interestingly, it is his investment in rusting artifacts that prompts literary critics to assign his works to the gothic tradition. Responding to this classification, I argue that since the categorization of literature often defaults to realism-mimesis as the originary mode from which all other genres deviate, many critical accounts of Faulkner tend to simply approximate how far his narration strays from accurately describing economic reality. The paradox is that Faulkner’s narration of the actual decay present in his cultural landscape is often not “real” enough to be considered realism; it is in “excess” of the real, which suggests that the capitalist real is an ideal referent containing only minimal traces of degradation. I therefore explore the tension in the first half of the 20th century between realism and Gothicism where, increasingly, the capitalist real comes to be articulated around that which is new, modern, and efficient.

Taking as its historical marker the automation of industry, Chapter Three “The Political: Junk, Trash, and Post-Modern Technique” investigates how a junk aesthetic begins to develop in the mid-century out of the detritus of industrial production. To illustrate how this aesthetic functions in literary texts, I examine Philip K Dick’s novels Time Out of Joint (1954), Ubik (1969), and Valis (1981) as well as his depiction in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) of “kipple”—all of the useless objects like wrappers, containers, and plastics that industrialism leaves behind and that ultimately threatens the grounding of our material existence. Since Gross Domestic Product peaks in the middle of the century, making these the years in which the United States floods the cultural landscape with a staggering amount of disposable goods, I argue that writers and artists in the 1950s and 60s (Bruce Conner, George Herms, Ed Kienholz) respond to this saturation by making sculptures and fictional worlds out of plastic chairs, dirty dishes, and wrecked autos, an illustration of how the obsolete commodity, meant to be ephemeral, takes on a new political significance in the art of the mid-century.

The last chapter “Apocalyptic Vision: Revelation in the Ruins of Detroit” examines how the city that perfects built-in obsolescence finds itself obsolete. In particular, I study how the recent proliferation of ruin photography circulating both online and in print registers the obsolescence of the U.S. industrial sector. Based on the sheer number of visual texts that take Detroit’s ruins as its subject: Lowell Boileau’s The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit (1996), Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled (2010), Dan Austin and Sean Doerr’s Lost Detroit (2010), Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit (2010), Marchand and Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit (2011), not to mention all of the amateur footage on YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook, I consider Detroit ruin photography to be a genre in its own right. I illustrate how the focus of these representations is on industrial decay—the ruinous landscape of post-industrial Detroit with its abandoned houses, defunct factories, and rusting ports, and argue that the effect of this decay is “apocalyptic”; it is, to paraphrase Michel de Certeau, the very concept of the City that is in decline. To illustrate the economic force of obsolescence, I interrogate how post-industrial artists like Detroit’s Tyree Guyton re-purpose defunct industrial objects into art pieces at the same time that portions of decaying Detroit houses sell on the global art market as found art.






Klarr, Lisa Anne (2017). Useless: The Aesthetics of Obsolescence in Twentieth Century U.S. Culture. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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