David Shields – Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Like most things these days I came across David Shield’s work through links and links of links. June Underwood mentioned a Zadie Smith article that mentioned David’s work in a comment, and I was off to the races. Reality or “finding reality” has been an issue in the studio and we’ve discussed the implications of “reality” in a number of posts. Once I had read a few articles about David’s work I was hooked – Rene Zellwegger to his Tom Cruise (He had me at Reality!) His forthcoming book entitled Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is just that. The book doesn’t work the way we have come to expect our “reality,” our media infused, computer programmed world to work. It twists our expectations and then issues a call to arms. Once you’ve read the book you’ll find a new resolve to go deeper into your work, into yourself. It’s as bracing as a brick through a plate-glass window.

Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.

The book itself is worked through in two ways. The first is a direct challenge to the “institutional” idea of appropriation as both homage and reference. Now this is complicated because David accepts that we exist in our Postmodern era, and appropriation is part of the theoretical backbone of everyday Postmodern practice, just like cars in the 50s and television in the 60s and computers in the 90s. He has arranged his book as a collection of aphorisms, ideas, thoughts, quotations, etc., then culled them into thematic chapters. Each chapter is directed towards a specific idea about writing, about art and life. Some of the appropriations are word for word, some have been modified through his own thought processes, and some are half-remembered things that may or may not be original. These are all mixed in and guided by his voice, his thought, his memory. But unlike most contemporary appropriation, here it’s used it to guide meaning connected to an interior process, a process of feeling. This use of appropriation is something we haven’t seen for a while. It is a way for an artist to access memory, access one’s own history through the larger public culture – a “found object” becomes something personal when it’s internalized rather than referenced, when it’s coveted rather than displayed. Appropriation is transgressive when it’s stolen and woven into one’s personality, when it becomes part of one’s life. This kind of specific cultural transgression can make personal expression dangerous to behold and that gets one excited. David “steals” the way Titian stole from Giorgone, Picasso stole from Velazquez, or Matisse stole from Cezanne. In this sense to appropriate means that something new is coming into being, something unfamiliar from the comfortably known. Unlike Postmodern practice which continuously displays its references, footnotes its borrowings or re-presents a representation in an attempt to circumvent meaning, responsibility and progress, David asks us to actually make this found and stolen culture our own, make it part of our expression and our life – to actually use it to make something we haven’t experienced before, something for the 21st Century!

Which brings us to the second and more important (at least to my mind) part of the book. Reality. For the first time in quite a long time an artist turns away from the contrived reality of institutional practice and programmed certainty. David began to change his work when he realized he could no longer write fiction or read novels. Like a few of us in the art world he began to see the contrived and mannered production that was beginning to appear in our culture. The “well-made novel” had taken over the literary world in the same way that the “well-made painting” had taken over the art world. There has been a kind of certainty, a formulaic rulebook that set the basic tone and structure for every act of professional art being made. In our world this contrived reality is called Mannerism. David began to question the processes of fiction by looking inward to his own existence. Reality was a far more complicated and interesting idea. One’s own memory is where nothing is made up, but everything is interpreted. There are no rules, there are only memories, feelings, experiences. How those things are formed and relayed becomes the interesting part of making art. By starting with himself he wasn’t making things up, just relaying them – simple, direct and true. He also describes the disconnect between the culture as it’s formed around us and our natural lived experience. The disconnect between the two, our culture and our life, is huge, disturbing, and exciting, and that is where David was determined to relate his life. The blur – as he has entitled one of his chapters, is that ambiguous area where we determine our own fictions and realities.

Postmodernism’s catchphrase has been “desire.” Today we are lost in a world of desire and many of us have begun to look for a new way through. Our culture remains abstract, unfulfilled, nebulous and we hunger for something more. David Shields calls it Reality.

At least that’s my misreading. I wrote to David in the hopes that he would answer some questions and make it a bit clearer for us. He was extremely kind and generous with me and our discussion follows:

MS: The first [question] has to do with appropriation. In the art world we’ve been dealing with issues of authorship for quiet a while – at least since Duchamp’s Urinal at the beginning of the 20th Century. Duchamp’s challenge was about the nature of art. He hadn’t conceived the piece nor had he made it, he found the piece and claimed it as his own – it was art because he, the artist, chose it. This is the basic found object lesson we have all learned since. But today there is a further issue of copyrights, trademarks – which layers a corporate/legal problem over the creative/aesthetic one.

DS: I think that’s a good summary; it’s amazing how behind the curve the literary arts are. Reality Hunger is in many ways my attempt to bring contemporary writing up to date in this regard.

MS: Since Warhol the art world has become transfixed with the idea of replication, where appropriation – guided by lenses and programs – reproduces everything “exactly” in any form into any other form (for instance, a replication of a Harley Davidson motorcycle using salt as the building material.) Baudrillard in the late 60s and early 70s declared that culture/society had become a simulacrum and that there was no longer an original, a reality to base our perceptions on – the replication, the program had become our reality. In the art world we understand the implication of this idea of a replication from a replication – we view media within media – (the original no longer exists.) We appropriate directly, but we move it to another form hoping to skirt the economic issues. We customize it (with color or materials – we enlarge it or shrink it – we change it from one medium to another – etc) and re-present the representation – but unfortunately, we do not change the nature of the appropriated form, we do not question the simulated reality of the work we use.

DS: I, too, was heavily influenced by Baudrillard as well.

MS: Now if I’ve read your work correctly you use appropriation a bit differently. I believe that for you the appropriation is a way to get at a more personal expression of your own existence. You aren’t necessarily discussing the nature of “art” or “authorship”, but the nature of your own reactions to the things that you’ve seen or read or experienced, those things that you encounter and the impression they’ve made. You use them because they express something of you.

DS: I think you’ve captured something very true here, Mark. In a strange way there is something oddly “sincere” about my appropriation. All of these passages are eerily my own. I’ve edited them in such a way and positioned them in such a way that they have become my own or at least all of ours. That is surely one of the points of the book,or targets of the book. The book began with a course I taught in self-reflexive documentary film. I clipped hundreds if not thousands of lines that I loved and I put all of these into an enormous notebook, and this notebook became the “course packet” for the course, as I wanted to explain year in and year out to graduate fiction writers what it was I found so exciting about self-reflexive documentary film and also about literary essay. Over time, the packet got edited down more tightly, but it was important to me to leave off who wrote what. Some stuff I wrote, and other stuff I edited heavily. A lot of it was heavily combined. It was all very sincere in a way. The crucial gesture was putting the passages into thematic groupings—otherwise known as chapters—and then editing each chapter and each passage within an inch of its life. Editing is to me writing. I feel more like a film editor than I do a writer. My creative act was to find these passages, edit them radically, and then order them, and thematize them. All that being said, I would still say that I am indeed discussing the nature of art and authorship. I forget if you have the early DIY galleys, without citation, or the later galleys, with citation, but it’s crucial to me to see the connection between my argument about genre and the book’s gesture of appropriation. In each case, I’m trying to argue for the importance of unknowing.

MS: I may be way off, but when I was reading your book I felt as if I was reading someone’s notebook, a kind of diary or a sketchbook. It was very structured, there was a concise direction, similar to the way an artist makes notes in a sketchbook about what’s been seen, what sounds right, what feels right, images collected etc. Reality Hunger felt like I was rummaging through, say, Matisse’s letters with drawings and notes about what he was trying to accomplish, sketches, colors, found things pasted in the book, ideas stumbled on – that sort of thing. There was a consciousness driving the appropriation, something deeper and involving, and it was compelling.

DS: Reality Hunger weds the question of appropriation to the question of authorial ambiguity and generic slippage. This technique shadows the entire book. Most readers will spot only a handful of the most obvious quotations, suspect that a lot of the paragraphs are quotations (even when they can’t quite place them), and come to regard the first-person singular whenever they meet it as a floating, umbrella self, sheltering simultaneously one voice (“my own”) and multiple voices. The possibility that every word in the book might be quotation and not “original” to the author should very nicely and suitably arise. This continuous uncertainty or constant ambiguity is meant to be both unsettling and exciting, making the reader feel on his or her own pulse the dubiety of the first-person pronoun: it’s Shields (you thought it was); no, it’s not, it’s Leiris; no, in an important sense, it’s neither. The book’s best reader isn’t going to be a quote-spotter but somebody who grasps and relishes the ambiguous authorship of the text.

The whole argument of the book is to put reality within quadruple quotation marks. Reality here isn’t straightforward or easily accessible; It’s slippery, evasive. Just as authorship is ambiguous, knowledge is dubious, and truth is unknown or at the very least relative. The crucial, yoking gesture of the book is to wed ambiguity of the provenance of quotation with ambiguity of the question of genre—fiction, nonfiction, the lure and blur of the real. Art, not to mention life, now seems to happen primarily in liminal spaces, edited, quoted and quoted again and recontextualized, re-placed, collaged, stitched together. The book argues this idea passionately; it also needs to embody it.

MS: The second has to do with the idea of Reality itself. Every quote points back to an interiority of experience.

DS: Really? Every quote? Many, of course, but surely not every one.
(to Henri readers – OK, I was excited and I overshot – what can I say, I’m human…)

MS: I kept coming back to a physical state, a need to feel something and express that feeling. For instance, you say that you cannot read fiction any longer. The mechanisms are too apparent, the ‘art’ of it too readily understandable and expected. You make the case that reality, what we remember, is not a record but an experience. So what you read, see, hear in our saturated culture is poured through your viewpoint, and that is where you must find your voice. You don’t make things up necessarily, but interpret what happened creating a context for a personal interpretation, or as a friend of mine used to say, the primacy of fleshy memory.

Can you explain what this idea of physical experience is, how its connected to memory? Why do you think, after years of Postmodern “desire” we are now looking for something else? Why hunger? What is it that you feel we are missing? And how did that manifest in your work?

DS: These are great questions, Mark. Not sure I have the answers. Not sure how consciously I’ve worked out the answers. The book was written without a scholar’s logic, but rather with a writer’s intuitive impulses. I basically wanted to figure out and explain and convey why fiction no longer holds my interest, with very few exceptions. That is, doesn’t interest me as a writer or reader or teacher. Physical experience? I’m not sure I’m anymore convinced that we can touch the physical than Baudrillard was. I’m not a naïve proponent of reality. I know reality takes place within multiple frames and lenses. The imperfection of memory is crucial to me, though. Composition is to me a fiction-making operation. Memory is a dream machine. Thus, there is in my view no real distinction between memory and imagination; they overlap nearly completely. I’m all for desire,but the hunger for reality is a feeling that in the very best work the writer is actively gesturing toward some sort of “real life.” Now, of course, this real life is something of a fiction or a construct, but the very fact that the work is trying to get to the real makes the work far more interesting to me, because by virtue of framing itself as a work of nonfiction, and doing so in an epistemologically and ontologically sophisticated way, it raises questions in a serious vein and in a risky mode about the very nature of memory, of the self, of knowledge, of self-knowledge, of other-knowledge. As I say in the book,
What I want to do is take the banality of nonfiction (the literalness of “facts,” “truth,” “reality”), turn that banality inside out, and thereby make nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth, an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological questions. The lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door.

MS: Finally, the visual arts have been stagnating through the last decade. The economics of it took precedence as it did in the larger economy. It’s almost as if we became a new Rococo generation – expensive visual art made for a select group of very wealthy and specific individuals. Artists approached their work like they were in a “profession” one that promised a good salary, health care etc. Like the well-made novel, we had the well-made painting. You suggest that we find again the gap between art and life. This is something Rauschenberg was famous for saying in the 1950’s. Though today, I think that gap is not in the same place and we have different things to consider.

DS: Interesting connections between the well-made painting-novel and carrerist art world.

MS: How does memory play into the idea of the “blur” as you call it? How does culture exist in this blur and what part of memory must be involved? Where do you begin to draw the material from yourself?

DS: See above re: memory and blur. Re: how culture and memory form a blur, I’m tempted to again quote from the work, from my friend Brian Christian, who says, I’m finding it harder to just “write.” The seeking and sculpting of found text or sound have become my primary “artistic” function. Actually generating that text or music seems increasingly difficult. Lately I’ll sit down with a blank pad and feel like I really have to dig down deep to get my own voice to come out over the “sample choir.” It’s a very strange feeling, like a conductor trying to sing over the orchestra, and is, I believe, a fairly new one for artists.
That to me is central. How do I draw the material from myself? I guess I’d say I don’t. I draw the myself from a thousand different sources, and from my edit, my juxtaposition, my framing, and my thematizing, I say something that is “true” to myself and the culture, that is provocative in its angled attack.

David’s book will be out on February 23, 2010. It is a game changer not only for authors, but for artists of all kind. We Postmodern denizens of the art world would do well to “misread” it as deeply as we can.
“The questions Reality Hunger explores—the bending of form and genre, the lure and blur of the real—play out constantly all around us. Think of the now endless controversy surrounding the provenance and authenticity of the “real”: A Million Little Pieces, the Obama “Hope” poster, the sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” photograph, the boy who wasn’t in the balloon. Reality Hunger is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about “truthiness,” literary license, quotation, appropriation.”
I highly recommend you find a copy and add it to your collection!

One thought on “David Shields – Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

  1. Mark,
    Thanks for further examination of the Shield’s book; you’ve convinced me I should buy it even though I know I’ll hate it.

    The interview with Mr. Shields had these lines which both made me snicker and somewhat uncomfortable: “In a strange way there is something oddly “sincere” about my appropriation. All of these passages are eerily my own.”

    I suspect that most of our ordinary (non-intentional art) appropriations are “sincere.” And that’s what the Post-modern cynics keep shoving our faces in. But Shields has clearly moved beyond that and been “sincere” in acknowledging and moving on.

    I have often been accused of being too “sincere” (Victorian/ lacking irony/ earnest) with a learned understanding of my own limitations as well as a training in irony. Which is why David Shields word made me chuckle.

    I will dislike the book, I’m assuming without having read it, because I like the old forms — the really old forms — with plots and character development. But I understand the frustration of the contemporary writer — no help there. I am of a piece with the gentleman who walked by my desert paintings disgustedly and said, “doesn’t look like anything I see.” And yet I was painting plein air, with the desert right outside the doors.

    I continue to be interested in this subject and will buy the book. Buying the book makes up for my guilt about believing I’ll hate it –snort–

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