Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: David Shields Reality Hunger, A Manifesto (2010 Knopf)

"An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real". (From David Shields, REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO)

David Shields has written a book, a literary manifesto, that entertains nothing less than grand and venerable questions concerning both life and art and their relationship between them. In keeping with his dismissal of and contempt for traditional boundaries between forms and genres, his insistence upon the value of progressive newness as a criteria for artistic evaluation, and his upholding of the value of the aesthetic in an age increasingly dominated by journalistic obsession with facts on the one hand and fantastic escape from reality in the popular on the other, Shields has conceived the book as a motley mosaic, a patchwork quilt of aphorisms, many of them attributable to the author but just as many, if not more, taken from everywhere else: pop interviews, canonical works of art and English criticism, politicians' rhetoric, and more. His idea is to conceive of a literary art that has all the freedom of borrowing and quotation that we more normally associate with sampled DJ music or contemporary visual and performance art. More important for the present author of this blog's purposes, Shields wants to give nonfiction the same aesthetic value and independence normally given fiction and poetry, in essence to save nonfiction from the legions of popularizers, simplistic biographers, and obsessive history buffs.

In invoking the Oprah Winfrey and James Frey scandal, (concerning the revelation that the James Frey's memoir that Oprah Winfrey touted was in fact a work of fiction), Shields wants to remind us that to make an issue of truth and falsity of Frey's account is to confuse and conflate two notions of truth that should be kept quite separate, the confusion of which is a mark of philistinism. One account of truth is how closely an account adheres to the facts; the other is spiritual and aesthetic and has to do with truth in a more profound and qualitative sense. The former sense is, as hardly needs to be said, rather trivial in the aesthetic realm.

This latter sense is the view of truth that accords with Ezra Pound's "news that stays news", William Carlos Williams' line "it is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there", and an eternal verity about art being a lie that tells the truth. In keeping with this mission and conviction Shields makes sure we note that what was good in Frey's memoir was the fact that some of it was made-up but that the execution was not good. David Shields wants memoir to be regarded in much the same way as we regard the novel or short story and wants us to question naive and indeed philistine assumptions concerning how we we define and value veracity and mendacity.

Firstly, Shields' aphoristic book is a delight to read. Every paragraph or passage compels us to argue and think alongside it, to respond and question, as much our own motives and assumptions as well as the passage we are reading. Then there is the issue of Shields' taste. Shields often has exceptional taste as when he lauds the short fiction of Lydia Davis or gushes over the comedy of Sara Silverman, both of whom are arguably among the more important artists working in any medium today.

REALITY HUNGER is a dense work. Though it might strike one as minimalist on first appearance and in the truncated nature of its formal operation, in fact it is anything but minimalist: in the accumulative effect and weight of all of the quotations on art and life, its tonal shifting between casual jokeyness and modernist and classicist seriousness, its alternation of collage-like play and rigorous argument, its mixture of bald assertion and explicit demonstration, the completion of reading REALITY HUNGER makes one realize that one has been in the company of one of the more serious critics today. A more trendy way to put it is to say REALITY HUNGER is part of move towards a new sincerity or "post-irony" culture.

Throughout Shields extols the virtues of ellipsis which appears to support the potential "minimalist" tag. "How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narrative; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway." This one passage is so excellent because in just one sentence Shields distills what in essence made those playwrights so valuable. But again, after about 300 of these numbered passages, the effect is to very much fill us in, to give us a dense history and a very clearly delineated plot. Because so many of the passages return to the same "master narrative" in a most incessant and compulsive fashion, the narrative that does emerge will be the concern of the remainder of my remarks.

David Shields is also careful in his book to never separate ethical from aesthetic questions. The issue of artistic form comes up incessantly and middlebrow culture often comes in for attack as being false or unreal in its effects. Nowhere is this seriousness about the ethics of artistic styles more clear than in Shields' decision to quote the infamous rightwing politician in the George W Bush administration who talked about the US being an "empire now" one that "makes its own reality" while liberal reporters merely play catch up as said reporters are stuck in a past and false paradigm where one "judiciously analyzed" reality. The policy wonk had nothing but contempt for the assumptions of the "reality" based community.

A more chilling quote has yet to be heard in a long time, because in it the speaker borrows a key assumption of hippie and antiestablishment spiritual and political movements: that our minds or consciousness determines in large part what happens to us and that detached observation is impossible, and uses that assumption in service of the worst aspects of the political and corporate establishment. One wonders if the usage of that belief by such company condemns the belief and is a final verdict on the hazards of Postmodernism. The speaker is not merely saying that because his gang is in power they can do what they want. Rather the speaker is saying that in this new world order there is simply no other way for any of us to live or comprehend reality.

Doubtless this state of affairs worries Shields as he seems to see it as connected with more innocent but banal forms of lowbrow entertainments. Unfortunately this is the one part of Shield's book that goes awry. Shields, in spite of his fondness for artistic innovation and criticism of tired and "false" forms, ironically holds to what is now a rather old line about art.

An example and clue to Shield's narrative of this can be found in the passage found above that introduces this review. This contains the belief that there exists this artistic movement that holds certain tones and styles and modes in common and this movement represents a kind of progress.

Though Shields might deny it, by holding to this belief he is indulging in a kind of historicism. By historicism I mean the word as it was specifically used by philosopher Karl Popper, especially in Popper's POVERTY OF HISTORICISM. As in many of the quotes where Shields complains about "novely" novels that no longer work, or when he quotes the critic Geoff Dyer about how "jazzy jazz" is not interesting anymore, David Shields believes that an age demands unique and quite specific works of art that are relevant and belong to that age.

If we took every single one of the qualities in Shield's passage we could gleam them for their fruits and possibilities; even better we can see their application in some of the greatest works of art of the past forty years. I read that list and think of Bruce Conner movies (speaking of the Zapruder film) of Rauschenberg, performance art, the great cinema verite movement. I think of jazz improvisation, of innovative novels with incredibly unreliable narrators, of the great comic monologues of Sara Silverman.

And above all, though Shields unfortunately does not mention his name, the three films of Andrew Bujalski that gave rise to the unfortunately named and misapplied term "mumblecore", FUNNY HAHA, MUTUAL APPRECIATION, and the latest BEESWAX. In Bujalski's case in particular the "deliberate unartiness" is actually the result of the most rigorous and sincerely involved attempt to make fictional and dramatic art out of the lives and culture of youth in a way I don't believe we have seen performed so successfully since the French and American New Wave some forty-five years ago. But of course it is, as in all art, the most arty thing imaginable, the product of writing (rather than nonprofessionals clowning around on the set), all of the indirection and ellipses as planned as they were in Shield's dramaturgical examples.

But if we look seriously at Shield's list of qualities, as excellent as some of the work is of which the list is constitutive, we are faced with some rather serious questions. Are the terms on the list more needed now than in the past? Do they even constitute a serious movement? And if they do should we herald such a movement as superior to other movements or modes?

Let me proceed carefully because I don't want to appear as defending an "anything goes" "its all good" ethic of relativism. I DO however proceed from a certain PLURALISM, because quite frankly, I don't see how a single mode can be said to be more truthful or valuable than others.

It is not merely that we cannot compare or rank differing styles, because, at times we can, as I will do now. I do this when I tell people that I think the writing on Curb Your Enthusiasm to be better than on Madmen. They might respond, you can't compare comedy and drama. But we compare them all of the time. If we say that AVATAR is stupid and unintelligent and FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN is witty and intelligent we are comparing a comedy with a drama. Though, like Rick Moody, and unlike Northrop Frye, I have very little use for genre as a critical tool.

One of the questions we have to ask concerns whether the aesthetic result is INTERESTING and MEANINGFUL, and, in accordance with those criteria, whereas MADMEN flatters us and offers us familiar ways of looking at the past and the present and the history of sexual politics, CURB asks many more involved questions about individual freedom, the nature of moral responsibility, free will, selfhood, and the conflict between community and individuality than does MADMEN. Both shows are involved in similar issues, that is, issues of the community and the individual (and in that sense are both deeply AMERICAN works of art in the tradition of, say, Hawthorne or James) but whereas MADMEN, as good as it is, resolves those questions in ways that are limiting and certain, and above all in conformity with certain beliefs we already have about emotion and psychology, CURB raises those questions not to be finally and fully answered but as an opportunity for yet further questioning. If MADMEN is enjoyable and entertaining (though at times for me irritating because of its aesthetic conservatism) CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is sublime. It is curious that as a comedy CURB is of course utterly dependent on commonplace sentiments and notions we have about human nature since that is one of the ingredients that generates laughter. Yet in the the course of a single episode such ideas are rigorously scrutinized chiefly through the tension between the anti-hero Larry David and the larger community. The answers are never so certain. Sometimes the problem is the political correctness and earnestness of the community, sometimes in the brutal honesty and tactlessness of Larry David or Jeff Garlin.

In MADMEN we are never in doubt about the repressiveness of Roger Sterling, for example. We are never for a moment allowed to forget the dilemma for women in the historical period in which it is set. And it is NOT a question of drama because the three playwrights Shields cited for their indirection were not chiefly comic. Because CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is largely improvised and MADMEN is painstakingly written this would appear to match Shield's opposition of spontaneity to contrived. But this is of little help because Andrew Bujalski's films are written yet appear to many onlookers as excessively improvised and CURB would appear to have been intricately planned in how all the misunderstandings and mixups play out and all of the story lines tie together at the end. Thus how a work of art FEELS has little relation to some of its most important constitutive procedures.

But some of the greatest works of art are comprised of exactly opposite modes to those on Shield's list. Anna Biller's films are most artful. They are painstakingly constructed and indeed often call attention to their craft. And yet the end results are marvelous, indeed marvelous precisely because of the resistance to a certain kind of accident in their construction and the most diligent commitment to a certain kind of planning. Tsai Ming Liang's films are from Taiwan and they are some of the most interesting and vital in cinema today. Yet Ming-Liang's films, like Biller's, are absolutely dependent upon qualities very different from those found on Shield's list. To name one example, to invoke the influence of Jacques Tati and Antonioni as Tsai does would be impossible without a certain commitment to rigorous planning. Conversely, it is equally true that certain works of art achieve their greatness from a principled commitment to accident. The controlled affect of the actors alone (In both Biller and Liang) is one crucial exception and a contrast to Shield's confession. Like the approach to rock criticism I decried in a previous post, Shields, for all of his devotion to the aesthetic is too tied to the journalistic, he believes the art to be a matter of "the scene" alone.

And if Shields has his Lydia Davis what of more traditional modes of fiction? indeed what does it mean to even discuss traditional versus modern styles of fiction? Joyce Carol Oates' accounts of consciousness are the most involved and involving imaginable as are those of Alice Monroe. That is, they avoid the sort of conscious (or seemingly unconscious?) omissions or ellipses of which Shields is so enamored. Both Oates and Munro situate their works in a seemingly naturalistic world and the kind of hermetic and imaginative enclosed spaces found in Lydia Davis' stories would be unthinkable and impossible in Oates and Munro.

And what of Frederick Seidel's poetry? In some ways it is raw and confessional yet Seidel is one of the last of the Decadents in that his poetry is the most worked over, gloriously exhibitionistic voice around. They speak of worlds and realms as far removed as possible than is found in, say, Gary Snyder, or Jorie Graham. And in jazz, the "rawness" of pianist Brad Mehldau's playing, the spontaneity of his angular lines and sparse ballads is something to revel in. But it is worlds apart from the planned extraversion and exuberance of someone closer to Oscar Peterson like Benny Green. Must we be forced to choose? And if so, what reasons are there to be given? And, how is any of it connected to issues of morality per se?

Another way of putting it is to say that different styles have different ways of doing things if only because we as individuals are so different from one another. David Shields worries about our middlebrow tastes lead him to be unduly exclusive at times in his assessments.

It is telling that at a conference at the Philoctetes Center it was a novelist, Rick Moody, who argued with Shields. Rick Moody was not so interested in questions of genre at all, still less in whether something was new or relevant; like most artists Rick Moody was interested above all in finding a way to express what he had to and finding the right form for that. This is a different matter than finding the correct form for the age we happen to be living in. Rick Moody has little patience for Shields' dismissive attitude towards certain forms thought to be tired - like the novel. After writing The Ice Storm and Purple America, surely if Moody believes in anything, its the novel. David Shields believes in the world too much; he has almost too much faith in the saving powers of documentary, broadly understood.

But might this faith in documentary be seen one day as in part a fashion and enthusiasm from the past? As always we are faced with the same questions with which I introduced this blog a month ago: what is the value of a thing? Where is this value to be found? What in its value is bound by a time and what in its value flows freely outside of a given time? Theses are good questions. David Shields is to commended for taking such questions seriously. He is a marvelous literary stylist to be sure. I had hoped, though, in the end that he were more skeptical and less sure than he is.

But perhaps I had wanted more criticism and less manifesto. He might proclaim his attraction for Sara Silverman but he missed an opportunity for a close reading of her linguistic achievements. For all of Shields' commitment to "rawness" and "spontaneity" he had already decided in advance what he thought and rather than see criticism as an opportunity for better or more interesting questions, Shields seemed to have had perhaps one answer too many.

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