David Shields’s Post-postmodernism

Books, Reviews, Writers

I’m halfway through David Shields’s much buzzed-about manifesto Reality Hunger, and it seems to me that the work is really an attempt at defining post-postmodernism, a term, I should clarify upfront, that he has not employed so far in the book. Shields tells us at the outset that his

intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)

Putting “reality” in quotation marks, under suspicion, or ironic scrutiny is one of core moves of postmodernist thought, and Shields relies on his audience to accept this premise, even as he repeatedly attempts to define what it means to break reality into art. The paradox inherent in the self-consciousness of the “burgeoning group” that Shields identifies evinces as a yearning for authenticity coupled with the need for the essential artifice of narrative. In a self-reflexive move that at once engenders and exemplifies the post-postmodern tension between authenticity and art that he is trying to describe, Shields comprises Reality Hunger out of hundreds and hundreds of citations from other authors. These quotations, literary samples, reconfigure into a new synthesis. Shields’s project is at once steeped in ambiguity–are these authors’ citations now his work? Do they simply lend credibility or actually create a new authenticity? Post-postmodernity then must always operate with “reality” under radical scrutiny but also primary privilege. Irony inheres but must be overcome somehow–winking at the audience is not enough. Artifice is necessary but must also be surpassed somehow. Shields’s post-postmodernism (again, I must stress that he does not use this term–he refers instead to an unnamed, organic group, a movement that is not a movement):

A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, unprofessional . . . 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 burring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

If Shields has possibly described two of his favorite examples throughout the book here, David Foster Wallace and W.G. Sebald, he’s also approached describing Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century (anti-)classic Tristram Shandy (a problematic volume thus-far unmentioned in Reality Hunger Shields cites in section 298).

I can’t help recalling the dreadful film Cloverfield here (again, so far unmentioned by Shields but hardly out of his scope). The film exemplifies the paradox between artificiality and authenticity that Shields sets out to carve-up: a major Hollywood monster-movie (could there be anything more unreal?) that predicates audience response on the “realism” of its medium–namely, the pretense that the entire film is shot on a hand-held digital camera by an amateur witness to the events. The film’s “art” then is to enact a manipulation of “authenticity”–the very “realness” and “rawness” of the document an utter construction. Reality Hunger traffics in whatever problems such a narrative construction might pose to a twenty-first-century audience. Full review when I finish.

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8 thoughts on “David Shields’s Post-postmodernism

  1. will get. the amazon reviews are a hoot by the way, mostly very positive but one reviewer is upset that the lack of detailed citation obscured a certain reality/truth. I think it takes a certain mentality to be down with hypertextual ambiguity.
    Anyway, having not yet read a word, i wonder if there is any mention of the altermodern (another recent cultural manifesto) or of the subtlemob?
    my reality is that i love your blog.

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    1. thanks for your kind words, mark. i haven’t gotten to any mention of subtlemob or altermodern thus far in the book, but who knows, might be in there (i wrote the review sunday morning; then had to edit when i picked it up again and almost immediately ran into the citation from tristram shandy).
      i’ll check out the amazon reviews when i finished. i get kinda addicted to them, especially reading one-star reviews of my favorite books.

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  2. Did you happen to catch this review in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Book Review? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/books/review/Sante-t.html
    I did like this idea though: “So what constitutes reality, then, as it affects culture? It can be as simple as a glitch, an interruption, a dropped beat, a foreign object that suddenly intrudes.” Something that makes you pay attention, which may be what Shields’ book is doing?

    However.
    My reality: getting really fed up with people announcing the “death of fill-in-the-blank”.
    Also, congrats on the interview with Denis Johnson, it was excellent.

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    1. i read sante’s review and agree with most of it (still, i’m not finished with the book, to be fair), particularly about shields being too self-serious. i was toying with the idea of authoring a review of the book that was simply citations of other critics.
      i too am annoyed at the idea of the death of the _____; people were saying albums were dead a few years ago. really, and i wouldn’t say it this plain in a review, but shields is just wrong–novels and fiction do matter; his repeated contention that we live in an inauthentic or reality-deprived world is, ultimately, just a pose–i think it’s very, very easy to choose to live an authentic, “real” life; people who argue otherwise (like shields) are simply willing to let commercial culture colonize their life. he kinda sorta reminds me of a college freshman discovering baudrillard for the first time.

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    1. I don’t know. In fact, I hadn’t heard of digimodernism until just now (although I had heard of Digimon). I googled the term and I suppose it’s from an Alan Kirby book or essay? From this site (http://www.alanfkirby.com/digimodernism.html):

      “What is Digimodernism? In a sentence, it’s the cultural effects of new technologies. It’s the impact of computerization on texts and the arts. It’s a whole new cultural paradigm, the successor to postmodernism which bit the dust around the turn of the millennium.”

      I have no idea what any of that means, but I’m also not really sure what David Shields is arguing for either, at this point. I’m gonna write a proper review later, but I don’t see his book as the manifesto he claims it is–it’s simply a description of media cross-pollination.

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  3. I have bought the book Digimodernism after reading Alan Kirby’s article : the death of Postmodernism and I really liked it (good ideas and comments).

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