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.