David Shields’ Reality Hunger is subtitled “A Manifesto.” The whole title is: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. When was the last time you saw that sitting on a bookshelf–that word, “manifesto”? When was the last time you wrote one, or wished somebody else would, or waved one in somebody’s face and said, “Look, here’s how it’s done”? It was embarrassing to me, that word, because when people asked about it I couldn’t explain it. “What’s that book you’re reading?” “Oh, it’s called ‘Reality Hunger.’ It’s… a manifesto.” “About what?” “Well–”
People like the title but quickly get bored when I try to explain the book. Despite the fact that it calls itself a manifesto it’s downright difficult to summarize. There is no message to condense, no denunciation of infidels, no calls for the construction of monuments, no heroes, no punchline, no formula. There isn’t even one voice–and that’s the thing, really, the nutshell: Reality Hunger is a collection of quotations mixed in with commentary by the author himself. Organized into 26 “chapters” or themes, the “manifesto” proceeds playfully (or grandiosely?) from A to Z–”A: Overture,” “E: Reality,” “F: Memory,” “J: Hip-hop,” “K: Reality TV,” “S: Persona,” “X: Let me tell you what your book is about,” “Z: Coda.” Each quotation is identifiable only by a number; there are no quotation marks or attributions on the page. Though the author and/or the source can be often be found in the back of the book, there are gaps, and in any case Shields readily admits that fidelity to the source isn’t his goal. #268: “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little–for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim. You mix and scratch the shit up to the level your own head is at…” And if the publisher hadn’t insisted, there wouldn’t have been any works cited list at all.
The form of the work provides the content traditionally delivered by a manifesto. Each citation that makes up Reality Hunger, being unattributed, lays as flatly on the page as any other and will stand or fall based solely on its merits–Emerson, Montaigne, and Nietzsche are indistinguishable from ad copy, Michael Moore, and an anonymous White House aide. On the whole, it is less a coherent statement than an assemblage of various coherent statements (#339: “Collage is pieces of other things. Their edges don’t meet”). It’s not an essay (though #s 386-8, 410, 414, 478, 607, 581, 424 (Montaigne himself), and so on make it obvious that it is, in spirit, an essayistic endeavor) but an exercise in “literary montage.” Like montage, the work functions by virtue of movement as opposed to reason; it only makes sense as an experience. #329: “All definitions of montage have a common denominator; they all imply that meaning is not inherent in any one shot but is created by the juxtaposition of shots. Lev Kuleshov, an early Russian filmmaker, intercut images of an actor’s expressionless face with images of a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a child with a toy. Viewers of the film praised the actor’s performance; they saw in his face (emotionless as it was) hunger, grief, and affection. They saw, in other words, what was not really there in the separate images. Meaning and emotion were created not by the content of the individual images but by the relationship of the images to one another.”
Though the manifesto doesn’t raise a flag for any particular movement, it might as well be flying the colors of metamodernism. In “A: Overture,” Shields lays out the seed-crystal around which the rest of the material will collect: #3: “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 8mm 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.”
These sentiments should be familiar to anyone who’s read “Strategies of the Metamodern”, “What Meta Does and Does Not Mean” and, of course, “Notes on Metamodernism”. Like metamodernism, Reality Hunger avoids adopting an entirely modern or postmodern attitude toward its project; it is neither an attempt to weave a revolution out of whole cloth nor a systematic unravelling of the idea of whole cloth. Instead, it tries to marry the two sensibilities.
It’s an odd marriage–full of ambiguity, but nevertheless charged with affect. Sometimes you want to call it postmodern–it’s a text transparently composed of other texts, of high and low origin; while reading it, there’s no way to tell whether you’re reading the words of the author or someone else (is there, strictly speaking, an author anyway?); there is no clear progression or build, no way to orient yourself, no “right” or “wrong” way to move through the book; et cetera, et cetera–and it would probably make the book easier to review if it were as simple as a postmodern interpretation. But from the very beginning Shields steers the reader toward a more interesting interpretation. #4: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference…” #5: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).” #6 (the last passage of the Overture): “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse–these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” With these three passages (Shields, Barthes + Michael Dirda, and Benjamin) Shields lays his “found”ation by simultaneously summoning and exorcising the specters of modernism and postmodernism: “he” (the montage of “I”s) can be earnest yet contradictory, original yet derivative, as he attempts to assemble a sort of authenticity out of pastiche. #54: “Skeptical of the desperation of the modernist embrace of art as the only solution, and hyperaware of all artifices of genre and form, we nevertheless seek new means of creating the real.”
Beyond these thoughts, it’s hard to “review” the book or render a judgement regarding its success or failure. It’s a notebook of interests, preoccupations, aphorisms, and facts. Some of it is delightful to read–the literary montage works especially well in conveying the epistemological and sociological complexities of faux-memoirs (A Million Little Pieces receives the most attention), along with the boundary between fiction/non-fiction. Where it leaves you wanting is–wait for it–coherence. There are no revelations waiting in the book, aside from those that are jarred loose in your own mind by the procession of pith, charm, deep thought, and irreverence. #419: “The world exists. Why re-create it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?”
But by the time you reach #419 (of 618), what began as a steady flow of grist perfectly dosed for afternoon rumination turns into the incessant drip of water torture. And even in its hyper self-awareness, it occasionally crosses the threshold from earnest virtue to the vice of pseudo-profundity: #15: “It is out of the madness of God, in the Old Testament, that there emerges what we, now, would recognize as the ‘real;’ his perceived insanity is its very precondition.” Kaleidoscopic revelation gives way to static. But perhaps that’s par the course for something that that prefers to wind its way through alleys as opposed to barreling down a one-way street. Give it some time; keep the dosage small; use it as the basis for your own collection of quotations. Become a flaneur of the internet age. In the end, if you’re here at Metamodernism, reading this review, it should be somewhere on your coffee table.
One last note – #128: “Don’t waste your time; get to the real thing. Sure, what’s ‘real’? Still, try to get to it.”
Top image: courtesy http://www.sbs.com.au; you could check out “Reality Hunger Remixed” at http://realityhunger.com (or simply buy the book of course).