It’s been more than 30 years since Jean-François Lyotard closed the
historical door on Modernism. It was 1979, to be exact, when Lyotard
published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
Rumors of the death of Modernism had been swirling for years. But death
comes in stages, especially when the mortally wounded is a “movement”
or an “age.” Lyotard’s book managed to tie all those rumors together
and then package the result as “Postmodernism,” the new next thing.
- Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. 240 pages. Knopf. $24.95.
Lyotard focused on the idea of narratives. Past periods, Modernism in particular, had been fond of what he called “meta-narratives,” all-inclusive narrative frameworks that explained everything, more or less. Think, for instance, of Marxism and the way that class struggle drives every other part of the story. Look at the objects around you, the way you’re dressed, current politics, movements in the arts. Strip away the details, any good Marxist will tell you, and lurking beneath you will find the class struggle. That bottle of water you’re drinking is, in its essence, a natural resource owned by someone who then employs laborers hiring themselves out to work at a price determined by the market. This central relationship between wage-earners and owners of the means of production determines political structures, ideas on morality, even the dynamics of the family. For the Marxist, class struggle is the meta-narrative overarching all the other stories that fit inside.
Lyotard called the new age Postmodern because he thought that such meta-narratives no longer captured the complexity of late-20th-century existence. The fragmentation of identity brought about by modernization and globalization was too profound. At best, any narrative was going to tell only a small part of the story. Meta-narratives had blown apart into an endless chaos of micro-narratives.
All of this probably sounds roughly plausible, if not downright obvious. The only real difficulty comes in listening to Lyotard himself talking about Postmodernism:
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.
Need I even take the time to point out how old-fashioned-sounding are these sentences from Mr. Lyotard? They’re like a parody of hip academic prose. As turgid as anything written by a Modernist thinker, they manage also to be pointlessly obscure. This fascination with “putting forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” was a bugbear amongst French theorists of all stripes in the ’70s. America had Five Easy Pieces; the French had Maurice Blanchot and the insight that, “To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking — and since it cannot, in order to become its echo I have, in a way, to silence it.”
That kind of jargon-madness was shared by many in the first generation of Postmodernity, French and non-French alike. They were like Modernists unhinged. They wanted to gallop off into the absolute freedom of their micro-narratives but they’d all been raised on the heavy gruel of Modernist cant. Those fattened bellies could never get off the ground. Lyotard followed up The Postmodern Condition with The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, in which he attempted to answer the crucial question, “How can the reality of the referent be subordinated to the effectuation of verification procedures, or even to the instructions that allow anyone who so wishes to effectuate those procedures?” The answer, of course, is, “It can’t.” Luckily for the rest of us, it turns out that it doesn’t matter. But it has taken 30 years or so to become fully confident about that fact. Only now, after living in the Postmodern condition for a full generation, have we stopped worrying about the reality of the referent and moved on to the simple act of referring.
This has taken a fair bit of learning: learning how to be, how to talk, how to think again. It has meant, at the very least, developing a new language, a new style. That style ought to personify much of what Lyotard was talking about while dropping his way of talking about it. It also means giving up the theoretical worries. Lyotard was always twisting himself into rhetorical pretzels trying to prove to the Modernist that Postmodernism is real. Second-generation Postmodernists are perfectly, perhaps painfully aware that Postmodernism is real. They want to know how to live in that reality, how to grasp it.
This brings us, finally, to David Shields’ new book, Reality Hunger. It is a book of fragmentary thoughts and insights numbered 1 to 617 and divided into chapters with titles like “books for people who find television too slow.” Shields calls it “A Manifesto.” That’s a little in-joke on his part since there couldn’t be anything more Modernist than a manifesto, what with all the high-sounding pronouncements and meta-narratives kicking about. But Shields has written a 21st-century Manifesto, a manifesto in the minor key that follows the tone of one of the opening quotes by Graham Greene, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” That aliveness and not-sureness are what Shields means by reality. It is that for which he hungers.
The first generation of postmodernists, Baudrillard for instance, were constantly at pains to show us that the new reality was manufactured and therefore, in a funny sense, not really real. Baudrillard called it the simulacrum. Reality had become simulation all the way through. To look for the underlying reality on which the simulation was based was to miss the point. Second-generation Postmodernists like Shields find such concerns boring. Here is Shields talking about what he calls the “American reality”:
It stupefies, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is constantly outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
Notice the subtle but profound shift in attitude. We have gone from worrying whether there is any reality at all to being overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the reality we face. Shields is impatient simply to get out there into the swirling mess of the world. He dismisses the fumbly navel gazing of first-generation Postmodernists with a wave of the hand. “Don’t waste your time,” he says, “get to the real thing. Sure, what’s ‘real’? Still, try to get to it.” Taking up the insights of Andy Warhol (a second-generation Postmodernist born far ahead of his time), Shields says, “Marilyn and Elvis are just as much a part of the natural world as the ocean and a Greek God are.” That is the terrain of the new natural, the new reality. Shields defines it in one succinct line: “There’s nothing and everything going on.”
These are some of the claims Shields makes in Reality Hunger and they’re satisfying as far as claims go. They jibe reasonably well with what Lyotard was talking about in his Postmodern Condition. The real excitement of Reality Hunger is in the way Shields talks about our relationship to reality, the language he uses. When it comes to Postmodernity, the prose is finally starting to match up with the condition. First-generation Postmodernists always wrote like they were standing outside Postmodernism looking in. The sentences came falling to Earth like bombs. And nobody likes getting bombed. David Shields isn’t bombing anyone — he’s here on Earth with the rest of us working from the inside. Your standard first-generation Postmodernist was a fan of collage, bricolage, and the rest, but tended to exhibit the stuff in a professorial manner. We were given theories of collage, beaten over the head with concepts. Shields makes the same point by saying, simply, “I am quite content to go down in posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” The entire book is a giant word collage, but not in the overly self-conscious look-what-I’m-doing sort of way. Most of the time, he just does it.
The success of Reality Hunger is in how often it lays out ideas you’re already inhabiting. It’s a loose-fitting coat of thinking and behaving that we’ve all been gently slipping over our shoulders for the last two decades. Every once in a while, Shields will spend a paragraph simply blurting out a list of works:
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. Leonard Michaels’s Shuffle. Simon Gray’s Smoking Dialogues, which dwarf his plays. Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. The prologue to Slaughter-House-Five is the best thing Vonnegut ever wrote. Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History. Samuel Pelang’s The Motion of Light in Water. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
He doesn’t need to say anything else. That’s the confidence in the language and the mood of Reality Hunger. You read that list and you simply nod your head…yep. Anyone who doesn’t get that list simply isn’t playing the game. Shields has started a new list with this book. It goes like this:
Reality Hunger. • 18 February 2010