Reality Hunger: Shields’ Formal Run Down

March 29, 2010

You could say I “read” David Shield’s Reality Hunger over the weekend, but as my first nod to the worthy successes (and ballsy failures) of his argument-through-form, I actually skimmed it in less than an hour. As is true of any good manifesto, he clocks or locks a feeling in the air, something already everywhere, familiar but not fully formed (although, of course, snippets from centuries of completely finished arguments about the representation of reality are the over-rife reality condition he considers, and uses, proving the thing and its opposite as he is most wont to do).

Not your everyday wordly citizen, I am a reality expert, a Scholar of Fake Documentary and YouTube no less. Not only am I familiar with these ideas, I too, make manifestos about them (with different conclusions and forms, and certainly to lesser mainstream success). It is from this position that I will make four connected points about this noble projects’ internal contradictions:

SINGLE-MEDIUM MAN: Shields inter-cuts between writings about a variety of media forms (words, photos, movies, songs) as if they are interchangeable, as if there is not some remaining hold-out of medium specificity that might affect his building argument about and in “collage.”

But in a collage, the discrete elements speak, represent, and are “real” differently (but of course Shields’ collage is made up of only words, see BOOK MAN). And even in our world of 1s and 0s, where the specific media are reduced to the same medium, sitting as they do on one (this) computer screen, they retain the legacies and powers of their originary forms, as well as their distinct (if collapsing) properties, logics, and capabilities (even on a computer screen, photos don’t work like words, see Roland Barthes.)

The addition of only a few carefully pruned quotes from Piercian semiotics, as another obvious example, would have taken Shields a long way given that Pierce has helped most of reality-based media theory to better understand the fundamental difference between photos and film versus writing and painting, given the indexical rather than abstract nature of these sign systems. (I won’t even go to Psychoanalysis on the REAL, another useful theoretical tradition studiously avoided.) Of course, Shields is a BOOK MAN, and what he knows best, and makes this argument within, is writing. But why, I wonder, given the glaringly accessible internet and his manifesto-size commitment to breaking form in his interest in “the lure and blur of the real”?

MAN ALONE: The 617 numbered items that make up this book are the best selects from a compendium of things Shields has read and written. Their (large) reach is still only as great as his library, as well as his mind. Since I’m a documentary professor, I can readily attest (as I have already done for semiotics) that his range within documentary is, well, either laughable or rudimentary: given that it is almost entirely built from the words of Ross McElwee, a highly respected and intelligent documentarian, to be sure, but not capable of representing, solo (MAN ALONE), the beautiful range and complexity of ideas about or practices within documentary.

Shields should have crowd-sourced this project. I would have gladly contributed. But he didn’t because Shields is a BOOK MAN, and even a MODERNIST MAN: even as he argues in Y: Manifesto that “you must be ready to break the forms,” he then writes, all by himself…a book.

MODERNIST MAN: From chapters R-X (the book is organized alphabetically, although the letters are not linked to the chapter titles, R is “autobiography,” T is “ds,” all ramping down to X, and its steady return to the noble lonely solo writer self by running through chapters called “alone,” “it is more important to be oneself than anything else,” “risk,” and “let me tell you what your book is about,” the “Chapter” in the book that has the most of Shields’ own writing, by the way) Reality Hunger loses its toe-hold in post-modern pre-occupations with the loss of the original, the waning of talent, the unimportance of authorship to bog itself down in a sort of embarrassing and downright modernist (hoax about?) celebration of the personal voice, risk, identity, and artistry of David Shields, perhaps written at times by others, but in the end, all alone:

But Shields is a BOOK MAN after all, and so he must stay mired in this dying modern form, so many treacherous steps from the REAL, ever stretching at its edges and arguing with itself in vain hopes of working like a movie, but always an also-ran to the post-modern reality project which the indexical image bests (see images above and below).

BOOK MAN: Shields is best about books and writing: his is really a manifesto about literary fiction, memoir, autobiography, and essay, and the word’s hunger for a closer proximity.

He throws in documentary, reality TV, and hip hop because they are the the art forms most people consume in the largest numbers but he makes his argument about reality hunger in the form that is the most self-consciously farthest from it. “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” In “M: in praise of brevity,” he nods to how people like short little things these days–novels or movies, for example, on cell phones–but I’d say people still go to books (on paper) for the long, slow, and carefully organized. This is one of the book’s specific pleasures and powers (see SINGLE-MEDIUM MAN), and that’s not going anywhere soon. Read a book for immersion, surf the web for flow; watch a movie on a cell-phone for an entertainment-zap. This book of short quotes should be on the web, speaking where and how the language of the concise, fleeting, quoted, stolen, and reality-pointing speaks best (here, easily see this blog, or even YouTube):

3 Responses to “Reality Hunger: Shields’ Formal Run Down”


  1. […] both Alex Juhasz and The Film Doctor point to David Shields’ aphoristic, manifesto-like new book, Reality […]


  2. […] While I mostly blog on media culture, this is my second effort in a matter of days that reviews a book. If anything, I’ve probably always been more of a reader than a media-buff. However, I turned […]


  3. […] found myself in a similar place when I read David Shield’s Reality Hunger, contemplating this difference in thinking, and timing, and writing and making when one works with […]


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