David Shields Conversation at the 2012 MLA Convention

Disclaimer: I’m far from an authority on anything transpiring in the world of literature, but I do read novels, essays, and philosophy, so I feel okay about playing correspondent here. Moreover, I’ve never read any of Shields’ work, though Reality Hunger has been of interest ever since it received a barrage of publicity upon publication in 2010. Maybe I’ll pick it up tonight and read from it while the conversation is still in my head.

The central thrust of the conversation was that Shields considers the best of contemporary non-fiction to be something like the lyric essay, and the most “revolutionary form” of written expression today. He sees it as a “trampoline” from which to bounce up to the most serious epistemological and existential questions that we currently face. For Shields — following Montaigne — nonfiction’s or the lyric essay’s artfulness lies in how they are not really about their ostensible content or material, but rather about how crafting it requires opening one’s heart to the entire spectrum of human experience, and pursuing a theme beyond what is presented. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology — he didn’t mention them, but I’d bet top dollar he has read them before, and closely — the author must marshal diverse flows of sensual experience or data — stories, interviews, film, audio, etc. — and assemble them in a way the permits diverse readers to connect. I’m immediately reminded of David Foster Wallace’s assertion that jokes and short stories work through exformation, which occurs when “vital information [is] removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient” (*). For Shields this makes for the best type contemporary writing.

As an outsider to this type of conversation, I very much appreciated Shields’ elaborations on the definition of the lyric essay: he called it a “scattering of form, a collage.” Citing a quotation in entry #384  from Reality Hunger the host, Jessica Burstein, explained that the lyric essay requires interpretation, that the voice of the author is more distant, coy, demure. Shields again evoked D&G when he said that he’s wary of the earnestness that prevails in the personal essay: their perpetual quest toward asubjectivity doesn’t mesh well with a written form founded on constant exploration of one’s own psyche or situation. But, I think, there’s a tension here that Shields illuminated with, unsurprisingly, a quotation from Wallace:

We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.

I take this as suggesting that writing — or any form of art — should exist externally or “out there,” between each of us, and that any artist worth his or her salt must take a back seat to the work they are creating. However — and this seems to be a critical point for D&G — the author and the reader are both responsible for becoming open enough to experience what is happening in the world. The author’s heart (Montaigne), unconscious (D&G), or soul (Wallace says in his Kafka essay that ‘unconscious’ is just a fancy word for the soul), must be probed to a depth enabling him or her to produce something with which others can connect; the reader too is tasked with a similar project. However, if I’m picking up what Shields is laying down, he doesn’t think this process of introspection or schizoanalysis (D&G) should — or can — constitute the work of art itself (**). It seems that the personal essay would be situated somewhere closer to this category, with its sustained meditation and present voice. From the arc of the conversation, it this appeared as a natural segue to another form of writing that Shields has practiced and abandoned: the novel.

His major point with which I disagreed somewhat came when he declared that the novel is an art form that no longer expresses our common condition. It’s too slow and cumbersome, weighted down by history: essentially a carriage ride in comparison to supersonic transatlantic travel, or instantaneous worldwide communication via facebook or THE TWEETER. For Shields the novel is too situated in place, and “place doesn’t matter as much now as it did for writers like Balzac” (this quotation in close to verbatim). To me this sounds like an already outdated conception of reality that seemed to course through Continental theory in the seventies and eighties with folks like Baudrillard and his simulations, or Castells and his spaces of flows. Perhaps “outdated” is the wrong term, but it carries the same connotation is the word “cybernetic” does for me: that is, of technophilia and Situationism and general boosterism for a world in which places are merely locations which are traversed (***, all of which I don’t dismiss, but find difficult to consider useful when I’m interested in the built environment: it’s heavy and it stays put).

Shields’ chosen whipping boys were, as one might expect, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan, though he also mentioned Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach. Shields considers at least one of them a “fine nineteenth-century writer” but is less than compelled by his work. For him, the novel form fails to push writing forward; it doesn’t tap into the present-day experience. His interest lies elsewhere, in ferreting out the revolutionary forms. I admit that this is indeed an important and valuable pursuit, but — given my interests in the built and inhabitable world, not to mention the novels that I read — I can’t let the content slip away. I left the conversation thinking that Franzen, for example, does indeed use a less-than-revolutionary form, but that his subject matter describes a portion of the modern condition extremely well. As I see it — again thinking with the Lefebvrean term “representational space” in mind — he taps into the feelings and impressions of emplaced contemporary life better than anyone else I’ve read recently.

I’ll close with another reference to Lefebvre. In The Urban Revolution he claims that “the urban is…pure form: a place of encounter, assembly, simultaneity” and that it “has no specific content but is a center of attraction and life” (****). This conception sounds very similar to what Shields is proffering, but Lefebvre — even though he considers the nature of the content to be unimportant — reminds us that each element remains distinct and unique (~haecceities in D&G). I’m confident that Shields doesn’t neglect the importance of such differences, but feel that his intense study of form could potentially lead him in that direction. Writers like Franzen and Harbach penetrate what it’s like to actually experience the world, and without the flows of “data” they generate, no essayist or avant-garde filmmaker would have any material to work with. I know this is all really just a case of the division of labor and specialization, but these are just some of the things I was thinking during the excellent conversation.

Tomorrow night is the big finale: Fredric Jameson.

* “Some Remarks of Kakfa’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed,” in Consider The Lobster, pg. 61.

** I read the art section of What is Philosophy? too quickly during general exam preparation, so I’m unprepared to cite it here, but I know it would be a helpful addition.

*** Feel free to pull a D&G card here, and argue for nomadism and its attendant smooth space. I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint but must concede that my desiring-machines need a place to rest, to dwell, even (ack, Heidegger!). Edward Casey tries to make some sense out of both of these tendencies in his call for “rough-edged places within smooth spaces.”

**** pg 118

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3 Responses to David Shields Conversation at the 2012 MLA Convention

  1. wayne says:

    Nice point on Franzen. I think it’s true that the novel isn’t a revolutionary form any more. It’s a middle class form and is still relevant to middle class experience. I probably need to read up on my Jameson, but I don’t think revolutionary forms of art show up in the world until there’s a revolutionary change in society. (though there are hints of them like in e.l.doctorow)

  2. Since I was sitting next to you, I’ll weigh in… it seemed like what Shields was arguing for, is not so much an obvious or heavy authorial tone per se, but one that is still very present. He used his own work to illustrate that he moves back and forth between his personal life (family stories) to sports (or whatever) and points in between. This way, it’s not about Him, but his voice is still present throughout.* I thought his argument about the text that he wanted to win the book award was also good support in this matter- I’ve already forgotten the author- but the committee couldn’t/wouldn’t support the book because the author’s voice was too present; they felt like the author should get out of the way and simply tell the story. (And in proper post-structuralist fashion, Shields argued that this position was naive to think this was possible…) In the end, they selected the staid non-fiction text that remained within the safe boundaries of how we understand non-fiction; still beautifully written, but only solidified the existing definition of non-fiction.

    And yes, D & G were looming large in this conversation. I think what Shields was really getting at, in terms of pushing writing forward, was very much about production (nod to the D & the G); and much less about reception. This is also where D & G do not give a lot of attention either. For them, and for Shields I think, it’s all about production- producing creative work that pulls the conversation forward. Recalling Rancière here, there are so many disparate points of reception, and we can come together to discuss and create new experiences through the shared experience of a work, but ‘reception’ of the work does not advance the creative disciplines. It seems more like a barometer.

    I think his main point was highlighting what makes him excited when he is reading the work of peers, what work pushes the boundaries of what language can do, how we can communicate across the abyss, which necessarily means giving part of ourselves, while at the same time, reaching out to the other side through points of connection. It seems like the ‘personal essay’, with that adjective being what it is, spends too much time focusing on the author’s voice and leaves not a lot of room for the reader- leaving them as a passive spectator; it seems like the lyric essay allows much room for the author’s voice, but in the process, requiring the reader to think, interpret, relate; to emancipate the spectator, so to speak. I guess, ultimately, it seems like he was really trying to argue for paying attention to the texts that aren’t bestsellers. Franzen’s is a bestseller, majoritarian; instead, Shields is arguing for/celebrating Minoritarian literature- not just ‘good’ stories.

    I think it is entirely fair to disagree with the dismissal of content- content alone can cause a cognitive stutter, so to speak, under certain conditions, regardless of its style… Recalling the argument from What is Philosophy, for D & G- and likely Shields- it is not enough to think a philosopher’s (artist, etc.) thoughts; meaning, it’s not enough to use a stylistic formula and simply give it fresh content; rather, thinking ‘like’ them (Nietzsche, Proust) – responding to the milieu in which they are situated- enables the producer to respond to present day forces that has the ability to alter the plane of immanence, or rather, constructing concepts or forms based on emergences or points of tension within the active plane. Utilizing a 19th century style, while probably well done, may cause only a small moment of deterritorialization; but it is the radical moments, like Duchamp, Cage, Kerouac, Marclay, that have the potential to fundamentally alter the course due to their untimely emergence. Destratification of the heavily striated plane, if you will. As producers, we can’t really make another fountain, or compose another 4’33. I mean, we can- but we become functionaries, regardless of whether the spectator knows the history of the discipline.

    My complaint or point of contention is that it is not possible to do this every time; D & G admit this- and I think Shields likely would as well. We can’t continually develop ‘new forms’ of literary work, but it shouldn’t stop us from attempting that. But the larger question, ‘what do we do about the work that doesn’t achieve that?’ never gets addressed, and how do we continue to make work/write when the proliferation of voices throughout history begin to feel suffocating? This makes me think of the requirement to ‘add’ to existing scholarship when writing the dissertation. Should this addition simply be more esoteric, or are there new forms, like Digital Humanities or true ‘interdisciplinarity’ that will ultimately add to existing scholarship in a meaningful way? Maybe it’s just the necessary cacophony of voices, esoteric or staid, that populate the plane that provide the conditions that enable an untimely one, the occasional line of flight that alters the plane of immanence?

  3. Pingback: Break 1 | Becoming Poor

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