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I don't hate "Reality Hunger"...

kgould's picture

Hello all!

I'm Kate Gould, a senior English major with a Biology minor. I've taken several modern/contemporary English classes but they have all concerned fictional prose and, as someone who loves science, I've been hankering for an English course on non-fiction. 

I worked this summer with Paul Grobstein in the Biology department in BSIE, which you can find links to under the "Come Talk About" column (if you're really that interested, that is. It's cool if you're not. Hah!), and a lot of that work took place here on Serendip. I've been posting things here since my freshman year so if anyone has any problems or issues (outside of administrative issues, of course) I'd be happy to help.

I'm starting to do work on my thesis, which at the moment is TBA and a work-in-progress, but I am interested in working with both fiction and non-fiction and finding a way to merge my major and my minor into a coherent exploration of... some topic. Maybe medicine. Maybe zombies and T.S. Eliot. Who knows?

So as I started reading "Reality Hunger," I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much. After mucking my way through the really negative review by Kakutani, I wasn't really looking forward to what she described as "deliberately provocative and deeply nihilistic."

But, after getting through Shields's book, I can't say that Kakutani really got the point of what he was trying to say. I mean, honestly, her article is little more than a "mash-up," or rehash of what others, experts, have said about the nature of the internet, burgeoning communication efforts, and plagiarism. How is what she's done so different from Shield's recombination of quotes and ideas from other people?

He isn't saying that there isn't anything left to say, or that we can only express ourselves through what others have already said or thought-- I think he takes an uncanny approach in saying something very new by using things that have been said before. Who owns reality? Who owns the words? So you put them together in such a way as to form a coherent sentence (a rare feat, I concede, since I so rarely stumble upon coherence in my own mumblings), but does that mean you own that sentence? No one else can say it without paying royalties? That's silly. It's nonsense. Language is rehashed and reused and recombined and quoted and copied over and over...

Shields writes in fragment number "10": "In the second century b.c., Terence said, "There's nothing to say that hasn't said before" (7). This is both true and false. I feel like this is where Kakutani got hung up, which is, sadly, at the beginning of the book. Shields doesn't mean to imply that everything has been said. That's silly. Terence said it in the SECOND CENTURY. He's saying that the very nature of language means that we're going to use the same words and phrases over and over again. It's their context, their intent, and their intended meaning that changes and will continue to change...

tl;dr, if you're using English to write, then you're not doing anything new!  


FatCatRex's picture

Couldn't agree more

I, like Kate, found Kakutani's interpretation of Shields to be overly harsh and certainly having missed his point. Kakutani ironically seems to dabble in some of the techniques she so vehemently critiques in Shields work. I did not find it to be "nihilistic," though I do think it was "deliberately provocative," and I'm not so sure what is so wrong with being deliberately provocative.

Perhaps one is supposed to provoke only in a subtle manner, but again, that would have completely gone against Shields' objective. I love that his the structure of his book underscores his ideas about the role that fact, fiction, and reality play in today's world. It is difficult to process and catalog all these quick sound bytes, for lack of a better non-technology-centric phrase. They come together to give you an impression, and a few may stick out, yet where they came from or what context in which they originally appeared is no longer important. We use facts in isolation to make and remake our own points. After they are launched into the cosmos, they are only recycled anyway. Why not publish them in a hard-cover form? Why should that change the form and the formality of our fact selection? And of course, as he chronicles, popular culture is becoming more and more based on sampling and reworking existing songs, art pieces, vintage fashion, etc. Just because someone decided there was more of an etiquette to borrowing ideas from each other (whats that academic honor code all about anyway?) means that 'Reality Hunger' can be labeled "deliberately provocative," and scoffed at.

I have to admit, it is difficult to process a book written in this way. I'm not used to it; it's not a comfortable, digestible medium--even if we are re-using and re-appropriating ideas as such.. I find it a challenge to synthesize this information easily, perhaps because Shields is intentionally leaving that up to us as the readers. We, the common (wo)man, are taking control of art and literary production. "Facebook and MySpace are crude personal essay machines," begins Shields section on "reality-based art by necessity," which is "dragged down to the lowest common denominator," and is the push behind countless media today (94, 95). We truly have no one to blame but ourselves, for whatever boredom we have at mashup music  tracks, or Warhol-eque pop art, or girls taking the same self-portrait shots for MySpace profile pictures. We are driving the rush of content and confusion to the art and literary worlds.

Shields points out that for most of us, "the illusion of facts will suffice," (86). I'm left wondering though if I have the energy or the motivation to counter-act that generalization. Perhaps it is just best to let the illusion stand, recognizing that the line is blurred, in all areas of our lives, between fiction and non-fiction. Yet at the same time, as we said on the first day of class, what would I be doing in a class on non-fiction, if reality or truth didn't matter to me?

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