Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Powering Theft

In between reading parts of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, I graded rhetorical essays for my English 102 class and, as fate would have it, came across a plagiarized paper. My darling, little freshman had plunked sections from an online travel guide—“crystal indigo seas”—and the U.S. Consulate website“U.S. citizen victims of crime in Mexico are encouraged to”—into her essay. Though slightly manipulated—a word omitted here and there, a chance, original, ungrammatical phrase—the sources were obvious and easy to trace. I found myself comparing her plagiarism to David Shields’. Her theft was bad theft as opposed to his good kind. Why? Because his theft is conscious: she stole words in lieu of thinking, whereas he stole words as a form of thinking, as an idea. Her failure brought into relief for me what characterizes his essaying: the degree, originality, and intentionality of his manipulation, the confrontational relationship he creates with his reader, and the overall self-reflexivity of his work.

This is a highly manipulated text. By my autistic calculations, Shields uses about 62.3% of quotes from other sources, 32.4% of his own, and 5.3% of a hybrid of the two. But even the direct quotes are often tinkered with—compressed, so as to read faster, or combined with other quotes. He becomes his own DJ, scratching, re-contextualizing, juxtaposing, and manipulating words. Fragment 284 can easily be applied to his book as a whole: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original (the ‘real thing’): theft without apology—conscious, self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation.” Shields couples conspicuous plagiarism with originality. His inventiveness manifests itself through not only editing and collage, but also through his own aphorisms. Shields, that stuttering deconstructionist, might argue that his own words, that all words, are other people’s and part of the larger, murky language-culture-world pool. But, come on, you know what I mean: the words that he puts together in idiosyncratic, memorable (so we can better consciously or subconsciously plagiarize them), and original ways.

I read this book as a kind of game with the reader. Shields first gives me citations in the epigraphs, only to stop giving these citations in the body of the work. He weaves in (uncited) quotes that cite other works and authors within their passages. He riffs off of famous quotes (for example, Eliot’s “human voices wake us and we drown” in fragment 2) that he knows that I know that he is making. Through these techniques, he situates me, the reader, in the standard, expected world of citation and allusion, so as to better provoke me when the rug is inevitably yanked. I felt cognitive dissonance as I read half-remembered quotes, until finally, I chanced upon one that I knew outright (Hemingway’s “shit detector,” fragment 46). After a startled, bewildered moment, I found the citations in the back and felt relief. But this relief had a false bottom: the citations are not quite citations. Shields never gives titles or page numbers from the source, will quote a source through another source, conglomerates sources, etc. Then I came—even before I finished the book—to his plea to the reader at the end to “restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read” and to rip or cut out “along the dotted line” the last eight pages with the citations. I laughed aloud. But, ultimately, I ignored his wishes and looked up the quotes I liked only to find that many of them were Shields’ words himself. This combination of originality and plagiarism elevated the form for me. This DJ not only can spin the works of others but also his own (as far as any words are our own).

Additional paradoxes arose in my reading: Shields’ manifesto is anything but manifest; this abecedarian progresses; his definition of reality is very slippery for, on the one hand, our memory makes things up but is still part of reality and, on another hand, artifice and persona have become a part of reality (and authenticity); the most autobiographical part of Reality Hunger, the chapter entitled d[avid] s[hields], is the most like a work of fiction, developing character in a jumpy but chronological order; Shield wants a form that will reflect the modern world, but gleans quotes from as far back as antiquity; he lauds the lyric essay as the form most suited to the world today, but shows how hip hop, documentaries, graffiti and other visual and oral mediums have become more popular; for someone who demotes the novel for, among other reasons, being too controlling, he exerts a lot of control over this book.

But these small and large dissonances, contradictions, and paradoxes all serve to reinforce the true (loaded word) credo of this manifesto: uncertainty provokes contemplation. As Shields explains in (oh, it’s so tempting not to cite where) a lecture at the University of Richmond: “This manifesto is an anti-manifesto” and, later, “basically the whole book is an ode to uncertainty, to doubt.” By openly professing such paradoxes—a manifesto that praises uncertainty—Shields shows his hand: he wants his work to be controversial and contradictory: he wants you to think. You should be frustrated and intrigued, as you struggle with this slippery book.

Many readers, many reviewers, many writers seem to hate Shields’ work because they felt patronized by his pronouncements on fiction. I agree that Shields’ major contention that the lyric essay be promoted over fiction as the conveyer of (a problematic) “reality” oversimplifies. But I think that because Shields riddles his book with paradox, he opens up space for the reader to grapple and contend. These paradoxes goad this reader into blur and contemplation. His ideas on fiction are just one small piece of an overall, more fascinating puzzle. In addition to paradox, Shields uses confrontation as an electric-prod. This manifesto has forced our literary culture into a conversation about itself and its connection to a new, fast, changing, contradictory, “reality” hungry culture.

Reality Hunger is by far and away the most brazen, argumentative, and postmodern work we have encountered thus far in the submissions for the Essay Prize. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this orchestrated and provocative ride, I didn’t get swept away. It is timely and timeless. It is risky and confrontational. It is political and social, as well as literary. It is idiosyncratic. It constructs and deconstructs itself. It embodies itself, melding form and content. It lingers afterwards. In short, it does everything that an amazing essay should do. But it stays intellectual for me, and, ultimately, doesn’t tap into my emotions enough. Shields’ theft does not include my heart. If he were one of my students, I’d be very intimidated, of course, but I’d also recommend that he throw more pathos into his overall logos. This manifesto ends for me not with a surge of adrenaline, but with a contemplative: Writers of the world, keep thinking.

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