second generation is here, and boy does it feel right.
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
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
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
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 hisPostmodern 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 andConsider the Lobster.
Leonard Michaels's Shuffle.
Simon Gray's Smoking
Dialogues, which dwarf his plays. Zadie Smith's Fail Better. The
prologue toSlaughter-House-Five is the best thing Vonnegut
ever wrote. Jean Stafford'sA 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 ofReality 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