Hunger’ vs. ‘Gadget’: manifesto a manifesto

David Shields created quite a stir in recent months with his new book Reality Hunger: a manifesto. One major emphasis of his wide-ranging book is the practice of fact-bending in an age of fabricated memoirs, reality television, and personal myth-making via the likes of Facebook and YouTube. In Shields’s cavalier view, we shouldn’t worry too much about what is fact or fiction in popular writing. For example, he downplays, the moral outrage that erupted when James Frey acknowledged he had lied in his supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Shields argues that truth-twisting is not a new phenomena: he points to Thucydides using dialogue for a speech he said he couldn’t actually remember; in another example he notes that the Gospels of the New Testament were written decades after the events described, each presenting slightly differing accounts.

Shields also holds the controversial belief that literary artists should be free to appropriate other writing without concern for intellectual property rights – following the lead established by modernist collage technique in the visual arts and the now commonplace music sampling that grew out of the hip-hop era.

Despite some misgivings, I found Reality Hunger to be provocative, creative, and addictively readable. It is arranged in 618 numbered paragraphs, further divided into 26 themes in A-to-Z fashion. The book is a fine example of the kind of writing Shields is eager to promote: an allusive tapestry of aphorisms and extended quotations interwoven with Shields’s own musings – all done in an intriguing and invisible fashion. He has borrowed liberally from a great variety of writers, including: Emerson, John D’Agata, Jonathan Lethem, Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion, Goethe, Vivian Gornick, and Walter Benjamin. In keeping with his artistic vision, Shields was not going to acknowledge any of these appropriations, but lawyers at his publishing house insisted that he credit the authors (see the section of notes at the back of the book).

Jaron Lanier’s recent manifesto on technology and culture, You Are Not a Gadget, has also generated quite a buzz, and it presents some strongly contrasting views to those Shields proclaims. Where Shields sees the mashed-up sampling by hip-hop artists as a model for writers, Lanier believes that heavily sampled music is too often uninspired, mechanical, and derivative. Where Shields sees artistic freedom in unattributed appropriation, Lanier laments that his many musician friends can no longer make a living in music due to seismic shifts in cultural production and consumption.

Lanier is no Luddite. He was a pioneer in virtual reality development in the 1980s, and he was an active proponent of online social networks before most of us knew what they were. But he now believes that unintended consequences of recent digital designs, with its hive mind aspects, ethos of “free culture,” and the prevalence of anonymous comments in web discourse have all worked to damage social interactions and individual creativity.

Lanier’s greatest concern is that recent technological developments are degrading what it means to be human, and he shines a light on significant privacy intrusions by search engines and social software companies. Lanier’s manifesto is not as artistically crafted as that of Shields, but his informed and thoughtful critique of web 2.0 technologies deserves both a wide readership and our careful consideration.

(Part 2 on Reality Hunger is here.)