Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Reality Hunger

Steven Tabbutt

I am submerged.

I told myself I wasn't going to buy another book, I did. My library can no longer hold all the books on its shelves, I must pile books in odd places, on the floor, on chairs . . .

I go for long periods of time without listening to any music in my car. Whenever I decide I want more music, I end up spending hours on bit torrent sites. I can have whatever I want. I'm inundated--to the point of silence.

I've quit online movie subscriptions and then started them up six times. I have digital cable and a DVR. Now I go to the store to rent movies, but it's expensive. I'm thinking about Netflix again . . .

I've been working on a novel less than sixty pages long for over two years. The impulse to write fiction has been with me since I was in my early teens. But as I grow older, I lament over my perceived difficulties with writing fiction. My sporadic loss of this desire to create something new, something entirely different, eludes me.

What came naturally to me was writing these essays on the Blog of Innocence. You could call them "lyrical essays," they are suggestive, not pedantic. They are autobiographical, and so I'm never at a loss for material. But most importantly, I feel daring when I write these essays. I don't know where most of them are headed, and I follow my instinct to invent with them.

In art--before it has fully entered the mainstream and become a commodity--there is a fascination with the in-between, the liminal spaces. Right now I'm thinking about the popularity of street art, vintage illustrations, typography, and aspects of design. Art grows up inside these crevices until we find something new, something interesting. The patterns that have been used before lose their novelty, and the omnivorous artist is again on the hunt for new materials, new ideas.

The widespread tendency to take what was made by others, and use it for your own purposes in visual art, music, writing--reflects an abundance, a super-abundance, of culture. This is my library overflowing with books I haven't read. These are the movies that collect on my coffee table, that I send back unwatched. This is the paralyzing sense I sometimes get when I'm trying to write fiction, and have lost my instinct to invent.

We are practically drowning in the abundance of culture, information, and commodities. And so we turn to appropriation. There is too much piling up around us to ignore it. It must be absorbed somehow.

Take blogging, for example. The personal views of the blogger are combined with a compulsive appropriation of cultural materials, videos, linking, quoting, using images, commenting about other blogs, or news in the media, along with a hundred other variations.

Or Twitter. What is a re-tweet but an appropriation of another's materials? We retweet what is agreeable to us, and perpetuate a cultural fragment that in some small way, reflects us.

All of a sudden, I'm more excited about writing fiction. I've felt constrained by my novel. This need to create a verisimilitude of characters and a continuous story harks back to the realist novels of the 19th century. But that pattern is stale, no wonder I lack the passion for using it without an interruption of my own devices. What gives me energy is the lyrical essay, for its endless directions and possibilities, for its candid personality.

And then, it becomes apparent to me. Culture does not need a convincing fiction anymore. What culture needs is a convincing reality. We are so immersed in fictions that the idea of presenting a fiction to the public seems quaint, even antiquated.

In a review of David Sheilds's manifesto, Reality Hunger, Luc Sante writes:
But we continue to crave reality, because we live in a time dominated by innumerable forms of extraliterary fiction: politics, advertising, the lives of celebrities, the apparatus surrounding professional sports--you could say without exaggeration that everything on TV is fiction whether it is packaged as such or not.
I first read an excerpt of David Sheilds's manifesto, Reality Hunger, on the Outlet Blog. The passages echoed some of my notions about appropriation and art, which I discuss in my essay, "What is Contemporary Art?" I read the review in the New York Times, and bought the book today (presumably, the last book I will ever buy--I have no space left!).

Sheilds makes the connection between the widespread practice of appropriation and the ascendancy of memoir and autobiographical writing. Here it may be argued that a culture of memoirists, bloggers, and customized media, is not simply a feast for the narcissism of our age, but in fact something deeper about our craving for reality. There are too many pre-existing meanings, falsehoods, fictions, delivered to us daily. The autobiographical impulse comes from the need to make one's own meaning out of life, to create a reality for oneself.

Luc Sante continues:
So what constitutes reality, then, as it affects culture? It can be as simple as a glitch, an interruption, a dropped beat, a foreign object that suddenly intrudes. Hence the potency of sampling in popular music, which forces open the space between vocal and instrumental components. It is also a form of collage, which edits, alters and reapportions cultural commodities according to need or desire. Reality is a landscape that includes unreal features; being true to reality involves a certain amount of wavering between real and unreal. Likewise originality, if there can ever be any such thing, will inevitably entail a quantity of borrowing, conscious or otherwise. The paradoxes pile up as the debris of history--unsurprisingly, since that debris is our reality.
If we reach for the work of others to represent us, or if we consciously or unconsciously use the work of others as in appropriation, it is because the reality we are making is partly woven from endless cultural fragments. Artwork then stands on the precarious ledge between self-invention and replication, and it is interesting because it is neither the one nor the other but a sparkling fusion of the two.

Ultimately it is the freedom to play with forms, to mix forms, and to blur the lines between your art and mine. If autobiography creeps into fiction then it's only because we've decided to change the rules. In chapter X, I'm just going to start telling it how it is. I may do away entirely with the fictional armature, but then come back to it later, when I decide it's useful.

This collusion of reality and un-reality, and autobiography interpenetrated by outside sources, mesmerizes me, as a collage of disparate images is combined to create a pleasing unity. This is the art of the in-between that captures the imagination in our particular cultural moment. And, as an artist myself, I am dying to break the shackles of my own fictions.

More Essays . . .



Kathleen said...

Fascinating, this idea of the cultural collage/appropriation impulses as a yearning...for art, perhaps, but for reality, yes!

I see us risking our real lives in all this retreat from it into electronic "connections."

I wish you well with all this.

Mark Kerstetter said...

The story of the public life of James Frey's alleged memoir "A Million Little Pieces" is fascinating in that the veracity of a story about a man's drug addiction is treated as a matter of such high importance. It goes to the phenomenon you describe here: a thirst for reality so strong that an autobiography by an ordinary guy that doesn't tell the whole truth becomes a huge controversy. David Sedaris made a joke about this once, that the fact-checkers for some of his pieces are so thorough that they tracked down a piece of furniture in his family's home to determine it was made out of a different type of wood than he had written it was. And yet it sometimes seems that people stand helpless in the face of blatant Orwellian discourse in our politics.

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