I was on my way to school on Friday when I received a text from my friend. He was on his way to an MLA panel to see David Shields. He thought I might be interested in the event; I decided to go on a whim, not knowing anything about Shields or having spent any time looking at what was happening at the conference. I try to embrace unexpected events and recommendations as much as I can- you never know when you will read or hear something that hits you in particular way. I tend to be a very hermeneutic reader- I know Deleuze would likely frown on this in many respects- but I see it as a way in which to embrace a rhizomatic way of moving through the world: making unlikely connections as they make sense in my brain, which is very much about my subject position, my own horizon of meanings, as well as my interests that fuel the direction of my research.
The event itself was in a kind of interview format, ‘creative conversation’ so of course, a variety of topics were discussed: fiction versus non-fiction, what even constitutes non-fiction; in what style should we be writing today, is the novel an old-fashioned way of narration, is the lyric essay more open than the personal essay; what makes a literary work revolutionary? I’m not much of a reader of fiction. I admittedly find that novels move too slowly and I lose my patience. And I’ve always preferred short stories to the novel. Maybe because they often end so quickly, we are always left wanting, hoping for just a little bit more. Shields position was that the novel was old-fashioned, attributing it to a 19th century way of being, predicated on the carriage ride. He also described the lyric essay as having more movement between the author and the reader, thereby giving the reader an emancipated position, ala Rancière , one that requires thought and interpretation on the readers’ part. Ultimately, he was excited by work that pushed the boundaries of the literary field, which is very much in the spirit of Deleuze- and Deleuze and Guattari, and thought that the lyrical essay not only exemplified the form of our contemporary milieu, but also enabled the author to have a voice without it being as overwhelming as it tends to be in the personal essay. I suppose I left feeling unclear whether he thought all novels felt like the 19th century, or if there are kinds of novels that still feel fresh when narrativized in a more contemporary style. I think it raises a lot of interesting questions, of which the first I might posit as, what, precisely, constitutes a ‘novel’? I’m sure there is a particular definition that the MLA nazis ascribe to, but perhaps that might be the first place to open up the conversation, instead of pointing fingers at whether Franzen writes like he’s 150 years old.
After the event, we talked about it as we walked up the hill. I think in somewhat typical fashion, we both brought different points of view to the discussion- and our points of view over time have been pretty consistent with regards to Deleuze. I think because of my art background, I really respond to way Deleuze talks about the creative, productive force of thought, and perhaps more specifically, in practice, how engaging works has fundamentally changed how I see or understand the world, and I suppose more specifically still, how unexpected creative gestures can have such a profound impact on society at large.
My friend commented on the said event, and you can find his post here: http://mydesiringmachines.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/david-shields-conversation-at-2012-mla-convention/
In an effort to maintain a sustained intellectual engagement with Deleuze, as well as create an online community of like-minded thinkers, I thought to respond to his post- which of course won’t make any sense if you don’t read his first… but for my own archive purposes, I’m reposting my response here:
Since I was sitting next to you, I’ll weigh in… it seemed like what Shields was arguing for, is not so much an obvious or heavy authorial tone per se, but one that is still very present. He used his own work to illustrate that he moves back and forth between his personal life (family stories) to sports (or whatever) and points in between. This way, it’s not about Him, but his voice is still present throughout.* I thought his argument about the text that he wanted to win the book award was also good support in this matter- I’ve already forgotten the author- but the committee couldn’t/wouldn’t support the book because the author’s voice was too present; they felt like the author should get out of the way and simply tell the story. (And in proper post-structuralist fashion, Shields argued that this position was naive to think this was possible…) In the end, they selected the staid non-fiction text that remained within the safe boundaries of how we understand non-fiction; still beautifully written, but only solidified the existing definition of non-fiction.
And yes, D & G were looming large in this conversation. I think what Shields was really getting at, in terms of pushing writing forward, was very much about production (nod to the D & the G); and much less about reception. This is also where D & G do not give a lot of attention either. For them, and for Shields I think, it’s all about production- producing creative work that pulls the conversation forward. Recalling Rancière here, there are so many disparate points of reception, and we can come together to discuss and create new experiences through the shared experience of a work, but ‘reception’ of the work does not advance the creative disciplines. It seems more like a barometer.
I think his main point was highlighting what makes him excited when he is reading the work of peers, what work pushes the boundaries of what language can do, how we can communicate across the abyss, which necessarily means giving part of ourselves, while at the same time, reaching out to the other side through points of connection. It seems like the ‘personal essay’, with that adjective being what it is, spends too much time focusing on the author’s voice and leaves not a lot of room for the reader- leaving them as a passive spectator; it seems like the lyric essay allows much room for the author’s voice, but in the process, requiring the reader to think, interpret, relate; to emancipate the spectator, so to speak. I guess, ultimately, it seems like he was really trying to argue for paying attention to the texts that aren’t bestsellers. Franzen’s is a bestseller, majoritarian; instead, Shields is arguing for/celebrating Minoritarian literature- not just ‘good’ stories.
I think it is entirely fair to disagree with the dismissal of content- content alone can cause a cognitive stutter, so to speak, under certain conditions, regardless of its style… Recalling the argument from What is Philosophy, for D & G- and likely Shields- it is not enough to think a philosopher’s (artist, etc.) thoughts; meaning, it’s not enough to use a stylistic formula and simply give it fresh content; rather, thinking ‘like’ them (Nietzsche, Proust) – responding to the milieu in which they are situated- enables the producer to respond to present day forces that has the ability to alter the plane of immanence, or rather, constructing concepts or forms based on emergences or points of tension within the active plane. Utilizing a 19th century style, while probably well done, may cause only a small moment of deterritorialization; but it is the radical moments, like Duchamp, Cage, Kerouac, Marclay, that have the potential to fundamentally alter the course due to their untimely emergence. Destratification of the heavily striated plane, if you will. As producers, we can’t really make another fountain, or compose another 4’33. I mean, we can- but we become functionaries, regardless of whether the spectator knows the history of the discipline.
My complaint or point of contention is that it is not possible to do this every time; D & G admit this- and I think Shields likely would as well. We can’t continually develop ‘new forms’ of literary work, but it shouldn’t stop us from attempting that. But the larger question, ‘what do we do about the work that doesn’t achieve that?’ never gets addressed, and how do we continue to make work/write when the proliferation of voices throughout history begin to feel suffocating? This makes me think of the requirement to ‘add’ to existing scholarship when writing the dissertation. Should this addition simply be more esoteric, or are there new forms, like Digital Humanities or true ‘interdisciplinarity’ that will ultimately add to existing scholarship in a meaningful way? Maybe it’s just the necessary cacophony of voices, esoteric or staid, that populate the plane that provide the conditions that enable the untimely one, the occasional line of flight that alters the exiting plane of immance?
*I haven’t read any of Shields’ work, but this is my understanding, based on how he spoke about it himself.