David Shields: Talking Fakery

fakes

Since his book, Remote (1996), David Shields has been in hot pursuit of lies and truths that help us decode a modern reality that can seem a cruel, wired hallucination of publicity, exhibitionism, and spiritual chaos. He is a restless and probing collagist, using quotes and quips from a myriad of sources to make the case for an improvising consciousness that embraces both existential angst and absurdist delight.

INTERVIEWER

Before we discuss fakery, let’s talk about authenticity. You recently had an earlier book re-issued, a book about a Japanese ballplayer. Who is this Ichiro and what makes him “authentic”?

 SHIELDS

Ichiro is a major league baseball player. He used to play for the Seattle Mariners, and before that, for a Japanese team. He now plays for the New York Yankees. I put together a little book of Ichiro quotes, and I tried to organize the quotes in the new and revised edition into very specific categories—about twenty mini-chapters on the key gestures in Ichiro’s “philosophy.” When he played in Seattle, he fascinated me for the precision of his play and the exactitude of his responses to sportswriters’ questions. What his athletic and oral performances share is a very strong commitment to “reality.” He’s very interested in seeing the bat hit the ball, the ball go into the glove, the exact speed of the pitcher’s pitch, and this carries over into his replies. He seems to me to almost never lie, or if he is lying, he winks at his interlocutor that he’s performing. I’m sure he lies as much as the next person,  that is, but he refuses to settle for the mid-range cliché. He simply never says those things. In that way, he is for me like someone (who could that be?) who has rejected the traditional novel and all those phoned-in gestures. He’s always trying to be “real” and this is the essence of his excellence and appeal. We are surrounded by simulation, artifice, mediation, and if we’re not going to go stark raving mad, we have to, or at least I have to, figure out a way to exist “authentically” within this cyclone. Ichiro does this. He’s a bit of a model for me.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about this collection of “fake texts”—Fakes (Norton 2012)—that you and Matthew Vollmer have edited. What is it and what attracted you to the project and the texts themselves?

SHIELDS

In the extremely bureaucratized culture in which almost all of us now live, we’re inundated by documents: itineraries, instruction manuals, lectures, permit forms, advertisements, primers, catalogues, comment cards, letters of complaint, end-of-year reports, accidentally forwarded email, traffic updates, alumni magazine class-notes, etc., etc. Fraudulent artifacts exact/enact giddy, witty, imaginative revenge on the received forms that dominate and define our lives. These counterfeit texts capture the barely suppressed frustration and feeling and yearning that percolate about 1/16th of an inch below most official documents.

Such elegant forgeries appeal to those of us bored by the conventions of traditional fiction (my co-editor, Matthew Vollmer). Or those of us who, out of similar boredom with the conventions, turn to genre-bending and genre-defying work to reanimate their literary passions (me). Such stories are a detour around the dead ends of traditional realism, modernism, and postmodernism; for every soul trapped in bureaucratic hell who would give his or her eyeteeth to take that latest interoffice memo and turn it into a whoopee cushion—ditto, here is your form or anti-form.

INTERVIEWER

What effects do think are most interesting or most pernicious on the individual consciousness brought on by living in a world of suspect texts composed with suspect objectives? How does one engage free thinking and living when you’re wary all the time?

SHIELDS

I think humans have always been surrounded by dubious documents. Maybe this interview is even a suspect document. It has perhaps reached toxic levels in contemporary digital culture; it’s overwhelming. It’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? How does one remain part of the culture—not become a luddite—without surrendering one’s own consciousness? Wish I knew. I’m all for bottomless wariness. I’m also all for constantly transforming what I see into a work of my own making—e.g., Christian Marclay’s The Clock. As long as you are are remaking it, you seem to me to be in dynamic relation to the stuff. The key is never to be a straight-ahead consumer. That, to me, is death (brain and otherwise).

INTERVIEWER

Frank Rich, in his post-mortem of Election 2012, noted that the GOP and Romney took “truthiness” to whole new level of chutzpah. But Romney’s lies and the whole GOP alternative reality (which Romney and Ryan believed right up until they saw the real numbers coming in) failed to win the day. What are your thoughts?

SHIELDS

I think that’s become a pretty standard line on the election already: facts won. Nate Silver won. Self-deluded bubble lost. Etc, etc. Part of me agrees with this, but I think it’s much more complicated. I would never want to be in a position in which I somehow thought a mere politician was somehow “telling the truth.” Certainly Obama is not that person telling the truth. I could give you a primer—perhaps anyone could—on his body language, on how infinitesimally he adjusts his body language and his actual language on a virtually second by second basis to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and not be defined as president only for African-Americans. I think it’s crucial to see all politics as theater, as performance, and although, sure, Democratic pollsters called stuff more correctly, I think a lot of Obama’s winning is that he’s an infinitely better performer than Romney is/was. The autobiographer/the essayist isn’t telling the truth. He’s performing the truth in what he/she/we hope is a convincing and persuasive and “moving” way. It is a coincidence that Obama teared up on the final day of the election in 2008 and 2012? Are these “real tears” or performed tears? Impossible to know.

INTERVIEWER

Orson Welles, a man who knew plenty about fakery, contended that politicians are just actors and that they’re aren’t lying, even though they might be cynical, because they are part of an essential cultural discussion or sorting of ideals.

SHIELDS

Was that man never wrong?

INTERVIEWER

I’ve noticed, particularly in food television, how cooks with authentic skills and genuine intent to inform/help get pulled into the ring of the dancing bear. Witness Mario Batali or Emeril and how they are now in Tony Bourdain territory. And yet someone like Jacques Pepin, great friend of Julia Child and Craig Claibourne, has managed to adapt to both television and social media, without compromising his stance or aura. (Pepin is from that era when one could be openly existential—if you get a chance, look for his hour long special with Itzhak Perlman in discussion and in the kitchen).

SHIELDS

I don’t know any of these shows, though my wife and especially my daughter love them. Your reference to Jacques Pepin made me think that this is where I really belong: in the kitchen with Itzhak Perlman and JP and existentialism. I just got back from a nonfiction conference in Melbourne, where an Australian student said that all I really want is affective art, and I think that’s right. I’m just an old existentialist dressed up in digital culture’s new clothes. Petronius to Houllebecq: these are my peeps. I love art that eliminates everything except, um, the kitchen sink, and I can’t believe everyone doesn’t agree with me.

INTERVIEWER

I was recently at a film festival and there were number of films about swindlers and people who believed them—The Impostor, Compliance, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, and The Queen of Versailles. I have to say that I thought Jackie Siegel came off very well in that last one. She seems to have maintained a working-class authenticity despite her rich life and compulsive shopping. I wonder if we’re living in a Madoff Wave in which we are more aware of swindlers because there are more of them operating. And did the recession act as a sort of cleansing tonic for millions of potential marks?

SHIELDS

Dying to see The Queen of Versailles. Haven’t seen it yet. Glad to hear you liked it. I know what you mean. I do think grifting is a major trope for contemporary existence. Who isn’t being played in some way? It’s late-market capitalism. I remember showing a very early draft of my 1996 book, Remote, to my friend Jerome Stern, and he so usefully talked about how I had to stop saying X was more or less authentic than Y or Z. He urged me to contemplate the ways in which I—hey, maybe even you—are inauthentic, faking it. What is that great Fitzgerald quote? “I lie all the time to everybody, but I try not to lie to myself.” Well, good luck with that Scottie boy. Therein lies the difficulty and excitement of our project.

INTERVIEWER

Coming back to Welles, in his film F is for Fake, you see how the forger Elmyr brilliantly understands and exploits the necessary performance of the artist to play “the artist” in order to counteract the artist’s insecurity about the value of his work but also the insecurity of those who buy it. Is this part of what you consider “reality hunger”?

SHIELDS

This is of course what Banksy’s great film Exit from the Gift Shop tries to get to: living as we do in a culture that is unprecedentedly unreal, we perforce crave the irreducibly real, which we can no longer get to. Or if we can get to, we can do so only in parentheses.

INTERVIEWER

What do you make of someone like Werner Herzog who seems to be on some quixotic mission to “unearth” the real that still exists—the senseless crime, the kid who goes looking for salvation in the wilderness, even in Bad Lieutenant, the authenticity of dramatized excess almost as a regional “magic” of New Orleans?

SHIELDS

I love Herzog, or at least I like him a lot when he’s at his best. I like that little video he did of the Las Vegas-based band, The Killers. I love Grizzly Man. I don’t know Bad Lieutenant—what is that film about? On TV in Melbourne last week, I saw about half an hour of his convicted killer documentary. To me, Herzog just gets it: he gets how we want art now that is simultaneously outward looking and inward looking. “Real” and unreal; deadly serious and farcical. Newsflash: the perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived.

INTERVIEWER

If one can’t get to the real, how does one escape the forces of the fake—refuse any song that has Auto-Tune, refuse any photo that has been Instagrammed, refuse any food that is GMO?

SHIELDS

If I said I can’t get to the real, I misspoke. One can get increasingly close to the real—that is the goal—the thinnest possible membrane between life and art; I mean simply to underline the difficulty of the task. I don’t think the goal is to never listen to a song that uses Auto-Tune but to adjust your sensorium so that you are always seeing fear in a handful of dust. I’m just a failed Buddhist—aren’t we all?

 

Interview conducted by Stirling Noh, a Canadian author living in London, Ontario. He writes existential novellas and erotic urban fiction.

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