I am not familiar with Catherine Lacey or David Shields. I have not read Shields' books even though How Literature Saved My Life and Reality Hunger figure heavily in an interview Lacey did with Shields for the site HTMLGiant. I read that interview this morning, and I am troubled.
First there was the intro, which read a bit like a Saturday Night Live skit and was formatted like this:
-David Shields = highly self-conscious lab rat; David Shields = Canada
-Will the internet ever save anyone’s life?
-Bret Easton Ellis’s twitter feed
Following that, the piece begins promisingly enough, with Lacey touching on a self-imposed two week break from the internet during which she only answered a few emails on her phone and read Shields' How Literature Saved My Life. I was hoping for some worthy follow-up on that from both Lacey and Shields but that was not the case. While there are some important ideas running through the interview, too much of it is peppered with strange and bizarrely dramatic proclamations like Shields' stating "I use the internet as a tool to figure out where the war is being waged that day on our individual and collective minds."
(An aside here. Again, this kind of thinking seems so prevalent, and so constantly ignorant of the role that privilege and class play. How many in this country and others do not have steady or reliable access to the internet and technology in general? It is depressing to see the digital divide continuing to grow to the point where those who do not have this access are no longer even derided, they are simply non-existent. What fundamentally undermines so much of what Shields' is saying, rightly or wrongly, is summed up when he says "...when I am online I’m thinking as hard as I can about what this water is in which we’re all swimming." No. Really, no. We're not "all swimming" in that same water. A lot of people are "swimming" in the water of just trying to earn enough money at the job to put food on the table and in the kids' mouths.)
Near the end of the piece, things really unraveled for me. Shields' says "Steven Soderbergh is looking for 'a new grammar'; he’s weary of narrative prison of films. He’s seeking a new language by which to express himself. Hey, join the fucking club. How do we get there? You just know it’s out there, don’t you? Someone is going to make of a million Facebook posts or Twitter feeds an astonishing collage. See Christian Marclay’s The Clock. If that isn’t a model, I don’t know what is." He goes on to offer readers other "models" which include Danger Mouse's The Grey Album (I hope he is referring to Grey Tuesday and the collective online lashing out against corporate control of intellectual property and not just the album itself which, at best, is merely clever and entertaining) and, astonishingly, Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter feed. Yes. His Twitter feed, according to Shields, is actually saving either his or someone else's life. It's not entirely clear which. In Ellis' Twitter feed, Shields says "He is actively trying to figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel, post-Empire. He’s on it. He gets it, completely. He gets how to push back, how to be part of the culture and how to push back against ferociously it at the same time, to ignore it and transform it. He is a hugely catalyzing force for me." Obviously, I needed to investigate this for myself since, if these claims were true, I would certainly need to be following this feed on a daily basis. I followed the link and found, on the first page...
--four references to the band The Eagles and / or their album Hotel California
--a link to the new video from the band The Passion Pit
--a Tweet proclaiming "The band I am listening to the most right now is Tame Impala and their great record "Lonerism"
--six references to the HBO show Girls including "the almost unbearable pathos and honesty of the last two episodes makes everything else on TV seem like something we need to forget."
That is a model? Where is the "trying to figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel, post-Empire"? To me, it all looked an awful lot like masturbatory pop culture namedropping. Maybe it is unfair and grossly inaccurate to make any kind of assessment of Ellis' Twitter feed simply from the first page of Tweets, but you know what they say about first impressions.
So again, I am depressed. Deeply depressed. I would have thought that in order to turn off the internet, to rediscover literature and the life of the mind, to "figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel" I would want to do something like read the works of Heidegger and Kant, Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck, Chinua Achebe and bell hooks, and Neil Postman and Judith Butler to start. I didn't realize all I needed to do was follow someone's Twitter feed and watch Girls obsessively.
Look, I don't have a problem with television or enjoying it or Tweeting about it. None at all. That's actually the kind of thing that I would expect from a Twitter feed. Honestly, if you're going to Twitter looking for anything more than an entertaining link or a clever phrase, you're searching in the wrong place. And my own aesthetic life is absolutely full of similarly enjoyable but shallow pleasures. As dearly as I love the magazine, I would never pretend to elevate Heavy Metal and the comics of Moebius and Druillet above Herman Melville or Gloria Anzaldua or Mary Wollstonecraft. What depresses me so much is the way that things like Ellis' Twitter feed are propelled to level of Important Thinking. That this (Girls and the Eagles and namedropping other bands) is "how to live" at the expense of, well, everything else. Is it possible that we could ever look out at anything more complex and broader than what is immediately in front of our faces, or motivating our genitals, or stimulating that part of our mind that is addicted to clever snappy dialogue like it's cocaine? I found it almost paradoxical that in an interview which at some points alludes to "the slowness of books" in a positive light eventually devolves into a worship of the quick fix, the instantaneous world of "new media" and the never-ending worship of pop culture personalities.
Is this really the best we can do?
EDIT: One more addendum, mostly on Girls. Here's the thing. Ultimately, Girls seems to be a show with a fairly narrow focus. A narrative on the coming-of-age experiences of a group of privileged white girls in Brooklyn. Not for me, but no big deal there. But here's my issue. One of the most effective critiques leveled against fantasy literature, comic books, science fiction, videogames, and so on is that these things are childish. They appeal to us in ways that we should have apparently outgrown as we become mature adults. I don't agree with that much, but it at least does occupy some solid logical ground and can be a useful point of discussion. So if we can batter fantasy and science fiction with that critique, why is it acceptable for people in their mid-40s to be so obsessed with show like Girls which focus entirely on the experiences of 20-somethings? Should we as adults in our 30s, 40s, 50s and so on not have put those things aside and grown up? The hypocrisy is astounding.