The Philosophy of Recomposition: David Shields

We saw Emerson argue for a philosophy of “recomposition” in his essay “Quotation and Originality.” David Shields takes up the charge in Reality Hunger. In what ways is Shields’s project Emersonian? In what ways does his book work like an essay–at least in the senses of essay (as verb, as experiment) that we have been exploring? What is Shields’s philosophy of the essay?

Here are some clues to what Shields has in mind, and some links for further reading.

An interview with Colbert.

An interview where he name drops Emerson.

Here is an interview with Shields on Reality Hunger. In the interview, he discusses his interest in the ways nonfiction, in contrast to fiction, focuses on ideas and contemplation:

I love ideas and contemplation. The energy of the word as the writer wrestles with some personal or cultural cataclysm. Take Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a very short book composed of nothing but discreet paragraphs, ostensibly about her breaking up with this guy. Lots of memoirs and novels would just trace the relationship…but what she does in a series of beautifully far-ranging paragraphs is explore why the human animal is so melancholy…why are we so blue? And she explores…she flies all over, and for me that is a far richer meditation…whereas the traditional approach would be unending chapters about how this couple broke up. So many novels are hamstrung by the formulaic execution of scene, setting, dialogue, character development, back story, narrative, momentum, epiphany, closure…there are exceptions, but the books I love tend to be anti-novels. They foreground contemplation.

Shields’s website.

Shields’s essay is highly paratactic–a vivid and perhaps extreme example of parataxis, this way of structuring thought (and specifically, a sentence or a group of sentences) that has long been associated with the essay. Recall that Jeff Porter identifies parataxis as a key element of the poetics of the essay. For more on parataxis (and its contrast with hypotaxis), read here.

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Rhetorical Knowledge and the Essay

Some initial thoughts on how we can be to think rhetorically about reading and writing essays, and to make sense of a genre that emphasizes fluidity but also (since it is needs to be reader-friendly) structure and purpose. We will be practicing this rhetorical knowledge with the in-class writing (provisional paragraphs in your journal) as well as with the Writing Projects.

Most if not all of the essays we have written for schools have some sort of thesis statement. We are familiar with this. However, as you will see, not all essays beyond this school-based form will have a recognizable thesis. Yet, as I will argue, all essays can and should be thought more broadly as pursuing an argument, making a claim–even if, and perhaps especially if, that argument is hypothetical and experimental.

Rather than think of an argument more narrowly as “thesis-based,” it will help to recognize an argument more broadly as the following: [1]taking up a conventional or general, given view of a topic; [2]raising a question or posing a particular problem with that conventional view; [3]proposing to answer that question or respond to that problem.

The DNA of an argument is thus: Give/Problem/Response. The response to the problem (or answer to the question) can also be called the “Claim.” A claim is developed with reasons and then supported with evidence: Claim/Reasons/Evidence. This is the code that the larger essay then replicates in its paragraphs. Each paragraph follows the Claim (topic sentence), Reason (one main reason for each paragraph), Evidence (supporting that main reason) structure.

As an example, consider the problem that Wampole poses and responds to in “The Essayification of Everything.”

I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”

You can identify the given and the problem in her opening paragraphs. Her notion of “essayification” is her response to that problem–and note how the argument/claim nests within it the problem it is responding to: essayification resists the problem of closed-endedness. You can then identify the reasons she proposes to support that claim/response, and furthermore, the particular evidence she points to in support of those reasons.

Since Wampole’s short essay is an example of the essay as op-ed, take a look at this recent discussion from another NYTimes op-ed writer (Bret Stephens) about the characteristics of a strong op-ed essay. I would suggest that these apply to essay-writing in general.