Implicating Reality Hunger: A Sampling Manifesto

It should be said from the onset I haven’t read David Shields Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.  As a 21st century literary ‘manifesto’ I’m doubtful it would have made its way to my wishlist any time soon on its own merits.  That said, it was recommended to me not because of its literary prowess per se, but rather the methodology implored to create it.  You see the technique Shields has chosen to ‘write’ his manifesto is one that is quite familiar to me through another medium – sampling.

Reality Hunger is made up of 618 numbered paragraphs, each of them a sample from another author.  These samples are not presented as quotes, but instead are the core of Shields work.  In some cases Shields takes the liberty to edit these paragraphs to fit in with the overall themes of the book, others he leaves as is.  In format Reality Hunger can be directly paralleled with DJ Shadow’s sonic ‘manifesto’ Endtroducing, often credited as the first album composed of nothing but samples.  At the end of the Shields book there is an extensive appendix which cites all of the references, but there are no inline references.

What has really drawn my attention to the book is that appendix.  Apparently it was added at the insistence of the publisher’s lawyers.  The publisher is Alfred A. Knopf and so I can only assume the legal team is well versed in copyrights and intellectual property.  And yet it is their conclusion that the only thing needed to protect the book as an original work, despite the fact that it is only comprised of the intellectual property of other authors, is to cite those authors.  There was no need to hire a sample clearing house to contact all of the authors, and negotiate fee rates for using the samples.  There were no publishing rights for the novel shared with any of the sampled authors.  Mr. Shields was not denied the right to use any of the samples by authors who felt his use tarnished the integrity of the original work.  The publisher did not give Mr. Shields an extensive list of authors whom he could not sample from.  Nor did the publisher shelve the project all together out of fear of legal repercussion for the work.

Instead the book is on the market and by most accounts being very well received.  The New York Times Book Review proclaims Shields “is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions.  His book… heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.”

How can one herald something that has been around for decades if not centuries?  As absurd as it is, I do understand what they mean though.  Shields has validated it.  You see Shields is a published author, English professor at the University of Washington, a PEN award winner, Guggenheim fellow, and recipient of two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships.  His credentials in this matter put him above reproach.  So when his methods starts slumming into realms previously categorized as beneath the arts, suddenly those methods are raised to the level of art.  There are ‘post-racial’ implications as well, which have come up with the work of another artist held in similar regard, but I digress…

Rather than take offense however, I’d like to turn the tables.  Indeed what Shields has done is art, and should be treated as original despite being a derivative work.  Where this is accepted, and every day it remains on the market supports its acceptance, then all other original derivative works must be held to the same standard.  The archaic practice of extorting sample based artists for their profits on the legal basis of treating their art only on intellectual property terms, must be out eliminated.  If an author is legally protected in their use of derivative works by simply citing the reference to their usage, there can be no double standard when it comes to musicians.

And so I put forth to sample based producers, and the labels who support them, it’s time to take this issue to task.  End your relationships with the sampling clearing houses.  Create your art without the fear of legal repercussions.  Release it for profit, with your sample sources clearly stated.  At first there will be legal cases brought up, but DO NOT BACK DOWN.  You are on the side of the right, and it is only by pushing forward that the laws will change to reflect that.  I believe there are lawyers and activists who need to, as well as those who already do, stand with us to take this as far as it needs to go, but it begins with us the artists not being afraid to stand up for what is right.

This is our time.  LET’S GO!!!

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