Our era is defined by the model. From Victoria's Secret andAmerica's Next Top Model to the snapshots we post on Facebook and Twitter, our culture is fixated on the pose, the state of existing simultaneously as artifice and the real thing. In this bold view of contemporary culture, Wendy Steiner shows us the very meaning of the arts in the process of transformation. Her story begins at the turn of the last century, as the arts abandoned the representation of the world for a heady embrace of the abstract, the surreal, and the self-referential. Today though, this "separate sphere of the aesthetic" is indistinguishable from normal life. Media and images overwhelm us: we gingerly negotiate a real-virtual divide that we suspect no longer exists, craving contact with what J. M. Coetzee has called "the real real thing." As the World Wide Web renders the lower-case world in ever-higher definition, the reality-based genres of memoir and documentary are displacing fiction, and novels and films are depicting the contemporary condition through model-protagonists who are half-human, half-image. Steiner shows the arts searching out a new ethical potential through this figure: by stressing the independent existence of the model, they welcome in the audience in all its unpredictability, redefining aesthetic experience as a real-world interaction with the promise of empathy, reciprocity, and egalitarian connection. A masterly performance by a penetrating, inquisitive mind,The Real Real Thingis that rarest of books, one whose provocations and inspirations will inspire readers to take a newand nuancedlook at the world around them.
Wendy Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a wide-ranging cultural critic who has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Nation, London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. She is the author of many books, including, most recently, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art.