The Agony of Mike Daisey ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Agony of Mike Daisey

A quick pointer to George Hunka's excellent roundup of the scandal unfolding around Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which journalistic and theatrical ideas of truthfulness have collided head on. The ensuing debate opens a can of worms about documentary theatre. My comment on Superfluities, which I'm pasting below:

It seems Daisey – unwittingly, I think, in that I don’t believe he did anything in bad faith (update: it is undeniable that Daisey lied, both to his audiences and to TAL about the nature of his work) – encouraged people to think of his work in the ways it was received. There’s no doubt that the facts he’s retailing are pretty much true, whether or not he personally witnessed them, as anyone who reads the accounts of Foxconn elsewhere would know; but putting his work in the context of TAL would only make the distinction between the ethics of journalism and theatre more confused. There’s a larger question underneath there, about the illegality of imagination in contemporary culture, and the passive acceptance of various kinds of authority, that I find disturbing. I haven’t seen Daisey’s shows, but it seems clear that he’s not making verbatim theatre, where one might be on surer ground. But he has created a persona who acts very much like an investigative journalist, and that brings him up front in conflict with the ethics and responsibilities of journalism. My first thought was the scandal around the fictionalisations of the Independent journalist Johann Hari, whose career was basically destroyed when it was discovered that he was taking imaginative liberties in his stories, placing himself at the centre of events or conversations where he was not present and, worse, which might not have happened. This is the same problem, but from a different practice in which fictionalising is part of the practice.

But I agree, what’s mainly disturbing is the complacent acceptance of the “authentic” in the audience. Brecht’s practice was about stimulating the performance of thought, both in his actors and in the audience. This is the reverse of that: it’s about different kinds of authority which anoint the transmission of information with veracity, and that veracity then driving action. I am mainly surprised, perhaps because I haven’t seen Daisey in action, that so many people who ought to know better took Daisey’s monologues as literal fact, which suggests a shocking naivety: it’s like those people who send wedding presents when characters get married in soap operas.

Just a note on the “willing suspension of disbelief”: Coleridge specifically was speaking of the fantastic, works like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which it was wholly clear to any reader that the story wasn’t “true” in any factual sense. “My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” In other words, the disbelief comes first, and then is suspended. This work, it seems to me, asked for belief without any sense of disbelief, and therefore contains no moment of suspension, or of movement to what Coleridge calls “poetic faith”: and that is clearly its problem.

You can read George's editorial, with handy links, here. Footnote: the real issue with This American Life is that Mike Daisey misrepresented the nature of his work to Ira Glass, and misled the program. The lie exists in that action, not necessarily in the work of theatre itself. The ethical problems around it do raise questions about documentary theatre, or theatre that presents itself as factually true.


CNP said...

It feels like a very familiar issue. Colbert and Stewart have been regularly tarred by the journalistic establishment as degrading the practice of journalism. They in turn say 'but we're not trying to be journalists, it's clearly comedy,' but the likes of Ted Koppel point to their ratings and the surveys that suggest that some young Americans get their news via said comedy and then cry foul viz credibility, integrity etc etc.

cf Kony 2012 and the way in which a good meme can outrun any depth of investigation ... the only concrete result of which, at this point, has been the bizarre creation of another meme (ie the TMZ video of the naked meltdown)

Alison Croggon said...

I do think that Daisey is culpable, in that he misrepresented the nature of the work in publicity around the show, thus forming expectations of documentation about the show's idea of truthfulness that plainly didn't pertain. Ira Glass's outrage is totally justified: he feels, rightly, that his show's expectations of ethical behaviour have been traduced by Daisey's misrepresentations: he felt able to present the show as a work of journalism, and then discovered that it wasn't.

This doesn't begin to explore what Daisey might have meant by truthfulness. His retreat into excuses about theatricality and dramatic license don't wash, because if he had presented it as a fictionalised account of his time in China in the first place, this whole scandal wouldn't have happened, or would at least have a different focus. At the very least, it suggests a lack of faith on Daisey's part in the very theatrical truthfulness he claims (subsequently) to be underwriting the show: that it has to be underwritten by absolute factual/journalistic truthfulness in order to carry public weight. (Also, I wonder how much does he believe his fabrications to be true, whether they are or not?) He has certainly made it much easier for imaginative truthfulness to be characterised as a lie. Does that mean the original monologue is, flatly, a lie? Not necessarily: but given the misleading context, as encouraged by Daisey's own representations, that gets awfully hard to defend. Worth thinking about too in relation to other kinds of documentary theatre, The Laramie Project or Aftermath, in which the theatrical context and process is explicitly built into the work's structure and framing.

Cristin Kelly said...

As a professional dramaturg, I'd consider myself a savvy theatre-goer, and I don't think that it was naivety that led me to believe that the stories in Daisey's monologues were true. It was the fact that he told us they were true. He told us "this is true" in the monologue, itself. When questioned in post-show discussions, he asserted - this is all true. In interviews, the same. Direct quote from a recorded interview in Seattle where he was asked if he stretched the truth: "Be clear with the audience. At one moment, you're reporting the truth as it really happened and another you're using hyperbole. You have to be really clear when you're using that tool."

I know how storytelling works, but when Daisey has gone so far out of his way to tell us that this story is true, I took him at his word. He did not have to say that it was true, and could have crafted an equally compelling piece, as he is so gifted. I am angry that he lied so blatantly about the nature of this piece. In the context of this work, it does in fact make a difference, and he clearly knew that, or he would not have gone out of his way to assert its authenticity.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes; it's those assertions of factual truth that make Daisey at fault, both theatrically and journalistically. I didn't realise, in my initial reading, quite how absolute his initial claims to journalistic truth were; he certainly makes none of those claims in his own statement about TAL's retraction. I have a real problem, for reasons aligned to this case, with artistic work that stakes a claim for authenticity primarily in an empathy generated by "this really happened": I think it can end up falsifying the practice of art as much as it does fact. And of course, such actions inevitably blow up: Norma Khouri and Helen Demidenko being prominent examples, although I wouldn't call his work a hoax. I suspect Daisey's claims that his work are not fiction centre on the documented abuses at Foxconn, and a sincere belief that his work made those abuses vivid: but in that case, he didn't make clear that he was fictionalising those facts in his monologue. And yes, why wasn't he honest about his practice in the first place?

George Hunka said...


The U.S. had its own version of Johann Hari in New Republic writer Stephen Glass; his story is amply told in a "docudrama" directed by Billy Ray called Shattered Glass, starring Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard. It's a very underrated film and worth seeing.

Thanks again for the link,

George Hunka said...

By the way, I hope I'm not misremembering this, but there's an interesting passage in the film of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (it's not in the published text) in which he says something like, "Everything I tell you tonight is true. Except the part about the banana sticking to the wall." It's an interesting statement -- and when he does get to the part about the banana sticking to the wall, it remains a dramatically effective moment, in part because he's admitted that it's a fictional embellishment.

That said, I didn't necessarily believe that everything else he said in that monologue -- or in his others -- would hold up as "true" by the lights of mainstream journalism, or even by my own lights. But it remains an excellent, thought-provoking, and even informative traversal of late-20th-century South Asian history and the ways it's presented in dramatized form.

Anonymous said...

" can end up falsifying the practice of art as much as it does fact." What you say here, Alison, goes to the very heart of theatre & theatre making practice. Daisey’s human concerns about the injustices being perpetrated at Foxconn are worthy, his masterful storytelling is worthy, his conviction is worthy. What is not at all worthy is his lying about what he was told & what he saw first hand. Daisey’s own translator has denied many of Daisey’s repeated self-claimed truthful reporting of the facts. Had Daisey collected examples of the stories going around about Foxconn & other companies questionable practices regarding their workers, & weaved a dramatic monologue from them to create theatre, & with his engaging story-telling abilities, i think he would have still managed to create a compelling piece. Admittedly it may not have started real investigations of the issues he expounds on in his performance. I have seen him in action & he is indeed riveting & thought provoking. So much so that perhaps investigations would have happened anyway - who is to say? I understand Daisey’s wish to shine a real light on an injustice he regards as intolerable. Theatre is a potent platform for raising awareness. I understand that he wants to compel us to believe him in order to provoke change. But CONTEXT is all. He cannot lie OUTSIDE of the theatre (& inside it) while banging on at the hypocrisy of Foxconn. This makes Daisey himself hypocritical & substantially diminishes his practice & our perception of the veracity behind his questioning.

At a time when the arts are hardly considered relevant by government, all we need is another reason for deprecating even the need for art. It is precisely at this juncture, when we can no longer suspend our disbelief because we begin to distrust the theatre maker’s own veracity & intentions, that the theatre’s power begins to crumble. As Peter Brook said, actor’s need to “lie truthfully”. This is at the centre of performance, the transaction between performer & spectator. All this too is thrown into jeopardy by the action of those that pretend at truth OUTSIDE of the theatre event, in interviews, etc. Because we, in daily life, outside of & behind the theatre event, feel lied to. And that can only water down the truth behind the important ‘lies’ of theatre. What Daisey has done is create the lie behind the truth of his intentions which shines a false light on his work & on theatre practice itself. THAT is the dangerous aftertaste of this whole thing for me.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George, Anon: It's kind of interesting to speculate why Daisey felt the need to take on the mantel of journalism. The fact remains that by doing so he attracted notice and serious attention that quite likely would not have happened otherwise. Art itself, no matter how serious its critique, hardly ever gets out of the ghetto of the arts pages, and it's unsurprising that an artist should exceed his remit when the results are so spectacular. At least, at first...

If Daisey had, in taking on journalism, observed its ethics, he would have done precisely what he claimed to. But he didn't: he didn't seem to know what those ethics are, or brushed them aside impatiently. And let's be honest here, while I'm wearing my journalist hat: the anger a lot of journalists are expressing at Daisey's hubris is as much a demarcation dispute as it is genuine anger. Journalists fail at journalistic ethics all the time, as the current hacking and bribery scandal shows all too clearly, but I haven't seen them attract the same of scorn. Yes, alas for art.

But even if Daisey had observed those ethics, and had been as truthful as his performance claimed, would it have been any less problematic? CNP above mentioned Kony: there's clearly a difference between the two cases, but their mutual method of employing empathy above critical thinking to stimulate some kind of political action does make them similar: they both exposed actual injustices, in ways that were very effective in getting people to notice them, but which are also deeply problematic in terms of actually serving to change those abuses. We all know about the problems with Kony: by focusing on Apple, Daisey lets the larger structural problems of the west exporting its poverty off the hook. Makes me think again of Zizek's fulminations against "action".

Alison Croggon said...

PS: I once watched, with my mouth open, a senior journalist make up an entire story when he couldn't get anyone to corroborate an exciting rumour. I'm not sure, even if it was in the bad old days, that that practice has entirely vanished from the newsroom... And the "beatup" is so regular occurence in news journalism, in the relentless 24 hour news cycle, that no one even comments on it.

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous here:

Yes journalism has had a lot of bad press! But for theatre, it MUST be different. In the space of a performance (& beyond, if the experience has quality) we, as spectators, must believe in the work - as distinct from agreeing with it. Penetrating imagination, language, experience, journey - those are the hallmarks of great writing & great theatre - because they provoke us into a diversity of understandings & compassion. There is no ONE right way in an act of performance. Journalism however is much more restricted to that one way, the correct answer, in the pursuit of accurate reporting. The structure is much more restricted - as it should be.

An act of theatre must always be, in my mind, to interrogate & to suspend the reality of the world we know to show, even for a moment, its encumbrances, its inequities, & what other possibilities might mean. When the leaden quotidian structures of societies we create as human beings might dissolve, without condescension, without approval seeking or apology. That's one of the beautiful & glorious freedoms of theatre. We as spectators confer this freedom on an act of theatre, become complicit with the event, because of an intrinsic belief in the truth observed behind the lies in that making of theatre. Lies = it is not really happening, it is manifested imagination, an act created with the talent & skill of many people, with the artificial construct of the theatre machinery (however invisible), within a set time, in itself not real but only to bring us toward the reality of an experience of something. When lies are brought to bear on the making of theatre, however well intentioned, it hurts the practice of theatre making, it hurts the journey of theatre itself because it uses the audience as pawns to a hidden agenda, it starts to smack of bad journalism in which one begins to disregard, disbelieve, the wheat as well as the chaff. I would much rather believe in the artful manifestation of lies to uncover truths in the theatre than the everyday lies posing as truth perpetrated by some politicians & journalists.

Daisey joins those politicians & journalists when he lies behind his work. Don't get me wrong, I love his work, I love his ethical arguments, but not his method to bring his argument home, because it damages his work. And there's the rub...

And thanks for the discussion, Alison.

John Branch said...

I'm most intrigued by what Alison said in her post to George's blog, copied here, on authenticity and the quick unquestioning acceptance of what's being offered.

Regrettably, I have not only a day job that last week and this consumes more than 40 hours of my weekday time; I have also a handful of writing projects to pursue. (And some minimal semblance of a life as well.) I have trouble imagining how I'll ever catch up with much of what's being written about Mike Daisey's wormy Apple tales. But I plan to look here and at Superfluities when time allows.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon, for your fascinating contributions; and I would love to hear your thought, John, if you ever find the time. I know exactly how you feel.

John Branch said...

I just re-read Alison's comment on George's blog that were copied here, while looking for something else, and have another quick thought (again, I'm supposed to be doing something else). That's regarding Alison's excellent, concise account of Coleridge's remark on disbelief. How commonly it's misunderstood! And even misquoted: the word "willing" is now often dropped. Some people who use it that way probably understand what they're doing; others, pretty clearly, do not. It seems pretty commonly accepted (among the great masses, if I may put it that way) that one is supposed to be caught up in a story and to believe in it fully. This may in part be the result of mass entertainments that are intended to be taken that way, as mere diversions, and offer little if anything to reward critical discrimination. But it's still true, as Alison suggests in her comment, that we don't have to take things that way.

Unquestioning acceptance of the world is usually a mistake. A kind of double-mindedness is smarter: believe and don't believe.

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