What Words Do Can Suck

Or it can be awesome.

As a writer, as a rhetorician, I’m always more interested in what writing does than in engaging in a long, fruitless search for a single, concretized meaning.

But the recent unraveling of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” via its appearance on the radio show This American Life [TAL] has challenged that notion for me.

In its most recent episode, “Retraction,” TAL takes a very public mulligan for its “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” episode which aired earlier this year. Daisey is a long-form monologuist, self-constructed in the image of [the amazing, the haunted, the shattering] Spaulding Gray, and the TAL episode featured an extended excerpt from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he recounts his 2010 trip to visit some Apple factories in China.

The problem, from TAL’s perspective, is this: Daisey made a lot of shit up. He added, embellished, and flat-out fabricated sequences, details, and people that he presents in his show–and on TAL—as “real.” True, and all that.

The truth, as it always is, is muddier. Much of the material that Daisey stitched into his show is “real” in the sense that it did happen–but to other people. Essentially, he took elements of other people’s experiences and reporting and integrated them into his own trip to China, to some of the Apple factories there, so seamlessly–with such careful rhetorical stitches–that those pieces became part of his whole.

This was conscious, deliberate plagiarism, in my opinion.

Daisey, to his limited credit, did come back to TAL to try and explain his behavior to a [very calmly] peeved Ira Glass. He tried not speaking, he tried denial, he tried self-delusion: there wasn’t a kid-whose-been-caught trick that he didn’t reach for. To me, Daisey came out looking like a skeez, one who hid behind the mechanics of the theater. In theater, he seemed to say again and again, the truth doesn’t matter, details don’t matter. It’s what the work does that makes it worthwhile.

Glass asked him why he didn’t come clean during the fact-checking process that TAL ran before the episode originally aired. Daisey’s response:

I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything. [emphasis added]

So. I wonder. The rhetorician in me, wonders.

Is the problem here really one of genre, as Daisey repeatedly suggested? That in the theater, it’s ok–even expected?–that what’s on stage is heightened, exaggerated, narratively fluffed, even. That the truth must be embellished in order to be theatrical?

For what he regretted, Daisey said, was not the way in which he made his show, the detailed quiliting that shaded memory, truth, and someone else’s stories into a seamless whole. No. It was that he had allowed Glass and co. to bring his piece of theater onto public radio, into the world of journalism, of reporting.

Is it one of rhetoric? Does it matter more what the work does than if the content–which is ostensibly presented as memoir and political agit-prop [Brecht with a side of pathos]–is factual, or not? And by whose standards should the facts be judged? Is meaning truly subjugate to what the text does with, to, for, and through the audience?

Or is it one of integrity overthrown in the zeal of the moment, as this article suggests? Was Daisey so invested in doing with his text that he tossed the truth aside in order to make people feel for these mistreated workers? To care so much that they would do whatever it took to make it stop?

Shades of Brecht here, I think. Except Brecht, if memory serves, did not present his works as “truth,” as an accurate representation of any one person’s lived experience. Of what one person had seen or done.

So it makes me wonder, this strange little controversy, this eruption between truth, theater, and journalism. Can my ideals still hold in the face of it, this real-world example of the consequences of embracing what words do over what they mean?

To put a finer point on it: it’s not quite as simple, as straightforward as it feels in the classroom, in an academic text, within the boundaries of this blog, is it?

Words have consequences, both because of what they do and because of what they can mean.

So.

A lesson I need to take on for myself as a writer, I think. It seems. A timely reminder.

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