Mike Daisy’s emotionally powerful monologue about the conditions of life in China for workers at the giant industrial plant where Apple products are manufactured has generated a lot of controversy for National Public Radio, This American Life and New York’s Public Theater, where he launched his project. But who has considered the role of the reader/viewer/listener in all this?
Mike Daisey emphasized that his show “is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge.” It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and fiction to tell its story. But when NPR’s Ira Glass discovered the inaccuracies and fabrications in the work, he issued a powerful retraction.
Journalists have been having a field day with Mike Daisey, equating him with Rush Limbaugh and FOX News. Some see him as an inept propagandist, telling fantastic and highly distorted tales that map onto people’s existing worldviews about the human cost of high-tech capitalism.
The New York Times has exercised its thought leadership on this issue with a predictable and solidly heavy hand. David Carr’s piece makes a flat assertion that it’s never OK to lie in pursuit of the truth. Similarly, Charles Isherwood claims that “nonfiction should mean just that: facts and nothing but the facts,” arguing that “theater that aims to shape public opinion by exposing the world’s inequities has no less an obligation than journalism to construct its larger truths only from an accumulation of smaller ones.”
Other journalists offer a more nuanced perspective. In “The Price of Deceit,” Rachel Manteuffel of the Washington Post acknowledges her identity as a journalist-storyteller. She reveals her own strategic use of rhetorical devices in shaping readers’ interpretation of Daisey’s personality and character. For example, when she describes his tendency to spit a little bit during a monologue performance, she uses detail selectively to promote a specific emotional response from the reader. She comforts readers by noting that the information she chooses to emphasize (selective and emotionally loaded as it is) is accurate.
No doubt about it: Artists and journalists are different kinds of truth-tellers and storytellers and always have been.
Here’s my problem with the whole affair: The critique of Mike Daisey offered up by journalists reflects a fundamental belief that meaning, authenticity and truth are solely located in the text. Based on this, it’s easy to play the blame game by setting up rigid hierarchies of truth. But Umberto Eco’s adventures in semiotics have helped us recognize that meaning is in people and contexts, not only in texts. One of the key concepts of media literacy is the idea that people interpret messages differently. It is at the interaction between reader, text and cultural context where meaning is actually created.
All works of human creativity – in both the genres of art and journalism– are ‘open’ and ‘unstable,’ susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. As readers/viewers/listeners, we are the critical agents in the meaning-making process.
David Shields explores these issues in his lyrical and highly engaging book, Reality Hunger. All the distinctions between the original and the plagiarized, the scripted and the unscripted, the fictional and the nonfictional are evaporating. Why? Humans need novelty and complexity to pay attention, and too often, standardized, familiar genres (like traditional journalism) can deaden our senses. The representation of reality needs constant renewal.
Through their work, authors seek to wake up audiences. Shields writes, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. Art exists that we may recover the sensation of life.” Mark Nash describes artists as “double agents crossing back and forth between art and society.” And in doing this, documentary filmmakers have revealed a fundamental paradox that is true of all symbolic forms: to represent reality, you sometimes have to fake it.
In media literacy, we recognize this by emphasizing the exploration of the complex relationship between authors and audiences, messages and meanings, and representations and realities. The very soul of the rhetorical act is built on the magical relationship between authors (filmmakers, bloggers, visual artists, and journalists) who use symbols in imaginative ways to express meanings about lived experience and audiences (readers, viewers and listeners) who make interpretations.
Anthony Wing Kosner, in his fine Forbes blog post about the “almost true,” points this out: “Perhaps the almost true is potent precisely because the audience has to bridge the gap of truth and in so doing become complicit in its viral spreading. The almost true needs us in a way that the actual truth does not. This is an established principle of theatre, of art, that the audience completes the illusion—makes it more real than real.”
In a profound sense, we make our own reality by the interpretations we make of our immediate experience plus the vast array of media messages that surround us. It’s why I care more about addressing the receivers of propaganda more than berating the propagandists. As Alfredo Cramerotti explains, “To ground the idea of ‘reality’ in its reception rather than its representation is one way to retain the ability to build our own ‘truth claim’ for what is represented, instead of the material making such claims for itself.”
More than anything, I want viewers and listeners of Mike Daisey’s monologue to have the receptive, critical and interpretive skills to recognize the big ideas at the heart of a work and the competence, tenacity and drive to identify and interrogate the aesthetic and rhetorical techniques used to construct it. Ultimately, like Robert Scholes has put it, I want people to be both sympathetic and critical readers. All forms of creative expression in any medium are ultimately rooted in the essai, an attempt at understanding. Writers and readers are equally responsible here. Playing the blame game by setting up hierarchies of truth obscures this fundamental and very human process.