Mike Daisey’s TRUTH

Last night Culturebot went to see Mike Daisey’s Truth at Ars Nova. Now I’ve seen probably a gazillion solo shows and I’ve seen Mike perform countless times but I’ve got to say I was really taken with this show in particular. In some ways it is one of the most timely and relevant shows I’ve seen in quite awhile. We don’t discuss truth in our culture very often. We’ve kind of given up entirely – we don’t expect truth from our government or media, we’ve learned to accept ever higher levels of untruth in our personal interactions. We have come to think of truth as a quaint notion from an earlier, simpler time.

As usual, Daisey weaves several narrative threads together. He discusses the fungible nature of truth in the art of personal storytelling – how we change facts, places, locations, names to get to an “essence” of truth that will more dramatically convey our experience. He discusses being a visiting professor at a university and one of his student’s very real struggles to get to a difficult truth; he discusses untruths and deceptions that he’s had in his own life and he gives a very insightful dissection of the James Frey scandal.

I will not recount the entire thing here, but particularly gripping to me was his analysis of Frey’s appearance and public humiliation on Oprah, post-scandal. Daisey describes the virtual bloodlust of the audience and I think he’s on to something. For possibly the first time in recent memory here was a very public situation in which:

1. We had a liar.
2. We KNEW it was a lie.
3. He admitted it in public, on television.
4. We had an inquisitor (Oprah)
5. We could collectively pass judgment and hand down punishment.

Daisey articulates it more eloquently than I can but this notion is gripping. What an enormous event of cultural carthasis – to finally slake the thirst on the part of the general public to finally, at long last, actually be able to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar!! What an enormous release!

Any writer will accept that memoir is a slippery medium. And I don’t think that any artist would hold another artist accountable for a so-called “personal” story that is less-than-entirely true. We know that, ideally, art is the willful manipulation of raw life in the service of a larger truth – and by that standard Frey’s greatest crime is probably that of being a very bad writer.

But what about the underlying urge for truth in our culture, the feeling of being constantly lied to with no recourse, no-one to blame, no way to call out? What about the enormous sense of powerlessness that comes from the knowledge that we are constantly being deceived and can do nothing to stop it?

And while Daisey doesn’t specifically address the idea of lies in interpersonal relationships, it is implicit. We exist post-truth in an age of absolute relativity. It is almost too obvious and facile to say that we live in a media-saturated age where truth is manipulated by video, tv, film and the internet – that is generally acknowledged. But I think what is less acknowledged is the degree to which we are affected by our environment. We’ve all text-messaged people saying we were somewhere we weren’t. It is easy enough to call someone from a cell phone, to leave a voice mail or send an e-mail to create an alternate personal narrative that allows us to avoid responsibility or buy ourselves time or make excuses or just plain lie. But since we live beyond right and wrong, we accept it. After all, everybody does it so… how can it really be wrong? It is just a little lie.

We can all write a blog, a myspace page or create a fictional persona on YouTube to be someone we’re not. And there is nothing inherently wrong with playing around with identity online. It can be fun and give us a creative outlet or allow us to express ourselves in ways that we can’t in the “real” world.

But dealing with the constant distortion is disorienting. As we use personal media to manipulate reality the number of “little white lies” replicate exponentially, they can often move beyond our control. And we become equally complicit in the larger erosion of truth. The question arises: without truth, can we still hold people accountable for their actions?(discuss)

And the really frightening part that the erosion of “Truth” in the secular world has led to an equal and opposite reaction in the religious world where people are convinced they know (and own) the Absolute, One Truth. Religious fundamentalism – Muslim, Christian and Jewish alike – will continue to move into the “Truth Vaccum” that is left by the secular world’s withdrawal. And that is an unsettling dynamic. (this is pure hypothesis, feel free to discuss).

Anyway, that’s about as far as I can take this idea on my limited time and brainpower. What this means to art and creativity I can’t say. Maybe later.

But thanks, Mike Daisey, for tackling this topic and giving us all so much to think about.

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