The Controversy Over Mike Daisey’s “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”

Having Steve Jobs die right before the opening of Mike Daisey’s The Ecstasy and Agony of Steve Jobs at the Public is surely both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because, well, it makes for great PR (provided you abide by the old axiom that all press is good press). Curse because the outpouring of hagiographical love for Apple’s remarkable co-founder threatens to swamp Daisey’s message–about the dark side of manufacturing our technological goodies–with rosy-eyed remembrances of a guy who ultimately achieved the sort of personality cult he famously mocked.

But even beyond the issue of Jobs’ death right before the show opened, this piece has been notably controversial in Daisey’s oeuvre as it’s played around the country, and that controversy has only been exacerbated by the attention the show is getting. Now, full disclosure: I haven’t seen it and probably won’t get a chance to (I’ve avoided it a couple times elsewhere around the country at this point), so this isn’t a review but rather an overview of the show’s press. (I have seen others of Daisey’s monologues, though.) Also, just for the record, it’s probably worth recalling that Daisey was actually a Culturebot contributor back in our early days.

First of all, I’m have to say that in my experience, Daisey is a much better performer than he is a thinker. Or perhaps it’s just that the intellectual component of his monologue-stories is always hijacked by his political bent. Daisey may bill himself as a story-teller, but the truth is his monologues are more like activist opinion pieces. Anyway, this dichotomy–between the performer and his content–is present is almost every review of the piece in New York, which fall decidedly in the “rave” category even as they pick apart what he actually says.

In the Journal, Terry Teachout, after calling Daisey “an awesomely gifted stage performer,” goes on to note:

Mr. Daisey, though his political perspective is well to the left of center, is no kind of ideological wind-up toy. Indeed, it’s downright startling to hear him call China “a fascist country run by thugs,” or speak of the “useful idiots” of the tech press who look the other way at the horrors of life in Shenzhen, which Mr. Daisey pungently describes as “a Stalinist wet dream.” You can’t get much more politically incorrect than that, at least not Off Broadway.

The trouble with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” as with all theatrical journalism, is that Mr. Daisey is in essence asking us to take his word for it. He hasn’t brought back pictures or named names, and the artful anger with which he tells his tale inevitably makes it still more suspect. You don’t have to be a puritan to prefer that facts be served straight up. Still, Mr. Daisey deserves much credit for telling his audience things it almost certainly doesn’t want to hear, and for doing it with such attention-commanding flair.

Rob Weinert-Kendt at the Wicked Stage takes Teachout to task for it:

Really? To put it mildly, I think Terry has a rather caricatured, Cold War-era view of those to his left (which includes most of his critical peers, from whom we will await in vain, I think, howls of Sinophilic umbrage). Not to mention that while Teachout is content to relish Daisey’s opinionating about China, he’s less inclined to accept the playwright’s firsthand reports of conditions in Shenzhen…

Still, Teachout isn’t the only critic to take issue with Daisey’s activist journalism, nor is it limited to conservatives. When the show played Seattle, The Stranger‘s Brendan Kiley–a decidedly liberal-left writer–outright accused Daisey of lying vis-a-vis his exaggerated claims of a lack of media coverage of working conditions in China:

Except that he’s not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It’s been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there’s journalism about Shenzhen after all.

About the only New York critic to take Daisey at face value is the Times‘ Charles Isherwood, who penned a frankly embarrassingly gushing (and naive) review. Speaking of his iPhone the morning after the show:

…As I look at mine this morning, I can’t help feeling a bit guilty, and a bit betrayed. I fear some of the magic has gone out of our relationship.

This seismic shift in my consciousness came about thanks to Mike Daisey, whose latest theatrical monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” is a mind-clouding, eye-opening exploration of the moral choices we unknowingly or unthinkingly make when we purchase nifty little gadgets like the iPhone and the iPad and the PowerBook.

For my money, though, the most thoughtful review comes from New York magazine’s Scott Brown, who offers the harshest and most thoughtful take-down at the end of his review:

How disappointing. For a good stretch of his highly engrossing show, Daisey’s on track to leave us with a truly distressing idea: that we’ve adjusted to injustice. That, in a world of metastatic injustice, we’ve simply chosen the best-designed injustice out there, the commodity whose brand feels most consistent with how we’d like to see ourselves. That everyone in this theater, including Daisey, will exit the room and immediately fire up a product assembled by hand, by another human being, possibly a very young human being, who’s likely in a state of profound mental and physical distress, thanks to barbarically intense work shifts. Instead, we’re treated to yet another one-button solution: You’ve seen my show, so feel good about yourself.

Now, not having seen it myself, my own response is mainly speculative, though I will point out it’s informed by Daisey’s own manifesto performance How Theater Failed America. The point is that reading the descriptions and responses, I think Daisey has fallen victim (as he has before) to the artist’s fallacy I most loathe: That the artist, by virtue of being an artist, has a privileged position that allows him or her to speak on behalf of others, to give voice to the voiceless and by doing so, enlighten a benighted audience.

Sometimes, of course, this is in fact what art does. But it’s rare. More often than not, art like this serves to place the artist in the wrong role (artists are artists, not journalists or truth-tellers) which they fail at, by setting up a straw-man argument (that their audience is actually ignorant of some or another reality).  Alone among the critics, Isherwood admits to being completely ignorant of abuses in Chinese manufacturing before seeing the show (though his review goes on to reference his own paper’s often extensive coverage of these abuses). More likely, I suspect Isherwood is himself exaggerating, much as I suspect Brown’s right in accusing Daisey of the same. The story Daisey recounts of how he became fascinated with the factory workers (the widely reported stories of people getting new iPhones with test photos still on them) is just a little too cute. Daisey is anything but ignorant, and while I’m ready to believe he was intrigued by the story, I can’t believe that a committed liberal like him would be ignorant of worker abuse in China.

Instead, I think he think he readily bends the facts the serve his purposes as a storyteller. Unfortunately, the piece seems fascinated in completely the wrong story. I’m certain there are many Americans who are completely ignorant of what goes on in off-shored Chinese manufacturing. I doubt they’re the sort who buy tickets to plays at the Public, though. As commendable as Daisey’s attempt to reconnect us with our means of production is, to see “blood seeping through the keys of our Macbook” when we boot it up, the reality is, people largely already know this. As Brown essentially argues, the far more interesting story is the pernicious ability we’ve developed to live with the cognitive dissonance of loving things we know are abusively produced. And it’s not even just technology; we do it every time we eat. That is a story that needs to be tackled, and it’s a shame Daisey instead chooses to preach to a choir, and offer them the false reassurance of theatrical catharsis rather than challenge the audience’s assumptions.

Now I fully admit, I might be wrong. I haven’t the seen the show and probably won’t. I’ve seen Daisey’s work and suspect I know what I’m in for, and have spent far too many hours in the theater watching toothless political work to run out and see every show just because it’s getting a lot of attention. But readers who have seen it, I highly encourage to leave their own thoughts, either in comments or by emailing me at jeremy (at) culturebot.org.

On a closing note: I was particularly irked by Teachout–who I do respect–repeating the vapid criticism of Occupy Wall Street protesters as hypocrites for having iPhones. Anyone who wants to put people who repeat this self-evidently dumb in their place are encouraged to check out New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait’s “Steve Jobs, Occupy Wall Street, and the Capitalist Ideal.” I like Chait a lot, despite being a ways to the left of his decidedly moderate liberal perspective, and in this piece he tears this argument to shreds while maintaining a very skeptical view of OWS. Well worth the read whether you entirely agree with him or not.

Update: A friend and fellow critic has politely chastised me for writing so much about a show I haven’t seen (via Facebook). It’s a valid criticism and one I was aware of writing this and opened myself up to. First of all, I hope it’s understood that this is not a review or informed criticism on my part of the show in question. I’ve linked to a variety of reviews of the piece and am speaking from my own perspective based on seeing prior works like The Last Cargo Cult and How Theater Failed America, the latter of which I didn’t have much truck with at all. All I can say in this context is that I’m trying to be forthright about some things that are rarely aired. Criticism has conventions–for instance, it’s almost never acceptable to say something bad about a show you haven’t seen, though it’s fine to recommend a show you haven’t seen. The fact that the information you based it on in either case is the same has no bearing on the convention; of course, either way, the writer could be very wrong. Furthermore, the process of talking about what one chooses not to see and review is rarely shared, even though it’s the elephant in the room. In this case, I’m also trying to explain why I’ve chosen not to review this show in the past nor am seeing it now. It’s not because I dislike Mike Daisey or think he’s a bad artist, I just have a lot of reservations about the work for reasons I’ve written about previously. See the following, including comments:

Update 2: I’ve had  a slight change of heart this morning. One of the things I’ve always preached is that people need to be more willing to give the performing arts a chance–if they did, many more people would discover that there’s work out there that’s meaningful to them and worth engaging with. So I think I have to practice what I preach and give Daisey the chance to prove me wrong, so I just bought a ticket to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs this weekend.

4 thoughts on “The Controversy Over Mike Daisey’s “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs””

  1. La NaNouk says:

    Viva Spalding!

  2. Eva Yaa Asantewaa says:

    Aside from the fact that, as you detail, some media outlets have been following the Shenzhen story for a long time now, it seems a bit late in the day for anyone to now suddenly get squeamish about how we benefit from the exploitation of oppressed people. We are all the longstanding and ongoing beneficiaries of an economy built on the displacement and slaughter of indigenous people; the capture and enslavement of Africans; the sweat, anxiety and humiliation of undocumented workers; and the oppression of people worldwide–particularly when their resource-rich countries are under the thumb of brutal, murderous dictators. So if you spend time with Mike Daisey and suddenly find yourself giving your iPhone the fish eye, you’re indulging yourself. Might as well look at everything else you use, wear and ingest. My question is: When you have the opportunity to stand up for industry regulation, for workers’ rights, for voting rights, for environmental justice and for all things that could actually help to resist the power of international corporations, will you do it? Or will you just buy a theater ticket and go home and wring your hands about what you’ve seen? I have zero sympathy for your discomfort.

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