Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”: The Follow-Up

Last week, I wrote a sort of “review of the reviews” about Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater, and offered some thoughts of my own about Daisey’s work. However, I hadn’t actually seen the show, and in the interests of fairness, I went this Sunday to catch the matinee performance. Here are some further thoughts.

First, I have to make clear: most of the reviews tended to split the difference between Daisey’s performance (which they found amazing) and the content of the piece (which they found problematic). I seconded that based on my prior experience of his work, but honestly, I didn’t go far enough. Daisey is a remarkably charismatic performer. Whatever else, there are worse ways to spend two hours and $85 a ticket than in his company. He’s energetic, perceptive, and carefully wanders through multiple layers of performance, deftly handling subtle shifts between narrating in a sort of heightened, literary voicing, to impersonations and imitations, to his no-nonsense, telling-it-like-it-is persona. Funny, compassionate, heartfelt, and moving, there’s a reason he’s won so many plaudits.

Second, there’s an interesting problem any critic faces with Daisey: his monologues are based not on a set text but rather notes and a general outline, with him sort of improvising what’s actually said show to show. Which makes reviewing him a matter of shooting at a moving target, because he can, night to night, internalize and respond to his critiques. In Seattle, a critic accused him of grossly exaggerating the lack of media coverage of worker abuses in Shenzhen, China; at the Public, he acknowledges prior coverage but offers a more detailed critique of the news cycle and the Chinese government’s ability to turn off the tap of information, affecting the entire global system of dissemination. Critics who’ve suggested that his show minimizes what audiences could actually know about such abuses going in have prompted him (I suppose; this is the first time I’ve seen it) to attempt to deal with this fact. He says towards the end, of the worker abuses that produce our gadgets, that “We all know this already,” and talking about our general ability to nevertheless ignore it.

Mind you, I hardly think this ever-evolving approach to his show is a weakness or a dodge. Rather, it’s a strength: here’s an artist who can change and evolve and respond to the larger discourse about his work and furthermore, the things he’s talking about in the work. That’s a great thing for an artist to be able to do, because the work itself becomes a part of–rather than the subject of–a larger conversation.

Still, I left the theater largely feeling my initial point was right. To recap the show, within the performance, Daisey counterpoints two narratives: one is the story of Steve Jobs and Apple, which should be familiar to most people in the wake of his recent death and numerous obituaries. The other is the story of Daisey’s own love of and engagement with Apple’s products, his infatuation and ultimate disappointment in Steve Jobs, and Daisey’s own semi-journalistic inquiries into the manufacture of Apple products, which–along with most (just over 50 percent) other American consumer electronics–are produced in large factories in Shenzhen, China with a long history of severe worker abuses, which he went to investigate first-hand.

The story is much more tech geek than most theater critics seem to have noted. The main transformation Daisey tracks over Jobs’s career is from the initial open-source hacker ethos (he and Steve Wozniak began in 70s by building boxes to hack the long distance phone system) to the “closed” environment of contemporary Apple products. As such, he situates the narrative within the larger intellectual debate about technology, over open platforms and closed ones, and views Jobs’s reversal over the course of his career as a capitulation of his values, which dovetails with his willingness to exploit workers in abusive conditions.

I could point out that there’s a very tenuous relationship between these sorts of values, though. At no point does Daisey actually suggest that young Steve Jobs cared about workers rights or larger issues of social justice. The young techno-utopian turned ruthless closed-system businessman is one story; the abuse of human beings for profitable convenience is another, and despite strenuous efforts, they remain separate except for the broader personal disappointment Daisey expresses in Jobs. Which is unfair. Jobs may be guilty of many faults, but surely we can’t blame him for not living up to Daisey’s (or anyone else’s) false image of him.

But my bigger issue with the piece actually is also reflected in this story of techno-utopianism. Recounting his own embrace of technology (which he claims is his only hobby, in fact), Daisey tells the story of how in college in the Eighties, he did campus security on the night shift as work study, so he could play on the computer. It was during this time he first used the nascent Internet, where he would communicate via bulletin boards with like-minded people around the world, with whom he’d discuss the coming web revolution and the power of disintermediated, free-flowing information to transform the world.

He wryly jokes, “Yeah, we were very young.”

But the big, unanswered question in the piece is, how is the mission of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs any different? Or at least, why would it work this time?

Again, Daisey acknowledges that his audiences probably do–or should, and definitely could–know about the abuses at places like Shenzhen before coming to the theater. But he proposes that his truth-telling piece will become like a “mind-virus,” infecting us with a desire to change this system. But why is his piece supposed to work, to change hearts and minds, if others forms of news and communication haven’t? Isn’t he guilty of the same naïveté now as then?

In the end, I think people involved in the theater fall into two categories over this issue. There are those who, like me, essentially see this as “preaching to the choir,” or even offering audiences a false sense of accomplishment, by virtue of giving them an emotional investment in thinking about something that they likely will not do anything (or very little) about. Others heartily disagree. Rob Weinert-Kendt over at the Wicked Stage offered the following thoughts:

There’s an assumption on the part of Barker and Brown that the transaction involved in seeing a piece of politically engaged theater is something like: Liberal audience feels good about itself for seeing a show about its own complicity in the misery of the world’s less fortunate, then immediately walks out of the theater, calls cabs, and checks their iPhones. It’s a variation of the piety-ends-at-the-church-door critique, which, being a churchgoer myself, I’m familiar with from both sides. I would question this assumption on two interrelated levels: 1. That theater does nothing to change attitudes or behavior outside its walls, that it’s all literally nothing more than after-dinner entertainment for rich people, and 2. That the activity of watching a politically engaged piece of theater has zero ameliorative value in itself.

I appreciate the point, but I think Rob’s going too far in his interpretation of what I’m saying. I’m not against politically engaged theater. Not at all. But going in, I always want to ask, “Why? Why make this piece? What is it supposed to accomplish?” In Daisey’s case, I think there really is a desire to reconnect us to our means of production, to use an old Marxist configuration. He outright says he wants us to see the blood seeping out of the keyboard of our MacBook when next we boot it up. Okay. Fine. But what is his piece supposed to do about that, besides make us feel bad about it?

His hope, I’d guess, is that this will compel us to do something. Talk about it with others, write letters to Apple (he provides contact info), or even agitate for political change. But I’m skeptical that consumer action against a company can really change things. Call me an unrepentant liberal, but when I look at the world, I generally assume there’s a reason it is the way it is, and if we don’t want it to be that way, we should actually expect things like laws to be in place to prevent the things we don’t like, feel are excessive, damaging, or wrong. You don’t write letters of complaint to meatpackers to make their conditions better. It didn’t work in Upton Sinclair’s day and it doesn’t work today.

It’s easy for me to deride work that produces this emotional response function as a theater of good intentions (as Mac Wellman once called it), choir-preaching, or offering a false emotional catharsis (false because you get the emotional payoff when nothing has changed). But I don’t want to go that far because Rob and others are right that there is a value in emotional engagement–rather than purely intellectual engagement–with the world, and for the theater to be a vehicle for asking people to examine their greater emotional, social, and political realities.

Still, there’s a reason Brecht was skeptical of emotional theater, of sentiment as a means to social change. That skepticism informed his entire notion of theater and performance, which sought to deny its audiences a sense of closure or catharsis in order to expose the issues with which he was concerned for what they were: open, bleeding wounds in humanity which demand action to heal. Emotion subsides, sentiment demands closure. The very idea of catharsis seems to run counter to the idea of leaving the theater demanding change. This isn’t new stuff, it’s very, very old. I’m not denying this work a place and application (as many people seem to assume I am), I’m just saying that depending on the story, the goal, the artistic enterprise, it’s worth considering whether simply making people feel guilty enough to write a letter is a particularly meaningful thing.

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