Teaching admin on 17 Mar 2012 12:38 pm
This American Life, my favorite radio show, has issued a retraction. (Read a quick report here.) What I like about this is that the retraction itself makes for a great show. I’m being a trifle pedantic, but truth-telling is a performance. This show is an exercise in revealing the truth, sure, but it is also a staging of the truth. There is drama there, and great artistic skill.
So, Mike Daisey is revealed to be a liar and also somewhat of a coward. As one of his critics put it, perhaps the practice of lying could make a great subject for a one-man performance. I guess I’m saying that the final act of the TAL show “Retraction” could perhaps have been devoted to precisely that question. In such a performance, it would be a little more difficult to pin villainy on only one person. Like the question of one’s participation in the business of propping up unfair labor practices in China, what is the truth and what is outright falsehood can, beyond an easily assignable point, become a more difficult thing. I should mention that I first heard of this via a tweet by Philip Gourevitch, and my first thought was that Gourevitch’s own work with Errol Morris on the Abu Ghraib affair was to complicate the truth rather putting it on a pedestal with a gold medal around its neck.
Of great interest to me is the detail that this debate shares some aspects of the recent controversy over the publication of John D’Agata’s new book, The Lifespan of a Fact. But aren’t there any differences between them? Are the elisions of the same order?
I’d wish for a greater awareness on Daisey’s part of the fact that he was staging the truth, and, more than that, I’d have liked him to have shared this fact with his audience. That sense of self-reflexive awareness is one definition of art and what distinguishes it from mere experience. This awareness, I’d argue, is present in D’Agata’s performative writing. I had liked Jen McDonald’s NYTBR review of D’Agata’s new book, but I’m sure a part of my appreciation for the piece was my desire to see the review as a fine critical performance.
Last night, I sent a message to a former student of mine whose admirable nonfiction thesis, written under my supervision, had won the best essay award here at Vassar. With his permission I’m pasting our midnight exchange–our own small attempt at recreating the dialogue between D’Agata and Fingal:
AK: here’s a tweet that i wanted you to see
see, to me, ira glass is kind of a coward.
you are so hard-core.
but it is more of an intellectual cowardice.
that said, the daisey fellow doesn’t come across as one with very serious intent or artistic ambition. he _is_ a liar, d’agata is not.
yeah, i see what you mean. the funny thing is my parents went to see daisey’s show in new york and were blown away by it, moved, entertained, inspired. and i don’t think that the validity of that goes away. and the cowardice lies in running something that’s explicitly performance, sort of figuring out what you’re getting into, and then getting attention from attacking the guy, assuring publicly that YOU do not stand by this. In general, when people start talking confidently about their truthfulness and ethics, as though those things are constant, i get suspicious.
but you know, both you and i have a great deal of investment in producing writing where we express our own fuckedupness. it is a more truthful or at least a more modest exercise, sure. but i’m also a bit leery for what I see my own propensity to valorize writing that takes a certain pleasure in showing all its faults. we don’t want to be the drunk at a party greeting everyone by saying sorry about how drunk he is.
ha, yeah, you’re completely right. i am, almost always, drunk by the front door. but still, that’s what I want to be taken as. I want my writing to be taken as perhaps enlightening but ultimately fucked up. and i think there’s a reason why those are the ones people remember (didion, hunter s. thompson, david foster wallace, michael herr.)
good, good, but i don’t know whether i want you to be, to use your own word, so “confident about your truthfulness,” even if the confidence is only about truthfulness-through-lack-of-authoritative-truthfulness.
you’re right abt the suspicion about the forceful invocation of ethics. people who do that are caught the next day masturbating in public.
trust me, i am very unconfident about my truthfulness.
thus contented, i trudge off to sleep.
always a pleasure, sir.