But an arguably larger meta-controversy has broken out, partly via Scott Brown's review in New York, and via Jeremy Barker's review-of-the-reviews at Culturebot (he hasn't seen the show and in fact actively plans to not see it). The argument boils down to this, from Brown:
What Daisey doesn’t address, strangely, is the level of comfort with this situation all of us dead-eyed Apple acolytes have developed. He seems to assume no one he’s addressing has ever considered the dubious origins of the products they rely on or the vitrine sheen of injustice that coats just about every manufactured item priced within reach of the average mortal. And in doing so, he actually lets us — and himself — off the hook...Barker seconds Brown and goes further:
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.
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.There's a lot to unpack there, and I concede some of these specific points. I do think Daisey occasionally exaggerates for dramatic effect, if not in his harrowing Shenzhen reportage then in some of his claims about how ignorant and compliant the tech press has been, and by extension "we" must be. Brown and Barker are on to something with this idea that we're numb to injustice, but what they're rejecting, essentially, is that a piece of theater like Daisey's could really make us feel that injustice afresh—could re-sensitive our hardened or, more likely, willfully oblivious attitudes to the immiseration that props up our economy.
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 straw-man argument (that their audience is actually ignorant of some or another reality)...
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 out 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.
What I didn't make clear in my previous post on Terry Teachout's review (because I was too busy snarking about Terry's politics) is that he is admirably able to appreciate the theatrical value of Daisey's work apart from its op-ed agenda. This is a recurring divide in most reviews, as Barker also notes, but most critics come down on the plus side. I think Sam Thielman in Variety frames it best:
The anecdotes, statistics, and old-fashioned moral arguments the monologist puts forth in his latest show demand action. Taking such a firm stand, however, puts the burden of proof entirely on Daisey. If this is political theater, he'd better be able to show us some theater before he trots out his politics. And he does...Helmer Jean-Michele Gregory (Daisey's wife) helps create a bond between the performer and the audience that is absolutely essential to the show's emotional impact.The kicker there is the "emotional impact" line, and it's where my thinking goes with this theater-vs.-journalism/advocacy meta-controversy.
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.
And rather than refuting each of these assumptions with specific examples (Did seeing The Fever change my vote in the next election? No, but I think it's influenced my priorities over the long-term, and colored what I'll say to my son when he asks about privilege and poverty), I'd instead pose the question: What activity or practice does change people's attitudes and behavior? Reading journalism and/or non-fiction? Direct political action, or exposure to it? Following blogs or talk radio or cable TV chatter? Literal firsthand experience of all the world's political conditions and systems? And who in any of these realms is empowered to speak with unimpeachable authority? I'm willing to concede that journalists, pundits, activists, and stakeholders may indeed have more moral authority than a theatrical storyteller like Daisey. But to push this further, which of these moral authorities is likely to move opinion and action? I'm open to a case being made in favor of any of these, but I would humbly submit that theater shouldn't be cordoned off as something that doesn't count—that it can and does have a role, however small, in the ecology of social criticism and activism.
Now, there are definitely good-faith and bad-faith examples of this, and I can think of few things more deadly than an evening of shitty political theater (I've seen plenty that brings out my own inner Teachout). I happen to find Daisey on the good-faith side of the ledger, but it's fair to criticize his work as bad journalism, bad theater, or even as a bad journo-theater. But to assail him simply for attempting to fuse the two—to attack The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for being what it is, a hybrid of theater and journalism, as if giving this material a shape and an emotional arc (Barker's "false reassurance of theatrical catharsis") somehow debases it or makes it "glib"—is what I find suspect.