Overweening Generalist

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mike Daisey and the Lifespan of a Fact

Preliminary Bullshit
Dear Readers: Herein I shall attempt to report only the honest facts - as checked by me; hey, I don't get paid for this blogstuff - and discuss some Current Events and how they might relate to Philosophy. The "stories" I've read and will link to "are" true (I think?), and really, if I hadn't read and saw these items with my own eyes I would have had serious doubts...about...your existence. Or mine. Or the nature of veracity. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at what I've decided is the beginning.

I hope I'm being faithful to Marianne Moore when she hinted that poetry was an "imaginary garden with real toads" in it. Not sure if I should've put quotes around that...

But we're not talking about "poetry" here. (Or will we?) We're talking about fiction versus non-fiction, journalism and what we think it "really" oughtta be, documentary films, feature films about historical events, artistic license (who evah hoidda such a thing?), and who gets away with what. And maybe why and how, if the lunch bell doesn't ring, in which case all speech should cease while we dash off to fill our pie-holes, of paramount import.

I remember working in a library, shelving books under the Dewey Decimal System. Do such work for 25 hours a week and you're almost guaranteed to learn the System pretty quickly.

I quickly noticed all the books from 200 to 299 were about religion. Okay. But the Bible was in there, too. So: at some point They had a meeting and decided the Bible was "non-fiction"?

                                             Supposedly, this is Carlos Castaneda

Later I read a thick book by a skeptic, Richard DeMille, who had been adopted by Cecil B. DeMille, and was at one time linked to L. Ron Hubbard and John Wilkes Booth, but let us not let any guilt-by-association into this screed. I hate that type of rhetoric.

Richard made his intellectual career out of showing what a con artist Carlos Castaneda had been, and still was, while DeMille was writing his books. I had read Castaneda and thought his tales of interaction with the shaman Don Juan marvelous, almost too marvelous to be true. DeMille pretty much convinced me Castaneda made it all up. (Maybe?) It's a long story. I recommend checking out The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies.

But did this make everything in Castaneda "false"? This story, by its commodius vicus of recirculation, keeps coming back around. And I always enjoy it. I find much of value in Castaneda, even though I doubt he ever went into the desert at all. I don't believe Don Juan existed. I think Castaneda wrote his books in the UCLA library, liberally stealing from other books on shamanism, Taoism, zen, American Indian tales, books on psychedelic drugs, and ideas from a branch of sociology called Ethnomethodology, whose greatest practitioner, Harold Garfinkel, was one of Castaneda's faculty advisors at UCLA. But Castaneda's books - shelved also in the non-fiction section of most libraries - constitute something of fictional gardens with real toads in them. At least for me. Is "poetry" true?

Fact-Checking and Non-Fiction
Richard DeMille's book cited above, 500-plus pages, constitutes an extended fact-check on Castaneda, with plenty of contributions from expert witnesses, some friendly to Castaneda, most not. If DeMille's book does anything truly valuable, it's to add to the High Weirdness that has mounted around the history of Cultural Anthropology, particularly ethnographies.

All of which I find endlessly fascinating, but more recently and more domestically, a book called The Lifespan of a Fact has brought this whole issue of liminality around. Ostensibly the book is a back-and-forth between a writer of a non-fiction essay about a young man's suicide in Las Vegas, and the fact-checker of his "story." If you're not already all over this, pause now and read up on it HERE, HERE,  (an excerpt HERE), HERE, HERE, and if you're not sick of it already, HERE. I don't have the time to go over the minutiae.

My Derived Opinions About Facts as Discussed by Some Critics of the Book About Facts
I have only perused the book and not read it cover-to-cover. My preliminary opinion-feel is that D'Agata is a pretentious tool, and Fingal was just trying to do his job. I'm stunned by how D'Agata wants to abuse his literary license, choosing to defend such trivialities, such as defending 34 because it's rhythmically better than the true 31, etc, many more examples, etc.

I also assume most of the great non-fiction essays - especially the ones by the New Journalists and the so-called New-New Journalists, contain some inaccuracies, emanating from poetic license, or facts that couldn't be verified, or mistaken information the author found congenial to their aims.

It seems to me a matter of degree: might we possibly ask, how vital is this information? If one were to act on the (inaccurate?) information, could it significantly increase harm to someone? If it turns out there are alarming inaccuracies, does it impinge on our abilities to make good decisions in the "real world"? What does it mean to lie, even with poetic aims? This last one is my favorite, because it cuts into the philosophical terrain of "How do we know what we think we know?" and "How is knowledge constituted?" and "How can we tell if something is really true or not?" These un-toothsome queries being mere paraphrastic basic definitions from that wily branch of Philosophy, epistemology. (And in our case here, a sub-branch, "social epistemology.")

I do not find it fruitful to keep separate, via some derived rule, epistemology and ethics, or ethics and ontology, or epistemology and ontology, or...you get the point. My main model of the world as of late March, 2012 forbids such Kantian rationalistic fears of "contamination" or untidy blurring of lines we meme-reified/made up at some point in our neurohistory...

Why do we lie to our kids about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? At what point is this lying "unethical"? When are kids ready to be taught that, not long ago, six million people were exterminated because of their heritage? Or facts about the centuries-long Inquisition in Europe? It seems most Unistatians would rather stay closer to the Tooth Fairy when the history of their own land is framed like this: "America was built upon genocide and slavery." Is that last statement "false"?

Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" reigns supreme o'er the land. Senator Moynihan famously said something like "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts." It turns out his..."argument" is losing in Unistat, 2012. But then I'm biased, to some degree, because I have no Archimedean vantage point by which to tell "the" truth, such a Damned Thing exists. All this - this whole Overweening Generalist blog - is me trying, hoping, to get my opinions and ideas across. Not "the truth." But I will tell you what I think, as of that day. I'm always hoping to get closer to something like the truth and assume a vast ignorance within myself.

As for the reviews of The Lifespan of a Fact I linked to above, two passages resonated with me. See if they do with you too, or to what degree they do:

In Laura Miller's piece from Salon, she ends by noting how an implementation of a fact-checking habit in our own lives could be salutary, and writes:

To me, this seems far more likely to break a person open and destabilize his understanding of himself and the world than hopping on D'Agata's magic carpet ride of Art. The pity is that more nonwriters  aren't subjected to fact checking. It may not be fun, but it's good for you.

In the piece by New Yorker fact-checker Hannah Goldberg:

The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty - even if it's beauty in the name of "Truth" or a true "idea" - is preposterous. A good writer - with the help of a fact-checker or an editor, perhaps - should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to try is, simply, a hack. If I've learned anything at this job, it's that facts can be quite astonishing.

My favorite piece on this highfalutin' imbroglio was by Dan Kois at Slate, "Facts Are Stupid." Robert Anton Wilson fans should appreciate this one. Check his links! Note the notes at the end of the piece! This is a piece I wish I would've written...One can spend a lot of time analyzing this piece and its link to its own "inaccuracies," which themselves suggest further "inaccuracies"...Kois, I suspect, is Illuminati.

                                Orson needs to be in the middle of a discussion such as this.

More Philosophy-Lite Jibber-Jabber About <cough> Truth
How to square this with Jean-Luc Godard's bit about film being "lies at 24 frames per second," or Dorothy Allison's "Fiction is a piece of truth that turns lies to meaning," or "Art is a lie I use to tell the truth," usually attributed to Picasso. Oscar Wilde once queried, "Are the critics of Hamlet mad or only pretending to be so?"

I think the convention of presenting or framing a work as non-fiction puts an onus upon the writer to attempt to be factual to the utmost, all the while we must never forget who we are as humans, and that the Trickster gods are always at play in our Art, whether putatively "fiction" or not. Some of us will always be more possessed by the local Trickster gods and goddesses. This I take as basic fact.

Why Mike Daisey Should Go On As He's Been, and That Ira Glass Is a Tool
First: a gedankenexperiment: JFK really was killed, right? And Clifford Irving really did get caught hoaxing a prominent publishing house by asserting he had a hotline to Howard Hughes and a sure-fire Number One Bestseller. And some painters are such good forgers that some of their paintings have fooled Art "experts" and are hanging in some of the world's great museums, right? And Orson Welles really did scare the bejeezus out of very many people with his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, right? Okay now: watch Oliver Stone's feature film JFK, followed by Orson Welles's documentary F For Fake, then decide how much of each film was "really true." For extra credit, tell us why you think Stone and Welles made the decisions they did.

Okay: Mike Daisey. Does he present himself as a journalist? A hard-hitting reporter of "facts"? No, but he seemed to be crossing over into a new territory when he started talking about Apple and the working conditions in China where the Apple products are assembled. If you've had a "life" lately and don't know the story, HERE is an item. And HERE. If you're still into it, HERE. Mike Daisey's blog is HERE. NPR's This American Life Pulls the Apple story.

First off, Ira Glass and the other movers at NPR -  I like NPR and listen to This American Life and I really like the show - seem to me pretentious here. Their show is NOT journalism. There are readings of fiction pieces. They aim to entertain by having people at times answer off-the-cuff questions about personal aesthetics, there's a lot of literary goofiness about the show. Etcetera. And Mike Daisey? Has he earned the right to be a Mark Twain-ish storyteller? Or, as one critic said of Daisey: a cross between Noam Chomsky and Jack Black. (I think this comparison apt if overblown, risking the disappointment of hardcore Jack Black and ardent devotees of Noam Chomsky.) You're not allowed to do that?

(I'd like to see some guy come out as a cross between George Carlin and the Dalai Lama - now you Osho/Rajneesh fans: don't tell me He was it: the jokes weren't there, if ya knowwhattamean - but now I'm rambling...)

Did we forget Daisey's background? A little CONTEXT, please? Was Daisey contrite when NPR called him out? Can Mike Daisey speak for himself astonishingly well? Does he bring into question the ideas about artists pointing out injustices in a way that Just The Facts M'am journalists have not? Possibly because it's unpleasant to face those facts, when you're so goddamned in love with a company's gadgets? (I got a little carried away there, and I apologize, but I say the answer is YES to all the above.)

Now: I consider the form of the comedic monologue to a form of poetry, one of my favorite forms in fact. There is where I stand.

About six years ago, Daisey - Unsitat's most brilliant monologist, as good as Spaulding Gray was, in my opinion - did a talk-piece called Truth, if I remember correctly. Now, earlier today I checked You Tube and found and re-watched two four-minute "teasers" for that show, both hilarious, one on James Frey and one on J.T. LeRoy, but a few hours later, they've been removed from You Tube. Qui bono?, Mike Daisey? I think they bolster your cred! Anyway, I guess he has his reasons.

(There are five errors in the above piece, for which I apologize. - the OG)

Here's Daisey being interviewed in Cork, Ireland, in 2010. It's 4 minutes, 47 seconds.

6 minutes from a Daisey performance called "Invincible Summer":


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Another great blog. I almost added "JFK" to my Netflix queue in order to perform your homework assignment, but I really don't feel in the mood for it right now.

I liked Rajneesh's book _Books I Have Loved_. I don't think I read it all the way through, but I found it interesting that he started with Nietzsche.

michael said...

If anyone could do the JFK/F For Fake exercize from memory fo the films, in their head, without re-watching, it wd be you.

I think I should've emphasized that aspect of he Trickster, even Hermes/Mercury, and their role of blurring the culturally-defined and accepted lines. D'Agata proclaims he'll change trivial facts to make a better non-ficiton story; I think this is a very weak form of Tricksterism: keep the real facts in your story is good enough, but change something more profound, something that perhaps can't be fact-checked? If you're going to do something guerrilla ontologisty, go big or go home. Exercise your trickster muscles! How lame to insouciantly claim, "non-fiction has suffered because of the slavish devotion of facts, so I'll tweak all kinds of inconsequential items to make things run more smoothly and fuck you, fact-checker!; I'm inventing something new," to paraphrase D'Agata. He's after far too small fish. Go big, twit. If your story was good enough, it doesn't need to sub 34 for 31, etc, etc, etc.

The understanding one gets when they've seen/listened to a lot of Mike Daisey: who would then expect him to stick with totally verifiable "facts"? Daisey is no twit. He can go Big. Check him out, and enjoy the rides!

OTOH, the "news" media, framing their goal/mission as reporting "facts," to my mind has, largely, for 35 years at least, gotten worse and worse at showing trvial "facts" as "news." Larry Beinhart, who wrote a wonderful thriller novel called The Librarian, invented a term: Fog Facts: these are really important bits of fact that get lost in the welter of trivial show biz/punditry Noise Machines.

They're there to find, these Fog Facts. But you have to do the work.

In a given week, almost everyone will find out Jessica Simpson has a "baby bump," while missing the fact that some foreign country declared that if a Bush admin official lands in their country, they'll be arrested under Nuremberg laws, or something like that.

I didn't get to Fog Facts vis a vis "fact-checking," or the Trickster's role and how many of us are sorta naive to buy the hardcore reified idea that all things can "really" be sorted into "fiction" or "non-fiction."

The piece was too long as it was, as (almost?) always.

Thanks for the comments!

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I find it interesting that many bright people I know think Lee Harvey Oswald acted along. Some of these folks used to think otherwise, but they have moved towards the long gunman theory.

I have read little about the Kennedy hit in recent years, just as I have read little about El Mir. If I watched the films again, I would likely match them up against my memories of watching them over and over again rather than against the relatively little reading of "non-fiction" I have about these subjects. (Perhaps reading Proust has started to mess with my head. I've reached page 950, and I hope to finish by July 4, 2012. Then I want to read The Ice Trilogy by Vladamir Solokin before beginning to prepare for the fall semester and, hopefully, a class at Maybe Logic on Schroedinger's Cat starting in August.)

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Anyone else want to do Dr. Johnson's experiment of watching "JFK" and "F for Fake"? I will if you will.