Fiddling with the Believing Machine

I have had some trouble getting up the energy to be upset about the Mike Daisey problem otherwise known as #DaiseyGate.  This became obvious to me as I sat at lunch at one of my stops on the Counting New Beans tour with a bunch of mid-twenties junior staffers at major theatres and heard them rail against Daisey and his lying lies, voicing the betrayal they felt as staffers who are sometimes put in the position of lying to an audience, either knowingly or unknowingly, in the service of the art (or art maker).

I am, it seems, too cynical to believe that art ever really follows the capital-T Truth, and too pragmatic to relate terribly much to staffers at an arts organization who get upset that their marketing directors are directing them not to speak their minds while on the company clock.  Which is not to say that I condone what Daisey did.

But if anything, the feeling I feel most strongly around the Daisey stuff is sadness—sadness because I am in the position to know that the piece he wrought, and the (false) context that he set, instigated tremendous impacts on the audiences who saw it—impacts that are measurable, definable, and—finally—extremely fragile, probably diminished in this new light, probably unique to the particular, uncomfortable “more true than the truth” state Daisey was, it seems, trying to create.

This is a graph of the basic impact scores for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s presentations of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which we were fortunate enough to survey as part of Counting New Beans.  The graph is what’s called a radar chart—the best/easiest way to read it is to think of it as topography, with each of the vectors as a different place of elevation on a map.  In this case, I have highlighted one of the vectors in electric blue (the one labeled “Increased Resolve”).  This vector corresponds with the question, “To what extent did the performance spur you to take some action, or make a change?”  Think about that as an outcome of a show—after two hours of sitting with the art, are you planning on making some change in your life?  It’s a high test of impact (so high that only a couple other theatre companies chose to test it).

Daisey’s show scored highly on the question, an average of 3.5 out of 5.  In contrast, the other shows that asked that same question (the orange dots on the graph) scored at least a point lower on the indicator, in some cases as much as a point and a half lower.  Daisey’s show did something very special—it instigated a strong, activist reaction in its audience that seems (at least in the context of this data) very, very rare and powerful.

Where my sadness comes in is in the fact that I’m pretty sure all of these new revelations about the truth/facts/non-fiction of the show have, at least in some percentage of the audience who saw that show, dulled the memory of that activist impulse, blurred and diluted it with feelings of confusion or, worse, anger. So my effort this past week has been to try and think about why.  Why did TAESJ score so strongly, and why do I have a gut feeling that something has been damaged in the revelations that have followed?

I think that the key is in that somewhat clichéd concept of “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The term, first coined by the 19th century metaphysical poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was initially voiced as a request to the audience to allow themselves to be deceived in favor of what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”  The theory is that by taking up untrue things as temporarily true, by going on faith, one can actually get to a truer place in the end.  In Coleridge’s case, as in the cases of Spiderman and Elphaba, it is the taking up of impossible things as truth—metaphysical impossibilities standing in for concepts too complicated to be represented by something “real”—and giving them a brief moment of belief.  But I think, equally, that suspension of disbelief can be as much about mundane, more possible stories (like say a gregarious American traveling to the gates of Foxconn), with important consequences.

In a blog entry in his Psychology Today blog This is Your Brain on Culture (and subsequent paper and book), Dr. Norman Holland writes about the psychology of suspending disbelief in context with art, saying:

“For those moments when we are really into a poem, story, movie, play, or even a comic book, we simply don’t bother about likelihood and lifelikeness. We willingly suspend disbelief. We believe the fiction, at least for the moment.”

Holland argues that the suspension of disbelief that happens with the best art is counter-evolutionary (i.e. we should not really allow ourselves to knowingly believe lies, we should instead forcefully seek out truth in order to have a most accurate take on our surroundings, relationships, etc, in the service of evolutionary success), which is part of why it fascinates him so much. I don’t really agree. I think that art unlocks the brain in a way that allows us to disbelieve, and that that is the secret to a lot of humanity’s success.

Disbelief, of sorts, is the way into art, and art is the way into a lot of emotional and empathetic learning that centers around feeling and experiencing other points of view. When we, as Holland focuses on, “believe” that Spiderman can fly through the air on silk threads—or, better yet, when we believe, for a split second during a POV shot, that we are ourselves flying through the air—I don’t consider it counter-evolutionary, I consider it a higher form of evolution of the mind, the entertaining of another point of view. And in that moment, I think, we take hold of more knowledge about the world than we had before, and in some cases that knowledge encourages us to act differently.

Most art, I think, cannot hold onto us very long in that space of disbelief. It is a hard place to be, contingent on framing, audience noise, personal distraction, incorrect sensory inputs like smells, sounds, tastes that infiltrate the moment. One moment you truly believe Elphaba is flying in the center of the proscenium, and the next, somehow, somewhy, you don’t anymore. But my theory is that those moments of truly suspended disbelief allow us to give ourselves over, even for a moment, to the complete flow of the situation and be fully captivated, fully affected, fully open to the possibility, message and (to be crude) agenda of the art.  It’s those moments where you do believe that are important, because I think it is those moments that most strongly lodge in memory, and inform future action.

Belief is a powerful phenomenon.  Faith actually transforms the way your brain activates to different stimuli—it primes you to be hostile to alternate points of view, it couples with complex concepts around divisive issues to create justifications, it deeply embeds whole life mantras in your brain in a way that is extremely difficult to change.  When we choose to give ourselves over to belief (or, perhaps, when we are given over to belief), we are opening up to take into ourselves the truth of that moment.

In a talk at the Pew Forum’s Faith Angle conference in 2008, psychologist and neurobiologist Andrew Newberg defined belief “biologically and psychologically” as “any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true.”

Newberg goes on to say:

“The brain ultimately is a believing machine; it has to be. It’s trying to make some sense out of the world, and it puts together a perspective on our world, fills in a lot of gaps, doesn’t bother to let us know about it, and yet somehow we use that information to go through our lives as if we know what’s going on. So beliefs ultimately affect everything we do, they affect every part of our lives. And as we go through our lives, everything that happens, every person we talk to, affects the way we ultimately believe. So beliefs are the essence of our being.”

What Daisey was able to do, with a combination of good storytelling, some well-placed (not-strictly-true) admonitions to the audience that what they were seeing was “non-fiction,” and most importantly, the authoritative role of the trusted teller of truths, was to create a theatrical experience that allowed for large, sustained swaths of suspension of disbelief.  Indeed, by imploring his audience to accept the piece as non-fiction (by, to say it indelicately, lying about where he was and what he saw), by couching it in human terms of one man standing with one translator and talking to six people who had had bad things happen to them, Daisey was instigating a profound, deliberate belief in his audience members.  To put it simply, they thought it was true, and they were outraged.

What’s hard here, of course, is that in a way all of the important stuff—the stuff that people should have been outraged by—was actually true.  The factories do (sometimes, occasionally) hire underage workers.  They do work very, very long hours.  There have been cases of poisoning, of explosions, of suicides, of horrible conditions, repeat-motion injuries, union quashing.  But Daisey knew, or suspected, as James Frey and Truman Capote did before him, that a story of injustice only goes so far—and that a story of injustice told first-hand by someone who has witnessed it goes much farther.

In a way, I can’t fault Daisey, ultimately, much as what I think he did was unfortunate and has negatively touched a lot of people.  Because I know, as I’m sure we all do, about the cloying, incessant call of that cleaner-than-fact story, that version of events that distills out the clouding of extraneous facts, inconvenient but not necessarily consequential.  Not necessarily consequential, that is, until you leave them out and get caught.

We are being given a fascinating opportunity to go back and survey the audiences of Daisey’s return engagement at Woolly to understand whether my fears are founded.  Will an audience who understands the fundamental un-truth of Daisey’s journey be able to still find the rage inside them to gain increased resolve to make a change?  I don’t know, but I’m certainly interested to understand.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. MWnyc says

    Clayton, this is a good and thoughtful post, and I’m grateful, as a reader and a thinking person, that you took the time to write it.

    But I think you’re badly glossing over the fundamental difference between fictional and non-fictional art. Are you really saying that people’s objections to Mike Daisey’s lies aren’t important, or, at least, not relevant to art?

    The expectations audiences have of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs are simply different from the ones they have of Spider-Man or Wicked. Audiences suspend their disbelief of the impossible things they see Spider-Man or Elphaba do precisely because they know that the stories they’re watching are fantastical, made-up stories. Those shows aren’t meant to convince viewers to change their thoughts about particular issues in the real world, and everyone involved knows it.

    On the other hand, changing viewers’ thoughts about particular issues in the real world is the entire point of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. That’s why Daisey included those “well-placed (not-strictly-true) admonitions to the audience that what they were seeing was ‘non-fiction’.” He wasn’t asking us to suspend disbelief; he was asking us to actually believe.

    So much for Daisey’s “authoritative role of the trusted teller of truths.”

    Clayton, let me pose a question to you and to my fellow readers – a question which I really hope people will answer. Suppose that Anna Deavere Smith, in one of her interview-based pieces, included in a scene a few sentences that her interview subject didn’t actually say. Or suppose that she included a brief scene where she portrayed someone she hadn’t actually interviewed. If and when Anna’s additions were discovered. would you have the same response – in effect, that it’s all okay in the name of suspension of disbelief, art, and truth in the higher sense – that you have to Daisey’s untruths?

  2. MWnyc says

    PS – Here’s a big part of why I’m angry and frustrated about Mike Daisey’s untruths: I think they were unnecessary. He is a skilled performer and a skilled writer/assembler of monologues; surely he could have found a way to include the issues and incidents in question without falsely claiming that he witnessed them himself. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would have had basically the same impact, but the piece wouldn’t be tainted by dishonesty and bad faith, and Daisey’s career wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

  3. says

    Clayton, thank you for posting this. The radar chart is fascinating. I’ll be interested to see the results of your survey of the Woolly audience.

    Is Mike Daisey planning to change the show for this upcoming run? If so, how do you factor that into your analysis?