21st Century Capitalism on stage at the Public Theater

Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go”, both recently staged by The Public Theater in New York City are two theatrical examinations of different aspects of the current economic crisis. Whereas Daisey’s dramatized monologue cashes in on the supposed paradox that the elegantly rational and revolutionary technological commodities Apple produces are conceived by the psychopathic and megalomaniac Steve Jobs and fabricated in utterly inhumane conditions in the Foxconn factory in China, Ethan Lipton’s song-cycle wryly narrates the experience of a playwright and song-writer working an office job (“permanent part-time”) whose employer has decided to relocate the company to Mars in order to preserve profit margins. Both shows admirably confront the importance work and money have in our lives (perhaps a neglected topic in the recent theatrical imagination) but with entirely different dramaturgical techniques which can help inform us of what politically engaged art can achieve.

By now the “scandal” that Mike Daisey fabricated several specific elements of his narration concerning factory workers he met while on a research trip in China has almost overshadowed the brief, but exciting moment when conditions of labor in Chinese factories suddenly broke through the mainstream media’s bias against labor reporting. It all started when This American Life aired a version of Daisey’s monologue on January 6th,  boosting Daisey’s audience from the several thousand who had attended his play to a radio and internet audience of millions of listeners. The New York Times responded to this surge in popular awareness on January 25th with a front page story of investigative journalism into the conditions of the factories Apple utilizes in China. For several months Apple was put on the defensive and even let ABC’s Nightline bring cameras into the Foxconn factories to document the conditions there. That episode aired on February 20th. Spurred on probably entirely by the captivating narrative of Daisey’s monologue, that taboo topic of contemporary American capitalism (the conditions of laborers who create our commodities) for a few months became an “acceptable” topic of polite conversation. This brief moment was cut short, however, on March 16th when after deciding to fact check Mike Daisey’s version of his events, This American Life retracted its January 6th show in an hour-long episode . The amount of pixels that have now been typed out and viewed on iPads an iPhones concerning this controversy of fact-vs-fiction has changed the media narrative away from the sins of capitalism (or whatever it is they’re calling it in China) to the sins of narcissistic artists who pass off their invented stories as non-fiction in order to wow their audience into amazement.

Of course the inevitable whines of “I was deceived!” have been tempered with many sensible ripostes along the lines of: Yes, Daisey may have ridiculously invented an encounter with a worker whose hand was crippled in a Foxconn factory accident and to whom Daisey shows his iPad (an object the Chinese man conveniently sees illuminated here for the very first time)–only to watch the poor man drag his palsied finger over the touch-screen and utter: “It’s a kind of magic…”– Yes, he may have invented this poetic encounter (and insisted the program contain the words: “this is a work of non-fiction”), but didn’t the suicides at the Foxconn plant and the NYTimes’ own investigative research prove that there is a serious problem here that goes deeper than Mike Daisey’s relationship with the truth? Daisey’s response is here and he is understandably in agony that his accelerating crusade against horrible labor practices has been derailed. The problem, it seems, is that it’s now all about him…

The mire of the debate between fact-vs-fiction, however, can mostly be side-stepped by analyzing Daisey’s dramaturgical technique. Mimicking Spalding Grey’s minimalist aesthetic, but jettisoning Grey’s wry, understated tone for an hysterical delivery that contrasts slow, tortured whispers with face-reddening screams of incredulity, Daisey’s method is inquisitorial. A sense of doom pervades the room and Daisey will submit the shiny, white, seemingly innocent pieces of plastic and glass Apple produces to a withering line of questioning that will reveal the hidden inner core of sin and depravity that lies within. With the self-criticizing fervor of St. Paul admitting his youthful debauchery, Daisey tells us of his life-long lust for Apple products, but by alternating between a narration of his research trip to China and a sketch of Steve Jobs’s career we slowly grow to learn that hiding behind the pale and transparent innocence of these devices is a secret history of human suffering.

Although Daisey attempts to broaden the horrors of Foxconn (which employs half a million workers) onto all of our electronic devices, Daisey fails to widen his analysis into any sort of systemic critique. Karl Marx (gesundheit!) in Capital also begins with a microscopic analysis of the commodity, but unpacks the contradictions of these ubiquitous objects into a thorough critique of the entire system of capitalism. Although Daisey has probably done more than any American to draw attention to the plight of Apple workers and is clearly engaged in fighting for the betterment of working conditions, the word “capitalism” I believe is never uttered by Daisey in this monologue. I could be wrong, but if it is mentioned there is no sense that he is referring to a system of interconnected relationships that is worthy of critique. In the narrow tone of a stern New England minister Daisey informs us near the end of the show how almost everything electronic is hand-made–The very LEDs that illuminate his set with an eerily clinical glow, yes, those were made by hand. Daisey’s method is not entirely unlike that of Marx’s, but in the end fails to both broaden out his analysis. His desire for Apple to slow down their incessant technological upgrades that users are forced into purchasing, for example, is not linked back to the manual labor necessary to fasten the gadgets together. What we find in the end is less the painting of a system that Apple is embodying and exemplifying, but a simplistic morality play in which a pleasure is slowly found to be a wicked sin.

But perhaps more importantly than the fact that Daisey fails to broaden out his analysis is the fact that in casting himself as the protagonist of this drama, Daisey has failed as a dramatist to push the story to a necessarily thorough conclusion–The symptom of this repression unfortunately manifesting itself in his recent “real world” public relations debacle. Perhaps Ibsen and his drama of lives burdened by terrible repressed secrets and longings that eventually come screaming forward over the course of several acts comes closest to this dramaturgy of the return of the repressed– But in Ibsen what we have is more an analysis of how this pressure is exerted on the individual’s emotional world. The contradictions of capitalism are found in protagonists that have to bear the weight of a society’s expectation that they behave not according to what they believe is right or just, but according to the dictates of profit or bourgeois morality. Over the course of Daisey’s monologue we grow to learn that the monologue is a public confession– Daisey is wracked with guilt; his mind is burdened with the contradiction of loving these devices and needing to know more about the secret of their creation. The irony here is that (as in Ibsen) the protagonist who is forced to bear the weight of the knowledge of the impossible must eventually explode— But (and this is the key point), instead of submitting himself to a more rigorous analysis, Daisey instead concocted several fantastical encounters with workers that provide his narration with the catharsis it desperately craves: “Here is the humane core of my story”, he seems to say by admirably focusing our attention on the workers and their broken lives and then telling the audience that these over-worked Chinese laborers are no less smart or talented or creative as we are.

But like most great ironic heroes, unaware of the extent of their own complicity, Daisey, while telling us much about his own obsession with technology and love of Apple products fails at the end of his show to relieve his own psychological pressure that demands a radical solution. Listening to his monologue we grow to understand (and not in a bad way!) that it really is all about him. Even if he wishes it weren’t so, we are charting his emotional roller coaster as we listen to his narration: he is we– We are “like him”, also supposedly unaware of these conditions and travel with him on his quest out of ignorance towards truth. But what we never receive at the end of the narrative is a sense that the contradictions in Mike Daisey’s own head have found a satisfying conclusion. We know he will continue his meritorious campaign and that this very show is a major part of the mission– But what about that iPhone in my pocket? And in his pocket? By focusing on an awareness campaign and the act of broadening his audience we fail to complete the logic that the show demands; the key question posed in the middle of the monologue goes unanswered: How is it that a company that makes objects that I value so highly could operate in such an unjust way? The relationship between the oppression and aesthetics is perhaps so tightly knotted that any attempt to truly disentangle them would result in a total breakdown of our lives and societal relationships that we have until now taken for granted.

We witness Daisey’s mind in transformation (and our minds as well), but the severity of his accusations (even without any fabrication) demands not a campaign of signing petitions or deciding to broaden the awareness to a greater audience, but a radical demand that forces a rupture in the life of the protagonist and us: the boycott of Apple; the boycott of all products coming from Foxconn (the Amazon Kindle, the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony PS3, among hundreds of others). More unrealistic for Daisey, but rational given what he has uncovered and is beginning to realize would be a move towards anti-capitalism. These would be political demands that would force a change our polis beyond yet another public-relations problem that will eventually be mopped up by Apple’s sophisticated finessing of the facts or the tarnishing of Daisey’s own reputation.

Daisey’s dramaturgical error, which is to focus our attention on an invented maimed worker near the conclusion of his piece is also a political  error. His failure to return the story back to the torments of his own mind and resolve those contradictions leaves his audience in an undecided and relatively impotent position at the end of the work. As the vicissitudes of the KONY 2012 media campaign make clear, merely drawing attention and sympathy to victims (synthesized or not) and calling for greater awareness may be a first foray into deeper political commitment towards a fundamental change, but is fundamentally different from political acts (strikes, boycotts, occupations, civil disobedience, mic-checks) that block the flows and threaten the system’s self-reproduction.

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Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go”, by contrast, presents an easier-going, but perhaps more honest critique of the system– The show is held in Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater’s music venue where drinks and food are served, lending an ambiance of informality to the evening of music that will run at the space until April 8th. Backed up by a three-piece band, Lipton narrates and sings songs of his experience at his perma-temp job which suddenly is threatened when the firm decides to relocate to Mars (the planet). This foray into absurdity is handled with a light-touch and we grow to realize that “Mars” is standing in for some place that a Brooklyn-residing playwright and song-smith would never consider calling home. As the negotiations with the bosses and discussions with co-workers deepen, a melancholy mood of resignation enters in, though consistently cut up by Lipton’s droll musings and sometimes crazed singing (echoes of Tom Waits among others).

From the initial contentment that he has “a place to go in the morning” to the eventual “Shitstorm”, Lipton creates a story of indecision and post-modern corporate malaise. Against the impending doom of being jobless, visions of utopia slowly creep in: “Have you seen what they’re doing at the WPA?” (If I remember refrain of the song correctly) gives the audience a vision of another era when the government was forced into becoming the largest employer in the country. Harry Hopkins is name-checked and Lipton is of course forced into telling us who this man was at the end of the song: “He controlled 10% of the GDP”. Can you imagine that? A co-worker whose funeral Lipton attends is eulogized as that dying breed of New Yorker, born and raised in the city and capable of quoting early-Sondheim: “Do they still make men in Brooklyn/ Like the mighty mensch Mark Giles?”As opposed to critiquing the obvious greed of his bosses, “No Place to Go” lets that obvious fact stand for itself and instead, haphazardly constructs an alternative vision of what society could or should be. Art, creating-music, working alongside stimulating minds, aligning the government with human need as opposed to defending greed are all hinted at through Lipton’s lyrics.

Eventually when the gig is finally up and the information-refining company has packed it up for Mars, Lipton is forced into taking a new temp job. He finds that no one really likes him and that he doesn’t like anyone either. Eventually the show comes to a quasi-tongue-in-cheek rousing finale when Lipton “discovers” the community he has been craving in his three band-mates (who have been complaining to no avail during the show that they have jobs and work too), the world of art, music and the audience. For him at least there is now someplace to go and we receive a somewhat forced “happy ending”.

As a musical for the “precariat“, this show accurately depicts the helplessness of an office-work force in an era in which the geographical mobility and technological sophistication of the information age reign supreme. Visions of solidarity among co-workers are seen not so much as developing inside the office, but forged outside in creative endeavors, performances and even funerals. The correctness of seeing the state and its concentration of power as the locus of fundamental change draws a picture of a harrowing picture of contemporary American praxis: when there is no place to go, the place of politics (which always is) suddenly comes into a sharp focus. Unlike Daisey’s bifurcated and moral vision which ignores the power of the political and governmental relationships that enable business practices m, Lipton draws a wider portrait of relationships and decisions that eventually trickle down to lowly office workers and their precarious status. Despite the casual, self-effacing style of engagement and declaration that “this is for the 100%”, Lipton’s songs sketch a hollowed out society where a phantom-evacuation of capitalistic institutions nevertheless still remain to haunt and possess the corridors of power. A mass of people are discovering themselves under attack and spontaneously fulfill their needs through spontaneous song and improvised communities. Pushing further: A state that fails to reflect the desire of the improvised community and fails to live up to even the (truly) hypocritical rhetoric promised once-upon-a time during the New Deal (despite the unfortunately naive view of the WPA offered by Lipton) is a state that must be exorcised and occupied.

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One Response to 21st Century Capitalism on stage at the Public Theater

  1. Pingback: Richard Foreman’s “Old Fashioned Prostitutes” at the Public Theater | Guava Purée

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