Episode 194: You Don’t Know My Momentum

The Overthinkers tackle the controversy over Mike Daisey’s monlogue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Overthinking It PodcastMatthew Wrather hosts with Peter Fenzel, John Perich, and David Shechner to overthink their favorite fictional streets, truth and fiction, and Mike Daisey’s monlogue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.


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Further Reading

A transcript of Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

This American Life Retracts “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey distinguishes between journalism and theater and delivers a preface to his monologue

21 Dog Years: A Cube Dweller’s Tale by Mike Daisey

Putting the “I” in Story by Matthew Baldwin

Logical Positivism on Wikipedia

Reality and Hyperreality, from the University of Chicago School of Media Theory

Rumble in the Jungle on IMDb

Margin Call on Rotten Tomatoes

“Electric Avenue,” by Eddie Grant

“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, performed live, 1976

18 Comments on “Episode 194: You Don’t Know My Momentum”

  1. Chris #

    The episode has only just begun in my ears, but since a mistake has been made and it relates to The Simpsons, I cannot let this stand. Wrather, you said, Bart, Maggie, and expecting. When, of course, it is Bart, Lisa, and expecting. I got that deep cut, however, although it isn’t as amusing as when Smithers misleads Mr. Burns and he calls Homer and Marge Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and calls Maggie “Little Pebbles.” Also, this week’s Simpsons was really good.


  2. Emil #

    OK, the ending of this podcast was pure gold.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #


      Immediately after we stopped recording, we decided the correct title for the Proustian novel of remembrance about Alf should instead be titled _Gordon Shumm’s Way_.


  3. Joey #

    Still only a little way into the podcast, but I had two comments.

    One is that like Dr. Shechner, I too read the screenplay to “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” in English class, though I’m fairly sure it was earlier than 7th grade, and remarkably it was one of the few stories in any of those classroom reader anthologies that all out “language arts” classes used in public school. (The other one that comes immediately to mind is “Viva New Jersey”, a story about a middle-school-aged girl from Cuba, by someone Google tells me is named Gloria Gonzalez). Also, this series of textbooks is apparently called “Reading Street”, which is Strangely Apropos.

    My other point is that I always use any possible opportunity to bring up and quote what is one of my personal foundational favorite texts, Philip K. Dick’s lecture “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, which has the virtues of both insight and wit, and which sort of bridges both the “hyperreality” theory and the sort of manufactured “truths” is Moore’s sense, as well as discussing questions of authority, authoriality, and creation discussed in this week’s podcast to whit:

    “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality?…So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”

    (This is, incidentally, the same essay that Richard Linklater paraphrases to Wiley Wiggins, while playing pinball in an Austin bar, at the end of Waking Life.)


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      This is also the essay where you can actually watch Dick go insane, page by page. An amazing talent with a shaky grasp on reality, though that may be redundant.


      • Joey #

        Yep. By the end he’s half-convinced authentic reality ended in Biblical times. But its remarkable to what extent that creeping insanity managed to get at the heart of the postmodern condition so cogently.

        Frankly the fact we’re even having this discussion in this of medium means that I think Moore was closer to right than Fenzel does.


  4. John Perich OTI Staff #

    CORRECTION: I was unfair to Norman Mailer, who was actually a leading countercultural thinker in the 60s and 70s. My exposure to Mailer, up until When We Were Kings, was primarily through his hyper-masculine deconstructions of Marilyn Monroe, so I had him pegged in my mind as more conservative than he was.

    I retract nothing about George Plimpton, though. Whitest dude imaginable.


    • Chris #

      Norman Mailer got in a fight with Rip Torn. All George Plimpton ever did was try and make the Detroit Lions and appear as himself on The Simpsons.


  5. Peter Tupper #

    Interesting comparison bringing up Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which was an incredibly popular and influential book in the 19th century.

    UTC was presented as fiction, but it was driven by Stowe’s abolitionist politics, and she was an avid researcher on the subject. Plenty of Southerners and pro-slavery writers scourged Stowe, both on factual grounds and on thematic grounds, calling her a “peddler of smut”, for example.

    Stowe’s key thesis that the institution of slavery prevented blacks from having stable families, which to Stowe and her readers were the source of happiness and moral development. Instead of rattling off statistics

    You could say that Stowe was doing the same thing as Daisy: using a fictional mode of expression to make a point and speak to a higher, not necessarily literal truth. Stowe used familiar genres of the Gothic novel and the family saga to build empathy in her readers for blacks and mulattoes. Arguably, this was more successful in spreading abolitionist ideas than droning on about cotton farming statistics or making religious or legal arguments against slavery. Also like Daisy, she chose a medium and genre that reached people who might not have been receptive to other abolitionist media.

    Decades later, Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone with the Wind”, which was presented as fictional but historically authentic. It includes a passage in which Scarlett O’Hara haughtily dismisses “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as pernicious trash, full of false information about Southern society in general and slavery in particular. In part, Mitchell was trying to undo what Stowe had done, by reframing the antebellum South as a courtly, harmonious society, tragically destroyed by the Civil War, and by largely sweeping the whole issue of slavery under the rug.

    (In turn, Alice Randall wrote “Wind Done Gone”, a revisionist parallel to “Gone with the Wind”, told from the perspective of Scarlett’s slave half-sister.)

    Stowe and Mitchell both had huge influence over how later people saw “the South”, perhaps more than any researched, fact-checked history textbook could ever have. I suspect that Daisy’s version of life in Foxconn has already entered the popular consciousness in the same way.


    • cat #

      I would argue that just because someone knows something is fictional, it doesn’t mean the work will have less of an impact. Would Stowe’s form of melodramatic emotion-inducing writing have been less moving to its audience if they had known it was fake? Going back to Sidney, the strength of poetry and creative fiction is that it “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.” As you said, the empathy built through fiction was more effective than statistical analysis but the alternative to a fiction posing as reality isn’t just facts/nonfiction. Katniss Everdeen is no less inspiring to the crowds I keep hearing about lined up at theaters across the country just because she’s a fictional character.


      • Peter Tupper #

        I don’t think anybody who read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” thought it was literally true in detail. They knew the characters were made up. The tricky bit here is that the readers thought the setting details about the South, about slavery and so on, were true or realistic or authentic. Stowe told a story that wasn’t true but plausibly _could_have_ happened in order the argument of why slavery should be abolished. Her story wasn’t presented as “true”, but it was presented as “authentic,” and therefore her message was “true”. Her opponents dismissed her work as sheer melodramatic propaganda.

        People seem to be saying that Daisey played fast and loose with the details in order to convey the message that Chinese factories are horrible places; in other words, his intentions were good, and that excuses any ethical lapses.

        Alternately, they say he was just an artist and that releases him from the ethical restraints of a journalist or academic. He wasn’t obliged to be rigorous in the details, but what makes him obliged to be be truthful about his premise?

        I think that is a very dangerous line of thinking, because it can excuse the audience _not_ using their critical faculties and letting the spectacle (whether it be the storyteller’s craft or the multi-million dollar movie) sugarcoat the premise. If all you’ve ever seen about the Southern history is “Gone with the Wind”, the way that movie carefully obscures the issue of slavery will influence how you think about the issue.

        Think of the novel “The Clansman”, adapted into the first feature-length motion picture, “Birth of a Nation”, by DW Griffith. In many ways the anti-“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, it used the same techniques of melodrama, threatened women and dramatic spectacle to convey a message that unabashedly lionizes the Ku Klux Klan as white people’s only defence against black violence. That was spectacle in aid of a reactionary, violent cause.

        Were Daisey’s shows a hit because they told us what we (i.e. white middle class liberal Americans) already wanted to hear: that Chinese people are mercenary thugs who enslave their own people and you should feel really guilty about owning an iPad?


  6. Ezra #

    Is this the title of the forthcoming sequel to “You Shall Know Our Velocity”?


  7. Charles Etheridge-Nunn #

    So does all of this mean that in Taylor Swift’s song, “fifteen”, it would have been less truthful but more empathetic to have her sing about herself instead of her best friend having those experiences?


  8. Johann #

    Another important aspect of the Mike Daisey story, I think, is that he had a mission. He was mixing fact with fiction in his monologues because “it made people care” – this is what he says in his defense on the TAL show. And that is a little different from just “telling a larger truth” – because it raises the question where social activism starts and when you get into propaganda and manipulation.

    A prime example worthy of discussion is the recent Kony 2012 campaign about a war criminal in Africa. In this half-hour video, probably everybody speaks the truth, but still it uses various techniques in order to create a feeling of “oh my god we ought to do something” – and then presents you with the options of doing something (share the video, buy the “action kit”, etc.). Maybe too hot a topic to discuss on the podcast, but to me that Kony video is at the same time representing facts and also pure propaganda.


  9. cat #

    Heisenberg uncertainty principle jokes. Almost as good as Harvey Fierstein.

    This discussion reminded me of The Defense of Poesy. Because I just finished reading The Defense of Poesy. “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” But when a work of fiction has a clear connection to current real-world events, does the fiction-creator need to make clear that he affirms nothing? Even Spenser had to make it clear that the Faerie Queene was meant to be read as an allegory.

    If you’re performing a work and you’re saying “I did this” and “I did that” and a work of theater operates by having the audience suspend their “disbelief” and follow you on a narrative journey, then don’t you have to make it clear that you aren’t affirming anything to not lie. But if you do that, doesn’t it destroy the illusion? Of course, you could just say it after the performance but then that knowledge would spread and if what people want from this type of theater is truth, it would stop future audience members from seeing the show. But then, if the responsibility of performers is to give the audience what they promise to, then isn’t denying them the opportunity to make an informed decision (knowing parts of the story are false) lying by taking advantage of their ignorance of the truth?


  10. Peter Tupper #

    The debate over Daisey depiction of Foxconn actually does dovetail into the discussion of the logistics of “The Hunger Games” in other posts.

    There are a lot of people, on this site and elsewhere, discussing (semi-seriously) if and how Panem’s social and economic system could work (e.g. can a district with 8000 people mine enough coal to power the rest of the country), a separate discourse from discussing the political and social themes of the book.

    SSuzanne Collins uses the Hunger Games to reproduce Panem’s injustice and cruelty in microcosm: 24 kids divided and at each others throats, while the people in charge watch from a safe distance. She develops the kids and through them we the readers/viewers get involved in the story and therefore are receptive to the larger messages of social inequity and managed spectacle. She could have written a treatise on extractive economies and media manipulation, but that wouldn’t have been a bestseller.

    Actually, I would guess that she came up with the Hunger Games concept first and created the background to fit.

    Daisey, like Collins, is a storyteller, and uses similar techniques of character sympathy and narrative. Daisey and Collins’ big ideas are valid (at least to us), but the fine details of their narratives don’t hold up. Does it undermine the other ideas of the story if the setting doesn’t bear close scrutiny, if it couldn’t work or never would have evolved in the first place, or if characters are merged or fabricated? How much of a story’s flaws do we forgive before dismissing it as invalid?

    The further problem is, Panem is fictional dystopia, Foxconn is a real dystopia. It doesn’t really matter if somebody reads “Hunger Games” on only the most superficial level, as light melodrama entertainment. It does matter if people stop caring about Foxconn’s labour practices.


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