Blog Post

The Genre Who Caused All the Trouble: On Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine and Fabrication in Our New Media Age

One of my favorite reads this summer was Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.  Imagine kept me in close creative company during my summer research travels in Asia and local escapades around Northern California where I currently live.  I looked forward to rereading the book in August, a time I planned for closer reading and note taking.  My research interests and practice in feminist learning and technology lead me to devouring books on creativity.  Some are trade books by practicing artists like Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit and Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way or research heavier texts such as Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class.  Lehrer's book however was particularly pleasurable because of the rigorous and collaborative way creativity is pulled through diverse disciplines such as design, business, music, neuroscience, and poetry.   In this way Imagine illuminates a technological hope for expanding creativity not only to a Silicon Valley bounded creative class.  Even prior to finding out Lehrer is of the new media generation (31 years old) I felt the text exemplified the joy, delight, and satisfaction of bridging seemingly disparate domains.   Thus it isn't simply Lehrer's age that secures membership into a "new media generation" but his commitement and passion to rethinking creatively and paradisciplinarily.  We are in a queer time and space where we have to talk and work with one another. 

However, the blogasphere is now heavy with headlines on Lehrer's work and not because of creativity.  

News articles on Lehrer--in the blogs of The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post and other publications--report a story of fabrication, confession, and resignation.  Lehrer apparently fabricated quotes from musician and poet Bob Dylan in Imagine.  When asked for proof Lehrer  “stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me,” journalist Michael C.  Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine.  Today’s blogs share an unfortunate story of a young writer’s resignation from an esteemed position at The New Yorker and discounting a book that was a New York Times bestseller.

Yet, this unfortunate story begs for more questions than accusations.  Earlier this summer, reports of Lehrer’s self-plagiarization on New Yorker’s blog prompted questions for me on the boundaries between plagiarism and/or self plagiarism.  And now, imagining and/or fabricating.  Think a bit on it with me. They are so very different.  Or are they?

A similar issue on fabrication occurred earlier this year when the NPR radio show This American Life aired and then retracted a story on Foxconn factories in China by performance artist Mike Daisey.  As an excerpt of Mike Daisey 's Broadway one-man show 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,' the radio segment became the most downloaded segment from This American Life.  The episode inspired a high-profile petition on and subsequent media attention to the issues of human rights and technology production.  However after the discovery of several fabricated aspects of Daisey’s story, This American Life retracted the story, and creator Ira Glass interviewed Daisey on the fabrications:


Ira Glass: So you’re saying the story isn’t true in the journalistic sense?

Mike Daisey: I am agreeing it is not up to the standards of journalism and that’s why it was completely wrong for me to have it on your show. And that’s something I deeply regret. And I regret that the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life who know that it is a journalistic enterprise, if they feel misled or betrayed, I regret to them as well.

Ira Glass: Right but you’re saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn’t so.

Mike Daisey: I’m not saying that’s the only way to get through to people emotionally. I’m just saying that this piece, in how it was built for the theater, follows those rules. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do things.

Later Ira Glass and Mike Daisey discuss further the definitions of fiction, non-fiction, and genre.  Since the show excerpted a part of Mike Daisy’s performance show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”  Daisey defended the piece as theater.  Glass asked then if the labeling of the theatre show of Foxconn as true will change as well:


Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.

Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how people see it –

Ira Glass: I find this to be a really hedgy answer. I think it’s OK for somebody in your position to say it isn’t all literally true, know what I mean, feel like actually it seems like it’s honest labeling, and I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.

Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.

Ira Glass: That label – fiction?

Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

Mike Daisy: I really regret putting the show on This American Life and it was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.


At the crux of the issue was that This American Life typically airs “true stories,” journalistic narratives that are “non-fiction. ”  Daisey’s story was assumed to be  "non-fiction" and "true" as well.  Yet as a performance piece or as theater, Daisey argued, the show about Foxconn is still “true.”  While it was wrong to air on This American Life Daisey responded, “…everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care…” Daisey wanted people to care about the human rights violations and in order to do so he felt that he had to “fabricate.”  

While both Daiseyand Lehrer’s stories are very different in scope, details, and context, they are similar not only because of the issue of fabrication but how they prompt questions on genre.  I hestitate to take one side or the other and prefer to be in between camps.  Because I wonder how troubling the line between fiction and nonfiction or journalism/theatre may further urge vital questions in our new media age.

While lying—to Monynihan, This American Life, publishers, readers, oneself lying to anyone, of course--is most often not ethical or moral.  By a young age, we learn to not lie, and if we do lie and are confronted of lying, we do what anyone with consciousness would do, confess and apologize sincerely.  You don’t just get to be a human being from birth as novelist Zadie Smith once said in an interview, it is something you have to work at everyday.

What is also human is imagination.  And as we grow up, we’re often taught to stop playing, creating, and stop imagining.  But if we stop imagining, playing, and creating, we are unable to learn.  Without immagination we are unable to transform our world into one that is more equal, just, and ethical.  Transgressing boundaries is needed to transform our seemingly dichotomous world of the 99% and 1%. 

The seemingly naturalized borders between non-fiction or fiction, art versus science, humanities /technology demonstrate a binary economy, an idea that editors Peter Galison and Caroline A. Jones write about and blur in their edited collection Picturing Science and Producing Art published by Routledge.  Binary logics not only support the separation of art or science but other dichotomies such as black or white and female or male.

Genre Trouble

In 1990, theorist Judith Butler troubled gender binaries of male or female with her famed feminist canonical book Gender Trouble.  Two days ago, Lehrer got in trouble for fabricating quotes in his non-fiction book.  When I updated my facebook status that day I wrote “genre trouble” thinking about Lehrer’s case and Butler’s work.   Many facebook friends, mostly fellow experimental poets, liked my status.  Of course they would.  A facebook friend a doctoral candidate working in genre studies liked it and jokingly commented: “Don't steal my ideas. That's the title of my dissertation. (seriously)”

Rightly taken, respected, and humored even though I had no idea of their dissertation title prior to pounding out the two-word status update in between my email and coffee. And now, I look forward to reading the dissertation too.  The facebook thread provoked additional thinking on the issues of the copy in our digital age.  For example, New Media Art has always toed and troubled the line between what we understand as artifical or reality.  This blurring however may lead to more innovative ways of creating, sharing and learning.  Some questions raised in HASTAC scholar forums such as  Academic Publishing in the Digital Age and Pixels and Print: Redefining Academic Publishing & Scholarly Communitation forum along with issues of Fair Use, Negativland, and the Remix also prompt questions on the boundaries of fabrication, plagerism, and collaboration. 

While my friend’s dissertation focuses on the medieval period, these issues of genre are still relevant  and prompt questions about reality, fiction, and truth in our digital age.  In the spring semester, I co-convened with my friend Martha Kenney from UCSC History of Consciousness Dept, a cross-genre workshop entitled Mutated Text where graduate students from Science and Technology Studies and New Media Studies across the University of California campuses worked together to play and subvert genre conventions. Participant Andrea Horbinski a doctoral candidate in History at UC Berkeley wrote a great post about the workshop here. We heeded what feminist scholar Donna Harraway famously wrote in her seminal essay, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in taking pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction (35). We feel experimenting and questioining scholarly genres is vital for the future of knowledge production.  Genre trouble.  Is it genre that is making all this trouble for Leher? What we learn from this controversey over Lehrer's Imagine? 

As I finish this post, I can’t help but confess that I like Imagine even more because of the fabrication.  How I wish there were more fabricated quotes.  How I hope the controversy will lend itself to more questions on genre, boundaries, and imagination.  But I’m not so sure.

For now, Imagine has been pulled from the bookshelves by Leher’s publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Its e-book deleted from Barnes & Noble and  My airport bought copy may be a rare first edition now and perhaps a collector’s item? But I hope this is not the case.  Perhaps I’m overextending the issue of fabricating Bob Dylan quotes to larger questions of reality and fiction and binaries.  But I feel some questions are worth a try.  And if Imagine is re-issued I wonder if a caveat can be included (with pondering between the words): “This is a work of non-fiction and imagination.”  


No comments