You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Certainly, you know the refrain from Johnny Cash’s stirring 1970 antiwar ballad: “And the lonely voice of youth cries ‘What is truth?’”

I just had a chance to see Christopher Chen’s 2017 Obie Award–winning piece of performance art, Caught. It offers a truly powerful examination of the postmodernist concerns with artifice, dissimulation, deception and duplicity, as well as with cultural appropriation and the commodification of persecution and oppression. Again and again, the author manipulates the audience’s emotions with various sleights of hand.

Divided into four distinct segments, the piece begins with a Chinese dissident and street artist’s account of his imprisonment for organizing a “virtual” protest to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Succeeding scenes throw that incredibly powerful opening into question, leading some critics to dismiss the show as a Twilight Zone–like parlor game and an emotionally manipulative bait and switch, rug-pulling exercise.

I, however, found it a gripping commentary on objectivity, journalistic ambition and artistic posturing in our posttruth era, when so many people feel free “to believe whatever makes them most comfortable.”

That’s, of course, what Stephen Colbert meant when he coined the term “truthiness”: the willingness to accept a claim not because it’s supported by evidence, but because we “intuit” its truth or wish it were true.

Although Caught is very much a commentary on our own time, its themes actually resonate with those found in the post–World War I modernist plays of Luigi Pirandello, like Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). That should stand as a vivid reminder of the importance of background knowledge and, dare I say, cultural literacy. Like Pirandello, Chen explores a series of ideas that we now associate with existentialism as well as postmodernism:

  • The rejection of the idea of absolute truth and its replacement by personal truth based on perception, interpretation and perspective.
  • The interplay between illusion and reality and fact and fantasy and the blurry line between sanity and madness.
  • Identity as performance and life as a form of theater in which people act out roles, consciously or unconsciously.
  • The inherent absurdity of life.

Also, the performance features Pirandello-like metatheatricality, where the piece breaks the fourth wall, comments on its nature as performance and expects the audience to take an active role in processing the characters’ arguments.

Among the themes that run through my “Higher Ed Gamma” posts is a call for more courses that adopt an interdisciplinary approach to timely issues, in this case, truth’s indeterminate and slippery nature. A performance piece like Chen’s provides an ideal way for faculty and students to collectively address a series of philosophical, psychological and ethical questions that could scarcely be more urgent and relevant:

  • Are inaccuracies the same as lies?
  • Is it ever OK to embellish facts in order to serve a moral cause?
  • Are objectivity and absolute truth achievable goals?
  • Is it possible or desirable to overcome one’s personal beliefs, feelings and bias?
  • Can an account be trustworthy without being objective?

Over the course of the performance, characters comment on a number of journalism’s most famous fabricators and fabulists: Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter whose blockbuster stories turned out to be fraudulent, a subject examined in the 2003 feature film Shattered Glass; James Frey, whose memoirs of drug addiction and treatment contained inventions and exaggerations; and Mike Daisey, whose account of the exploitative labor conditions where Apple devices were manufactured was retracted after examples of hyperbole and fabrication were revealed.

In other words, Caught offers many ways for instructors to enhance discussion of the performance with really engaging case studies involving veracity, certainty, deceit and doubt.

If faculty are going to teach in more interdisciplinary and comparative ways, then doctoral programs need to evolve to ensure that Ph.D. candidates, especially in the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, get a more well-rounded education, with a solid grounding in literature and the arts.

Departments must also be far more open to team-taught classes. Excessively narrow, overly specialized, discipline-based courses need to be supplemented by classes that adopt a much broader perspective.

Johnny Cash sang his antiwar song number at the Nixon White House in 1970—after the Cambodia incursion and the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. We’d do well to recall the song’s lyrics, with their forceful call for adults to listen to youth’s voice.

“Yeah, the ones that you’re calling wild
Are going to be the leaders in a little while
This old world’s wakin’ to a new born day
And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way
You better help the voice of youth find
‘What is truth?’”

However uncomfortable many faculty may find some of today’s students’ concerns, for example, with the notion that no one in class should ever feel offended, affronted or upset, we can’t wish their perspective away. That is one reason why we’d do well to engage in informed conversations about key issues of our time or, in Gerald Graff’s words: teach the controversies. Certainly, truth and objectivity are among the topics we should address; so too are equity, inclusion and justice.

Among the best ways to do this, I’m convinced, is to draw upon works of literature. For there are truths that go beyond the merely factual, and those deeper truths often lie in works of the creative imagination. As one 2016 essay put it, “fiction can be truer than truth.”

These are the emotional, moral, narrative and philosophical truths that might be considered more true than factual truth and that lead us to delve into the realm of subjective experience and the power of perception. Emotions are valid experiences in and of themselves, and they shape our understanding of the world as much as (if not more than) cold, hard facts. Some truths are not factual but are instead based on our moral or philosophical beliefs.

Every individual perceives the world around them through the lens of their experiences, beliefs, emotions and subsequent experiences. An emotional truth reflects this subjective reality—the internal, deeply personal understanding of an experience or concept. As Marcel Proust demonstrated, the emotional weight or resonance of a particular memory or experience can be more impactful than the actual factual details of the event. The way a past event feels might hold more significance for them than the precise chronological order of the event’s occurrences.

While factual accuracy is crucial in many contexts, like history and the natural and social sciences, emotional truths play a significant role in personal identity, culture and art.

If there is one invaluable lesson that I’ve picked up over the years, it’s that often “inventive writing is the most effective way to conjure reality.” I’ve learned as much from novels and plays and movies than “bare facts could ever explain.” As the novelist Charles Bock has declared: fiction allows us to get at the parts of experience that matter most.

In a 2014 book entitled Narrative Politics, Frederick Mayer, a professor of public policy, political science and environment at Duke, wrote:

“Humans are, whatever else we are, storytelling, story-consuming, story-enacting animals. Stories are central to our cognition and emotions. Stories imbue our experience with meaning. Our self-stories define our sense of identity. And, to a very great extent, our behaviors are enactments, scripted by the dramatic imperative of the storied lives we lead.”

Or as Isabel Allende put this in a 2007 TED talk, which begins with the great Chilean magical realist paraphrasing a Jewish proverb, “What is truer than true? The answer: The story.” In her own writing, she has sought to expose and explore those truths that lie beyond the purely factual. These include the role of mystery, coincidence, premonitions, emotions and dreams in our psychic lives.

Teach the facts. But don’t stop there. Remember, there are historical, emotional, ethical, philosophical and psychological truths that go beyond the empirical or the evidence-based. In Aldous Huxley’s words, “There are things known and there are things unknown and in between are the doors of perception.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma