Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Stirring Up Shit, Stirring Up Anxieties

Marissa Skudlarek, stirring shit up in her own particular way.

You’ve thrown down a gauntlet, Mr. Bousel, with your “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” column — and since that piece of writing is so clearly begging for a response, yet has gone unanswered, I feel like it’s my duty to engage with it.

I consider myself an artist, an advocate for intellectual freedom, someone who desires a more honest and engaged and thoughtful society. Yet parts of your essay frighten me, as I think of taking your conclusions to their logical extremes. Of course I want to live in a world where people aren’t afraid to tell the truth and lively-but-serious intellectual debates crop up with regularity. But I already feel overwhelmed by the amount of opinioneering, posturing, and conflict that exists in our community. More people sharing their ideas will not necessarily lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations; I fear that it will lead to a shallow, shouty world where everyone yells to be heard, but nobody listens.

You write, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” Fair enough, and I agree. Yet you go on to argue that “living big and loud” is not just one possible option, but is, in fact, the only option if you do not wish to become “a drone.” If you don’t speak up and air your opinion, it’s because you’re a wishy-washy idiot who just goes along with the crowd, or because you’re a coward. In either case, you are actively impeding the moral and intellectual progress of our art form and our society.

I’ve written before, as you know, about how the “you’re doing it wrong” ethos of so many Internet articles makes me feel stressed and anxious. It sounds like you feel that way too, Stuart — you write “[there isn’t much] telling us to say what we really think and feel, even though there seems to be an awful lot out there telling us what we’re doing wrong and basically trying to scare us into saying nothing.”

The trouble is, though, that the sensitive, self-doubting elements of our population (and I count myself part of that crowd) interpret nearly everything as a “you’re doing it wrong” statement, even if the author did not intend it that way. You say you did not mean to shame or insult anyone with your snarky rebuke to our collective mania for the McKellan-Stewart No Man’s Land production, yet people interpreted it that way. They thought that you were saying “There are right reasons and wrong reasons to get excited about plays, and celebrity worship is always the wrong reason. Theatergoing: You’re doing it wrong.”

And then, with your “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” post — you say you wrote it to encourage people to fight the good fight, becoming foot soldiers in the battle against “apathy, conformity, cowardice, intellectual laziness and intellectual tyranny.” Yet, when I got to the part of your post where you wrote “The point of art and the reason why artists are necessary is to challenge the world,” my reaction was not “YEAH! I’m an artist, and I rock!” Instead, I had a spate of doubts: “Oh dear, if the point of art is to challenge the world, maybe I’m not cut out to be an artist. I’m kind of bourgeois. I’m a feminist, but so is every female playwright — and my feminism isn’t of the especially provocative or radical kind. I genuinely believe in all of those old-fashioned, discredited ideals like Goodness and Truth and Beauty and Prudence. I am more apathetic than I should be, more conformist, more cowardly, more intellectually lazy than I should be. I read every stupid Buzzfeed link my friends post on Facebook, but I’ve never read The Iliad. I just know I’m part of the problem that Stuart is talking about, rather than part of the solution.”

Being an Artist: You’re Doing It Wrong.

Maybe my biggest issue with your piece, Stuart, is how you frame your role in the community as “stirring shit up.” To use an analogy I think you’ll appreciate, the goddess of stirring shit up is Eris, yet her actions lead to violence and discord, rather than growth or progress. She tosses the golden apple into the crowd, and then runs away from the mess she’s made. She stirs up shit, with a shit-eating grin on her face, and she doesn’t accept any blame or responsibility.

I guess I just don’t trust people who think they can be provocative, or contrarian, or a shit-stirrer, all of the time. (Besides, spend too much time touching shit, and you’ll get hepatitis.) Sometimes the truth isn’t sexy, or piquantly contrarian, or able to be expressed as a Facebook witticism. Sometimes the truth is boring or cliched, and often it rests in between two extremes. But when everyone works overtime to shout their provocative, click-baity opinions, it’s often the well-intentioned, moderate voices that get drowned out first.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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9 comments on “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Stirring Up Shit, Stirring Up Anxieties

  1. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: Thanks for your response, Marissa.

    I feel, perhaps, you’ve leapt to the conclusion that I’m prescribing HOW we stir shit up, when from my perspective the focus of my blog was saying that we ABSOLUTELY NEED TO STIR SHIT UP and SHOULD STIR SHIT UP but quite specifically IN RESPONSE TO THE WORLD WE SEE AND LIVE IN… not for the sheer shits and giggles of it. Only when it’s worth it for you, as the observer, to say something. As it was worth it for me, this time. But it’s certainly not worth it every time. I mean, if I blogged about everything little thing I saw on the internet that bugged me, I’d have no time to do anything else. But yes, if you find yourself looking at a battle you feel is worth fighting, I do think you have a personal obligation to do that (just like how you’re doing now). And if you don’t feel that, well… that’s, again, the beauty of the internet. It’s so easy to ignore when you want to. But nowhere do I say you’re obligated to engage in a conversation you don’t want to have, or to do it one way over another, or that one way over another makes you a better artist or a more worthy artist. In fact, I wrote this:

    “The point of art and the reason why artists are necessary is to challenge the world, whether it’s by showing it a mirror, or showing it a window, or showing it the middle finger. We’re here to keep the conversation going in a battle against apathy, conformity, cowardice, intellectual laziness and intellectual tyranny and everyone is welcome because seriously, we’re going to need everyone or the battle is sure to be lost.”

    I allow for a number of ways to respond to what you see, including celebratory (mirror) and visionary (window), I just also allow that some of them are not polite (finger), but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong in a medium that should, by its very nature, allow the freedom of response as best one sees fit, so long as one isn’t actually calling for violence or spreading flat out lies (and no, opinions and perceptions aren’t lies… they’re opinions and pereceptions). I completely understand your feeling that the world is so very very loud right now, and that there are so many voices, and sometimes it really gets to me too… but then what is the alternative? Less voices? And if so, then whose voices should be silenced? Who gets to determine that? Are you willing to give up yours? You say all this freedom causes you anxiety, and I get that, but clearly it also gets you to think and say something in response, which you do very bravely, and I don’t know but that might just be worth it. As I also say in my blog, there is no free lunch. The price we pay for all this freedom is that we open the door to the barbarians. On the plus side, at least this medium forces us to take turns speaking.

    Speaking of Eris, something that occurred to me recently was that part of what the Greeks are telling us with that story is that what she did only worked because of fallacies within the three goddesses that caused them to fight over the apple instead of dismiss it, laugh at it, or just, heaven forbid, share it. Or give it to someone else. The moral of the story is that Power can never have enough, Wisdom is often short-sighted and Beauty is fatally shallow. Not that Discord has no place at a wedding. I mean, honestly, you could probably make a strong argument that if Discord had been invited she might have decided to get along with everyone that day- if only to keep them guessing. But it’s a recurring paradox in Greek mythology that by trying to avoid Scylla, we end up in the mouth of Charybdis. Eris is much less powerful engaged, than when we try to shut her out.

    And come now, you know your art challenges the world. Maybe not with a sword, but in your own way, every way, you ask us to think about the subjects you choose to write about simply by placing them on a stage. The sheer act of making art is a challenge to the world. The beauty of art is the vast variety of ways we get to make that challenge. And the more the better, since the only alternative would be to start determining who does and does not get to challenge the world. To quote another Sondheim play, “Give us more to see.” In other words, make the world more rich, in the way only you can: that is your obligation as an artist. Your voice may get lost in the mix, but the right people will find it, given time. And they are certainly much more likely to find it if you put it out there, than if you don’t. Yes, it’s very intimidating, but that’s the world: it asks you to rise to the occasion, and rarely feels a need to come to you on your terms. But I know you can do it, and so do you.

    I mean, here you are, right?

    • Hi Stuart, as I said in my piece, I’m in full agreement with you on the points “it’s OK to stir shit up, we shouldn’t be afraid to air our opinions, let’s not walk on eggshells around one another,” but I do have trouble with extending that to “we have a moral imperative to stir shit up.” Maybe my aversion is just to the phrase you used, “stirring shit up,” which has the connotation of being a kind of irresponsible provocateur, an Eris rather than an Antigone. (To use the first Greek-myth example that comes to mind… I’m sure you can think of a better one.) Admit it, you titled your post “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” rather than “In Defense of Speaking Your Mind” or “In Defense of Questioning the Status Quo” because “stirring shit up” is a more provocative, eye-catching title, and it would drive more traffic to this blog. But “speaking your mind” and “questioning the status quo” have connotations of responsibility, civic-mindedness, and critical thinking, that the phrase “stirring shit up” lacks.

      In this fast-paced world, I worry that people won’t take the time to read through all 3000 words of your original blog post and discern the nuances of your argument. They’ll just see your title, “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up,” and take it as justification to become even more obstreperous and snarky.

      In response to your questions “What is the alternative? Fewer voices? And if so, whose voices should be silenced? Are you willing to give up yours?” — all I can say is that I think about that very, very hard on a nearly daily basis. I am a self-doubting, self-questioning person — of course I’m always thinking “Does my voice add value to the world, or am I just adding to the cacophony?” In my bleaker moods, I can get very despondent about this.

      Thank you, then, for the acknowledgement, then, that it’s OK to disengage, or not to fight every battle, if you don’t feel like you are up to the task. In your previous post, you made it sound like the only thing that makes life worth living and prevents us from being mindless drones is to enter the fray of intellectual debate (so if you’re not engaged in some kind of argument, you’re not really living). But I believe there are other ways of “living mindfully,” and even of engaging with the world we live in, than just “stirring shit up.”

  2. sftheaterpub says:

    Sometimes, Marissa, we choose a more provocative approach. Like the one you’re choosing with your post and comments. Sometimes there is a reason for that.

    And no, I don’t expect every person to read through whatever I write and “get it” but is it my responsibility to make sure people get what I do, or is my responsibility to say what I feel needs to be said, so long as I don’t lie, threaten or physically harm? I believe the later. And if my article is almost 3,000 words it’s because I take the time to build my argument and explain, I think, pretty exactly what I mean, from the part where I say it’s a choice to engage, to the part where I say there are different ways to engage, to the part where I say why it’s necessary, from time to time, to engage, but also very easy to dis-engage when something isn’t worth it to you.

    And no, I didn’t pick my title in order to drive more traffic to the blog, unless what you mean by that is to encourage people to read what I wrote. Which is the point of a good title. If you feel the title is exceptionally provocative well… didn’t you once title something, “Someone Had To Throw A Bomb”? Like… two days after the Boston Marathon Bombing?

    “But that’s not what my article was about!” you cry and neither was mine. Provocative titles are like provocative scenes or lines in plays: powerful tools, when placed in the right context. I did my best to give my title context. If you feel I failed, well, not everything is going to work for everybody. But if a guy goes and throws an actual bomb somewhere tomorrow after having read your blog, but not gotten what you’re saying, is that somehow your fault?

    Guilty creatures sitting at a play and what not… I’m much less intrigued by arguing about what I wrote than I am but what it reveals in you. You seem to have responded with both a sense of guilt (I’m not rocking the world enough) and a sense of indignation (You’re rocking the world too much). Both ring with a sense that you don’t like having to think about this and to that all I can say is, “then don’t.” But if you feel like you have to, then I suggest that has more to do with you than me. If the issue is that you feel you haven’t always pushed the envelope enough, then maybe you should take the kid gloves off for a moment and see what happens when you do. You can always put them back on.

    If the issue is that you’re afraid that bad things can happen when an envelope is pushed, well, I can’t deny that. All I can say is that good things can happen too. The scary part of the world is that we don’t really know what will happen ahead of time and it’s a bit of a fallacy to think we can do any more than guess. Doesn’t mean we opt to roll over and die instead.

    And just to quibble (but I feel you’re being a bit quibbly anyway, plus I suspect you’ll appreciate this), “shit stirring” is totally different than “shit starting.” Shit starting implies you are creating shit where it previously did not exist. Shit stirring implies the shit is already there and you, as the stirrer, are just poking at what you’ve found. Rather a nauseating idea, I know, but here’s the thing. A pile of shit is just that: a pile of shit, sitting there, an eyesore, stinking, drawing flies, needing to be removed. A pile of shit stirred up has the potential to become manure. Manure, when stirred and spread, is fertilizer. Fertilizer helps things grow.

    Of course, it can also be used in bombs, too.

    Either way, it’s never pleasant to deal with the shit, I agree. But I think it’s better to deal with it, than go on pretending it’s not there.

    • Yes, Stuart, I do think we have a responsibility to try as hard as we can to ensure that people “get” the points that we’re trying to make — balancing concision and precision, and making sure that our stylistic flourishes never overwhelm or obsure the content of our writing. As long as we’re throwing Stephen Sondheim quotes at each other, recall that he says his three precepts of good writing (“less is more, God is in the details, content dictates form”) are “all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” I believe that acting in good faith means more than just avoiding “lies, threats, or physical harm” — I think it also requires a kind of humility, or a willingness to meet people halfway in order to narrow the gap between you. You wrote in your earlier comment “The world asks you to rise to the occasion, and rarely feels a need to come to you on your terms,” and I suppose that that’s what you do in your writing: you reserve the right to dictate the terms of the argument, and you ask your readers to rise to the occasion. (Which I have tried to do, in this post and these comments, to the best of my ability.) I guess I just happen to feel differently.

      As for “what my reaction reveals about me” — well, as I wrote in my original post, I freely admit that I’m a sensitive and self-doubting person. It’s really a matter of temperament, and I am not interested in examining the deeper psychological reasons why I am that way (at least, not in a public forum such as this blog). No, I don’t think you are “rocking the world too much,” but I do think that, if everyone starts trying to rock the world all the time, we’re going to have a big freakin’ earthquake, and yeah, the thought of that frightens me.

      I do have a lot of negative emotions like anger, frustration, guilt, etc., and much of my self-doubt relates to what is the best way to deal with these emotions. Should I focus and channel them toward some kind of action, or should I strive to eliminate them and become a happier, more positive person? Should I stir shit up, or engage the world in a less confrontational way? Kundera says that “kistch is the absolute denial of shit” — well, what if you affirm that shit exists, but you don’t actually want to get your hands dirty? Is that cowardly/irresponsible/immoral? When picking and choosing your battles (a necessity because there IS so much shit in the world), how do you know if you’ve picked the right ones?

      No, I don’t necessarily like having to think about these things — it makes me anxious and uneasy — yet I also (like you, it seems) believe that I have a moral responsibility to live an examined life, which includes asking myself questions that are difficult or unpleasant, in order to grow as a human being.

      Also, since our conversation has been circling around the themes of “making things grow,” “quietly tending our gardens” vs. living more publicly, the best way to live in an imperfect world, optimism vs. realism vs. pessimism, plus some references to Broadway musicals and my mention of the “earthquake” above, I can’t resist linking to this:

      (The moment where the orchestra drops out and the chorus continues on gets me EVERY TIME.)

      • sftheaterpub says:

        Yes, I love this song too. And I love this book. But Voltaire himself was a NOTORIOUS SHIT-STIRRER, so…. not sure it was the best example to use. 🙂

        Marissa, I think you are confusing an artist’s responsibility to their work as somehow extending to how their work is interpreted and I just don’t believe that’s humanly possible for anyone to control and thus asking them (or yourself) to try is like asking them (or yourself) to stop the waves from coming to the shore. Like, there’s just no way, that I know of, that you can truly control how someone interprets your work, and as much as I do love Sondheim and consider him an important influence, he’s not my own only influence nor do I think he’s suggesting that clarity is the same as accessibility (and even if he is, his accessibility is so hotly debated I would say it’s probably exhibit A in the case against author’s intent meaning squat to the audience). I consider my blog pretty clear, certainly I put as much effort as possible into keeping it focused and coherent, with lots of important details that are the nuance of the argument, and because I honored my personal responsibility to my core ethics and aesthetics, I’m happy with it and I put it out there knowing not everybody is going to get it, like it, or agree with it, and having made a decision to be happy with that too. A lot of people don’t get, like or agree with Sondheim. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Or that Sondheim is a stunning example of someone who doesn’t dumb down his argument, pull any punches or meet anyone halfway- unless you count “halfway” as keeping it interesting (something he manages to do for a fairly small audience when one considers how many people would prefer to listen to, say, ABBA). So yeah, I guess we do feel differently on this, but I just don’t understand how you think anyone can achieve a level of clarity where mis-interpretation is impossible. I mean, short of math equations.

        But I don’t get the impression you don’t “get” the article, (though I do feel you glossed over some of the finer points), I get the impression it just makes you nervous. Something I sympathize with but I’m waiting to hear what I can do about it aside from having never said anything which is, obviously, not an option. Additionally, I feel like we keep coming back to this idea that we recognize that someone must deal with the shit, but you personally don’t want to (very well, you are excused) and yet you feel admitting that makes you look less artistically worth. It doesn’t, you really have no idea how many times I just decide not to give a fuck about something and it doesn’t make me less of an artist, what would make me less of an artist would be doing caring about something and knowing that and NOT saying something something- again, something I felt I made clear in my article. You also say it’s scary to you to encourage EVERYONE to consider what their relationship to the shit is and to consider if they should do something about it because they actually might all do it at the same time and that could cause an earthquake and to that, all I can say is… well, you know what… sometimes the world needs an earthquake. Or a revolution. Or a mass awakening. Sometimes we are just too damn comfortable for our own good and so focused on our own garden we don’t realize someone’s paving a highway through the neighborhood and our garden is next on the list. We keep talking to one another as a way to make that kind of thing less likely to happen. Because talking is a relatively peaceful way to maintain vigilance, even when it turns to argument, so long as we argue in good faith- something that is not a given, by the way, that we do. Not in this world. And talking doesn’t mean forcing you see it my way. It also doesn’t mean I get won over to seeing it yours. Sometimes, we agree to disagree. But we talk first and then decided to agree to disagree. We don’t just avoid conversation if it might be unpleasant. For one, that doesn’t exactly give each other the benefit of the doubt, and for another I just don’t think we learn much that way. Part of learning is, sometimes, getting dirty.

  3. So, what I hear you saying, Stuart, is “Someone has to throw a bomb. Create a scandal. We need one of those storms that refresh the air. We’re suffocating. We can’t breathe.” Right?

    And posting a video relating to Voltaire, that notorious shit-stirrer, gives me an excuse to conclude this conversation by saying “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” 🙂

    Maybe because it’s 4:30 on a Friday, but I seem to be able to communicate only by quoting the words of wiser men than I, rather than arguing my own points in my own words, so I am bowing out.

  4. sftheaterpub says:

    Marissa, I guess you can bow out but maybe first you’d like to point out any place I said anything to the affect of “create a scandal.” Because I think I’ve said fairly clearly, and multiple times now, that it’s not about creating a scandal, or creating anything: it’s about pointing out what is already there, but isn’t being talked about, because you think it needs to be talked about. It’s an important distinction, the difference between someone who has seen something, vs. someone who is just looking for something to say.

    The next time you have something to say (and I’m sure it won’t be long), I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re saying it because you feel it needs to be said. Regardless, I’ll certainly be here to listen and answer you back.

    • Whoops, should’ve cited my quote above, then: “Someone has to throw a bomb. Create a scandal. We need one of those storms that refresh the air. We’re suffocating. We can’t breathe” is a quote from my translation of Jean Cocteau’s ORPHEE, and my allusion to it was meant to be a kind of in-joke, considering that you called me on titling a blog post “Someone Had To Throw a Bomb” earlier this year.

      And yes, there is a difference between lighting a bomb on fire and throwing it into the crowd; and pointing out to the crowd the bomb that’s in their midst, primed to explode.

  5. […] six months ago on this very blog, I got into an argument with my editor, Stuart Bousel, in the comments section of one of my posts. It got pretty heated and, as the […]

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