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Literature: Walter Benjamin

Walker Art Center, 2003
Experience which is passed from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn.

Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.

Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. . . . The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. . . . A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller" published in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt, ed., p. 83 ff.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) identified what we now might call information overload. In the mid-20th century this was exemplified by the rise of newspapers--an important factor in what he called the "atrophy of experience." He speculated that because everyone had access to the same information through newspapers, there was less need to ask someone else to share their experiences. He saw this condition as part of the decline of storytelling, which occurred in the wake of a transforming communication technology: the newspaper.

Sawad Brooks points out that "an important feature of Benjamin's theory of storytelling is that when a storyteller tells his story, the listener is immediately involved in listening. The intimacy of this mode of communication is based on the necessity of both the storyteller and the listener being present."

In the 21st century, the Internet, as Beth Stryker suggests, is "built upon a system of telephony--of senders and receivers--that 'connects' people who are not present in the same space (or perhaps in the same time). The chains between people evidenced through the Internet allow for a sense of distributed time and presence."

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center