Thursday, December 1, 2011

Storytelling, Place, Liberal Education

All of this was first noticed by the German critic Walter Benjamin, whose essay "The Storyteller" charts the decline of storytelling against an increased access to, and fiendish hankering for, information. In the essay, Benjamin sets the figure of the storyteller (rooted in experience, offering counsel) in opposition to the deluge of information (instant, ephemeral, verifiable). "Every morning brings us the news of the globe," Benjamin writes, "and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanations. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information."

After reading Benjamin, one awakens to find an "information age" abloom with near-parodic fulfillment of his prophecy. Information-aggregators (whether Wall Street investors or Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs) comprise our wealthiest class. Data point has become a trendy colloquialism, as if every story is a puffed-up soufflé that must be efficiently distilled to the nutrients of its information. In this sense, as the faith in information outpaces an interest in narrative, the title is but the latest rampart of style to be marauded by the forces of market efficiency. Calling Snakes on a Plane anything but is pretentious by a logic that views narrative as inefficient and self-indulgent: a fanciful scenic route to the speedier highway of information.
I'm reading this compelling article--written by Jacob Rubin, posted on Slate--on an airplane. Meanwhile, on screens which hang above us like dystopian bats, which project on either side of me the same silent images shrinking progressively like two mirrors facing one another, a movie plays. It's titled Life in a Day. My copy of Hemispheres describes it thusly: "Created from some 4,500 hours of footage submitted by YouTube users, this remarkable documentary chronicles July 24, 2010, as it was experienced by individuals living in nearly 200 countries. Exhilarating, moving and funny, Life in a Day is the story of our world--told by us."*

On an earlier flight, I read:
When proponents of liberal education describe it as the attempt to grasp the whole, they are partially right, but if we do not continue with the acknowledgment that the whole is grasped via particulars and that, as human creatures, we necessarily inhabit only a small and particular part of the whole, we are missing something crucial.

If a liberal education teaches a person to love abstraction, to relish the exchange of universal ideas of justice, charity, and beauty, yet to be inattentive to the neighbor down the street or the beauty of a well-tended garden, then something has gone wrong. Such an education is suited to abstract beings who naturally belong in no particular place and have none of the senses by which particular beauty or empathy can be experienced. Such an education is, in other words, not fit for human beings.
*I should note that despite my tone I find the concept potentially interesting.