The Rebirth of Storytelling

In Walter Benjamin’s, “The Storyteller,” Benjamin laments the gradual decline of the story as oral practice and narrative form in modern society.  He remarks, “[b]y now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling, almost everything that happens benefits information” (4).  By “information,” Benjamin is referring to the news that people receive and share through a variety of mediums.  Benjamin’s argument is that people rarely feel the need to tell stories, as modern society is more concerned with the dissemination of information, not an oral recitation of an old myth or epic, as the Ancient Greeks and other cultures used to practice and perform.  According to Benjamin, the only way a story retains its influence is by withholding key pieces of information.  Good stories, such as those given to us by ancient poets and writers, have a “geminative power” that seeds in the brains of readers, making them curious of what the true meaning of the stories is (5).  In order to do this, time is needed to allow the story to be told, the reader to be affected and interpretive, and the storyteller to perform his/her tale with effectiveness.  Benjamin laments the loss of time in the modern era and he notes how our concept of time affects how we view death (at least when he wrote this piece – ed.). He is not just being morbid, he is making a valid point that I will expand on.  Death now occupies the usual places separated from everyday life: hospitals, hospices, battlefields, the newspaper, the graveyard – and also morbid sites that post images of accidents and autopsies.  But in these digital depictions, the smell and immediacy of death is absent.  Death was an important factor in oral performance because the desire to pass on a story became similar to passing on a lineage – necessary before one dies.  However, in modern times death is viewed as an interruption to progress:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which people press through the wide-open doors of the death house.  In the course of the modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living.  There use to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died . . . Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs (6).

We seemingly cannot communicate death anymore.  No longer are we experiencing the desire to speak against the reality of death.  A spoken poem is in itself an art and this performance, even if the subject of the poem is death, denies death, since speech requires such life and force, especially if the poem is to be performed well.  In the absence of death from our lives the need to remember how to live becomes less important.  We are also living in an age where our existence is structured by the concept of time.  Modernity brought about clock time and along with the ever ticking clock came the invention of the modern work day.  As modernity moved forth there seemed less time for remembering myths and performance (4). As Benjamin notes, social conditions transform how and why we narrate life and its experiences.  The need for information in the modern age requires factual information, not myths about gods, the romance of the epic, or the honesty of a poem.  Industrialism led to late capitalism; hence, the story’s economic value is now a factor.  Therefore, the oral performer must have an economic worth to make capital.  The “gods of industry” hold strong sway over what we now read and watch.

Since Benjamin focuses so much on oral performance, he tends to put print stories aside.  He places the spoken word on a platform far above the novel.  The novel, he states, is a product of print culture, which parallels the advents of modernity, from the post-Medieval era to the post-modern era (2).  The novel was (and is?) the dialogic voice of an industrial age, an epic age, and an era of continuity; of non-stop action and change; of resignation to our industrious fates.  The decline of oral performance may be regarded as a natural occurrence, if one considers that time did not permit oral story telling to occur.  We are simply too busy (too “important?”) to tell stories and, hence, the art was lost for more efficient communication.  Storytelling as an oral form does not make money in the way a mass-market print text can: end of story.  As Benjamin elegantly laments, once again, even the short story – the closest successor of the oral story – has become abbreviated.

Benjamin’s essay becomes poetical when he explains the desire to renew the oral story.  He is nostalgic for orality and is troubled with the age that surrounded and the culture that expanded from the invention of the printing press and the commercial value that this invention bestowed.  It made the art of storytelling into a commodity that others, including booksellers, publishers, editors, and readers, all had equal shares in.  Whereas oral performance involved two parties, the speaker and the audience, reading, in particular reading a novel, is a silent, solitary activity.  Benjamin makes a pointed argument that storytelling requires community and builds community, as well.  It is an art that, similar to poetry, works to find certain ‘truths,’ or local values.  Hence, the storyteller becomes a sort of prophet, or, as Benjamin asserts, an “authority” over values and beliefs.  When I stop to think about it, there are so many authorities that give us information (with or without the moral of the story).  Our information age does not seek meaning, but more information.

But perhaps all is not lost. If we invoke Walter Ong’s work in orality and literacy, then we do not need to lament but consider that changes that are expected to occur when a new communicative technology comes along.  In fact, Ong states that print production requires a text be performed in many ways, not always directly to an audience.  Print culture may encourage indirect performances, such as through a taped or recorded performance, or from one reader to another.  This is where digital story-telling comes in: digital story-telling encourages oral performance and many are taking advantage of the internet to record readings and performances of texts.  Digital/social media may very well be the medium for a new era of oral performance.  Whether the performance of old epics, poems, lectures, or personal stories, digital story-telling is a new way to practice storytelling and share it with an interested audience.  What is important is that digital storytelling is encouraging the participation of individuals from every walk of life.  The individual becomes capable of sharing and, in fact, the bottom-line of profit margins do not guide performance.  On youtube, digital storytelling has taken off.  Performers get feedback and can edit or perform their stories in different ways accordingly.

The relationship between ancient oral performance and modern digital storytelling is quite simple: digital storytelling requires the speaker to perform a native story, or scripted performance, which is persuasive and confessional.  Both rely on the creative energies of the performer and the skill of creating a narrative.  Online video, video games, lectures online, etc, all are grouped within performance.  Specifically, digital storytelling usually requires a performance of a personal piece of writing by a performer, but sometimes this is not the case; rather, the performer performs stories ancient and new.  Both Benjamin and Ong reflect on the evolutionary process of telling stories this process is continuous and a necessary aspect of human social evolution.

Edited by Sara Humphreys – all quotations have been verified and linked to a pdf file found at Slought.org, a non-profit arts oriented think-tank based in Philadelphia.