Excerpts from my essay “on storytelling in modern media and communication”

In the world of today our communication is defined by an abundance of possibilities and the plurality of media at our disposal, spanning from the use of the new and often digital to the established and tangible. Whilst some of these new media indeed serve to replace the accustomed, this replacement initially only happens in regards to the technology employed. A substitution in regards to the actual content and nature of the communicative process or the form of experience offered is however not necessarily intended. The digital experience is instead meant as an addition to the already existent tangible experience and is so distinct from its nature that neither a Skype call could replace a direct face‐to‐face conversation nor a waving emoticon could replace a hug or a handshake. Generally, the character of digital media is simulative. It has grown into an additional form of production of experience but the experience produced is also of a different sort -­ a simulative type of experience. It is for the first time that simulation is truly presenting itself as a part of our reality and providing us with experience that we consider very ‘real’ -­ although ‘real’ in a different ambit. Instead of being compared with tangible representational media, digital and simulative media demand to be treated separately. Yet still, as technology of the past falls into disrepair and new forms of technology are popularised, the little details that characterised our communication under the precedent technology are also replaced and disappear -­ affecting our everyday life with subtlety but in more ways than we can imagine. For instance, the act of buying an envelope, a post card and a postage stamp, writing a carefully thought-­out letter and then taking it to the next post office, is becoming increasingly rare as we are confronted with the alternate option of e‐mail communication. Even though the nature of the communication is in many ways unalike between the two and one should not substitute the other in the first place, factors such as convenience and speed have led to the near abandonment of the tangible letter. This subtle process of replacement over time is happening in regards to many established media and technologies and with it come many consequences that we are initially unaware of. In the example of the letter being replaced by digital text, it is the ability to typewrite on a keyboard that is developed in its users as the ability to write by hand perishes, but also in regards to the actual content of a message, subtle changes originate owing to this technological transition. A letter contains the very own personal touch of the writer, the writer’s very own style of calligraphy. The e­‐mail instead ‐ with its restricted choice of fonts ‐ promotes homogeneity as it provides us always with the same default options. The choice is between Arial, Times and Verdana and for the most enterprising among us there are a few additional font types that do not deviate hugely either. Furthermore, with e‐mail communication an entire sense, that of smell, is neglected. It is not unheard of that, historically, those who were committed in long‐distance relationships, would often smell the letters their respective lovers had sent them from abroad. E-mails, however, do not smell of anything. They could be associated to the smell of burning AC adapters or overheating fans at best. The case of the letter and the e‐mail is only one of many examples of one of many new developments. As we can see from this example, however, it is true that every change in our communication induces or reduces certain abilities and capacities in our society and culture. If these changes and substitutions in our communication are so powerful yet subtle that we begin to notice them only when they are already thoroughly influencing our lives, then it is undoubtedly of great importance to analyse the effect any new technologies and therefrom resulting media could have on the nature of our communication in a timely manner. This is particularly important in this age where the difference between simulation and reality is becoming more and more evident, yet its potential blurring also becomes every day more dangerous.

In the post war period after World War I, it was the observation of a loss of storytelling ability in people -­ due to the shift from the story told to the novel written -­ that inspired Walter Benjamin to write about these changes in communication. In The Storyteller, Benjamin comes to the conclusion that the value of experience had fallen and that ‘counsel’ had started to disappear from communication. [1] With ‘counsel’ Benjamin means the contingency and relevance of the communicated content in regards to the situation the receiver of it is in. Benjamin states that stories either give practical advice, moral advice or a proverb or maxim to reflect on, but are always preoccupied with providing the reader or listener with something useful for their current situation. The novel in turn lacks this element of counsel in Benjamin’s eyes, as it can be read without an integration of the author’s or character’s experience into the reader’s own life. Benjamin adds that whilst storytelling is intended as a social activity, the novel is instead intended for isolated reading. Whilst these may be valid points to distinguish between the story and the novel -­ even though also not free of controversy, if only for classic works like Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment, which certainly do contain some form of counsel and advice ‐ one must not forget the importance of the historical context Benjamin was writing in. The fact that communication was inhibited and the ability to provide counsel and communicate experience was disappearing in Benjamin’s time can, as Benjamin himself admits, be traced back to the post war situation. The late 1930s were a time defined both by the recovery from the traumas of World War I and a looming World War II. It is logical in retrospective that during such a period, communication appeared to be less fruitful. After all, the human psyche had a lot to process and reflect on, and this was best done in isolation. None of this does however mean that counsel was or is disappearing from our communication in a continuous and ongoing process as Benjamin ultimately suggests based on this observation. During the post war period after World War II, for example, many a form of media took on a very counsel-­laden character again. Folk songs of the 1960s were abundant in moral advice and were generally consumed in social situations rather than in isolation.

(…)

Similarly, when we look at the history of cinema, we can see that many popular films were always concerned with the provision of counsel to the viewer. Indeed most were meant for isolated rather than social consume but they certainly were discussed and analysed in broader social settings.

(…)

Although sometimes disguised behind a character or protagonist, both musical & filmic works have often been based on personal experiences and therefore contain covert moral and practical advice regarding these situations.

(…)

Furthermore, one could even argue that factual programmes on television and documentaries are direct documentations of personal experience, which are of more use to the receiver than a story told. This is simply due to the fact that they depict reality whilst a story -­ although based on real events -­ will always contain some fantastical elements. The same can be said about reports and articles in newspapers that document the personal investigations and experiences of the journalist.

(…)

Neither moral or practical advice, proverbs or maxims, have left our communication and counsel is still highly appreciated. The ability to share experience is still equally cherished. Therefore, to base on the differences between the novel and the story, and on a temporary lack of communicability amongst people during the late 1930s, a continuous decrease of ability to communicate experience or provide counsel seems like a rather flawed argument when looked at from a modern perspective. However, Benjamin still develops many other arguments during The Storyteller that indeed suggest a decrease in the value of experience. He states that through our now purely factual and informative approach, our ability to use our imagination is suffering. The overflow of information in our lives erases the ability to interpret. Everything has an explanation, is documented in detail and is represented visually. Nothing reaches us without prior dissection. Benjamin describes boredom as the mental state needed to be receptive to communicable experience. As boredom disappears from our lives due to constant activity, the capacity to imagine and interpret subsequently disappears from our communication as well. Also our capacity to reflect on information suffers from this. Taking this into a modern context, one could indeed argue that Benjamin’s observation of a falling value of experience is still applicable as our own abilities to interpret and assimilate experience are in the modern day kept to a minimum. We receive all of our information documented in such explicit detail that no further interpretation is possible. What truly distinguishes the story told from a documentary or a report in which reality is visually represented in its entirety is that with the latter forms of media nothing is left out for our imagination to process. Everything already has a shape and image. As we are all connected 24/7, able to use the internet wherever we are and able to entertain ourselves in any situation at any time, we are also less likely to experience boredom or spend any of our time assimilating and processing information that requires effort to be deciphered. We are constantly entertained and our communication is constantly saturated.

(…)

The question is whether or not this transition to a more information­‐based communication can also be seen as a positive development. One could argue that it actually makes the content of our communication more accurate. It would seem ridiculous to say that a collection of stories such as the Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes by Hebel, which -­ as Benjamin states ‐ shows its counsel by “slipping bits of scientific instructions in it” has more instructional or useful attributes in regards to practical advice than a report or a documentary in which the scientific instructions are carefully depicted and analysed. [1] If only for the  fact that the division between reality and fantasy is much clearer in the documentary than it is in the story told. Modern communication seems to try to abandon uncertainty and faith for a very exact and factual approach. I would argue that this is because humanity as a whole finds itself in the process of dealing with the age old questions of objectivity and subjectivity, with concepts such as absolute truth and reality. A story told is a representation of reality but not necessarily ‘actual’ reality and the experience it communicates is not verifiable. It has a magical element, which can seduce us to interpret and imagine an experience, but it is not a reliable source of real experience nonetheless. Maybe the only reason we are abandoning an age in which communication provided space for imagination and interpretation for an age in which everything is documented explicitly is because this age of information is in many ways an improvement. Although magical, the age of the storyteller was also one of misinformation and superstition and even though our need to explicitly simulate reality nowadays is not necessarily more accurate either, still at least our ideology allows for more scepticism towards reality.

(…)

We are now simulating reality in more ways than ever before but are therewith also drawing a line of distinction between the experience of a simulated or represented reality, such as media can produce, and the experience of reality, experience that is in no way communicable, also not through a storyteller. As a result however, it seems that we indeed have lost spontaneity, innocence towards some aspects of life and are also more estranged from one another. It is possible that we do not appreciate communicable experience as much anymore, because we have recognised its flaws. One could say that we have stopped trusting the storyteller. As we restrict reality to only that which we ‘actually’ experience ourselves as individuals, everything else, everything communicable, becomes only the experience of its simulation or representation. Where the human being stands in these modern times and what concepts such as ‘love’, ‘companionship’ and ‘compromise’ mean to us in this overly and increasingly sceptical and scientific environment is hard to say. In conclusion, whilst one could argue that the value of experience is continuously falling in our society, it is more likely that we are simply redefining the concept of “communicable experience” out of an epistemological interest. Ultimately, the value of experience is not falling. Instead, we have developed a form of scepticism towards what we consider ‘actual’ experience and how communicable this experience is. The French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard described in the 1980s our age as an age of simulation. He claimed that through significations and symbolism in our media and culture we are replacing all reality and meaning with simulacra. [2] One could argue that this development is something Benjamin noticed in its earliest phase when writing The Storyteller. Perhaps he even experienced the transition from ‘first order’ to ‘second order’ simulacra, whilst today we find ourselves in a transition from the latter to the ‘third order’. Reality and meaning have however never been very clear concepts and in modern times, we are only starting to develop the ability of simulating reality just as we developed the ability of narrating it. Therefore this age of simulation is a very important step for humanity. Although still removed from actual reality, simulation is an improvement to the mere representation of reality in the sense that simulation allows an insight into how reality is constituted that representation does not allow. Representational narrative remains opaque and is restricted to subjectivity and perception. The virtual reality that the digital age is facilitating is more transparent, it is the height of the age of simulation and out of this age of simulation we are now developing a new way of looking at communication and experience. It is possible that we are even abandoning the idea of communication as a way to exchange real experience and have instead accepted communication as what it actually is, merely a way to exchange simulated or represented experience.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov.’ (c.1936) pp. 143-165 in Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 3. (2006) Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (eds.) London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[2] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. (1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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