When I think of the new gods in America, I think of how Walter Benjamin viewed the rise of consumer culture at the turn of the century as pointing towards capitalism as a religion in our society (see quote below). Do Benjamin's observations apply to Gaiman's depictions of the new gods?
"[Walter Benjamin] saw thinking as a form of intoxication. For the society as well as the individual, Benjamin realized 'the importance of intoxication for perception, of fiction for thinking.' The new consumer culture of the nineteenth century induced a widespread trance in the public, as capitalism breathed supernatural power into its products. The World Exhibits, the Belle Epoque's celebrations of global commerce, 'open up a phantasmagoria that people enter to be amused. The entertainment industry facilitates this by elevating people to the status of commodities. They submit to being manipulated while enjoying their alienation from themselves and others.' The euphoria induced by these spectacles was like a drug that robbed the masses of their will, that taught them how to enjoy being transformed into objects of exchange."
-Daniel Pinchbeck explaining/describing the thoughts of Walter Benjamin on the spiritual trappings of capitalism, celebrity, and our willingness to defer the control of our minds to such things.
Some of the story in 1936
Walter Benjamin(1892-1940) was a German literary critic, philosopher, social critic, translator, radio broadcaster and essayist. In his writing he combined elements of romanticism, historical materialism and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory and Western Marxism. He is associated with the Frankfurt School a school of interdisciplinary social theory.
In his essay The Storyteller published in 19361 he was concerned with the incommunicability of experiences in the modern world. In the 20th century this theme is often found in: the theatre of the absurd, nihilism, deconstruction and post-modernism, as well as some varieties of existentialism. His essay attributes the fall of the storyteller to the last century, the post WWI time, which he says became devoid of shared experiences. While I find the writings of Benjamin provocative, and often reflect my own experience and views, I often find that what he says is, when viewed from another perspective, an inaccurate perception of the society I now live in. If what he says is accurate, it is often only a partial truth, a partially accurate reflection and analysis of the world I live in, analyse and observe.
His essay The Storyteller is an example of what for me is one of Benjamin’s partial truths. Benjamin states that after WWI people became unable to reflect accurately upon their experiences, in part because of the dramatic influx and rapid distribution of information in the twentieth century. He asserted that the rise of information, the information overload, was incompatible with storytelling, and contributed to the diminished efficacy of the storyteller. Before World War I, people received information locally. Rumours and information were spread verbally, from person to person, not read or watched.
Benjamin asserted that World War I crystallized a change in the perception of many things. He believed that the transformations in our time in societal norms were not sudden but, rather, progressive movements that slowly seeped into the modern world as technology expanded and events like WW I took place. After World War I, people struggled to communicate their experiences. World War I, one of the most traumatizing events in human history, had significant cultural, political, and social ramifications. Those traumatizing events have continued, seemingly unabated into the 21st century.
In The Storyteller Benjamin focuses mostly on the social consequences of the Great War. According to Benjamin, when the soldiers returned from World War I, they were simply unable to communicate their experiences. They returned to a world transformed by the war. This transformation, of course, has been happening, a fortiori, as the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries have succeeded one another. For millions, modern technology, the mass media and mechanical warfare have changed everything. This was not true for large segments of our global society whose lives remained relatively unchanged until the last decades of the 20th century.
Benjamin communicates his conception of the changes as follows: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar stood under the open sky, after WWI, in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.” Many soldiers had grown up knowing a slow-paced, effectively unchanging lifestyle. But after the war, this kind of lifestyle was ripped from their grasp. The world was immediately affected by this new addition of information processing, leading to a metamorphosis in the greater society. Life became fast-paced and information-driven. While some were reaping the so-called benefits of the new age, many were left behind and this dichotomy between rich and poor, advanced and underdeveloped, peoples is still with us.
Benjamin correlates the dramatic increase in the dissemination of information with the quick decline of the storyteller. According to Benjamin, the beauty of the storyteller was his ability to communicate a story and allow the audience to integrate this story into their own experience. Critic Peter Brooks expands on this idea, stating that the storyteller gave the narrative “a chaste compactness that commended it to memory.” The story sank into the reader, and the experience became one with the reader. In turn, according to Brooks, a type of wisdom was imparted to the listener. Through narrative and discourse, people were able to reflect upon experiences and share them with others.
Ultimately, it is the integration of experience by the use of open narrative, of story-telling, that leads to wisdom.2–Ron Price with thanks to 1Leo Hall, The Modernism Lab, Yale University; and 2 Peter Brooks, Psychoanalysis and Storytelling, Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994, p. 81.
Well, Walter, after 80 years I
think the picture is so different
from the one you saw far back
in the 1930s….People are now
drowning in stories, & sharing
them with millions, integrating
more wisdom than ever before
in history. The world has been
transformed just about out of
all recognition except for those
clouds in the sky and the ground
beneath our feet….Back in 19361
the Plan was finally being put in
to effect, systematically, for that
world, that field of forces & their
destructive torrents & explosions,
on the tiny, fragile human lives.
You got that right Walter-yes sir!
1 In 1936 Benjamin’s essay was published and the Baha’is of North America were beginning to plan the implementation of Abdu’l-Baha’s teaching Plan for the extension of His Father’s Faith throughout the world.
12 January 2013.
married for 46 years
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