One thing I’ve always loved is stories—more specifically, storytelling. The vibrancy of stories always engrossed me and made me feel like I was part of something bigger. It didn’t matter how long ago the story took place—I was always right there, too. Whether it was a story in a book or a newspaper or when my Poppy told me stories about immigrating to America with only $100 in his pocket before he became a General Manager at General Motors. Stories taught me about the past and present and made me who I am today. I think that’s why when I read The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin, it stayed with me, and I’ve read it several times.
Many of my readers know I have a newfound interest in anthropology, which is why I’m taking Storyteller in Flight this semester. I was excited when we reread one of my favorite articles by Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller. Now, for those who don’t know, Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher who thought storytelling wouldn’t exist today. When I first read about that, I thought that’s not possible. Stories encompass history. They teach us things about ourselves, educating us on cultures and the world. More importantly, stories are endless—so how and why did Walter Benjamin ever think otherwise?
Well, decades ago, Benjamin said (and this is one of my favorite quotes in this article, and it’s on page 143), “…the art of storytelling is coming to an end. 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 they wish to hear a story expressed.” Now, before you completely discredit Benjamin, I need to remind you all that he said this back in 1936 when there was an increase in nationalism and Nazism. Benjamin thought storytelling was dying because of the collapse of global opportunities. But, in reality, the opposite occurred. The creation of folk groups started to rise, and folkloric storytelling was no longer confined to a group someone was born into. Storytelling opened and moved away from restricted communities. However, due to the change, we now have stories told to us from groups worldwide—people far and wide document their stories in print or verbally.
This realization made me further contemplate how Benjamin’s prediction was wrong because the more I read, the more I’ve discovered just how much storytelling is around us. People would never have shared their stories with others if they had not moved out of their restricted communities. I believe stories are essential to helping people and societies grow, teaching us about cultures and historical events, and helping shape who we become.
Think about it.
You listen and watch stories when you spend time on social media, whether on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. For example, if you watch your favorite influencer who lives halfway around the world telling you about their family’s tradition when celebrating an event—you’re hearing a story. Without social media, it would be impossible to listen to their story, which may impact your life. But it would also be impossible to have such an impact on sharing stories without media in general.
When I read journalist Jason DeParle’s A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, I was in a first-class seat of his intimate case study of Filipino workers and struck by his powerful storytelling ability. DeParle paints a riveting humanizing portrait unlike any journalist I’ve read, by sharing the workers’ story in a nuanced way that allows readers to witness how the global system impacts people’s lives. It also highlights how people live and taught me so much. I may never have learned about the case study if the article had never been put into flight.
Stories have tremendous power to effect change, which brings me to something anthropologist Mimi Sheller wrote. In her article, Mobility Borders and Migrant Justice, Sheller explores steps toward mobility justice. At first glance, it seems impossible. There’s too much sacrifice entailed to make it a reality. But then I thought—look at the massive, unpredictable turn storytelling took from Benjamin’s prediction and how it evolved, spreading faster than ever thanks to social media. Therefore, would mobility justice really be an impossible reality someday? Perhaps with the help of social media (or something we haven’t thought of), Sheller’s idea may not be as far-fetched as some may think.
So, as you can see, there’s no denying that storytelling has only grown stronger and stronger throughout the years. I’m happy Benjamin was wrong because it allows me to be a part of so many stories from so many different cultures that I can’t count them all. It has shaped my knowledge, taught me empathy, and allowed me to enter many richly vibrant worlds. It would have been a very dark time if Benjamin had been right.
The power of storytelling continues to prove stories cannot be silenced. People didn’t let WWII take their voice. People went to form anti-war demonstrators, colleges, sports teams, and so many more groups. Today, it allows us to become aware of what happens in places we may never have been to and bring to light issues others may be experiencing. Thanks to social media, storytelling continues to be spread much faster. Now, we can search for a topic and instantly see videos of people telling their stories. It’s fantastic! Just think of what Benjamin would have thought if he were alive today to see how storytelling has flourished. Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t been for stories.
Drop a comment and share your thoughts about the power of storytelling and what’s taught you!