Study Questions for “The Storyteller”

Some questions to guide your reading/thinking on Benjamin’s formidable text for Thursday’s discussion:

  1. Early in the essay, Benjamin claims that, in the early 20thC, “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” Why is this? What is it about modern life that makes storytelling more problematic than in the past?
  2. What are the two kinds of “experience” that feed into traditionally storytelling, according to Benjamin? How does Benjamin use this distinction to link, on the one hand, literary form and, on the other, labor? [n.b., in the original German, Benjamin distinguishes between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, which both often translate to “experience” in English]
  3. WB claims that the novel’s rise in the 18th-19th centuries is the “earliest symptom” of a process culminating in “decline of storytelling.” Why? I thought that novels are storytelling!
  4. What does WB make of the rise of “informational” writing, such as news articles? How do these new literary forms compare to traditional storytelling?
  5. Why, for Benjamin, is death so central to storytelling? What happens to the relationship between death and storytelling in modernity, with the rise of the novel?
  6. More German, folks! What is the difference between remembrance (Eingedenken) and reminiscence (Gedächtnis)? How do these categories map onto a) the deep historical currents WB is tracing between the “old days” and “modernity,” to speak very broadly, and b) the “story” and the “novel”?
  7. Near the end of the essay, Benjamin claims that the story and the novel are shaped in a fundamentally different way: what is the distinctive closure of each form? How does this mode of closure relate to a) WBs discussion of death throughout the essay and b) the distinctiveness of the novel as a genre?
  8. What are some questions we might raise about Benjamin’s argument in light of our study of the audiobook? In what ways does listening to an a-book edition of a recent novel on our phone while commuting to work square with Benjamin’s thesis, and in what ways might it force a revision of it?

Questions on Berube et al., “Community Reading and Social Imagination”

  1. What did the authors learn from the experiment in collective reading of Colston Whitehead’s novel with readers who have no relationship to the “ivory tower”?
  2. What does the article say about the common lament that the Internet (or whatever) is killing serious reading, that the novel is dead, etc.?
  3. What are some of the social antagonisms that the concept of “serious” books or “serious” modes of reading conjures up? Who or what gets relegated to the realm of the “unserious”? What do the authors think about these divisions?
  4. What did “community reading” look like in the past? What are some of the spaces in which reading happened, and what surprised you about the authors’ account of these spaces?
  5. What’s special about convening around literature as opposed to (say) sports or politics or shopping? What does reading “literature” together teach us? What kinds of desires does it instill in us, according to this argument?

Questions on M. Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities, and What is it Doing in English Departments?”

  1. What is DH? How does Kirschenbaum go about seeking answers to this knotty question?
  2. Why do Twitter and DH go together like peanut butter and jelly? What does Kirschenbaum say about the relationship between the way discourse unfolds on Twitter and the way DH is organized as a field?
  3. What is DH doing in English departments? Do you find this argument convincing?
  4. How does Kirschenbaum end the essay? How does his own definition of DH compare to the others he examines early in the essay?

Questions on Alan Liu, “From Reading to Social Computing.”

  1. What are the main differences between what Liu calls Web 1.0, Web 1.5, and Web 2.0? Be sure to compare the diagrams.
  2. What does Liu mean by “the era of social computing”? What are some examples in your own reading/browsing that help reveal what “social computing” is and how it works?
  3. How does the new “social computing” model for reading/writing map onto post-1968 developments in literary and cultural theory? In what ways are the arguments in favor of radical democracy via deconstruction, New Historicism, cultural studies, et al. related to new ways of reading/writing/publishing on the web?
  4. In English classes, we have traditionally (for 100 years at least) invested our attention overwhelmingly on THE TEXT, meaning special kinds of writing that are deemed especially beautiful/innovative/profound/relevant/resistant. What is changing, both in the discipline and the technological ecology in which we practice it, to refocus our attention? Who or what are we supposed to be paying attention to, if not (say) Bartleby, the Scrivener? What are some ways that this course itself moves in the direction Liu alludes to?
  5. How does Liu answer the question, “Why should literary critics pay attention to technology”? What do you find surprising or un/convincing about this answer?
  6. How does the rise of social computing change the object of literary study? In other words, what do we read now, and how do we read it differently than before?
  7. What does Liu say about what happens to what we used to think of as simply reading literature in the era of social computing? What verbs start to displace “read” to describe what we can do with literature?
  8. How does Liu end the essay? What is the future challenge of scholars (and students) thinking about (say) the relationship between reading Melville seriously in a 300-level lit seminar and “liking” photos on Instagram?