In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” in which he contrasts the dissemination of information with storytelling, Walter Benjamin writes:
Information […] lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear “understandable in itself.” Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling. If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs.
Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. […] The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.
Benjamin’s remarks resonate today, in part, because the Information Age actually preceded the Computer Age, as much as we might conflate the two, the latter merely amping up the erosions produced by information that Benjamin describes, as in the current state of higher education, where courses are being reduced to “goals and outcomes” that can be translated into bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation, so students can figure out how to pass tests, those dubious, blunt tools for determining “student success.”
Today’s “student-based teaching,” in which the focus of the classroom supposedly has shifted from the professor performing virtuostic feats of hermeneutical derring-do to students doing the heavy lifting instead, is really a curriculum-based teaching, in which what students learn trumps students learning, in the name, it would seem, of the fungibility of courses and degrees. “Intro to Poli Sci” in one college, the argument goes, should be the same as in another so college credits can transfer more easily, just as a Big Mac should taste pretty much the same no matter what McDonald’s you’re at.
And so knowledge is confused with acquiring skills or information rather than as the experience it actually is. Our interaction with the world and our knowing of it has come to mean obtaining more information. But in its quality of being “understandable in itself,” its irrefutable plausibility that lacks storytelling’s amplitude, information has a shimmering insubstantiality ironically rendered invisible if linked to opacity, where PowerPoint presentations short out in involutions of thought.
This fragile tangibility of information is put through its paces by Caryl Churchill in her 2012 play Love and Information, as was made clear to me this past January when Minneapolis’ Frank Theatre rehearsed the play for their February production. Love and Information is made up of roughly fifty-nine discrete scenes that rarely last more than a few minutes each and are laid out on the page with little guidance from Churchill. Dialogue is presented in a form that resembles poetry; line breaks suggest changes in voice, but that’s it. There aren’t explicit settings, characters, or number of characters. True, some exchanges suggest a relationship, or at least a type of relationship, in turn suggesting who these characters might be, but most are purposely ambiguous.
The radically disjointed structure of Love and Information means, then, that in order to be taken in by the audience, each scene needs to establish itself quickly, to be “understandable in itself,” or it will end before the audience can catch up with it. Convoluted—or opaque—concepts would require too much work, the audience not seeing what was taking place in a scene as they worked hard to “see” the scene in a familiar conceptual framework. The impulse is to stage the scenes so they are instantly legible, rendering them in the most familiar, recognizable ways—that is, to risk banality. But the artistic temperaments of those involved in Frank’s production (and, one would assume, in most productions) resisted this impulse because we knew, even if intuitively, that the information, the point, of scenes is never really the fabric of the experience of a play any more than it is of life. Rather, it is the play of affect, intensities of even information itself, elusive, receding, appearing and disappearing (disappearing, too, in its appearance) that isn’t just what we experience, it is experience itself. It is us.
Responses to Frank’s production of Love and Information revealed the canniness of Churchill’s linking information with love and how it points—as does the very dramaturgy of her play—to Benjamin’s concern about the loss of a mode of communication that leaves interpretation to the reader, or in this case, the audience member, while attempting to redress it at the same time. People would leave the theater a bit dazed, baffled, exhausted by the barrage of scenes that involved people engaging with information in one way or another. Some would tell me that they had a lot to think about, others would ask me what the play meant, yet others said they were considering coming back on a Sunday, when Frank hosts discussions, to get a better handle on what the show was about. All of them told me they could see the “information” but, they wanted to know, where was the love? When I was first asked this, I was surprised. “It’s in the relationships among the characters. It’s there, throughout the whole play,” I would say.
Startled that they had somehow missed what had been there right in front on them, they would nod slowly as they began to realize what they had overlooked because, unlike the information that was often openly discussed in each scene, the love was not shot through with explanation. It was rarely discussed. In other words, it had been there all along, saturating the play and the experiencing of it, but had been banished in their imaginations by something much less substantial, exposing the way information empties our lives if we let it.