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Understanding how we understand George Floyd

Demonstrators peacefully protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial on June 4.

Demonstrators peacefully protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial on June 4. Image by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” the renowned critical theorist Walter Benjamin contrasts the “story” with the morning news, the primary mode in which information was disseminated in his era. Benjamin was not interested in the idea of a story: what makes something a story, how stories work. He was instead interested in the tradition of storytelling, what about a story causes it to be retold. Benjamin argued that the news contains no noteworthy stories because it presents events “already…shot through with explanation.” The events do not remain with us because they require no further meditation or analysis to be understood; they have no reason to be retold. They have already been consumed at the moment they are read.

Today, we daily consume a different form of news media, but it could not be more the same. We do not take in an event and walk away to ponder it. Instead, everything we consume is inseparable from its immediate interpretation. We do not watch events on CSPAN. We watch them on Fox News and MSNBC and CNN. These events are accompanied by pundits who tell us how to interpret the events we are watching. The events are not allowed to percolate in our minds for even a second before a host of commentators immediately tells us what they mean.

For Benjamin, this is the end of the event. There is no reason to retell the story we have consumed. All of its questions have already been answered.

A story told properly, in contrast, is never done; it goes on forever. “There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis,” writes Benjamin in his essay. “And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely it is integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later.”

The story is noteworthy precisely because the storyteller refrains from offering up more than an image. The hearer of this story is motivated to process the story through the act of its retelling. Indeed, “it is half the art of storytelling to keep the story free from explanation.”

This is what distinguishes our consumption of the George Floyd story from other similar stories that we read about and watch on the news. I consumed the story of Breonna Taylor simultaneously with its commentary. I was told its meaning at the same time as I was told of the events that transpired. I similarly consumed the story of Ahmaud Arbery, only this time the story was told with the aid of video footage. The video footage was played and its frames were frozen while I was told what I was watching, what led up to the events and what it meant.

This is not how I encountered the story of George Floyd. I, like many of you, experienced the event prior to, and unaccompanied by, commentary. I simply clicked on a link sent to me by a friend and watched a video of a man being slowly killed in public while people stood by and watched. Some present objected to what was taking place, some documented it on their phones, and some stood by idly. But I was forced to try to make sense of the events taking place as they were happening on my screen.

And it is so hard to make sense of such an image, such a story. Sure, the commentators are still there. They try to tell me what the story means – police brutality, the oppressive race and class organization of our society, the role of government, etc. But the reason why this story needs to be retold over and over, the reason why our nation will not let this story go away, is because we are truly unable to find meaning in the events – in watching a man slowly die at the knee of another.

As each second of the video passes, we feel more and more compelled to do something to stop it, but we are powerless. In watching the video we feel complicit because we are doing nothing, even though the events happened in the past. We are helpless in our inability to help this man. The events are not interpretable even after they have happened, even after the commentators try to impose their meanings upon us after the fact. We are forced to retell the story over and over until we can make meaning in it for ourselves.

It is only the process of retelling the story as a nation, over and over, that will allow us to find its true meaning. We act out in all kinds of ways, some good and some bad, as we struggle with its incomprehensibility. And I am optimistic that, through this retelling, we will be compelled to change systemically as a nation. But that change starts at the level of millions of individuals who integrate the story into their own experience of the world as they tell it over and over.

Zvi Septimus received his PhD in Jewish Studies from UC Berkeley and has subsequently held research and teaching positions at Harvard University, the University of Toronto, Cornell University, and Harvard Law School.

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