Benjamen Walker – Group 1
Understanding Benjamen Walker
A title like “Theory of Everything” sounds random at first, but it is clear that the podcast’s emphasis is on technology and its influence on our culture. Finding connections where seemingly none could be made is perhaps Benjamen Walker’s most appealing talent. Walker, the man behind ToE, offers simple advice: One must believe in the human voice. It is the guiding force behind the intimacy of the podcast, enabling it to establish an instant and heartfelt connection with the listener. This is the fundamental rule that Walker holds tightly while engaging with his listeners. He loves different accents, different perspectives and different angles to view the world, but what is most striking about Walker’s work is the narrative – the crests and troughs – and its ability to convey the diversity of human voices.
Walker insists that radio is a personal medium, the boundaries of which he has been exploring since 2006 – the time he moved to New York City, a place, according to Walker, that is abundant with potential interviewees. In his talk with The New School on October 27, 2014, he insisted that podcasts are most effective when they say something, instead of selling something. He believes that people tend to trust most of what they hear on the radio; so he playfully interweaves fact with fiction, keeping it fun but also real. Walker’s work is thus part of a long radio tradition; consider the “War of the Worlds” fake news program, which caused widespread panic among listeners.
The success of this podcast, however, really stems from personalized branding. By finding his voice, Walker differentiated himself and his content from other similar efforts and thus was able to establish the unique character of his own brand. While the topics themselves are not revolutionary or even unforgettably novel, connecting them in an accessible and engaging podcast attracts his audience.
If there is one issue that elicits the most emotion from Walker, it is the case of podcast success (or failure) in the age of hyper-commercialization. While Walker claims that he is not interested in commercialization, we wonder if he would have the same feeling if crowd-funding did not exist. For comparison’s sake, HBO’s business model relies on paid subscriptions, so they do not have to conform to advertisers. If there was no crowd-funding, would Benjamen Walker’s podcast have to conform to advertisers, or would he employ a paid subscription model as well?
The Underlying Theory Behind Theory of Everything
In order to grasp the underpinnings of Benjamen Walker’s philosophy, one must understand the significance of theory. Although Walker delves in the issue of praxis and activism in several podcasts, he tackles of the subject of theory more regularly. Walker is more concerned with the philosophical roots of life. It is evident in his work that theory is crucial. It functions as a foundational belief as to how the world works on its own but also how we understand the world around us. Each one of us lives our lives according to our personal and internalized philosophies. Walker’s podcasts serve as an eclectic mix of thoughts, musings and even ramblings. The rhizome of Walker’s work is simple: Everyone has a theory.
Podcasts have become a popular means of disseminating knowledge to the public. Theory of Everything, in particular, maintains the ability to connect complex arguments into digestible bits of information, while it can also take chunks of statistical data – otherwise intimidating to the average person – and overlay them into relatable stories about real people who experience the impact of these datasets in everyday life. A podcast has a unique capacity to make knowledge experiential.
Walker infuses audio with theory in order to explain the roots of a social reality or even a conspiracy theory, weave an ebulliently narrated story or a firmly-grounded essay that encourages the listener to reflect upon life. The topics he addresses range from internet surveillance, net neutrality, urban lifestyle, alienation, Wikileaks and a myriad of other equally captivating subjects.
To give our readers a gist of Walker’s work, we have listed three of our favorite podcasts below, summarized each and embedded the audio.
When You’re Lonely, Life is Very Long
Walker opens the discussion on loneliness in urban spaces in Western democracies by citing the example of writer Olivia Laing’s experience in New York after a bitter breakup with her girlfriend. Laing and Walker speculate on the nature of loneliness. The issue of class remains absent from Laing’s narration of her experiences as a “loner” in New York until Walker raises the relationship between citizen experience and state welfare management. Living alone is also a state affair. Welfare states can enable living alone without the baggage of ennui and desperation as the state’s apparatus provides the citizen with the economic cushioning one requires to live in more stable conditions. In the case of neoliberal states, living alone equates to the lack of proper social infrastructure necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
Guided by Voices
The second podcast revolves around classical philosophy. Kant deemed Pythagoras the first philosopher of the world. Pythagoras concerned himself with the question of harmony in the universe mathematically and musically produced by nature. Walker’s “Guides By Voices” episode centers on the antagonistic relation between harmony and disharmony in the universe under Kant, Pythagoras and Kepler’s discoveries. Benjamen and Daniel Heller-Roazen discuss the “fifth hammer” – the discordance inherent in the system we lived in – and go through a range of topics from the infinite to the representation of the infinite in philosophy down to the very abstract and almost elusive voices we hear and compel us to do what we do in quotidian experiences. This podcast in particular demonstrates Walker’s ability to put forth dense metaphysical material in more understandable and intriguing words.
1984 (The Year, Not The Book)
The third podcast is our favorite. With the rise of internet scrutiny and surveillance on civilians, Orwellian analysis of citizen freedom and government secrecy is making a constant appearance in both academe and popular discourse. Walker narrates the entire phenomenon from a first-person perspective, as a young boy at the age of twelve in the year 1984. Reaganomics, festering paranoia about the Red Scare, citizen curiosity about the spread of surveillance are among the musings of a boy who wants, like any other youngster at that age and in that epoch, electronic gadgets for his own pleasure. This podcast piques the interest of the reader in several ways – particularly by using fictional accounts, rather than dry and dull polemics, to spark insightful discussions about citizen freedom, government spying and media-inculcated propaganda.
The key to Walker’s successful podcasts is his love for the intimacy of the human voice. It is often assumed that the medium of radio is rapidly losing its power and appeal – thanks in large part to the highly visual and textual worlds of the Internet and mobile technologies – but with the emergence of the podcast, Walker shows us how the human voice is still very much a compelling and “auratic” force for millions of listeners. What’s more, the voice offers the potential to connect, mobilize and materialize public conscience and unity over a range of issues otherwise neglected. It’s by tapping into the cogency of the human voice, combined with his conversational, accessible approach to analyzing the world around us, that Walker wins the attention and praise of a diverse audience.