Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything

Personally connecting the dots.  All of them. This is the tagline of the Radiotopia podcast Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, and the tagline’s absurdist reach is partly why this is such a stunningly listenable and teachable podcast.  Benjamen brings artists and activists together with academics, often framing discussions in the first-person: in this way, his episodes dramatize many of the most important questions of critical theory, existentialism, feminist theory and media studies.   Every episode anchors the concrete in the conceptual and, at the same time, dramatizes highly complex ideas through conversation, reflection and stories.

Especially teachable episodes

   Benjamen’s 3-part series, Instaserfs, brings to life, in vivid if at times graphic detail, the existential significance of the “sharing economy.”  Particularly relevant for thinking about life in our neo-liberal era.

   Another 3-part series, New York After Rent, is an impeccable exploration of two seemingly unrelated events:  the emergence of Airbnb in New York City and the closure of the Broadway Musical Rent. As he explores the entangled nature of these events, Benjamen talks about gentrification with Sarah Schulman, faces his own fading idealism about “art,” and invites us all to contemplate the very possibility of “critique” in an age of self-entrepreneurship and what Schulman calls “the gentrification of the mind.”

    Here’s a set of discussion questions based around episode 3  from New York After Rent  (the three episodes in the series can work as stand-alone pieces).

   Benjamen recently did a multi-series exploration of surveillance that is very teachable.  The first episode introduces us to the Panopticon, and subsequent episodes explore a much greater range of models, abstractions and diagnoses of “surveillance.”   (The episodes in the series work as stand-alone pieces).

Particularly teachable in this series is the episode “The Fairest of Them All,” in which Benjamen visits a conceptual and performance art exhibit, the Glass Room, and then stops by a Google pop up store.     Benjamen muses, “Visiting the Google Room after the Glass Room was both extremely illuminating and disorienting. Do we really need black mirrors in order to see the dark side of filling our homes with devices that listen to our every word and track our every gesture? Do we really need black mirrors to see that our data is being used to build powerful surveillance and advertising—based systems of control? And if we do, how do we compete? That’s the question I struggle with.”     This episode is particularly teachable  because many of the artists, profiled in the episode, have wonderfully interactive art online that students can observe, engage with and ponder.