Sunday, January 17, 2010

Apropos of an Email From Greg Milman on Neil Postman

(As blogger) my take on Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death:” it is a work of epistemological genius. It is a supreme epistemological critique of the moment we are in, even though written in 1984. And I have yet to read “Technopoly!” For me, he is the canary in the coalmine. We are trapped in the unreality of the visual image and the fact. And we don’t know it. This is most dangerous. It is the expose of the ideology subjacent in Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” As you will see below in the Postman quote: “in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”

Contrast this with Benedict XVI’s remarks on the Word of God that must be heard and assimilated by the humility of self-giftedness, and then turned into obedience in concrete action:

"In aeternum, Domine, verbum tuum constitutum est in caelo... firmasti terram, et permanet". This refers to the solidity of the Word. It is solid; it is the true reality on which one must base one's life. Let us remember the words of Jesus who continues the words of this Psalm: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away". Humanly speaking, the word, my human word, is almost nothing in reality, a breath. As soon as it is pronounced it disappears. It seems to be nothing. But already the human word has incredible power. Words create history; words form thoughts, the thoughts that create the word. It is the word that forms history, reality.

Furthermore, the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life[1].

Postman’s point: dominated by the ideology of the visual screen, words have no differentiation since they are mere information, and as mere information they represent “trivia.” Everything is trivial. The self stands (sits) before the TV and looks. Passively. No matter what the content. There is no need for censorship since censorship presupposes a public that can distinguish between the important and the not important. There, everything must be laid out for universal consumption. And nothing makes any difference. Even God. The best way to hide God is to include Him in the universal distribution of trivia. Similarly, the so-called “health plan.” What possibly could be buried in 2,200 pages of script to be voted on?

I take Postman’s main point to be that every technology comes equipped with an ideology. He says: “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same, Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”[2]

The Following is an Email from Greg Milman on his reading of Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death:”

I have to make a correction; the book I'm reading is "The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development". The machine is a social machine-- the organization of people by force under a god-king, or an ideology in contemporary times.

Mumford makes the point that writing was invented to convey the will of the ruler through a bureaucratic machine (The Egyptians had already raised bureaucracy to a high level of refinement) to the workers, whose personality and individuality were stripped away so that they could become mere functionaries.

Mumford has not said this: but it seems apparent that Moses led the people out of this "machine" and that Christ did so similarly by presenting a new model of kingship, one that served rather than dominated the person, one that restored God-imaging humanity. One conclusion is that God is about freedom, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and David and Jesus has always called people out of the machine (Abraham's Ur was no doubt a social machine under a king and similar in many respects to Egypt). Another, less clear, is that as Christians in the machine we must always be rebels against it -- because we cannot serve God and Mammon, and the machine is Mammon's. We cannot sanctify the machine because by its nature the machine stands against God and freedom.

Larry Kudlow stands for the machine. When you read Ratzinger and he shouted "nonsense" he was shouting from the perspective of one so much part of and devoted to the machine that he cannot tolerate the public pronouncement of human freedom, human dignity, because these are heresy to the cult of the god-king of materialist, determinist capitalism. This machine cannot be sanctified, any more than Pharaonic Egypt or Assyria or Babylon or Rome could be sanctified, any more than the Third Reich or the USSR could be sanctified. By standing for sanctification of work and service and self gift, and for a God not made by man, but whose only true image is a true, free man (who accepts death on a cross and refuses to become the god-king of a machine) we stand against the machine that worships a god-king of domination instead of God, and the kingship of self gift in service.

What does this have to do with Neil Postman and "Amusing"? The print culture was a two-edged sword. Pre-Guttenberg, literacy was the secret lore of a class -- the class that ruled was the class with access to the secret language of letters, which opened the door to knowledge unavailable to the masses. Mumford mentions a criticism an ancient Egyptian leveled against rebels, that they had made the secret knowledge of the temples available to all, thereby nullifying an important tool that the ruling class has used to maintain its dominance. Guttenberg's press and subsequent presses made exclusive, secret knowledge available to all. In time, this did lead to revolutions, to the destruction of machines that had made slaves, serfs, proletarians. When people could read freely, they could think freely, and they could act on what they thought.

Television culture, by rendering print irrelevant, renders thought of that sort impossible -- this seems to be Postman's point, that this image culture eliminates a certain kind of thought. Certain ideas are inexpressible in images -- in fact, ideas are almost inexpressible in images, only feelings are expressible in images, unless the images are hieroglyphs or allegories or ideographs, but those are not the images of the TV and computer screens.

A narrow elite controls the images, as a narrow elite controlled pre-Guttenberg print, and a narrow elite controlled the temple cults of the Egyptian machine. Even though now, anybody can put videos on YouTube, and even though the occasional video goes viral, still, the real power belongs to those who possess the secret knowledge of making effective images, those that elicit the desired emotional response from the masses, and who control the big channels of distribution that make sure those and only those images reach the masses. Think Roger Ailes at Fox, or to a lesser extent now the 3 major TV networks and CNN. Ailes happens to be better at this than any of them, but they're all in the same game, and the differences among them are accidental rather than substantial, because they are all part of the new machine, and this machine works the same harm on men that such machines have always wrought.

At any rate, I recommend Mumford. Postman also mentions Roland Barthes on myth. I've heard of Barthes but have not read him. Have you?


[1] Key Note Address to the Synod on “The Word of God,” October 8, 2008.

[2] Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Penguin Books (1984) 157-158.

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