Postman On Media, Politics, and Childhood

In The Disappearance of Childhood, first published in 1982, Neil Postman writes the following:

Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, there can be no clear concept of what it means to be a child. Thus, the idea … that our electric information environment is ‘disappearing’ childhood … can also be expressed by saying that our electric information environment is disappearing adulthood.

How so, you ask?

[A]dulthood is largely a product of the printing press. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with adulthood are those that are (and were) either generated or amplified by the requirements of a fully literate culture: the capacity for self-restraint, a tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order. As electric media move literacy to the periphery of culture and take its place at the center, different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge.

To be clear, Postman is obviously not talking about the number of years one has been alive. Rather he is talking about a social reality — the idea of adulthood, a particular model of what constitutes adulthood — not a biologically given reality.

Postman chooses to begin elaborating this claim with a discussion of “political consciousness and judgment in a society in which television carries the major burden of communicating political information,” about which he has the following to say:

In the television age, political judgment is transformed from an intellectual assessment of propositions to an intuitive and emotional response to the totality of an image. In the television, people do not so much agree or disagree with politicians as like or dislike them. Television redefines what is meant by ‘sound political judgment’ by making it into an aesthetic rather than a logical matter.

How might we update this discussion of television to account for digital media, especially social media? There’s a hint in the way we refer to the people who engage with each. We tend to talk about television’s audience or its viewers and of social media users. Social media users, in other words, are not merely passive consumers of media. By drawing us in as active participants, social media weaponizes the superficiality engendered by television. We might also say that “sound political judgment” becomes a matter not only of the candidate’s aesthetic but of our own aesthetic as well.

Finally, here’s a passage from Rudolph Arnheim quoted by Postman:

We must not forget in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts. For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think. When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

That’s a strong claim right there at the end. It was made in 1935. Maybe we should hesitate to put the matter quite so starkly. Perhaps we can simply say not that the mind shrinks, but that certain habits of thought atrophy or are left underdeveloped. In any case, I was struck by this paragraph because it seemed a useful way of characterizing online arguments conducted with memes. Replace “pointing a finger” with “posting a meme.” Of course, the point is that calling these arguments is all wrong. Posting a meme to make a point is like shouting QED without ever having presented your proofs. The argument, such as it is, is implicit and it is taken in at a glance, it is grasped intuitively. There’s very little room for persuasion in this sort of exchange.

A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

The Miracle That Saves the World

are-233x300“Hannah Arendt is preeminently the theorist of beginnings,” according to Margaret Canovan in her Introduction to Arendt’s The Human Condition. “Reflections on the human capacity to start something new pervade her thinking,” she adds.

I’ve been thinking about this theme in Arendt’s work, particularly as the old year faded and the new one approached. Arendt spoke of birth and death, natality and morality, as the “most general condition of human existence.” Whereas most Western philosophy had taken its point of departure from the fact of our mortality, Arendt made a point of emphasizing natality, the possibility of new beginnings.

“The most heartening message of The Human Condition,” Canovan writes,

is its reminder of human natality and the miracle of beginning. In sharp contrast to Heidegger’s stress on our mortality, Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions.”

This is, indeed, a heartening message. One that we need to take to heart in these our own darkening days. Below are a three key paragraphs in which Arendt develops her understanding of the importance of natality in human affairs.

First, on the centrality of natality to political activity:

[T]he new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought

Natality was a theme that predated the writing of The Human Condition. Here is the closing paragraph of arguably her best known work, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written a few years earlier.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–”that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In a well-known passage from The Human Condition, Arendt refers to the fact of natality as the “miracle that saves the world.” By the word world, Arendt does not mean the Earth, rather what we could call, borrowing a phrase from historian Thomas Hughes, the human-built world, what she glosses as “the realm of human affairs.” Here is the whole passage:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

Arendt well understood, however, that not all new beginnings would be good or just or desirable.

If without action and speech, without the articulation of natality, we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bearing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes.

In fact, Arendt attributes “the frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together” to the “human condition of natality.” However, Arendt believed there were two capacities that channeled and constrained the power of action, the unpredictable force of natality: forgiveness and promise keeping. More on that, perhaps, in a later post.

Twitter: Trump’s Ring of Power

“I often tell students,” media scholar Henry Jenkins once noted, “that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

It’s a provocative grouping, which gives the observation its punch, and, as far as I can tell, it is also an accurate assessment. The engine, so to speak, that drives the media-related transformations of political or religious culture is the imperative to “get your message out.” Of course, as media theorists have observed, how you get your message out may transform the message itself and the audience.

We might say, then, that Twitter is to Trump what radio was to FDR or TV was to Kennedy or Reagan.

It is not that FDR was the first to use radio, or Kennedy TV, or Trump Twitter–those firsts were Coolidge, Truman, and Obama, respectively. Rather it is that these were the first presidents to fully exploit the potential of each medium, for better or for worse. Their success depended upon a confluence of personal qualities, existing cultural dynamics, and the affordances of the medium. Their success also reconfigured the norms of political culture and discourse–there was no going back and no way to undo the consequences.

The striking thing about Trump’s use of Twitter is how he deploys it, not only to circumvent the press but to control the other media as well. Need to shake up the news cycle? No problem, a tweet will do it. Thus the real power of Twitter was not necessarily that of reaching the audience on Twitter itself, which is quite small compared to TV, but in setting the agenda for how other media would cover the election and transition. It is as if Twitter were Sauron’s ring, the one ring to rule them all. In this case, the one medium to rule all media.

Incidentally, not unlike Sauron’s ring, Twitter also tempts users with power, the power to torment and destroy ideological opponents by unleashing armies of underlings, for example. But, like the One Ring, the power it offers to those who would wield it is ultimately illusory and destructive. The wise refuse it. They even refuse the temptation to do good by its use, for they know the ring serves its own ends and ultimately they cannot control the forces they unleash.

Orality and Literacy Revisited

“‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” lamented John Donne in 1611. The line is from An Anatomy of the World, a poem written by Donne to mark the death of his patron’s daughter at the age of sixteen. Immediately before and after this line, Donne alludes to ruptures in the social, political, philosophical, religious, and scientific assumptions of his age. In short, Donne is registering the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that marked the transition from the premodern to the modern world.

“And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.”

In the philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s compelling analysis of this transition, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Donne is writing before the defining structures of modernity would fully emerge to stabilize the social order. Donne’s was still a time of flux between the dissolution of an old order and the emergence of a new one that would take its place–his time, we might say, was the time of death throes and birth pangs.

As Alan Jacobs, among others, has noted, the story of the emergence of modernity is a story that cannot be told without paying close attention to the technological background against which intellectual, political, and religious developments unfolded. Those technologies that we tend to think of as media technologies–technologies of word, image, and sound or technologies of representation–have an especially important role to play in this story.

I mention all of this because we find ourselves in a position not unlike Donne’s: we too are caught in a moment of instability. Traditional institutions and old assumptions that passed for common sense are proving inadequate in the face of new challenges, but we are as of yet uncertain about what new institutions and guiding assumptions will take their place. Right now, Donne’s lament resonates with us: “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”

And for us no less than for those who witnessed the emergence of modernity, technological developments are inextricably bound up with the social and cultural turbulence we are experiencing, especially new media technologies.

One useful way of thinking about these developments is provided by the work of the late Walter Ong. Ong was a scholar of immense learning who is best known for Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, a study of the cultural consequences of writing. In Ong’s view, the advent of the written word dramatically reconfigured our mental and social worlds. Primary oral cultures, cultures that have no notion of writing at all, operated quite differently than literate cultures, cultures into which writing has been introduced.

Likewise, Ong argued, the consciousness of individuals in literate cultures differs markedly from those living in an oral culture. Writing in the late twentieth century, Ong also posited the emergence of a state of secondary orality created by electronic media.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Ong and his work invoked, directly and indirectly, in a handful of pieces about media, politics, and the 2016 election.

In August 2015, Jeet Heer wrote a piece titled, “Donald Trump, Epic Hero.” In it, he proposed the following: “Trump’s rhetorical braggadocio and spite might seem crude, even juvenile. But his special way with words has a noble ancestry: flyting, a recurring trope in epic poetry that eerily resembles the real estate magnate’s habit of self-celebration and cruel mockery.” Heer, who wrote a 2004 essay on Ong for Books and Culture, grounded his defense of this thesis on Ong’s work.

In a post for Neiman Reports, Danielle Allen does not cite Ong, but she does invoke the distinction between oral and literate cultures. “Trump appears to have understood that the U.S. is transitioning from a text-based to an oral culture,” Allen concluded after discussing her early frustration with the lack of traditional policy position papers produced by the Trump campaign and its reliance on short video clips.

In Technology Review, Hossein Derakhshan, relying on Neil Postman rather than Walter Ong, argues that the image-based discourse that has, in his view, come to dominate the Internet has contributed to the rise of post-truth politics and that we do well, for the sake of our democracy, to return to text-based discourse. “For one thing,” Derakhshan writes,

we need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals. Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Writing for Bloomberg, Joe Weisenthal, like Heer, cites Ong’s Orality and Literacy to help explain Donald Trump’s rhetorical style. Building on scholarship that looked to Homer’s epic poetry for the residue of oral speech patterns, Ong identified various features of oral communication. Weisenthal chose three to explain “why someone like Donald Trump would thrive in this new oral context”: oral communication was “additive, not analytic,” relied on repetition, and was aggressively polemical. Homer gives us swift-footed Achilles, man-killing Hector, and wise Odysseus; Trump gives us Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Crooked Hillary; his speeches were jammed with mind-numbing repetition; and his style was clearly combative.

There’s something with which to quibble in each of these pieces, but raising these questions about oral, print, and image based discourse is helpful. As Ong and Postman recognized, innovations in media technology have far reaching consequences: they enable new modes of social organization and new modes of thought, they reconfigure the cognitive load of remembering, they alter the relation between self and community, sometimes creating new communities and new understandings of the self, and they generate new epistemic ecosystems.

As Postman puts it in Technopoly,

Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crisis that new media foster.

Given the seriousness of what is at stake, then, I’ll turn to some of my quibbles as a way of moving toward a better understanding of our situation. Most of my quibbles involve the need for some finer distinctions. For example, in her piece, Allen suggest that we are moving back toward an oral culture. But it is important to make Ong’s distinction: if this is the case, then it is to something like what Ong called secondary orality. A primary oral culture has never known literacy, and that makes a world of difference. However much we might revert to oral forms of communication, we cannot erase our knowledge of or dependence upon text, and this realization must inform whatever it is we mean by “oral culture.”

Moreover, I wonder whether it is best to characterize our move as one toward orality. What about the visual, the image? Derakhshan, for example, frames his piece in this way. Contrasting the Internet before and after a six year stay in an Iranian prison, Derakshan observed, “Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.” But Alan Jacobs took exception to this line of thinking. “Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text,” Jacobs notes, adding that Donald Trump rarely tweets images. “[I]t’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us,” Jacobs then concludes, “It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.”

My sense is that Jacobs is right, but Derakhshan is not wrong, which means more distinctions are in order. After all, text is visual.

My plan in the coming days, possibly weeks depending on the cracks of time into which I am able to squeeze some writing, is take a closer look at Walter Ong, particularly but not exclusively Orality and Literacy, in order to explore what resources his work may offer us as we try to understand the changes that are afoot all about us.