Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Amazing Ourselves from Second Nature

So, they say that three times makes a pattern, and in that trinitarian spirit, I would like to share one more view on Amazing Ourselves to Death, to follow up on A Jewish Take on Amusing and Amazing, and the Catholic view from Fordham Notes Amazing. This one comes from Second Nature, which describes itself as "an online journal for critical thinking about technology and new media in light of the Christian tradition."

Entitled Lance Strate’s “Amazing Ourselves to Death”: A Review, the article posted on May 5th is the first full book review, and the author, Peter Fallon, was one of Neil Postman's students as well. Peter is also a media ecology scholar and the author of several books, Printing, Literacy, and Education in 18th Century Ireland: Why the Irish Speak English, The Metaphysics of Media: Toward an End of Postmodern Cynicism and the Construction of a Virtuous Reality, and Cultural Defiance, Cultural Deviance: Collected Essays

Anyway, the point is that Peter is not only well qualified to review my book, but could well have written his own version of it, as well.

So, let's see how Peter begins his review. Perhaps with an engaging anecdote?

Years ago at NBC News, Gene Shalit told me a story about the difficulties of being an arts critic on television. In 1974 he delivered a less than appreciative review of the sentimental Joe Camp movie Benji, about a lovable, stray and cloyingly cute mixed-breed dog and his unlikely adventures. As he always did at the end of his “Critic’s Corner” segment, he segued into a commercial spot with the tag line, “Now, it’s time for this message. This is TODAY on NBC.” Later, he recounted, he was walking past the Guild Theatre on 50th Street, where Benji happened to be playing, and noticed the marquee. Below the huge letters spelling out the name of both the movie and its eponymous mongrel/star, he saw what was, in truth, an actual quote from his “Critic’s Corner” review: “It’s time for this message. – Gene Shalit, TODAY Show.”

A good one, Peter. And I am really flattered about the way that he connects the story to the subject of his review:

With this cautionary tale in mind, and recognizing that for a closed-minded minority of techno-utopians Neil Postman was a reactionary and a Luddite, a relic of a literate age nostalgic for a simpler time, I never the less wish to report about Lance Strate’s Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited: It’s time for this message. Like Postman, Lance Strate understands that while the medium may be the message, some messages transcend media, defy media, and resist reduction to mere afterthought. Postman’s (1984) critique of the American television culture of nearly thirty years ago was such a message; Strate’s reconsideration and updating of that critique is not a new message, but constitutes, rather, a continuation of Postman’s message in Amusing Ourselves to Death (AOTD).

This seems like a good place to pause briefly and add in the really cool graphic that accompanied Peter's review:

Okay, now as he was saying:

After finishing the book I sat quietly and thoughtfully trying to think of a couple of appropriate adjectives to sum up my initial reaction to it. (Adjectives, I’ve come to believe, are the heart of any critical review, and the wrong adjective can take what was intended to be a glowing review and make it tepid and half-hearted; by the same token, a carelessly chosen adjective can make what was intended to be an incisive and critical review appear to the reader little more than an exercise in puffery.) The first descriptive word that came into my head was “important,” but to that closed-minded minority I mentioned above this word will appear to be a very subjective judgment. Another adjective that came to mind was “authoritative.” Again I corrected myself, remembering that we’re living in an age where the concept of authority has been rendered impotent by a media ecology that places subjective, personal opinion on an equal level (at the very least) with what was once called “expert opinion”–the informed opinion of someone who has systematically studied, in a disciplined way, with the use of empirical methods, some phenomenon or group of phenomena in the physical, natural, biological or social sciences.

I finally settled on a descriptor that I believe is unquestionably true and, therefore, unquestionably objective: mature. Lance Strate’s Amazing Ourselves to Death is a mature reconsideration of an important media theorist and cultural critic and what is perhaps his best-known book. It is also a mature consideration–one of the most mature, well-rounded, and unbiased I have read–of our current culture of amusement and diversion. Strate is neither cynical nor naïve in his attention to Postman’s observations or the culture that was the subject of those observations. He succumbs neither to nostalgia nor apologetics, but carefully and objectively delivers a point-by-point reappraisal of Postman’s argument and the evidence with which he supported it. He also provides contemporary evidence, where appropriate, to illustrate the continuing relevance of AOTD to today’s media ecology. It is precisely this kind of intellectual maturity that makes Strate’s book both an essential companion to AOTD as well as an important piece of scholarship in its own right.

So, I must admit that the adjective "mature" took me a little bit by surprise. Getting on in years, I hate to say it, but I resemble that remark. Of course, I remember the days when I was described as anything but... (for a long time, I  often found myself to be the youngest member of whatever group I was a part of). 

But one of the amazing things about Neil Postman was his ability to understand other people, and reveal to them something about themselves that they didn't know or realize until he pointed it out. For me, and this goes back to when I was in my early 20s, he once said to me, "you're like me, Lance, you take responsibility." And to be honest, I didn't think of myself as being a particularly responsible person, but he saw something in me that I had not seen in myself. So maybe Peter's description of the book as mature is also an insight of the same sort, something I had not previously considered.

Anyway, back to Peter's review: 

In many ways, this book is both an echo of Neil Postman and a reflection of his legacy. It is organized in two sections; the first serves as “echo,” a recap, a primer on the life, work, and legacy of Neil Postman. The second is a reflection, a deeply thoughtful interpretation and reconsideration, within the context of a complex digital culture, of Postman’s original critique of television culture.

Let me just interrupt here to point out that Peter has cleverly alluded to my first book, Echoes And Reflections: On Media Ecology As a Field of Study:

 Okay, back to Peter once more:

The first part of the book is comprised of four chapters: the first restates Postman’s original argument that “what we love will ruin us” (p. viii), that we are drowning in a “sea of amusements” (p. 156), our “serious discourse [dissolving] into giggles” (ibid.), our culture being “drained by laughter” (ibid.); the second is a biographical sketch of Postman himself which provides a useful and interesting context within which to situate his work and thoughts; the third considers media ecology as both meta-discipline and method; and the fourth surveys the changing technological (and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual) terrain leading up AOTD as well as that of the (nearly) three decades since its publication.

In Part Two Strate focuses on four major themes from AOTD–the news, politics, religion, and education – and reexamines them in the light of our contemporary digital, info-glutted, 24/7/365 media ecology. He finds much cultural grist for the intellectual mill, and finely grinds out a meal of critical insights that should nourish (if only they would taste) even the most militantly unquestioning believer in the universal efficacy of the technological solution. In a chapter called “Breaking the News” (Strate is an inveterate wordsmith and punster, and the double entendre is priceless) he considers Postman’s concern that serious discourse was falling prey to entertainment, and calls our attention to how even the idea of entertainment has changed in a crowded and boisterous free-market. In “The Tribe Has Spoken” Strate considers Postman’s argument that television transforms culture–and, consequently, democracy–in a way that the Founders never could have anticipated; and notes that we are now in the process of squandering the opportunities offered by the Internet and so-called “social media” to use the power of those media for our collective benefit. “Neon Gods” recalls Postman’s conscientious objection to the unlikely–but again widely accepted–possibility that television might constitute a “sacred space” wherein the internal experience of spirit may be fruitfully pursued, and points out that in the noisy, hyper-connected world of wi-fi, cellular, and mobile Internet, silent contemplation has become the quaintest of notions. And in “Grand Theft Education” Strate reconsiders Postman’s description of television as an educational curriculum with no prerequisites, without complexity, without context, dependent not on exposition but on images and sounds and music; he then considers the implications of the increasingly technologized pedagogies of today (what I like to consider, in Jacques Ellul’s words, an extremely cynical technological bluff) for the children–and citizens–of tomorrow. (As I write this the Washington Post has reported on a suburban New York school district where an elementary school has cancelled the annual end-of-the-year kindergarten play so as not to distract these four- and five-year-olds from what I am sure is highly technical work; play and socialization fall in favor of “preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills…”)

In the final chapter of the book, Strate contrasts Marshall McLuhan’s view of understanding media with that of Neil Postman. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom” was McLuhan’s guiding metaphor for navigating the treacherous waters of technological change. I’ve had many discussions and even arguments, some quite heated, with colleagues and scholars who insist I am misinterpreting McLuhan (and ignoring his Catholicism) in taking issue with his stance. But it was McLuhan (1997) himself who once said “A moral point of view too often substitutes for understanding in technical matters” (p. 66) and I take him at his word. The old sailor who survives the maelstrom by becoming one with its awesome and destructive flow does so at the expense of the lives of his brothers; he took no risks for them and saved himself instead. Strate, however, proposes Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as a suitable metaphor within which to understand Postman’s approach to understanding media. Young, naïve Miranda, witnessing the results of her Prospero’s sorcery as storm-tossed sailors are thrown aground on her shore, is both amazed and amused by the spectacle of the first foreigners she’s ever seen. “O brave new world,” she says, breathlessly, “that has such people in’t.” These same words are uttered by John the savage in Huxley’s Brave New World in learning that he would leave his reservation and live in the World State he’d heard of in legend. The dystopic reality he finds, however, is too much for him and he kills himself.

Postman’s approach is to reject the responses of both Miranda and John, to be neither enthralled nor distraught by change, to neither serve technology nor recoil in fear of it. Instead, as Strate tells us, “Postman advocated respectful engagement, open dialogue, and being a loving resistance fighter” (p. 137). Understanding media, technology, and technological change, to Postman, is no different from understanding any aspect of human culture and the human experience: we create it; it does not thereafter shape us in its likeness. Our human intelligence, whether one sees it as evolved or a gift of Divine Providence, has provided us with the therapeutic intervention that serves as antidote to our animal nature: language. And our language allows us to both reason and feel, to make judgments and to empathize. Our literacy is the key to our critical faculties, to understanding that it is we who are agents of change or of stasis, we who are responsible for creating the world we live in, we who construct the realities in which we reside.

It’s time for this message.

And what a great way to connect the end of the review with the opening anecdote. And thank you Peter, that was truly wonderful.

Oh, and there are some end notes:

Get the book:

Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited
Lance Strate
New York: Peter Lang, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4331-1930-9
Works Cited

McLuhan, M. (1997). Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin.

Strate, L. (2014). Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited. New York: Peter Lang.

And since you bring it up, here are the Amazon links:


And when it comes to noting all the ways in which Neil Postman was right about the impact of electronic media on society and culture, well, I guess you could say that comes as second nature too.

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