A new essay about the Marshall McLuhan disciple, Neil Postman
You like dead white guys? How about a dead white guy who was the disciple of a dead white guy?
Postman is the subject of a recent essay at the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourses (a publication that has increasingly been catching my attention). If you’re interested in how the media of television, smartphones, and social media, I believe it’s a “must-read.”
Postman called television a propagator of “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.”
That seems an apt description of the first presidential debate, as well as of broader trends we have witnessed this year. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that our digital age, in innumerable ways, aggravates our social and political distemper.
In order to understand Postman, it’s necessary to understand McLuhan’s iconic saying, “The medium is the message,” which means that extensions of ourselves (e.g., a hammer extends our muscles) alter us in fundamental ways, regardless of the message loaded onto the medium.
So, for instance, TV alters us fundamentally, regardless of whether we’re using it to watch Masked Singer or the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. The mere fact that we are viewing TV changes us. The content doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that we are using TV at all.
And it’s TV where Postman parted with McLuhan. McLuhan was excited at the possibilities of electronic media. He saw it returning us to our “whole self,” which was ripped apart with the advent of print. In Postman’s words about McLuhan’s vision:
Electronic communication contains in its structure, that is, its speed, its volume, its multi-directionality, and its forms, the possibility of making us whole again, of retrieving the oral tradition of reclaiming the richness of multiple perspectives . . . Once again, sight, sound, touch, and taste will blend graciously and healthfully.Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, ix.
Postman didn’t share this enthusiasm. He’s more in the vein of other media theorists like Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, and Jacques Ellul.
To be honest, I don’t know where I stand. I think it changes with my moods.
When I’m optimistic, I’m with McLuhan.
When I’m pessimistic, I’m with Postman.
As of this writing, after thinking about electronics in the age of BLM and COVID hysteria, I’m more Postman, but give me a few drinks, and I might veer more into McLuhan’s camp.
Either way, it’s a crucial perspective to keep in mind as we all try to sort through these postmodern times.