An Interview with Neil Postman

Neil Postman
Friday, August 31st 2007
Sep/Oct 1995

MR: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, you have a chapter on the influence of entertainment on religion. Do you think that modernity comes to us in stealth-like fashion, and sometimes Christians and other groups can be naive in viewing style as neutral?
Postman: I certainly think that it is a mistake to believe that style is neutral, especially if one means by "style" the form, or forms, in which messages address people. I try to make the point in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the style of television favors and amplifies the entertainment mode. In cases like politics, news, and especially religion, I think that poses a very serious problem, because religion’and Christianity in particular’is a demanding discipline. And although there is joy and exhalation that results from religious experience, when we present religion as nothing different from a Broadway show, I think it trivializes and corrupts the religious experience. If there are people who think that it makes no difference how messages are conveyed to people, that one form is just as good as the other, I think these people are underestimating the power of the forms in media.

MR: You make quite a bit of the printed word in Amusing Ourselves and Technopoly, and one of the things that comes to mind is the sort of shift at the time of the Reformation from the image to the printed page. Do you think that is significant in our day that we've gone back to an iconographic sort of medium, especially for those of us who are Jews and Christians who appeal to the written word?
Postman: Yes, of course I do believe that. There is a rather rapid movement away from the word and the power of the word toward iconography. One of the more interesting theologians of our time, Jaques Ellul, the French social philosopher who was very much concerned with the religious experience, wrote a book some years ago called the Humiliation of the Word. In it he talks about the very issues you're raising, and I wonder if we really know what the results of this are going to be. Much of the Judeo-Christian religion, as well as the Judeo-Christian culture that comes to us, is based on the idea that through the word we can understand ourselves and our culture. This was the great genius of Greek culture, and Christianity inherited that idea. Sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, and everything else are somehow within the domain and can be put under control of the word. As culture moves away from the word towards pictures and moving pictures, it would be a new Reformation alright, but that could be a Reformation that seriously harms our traditional understanding of religion.

MR: A lot of people talk about postmodernism; it seems as if it's merely in the realm of philosophy and the history of ideas, whereas I think one of the things you pointed out to so many of us is that there are other factors besides intellectual factors that shape the culture. In particular, when we think about postmodernism and its turn inward, involving a distrust of reason and of absolute truth. To what extent is it pushed along by the influence of such media as television and marketing?
Postman: Maybe to some extent its roots go further back. I'd say the most pervasive intellectual idea of this century (one finds it in physics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, almost everything else) is that the form in which we express whatever we have to express about the world controls to some extent what we are saying and what we can see. You find this in Heisenburg's remark that we do not see nature as it is, only by the questions we put to it. And you find in linguistics people discovering that different grammatical forms give people different perceptions of how the universe works. Some people say "We don't see things as they are but as we are." It's this idea which I think is the major thrust of scholarship in our own century.

MR: Would you say that the advent of not only television, but virtual reality, gives us that much more that jibes with our experience that tells us that the postmodern feeling is correct?
Postman: I think it is indisputable that this contention that is labeled the "postmodern view" is correct. I think we understand now that how we say things and what instruments we use to measure those things will influence the kinds of results we get. I think we understand that; it represents an advance in human understanding. Nevertheless, that sort of idea can have a psychopathic expression, and the idea that therefore everything is relative and that we can not know anything is a corrupted extension of that idea.

MR: Will it contribute ultimately to the disintegration of the mind and of high culture?
Postman: When you read some of these postmodernists, you would think that's the direction. I think there's an essential sanity in most people so that they have reality tests. Thank God.

MR: They have to live with their own common sense.
Postman: Yes. They know if they want to go from here to there and there's a mountain in between, they're going to have a problem. And they know this whether they speak English or Spanish, or anything else. There's a biological basis after all, to the human condition. We recognize that, and through our engagement with what we call "reality" there are some things we know. I think that will act as a kind of modifying idea so that our intellectual life won't be destroyed. The fact is that the astrophysicists at NASA were able, by using language and their mathematics, to get some people to the moon. There was nothing arbitrary about that. There may be somewhere in the universe another mathematics that could also have helped us to achieve that. But we can act as if that mathematics is real and as if its structure has some correspondence with the structure of what we call reality. I don't think that the postmodern thought will in the end destroy intellectual life; I think it adds something to it. If people are not carried to psychopathic extremes about it then I think we'll be alright.

MR: That sanity that you bring to these subjects I think is very much in view in Technopoly in your opening referring to Thamos and Theuth, where one character is so worried about the other's technology that even the invention of the printed word is perceived as disastrous for its effect on memory and analysis. We can become Ludites, can't we, rejecting the gifts of God, his providential oversight of technological advances because of a blind commitment to "the old ways?"
Postman: I think that would be a mistake too. I think that we have to recognize that some part of our genius is made manifest in our ability to make these machines and invent technology. And we ought not to disdain that genius. On the other hand we also know that almost anything we create will cause problems. I think what we don't need is a point of view that says, "Let's get rid of the machinery," which in any case wouldn't happen, but a point of view that says, "Let's see if we can exercise some control over it."

Dr. Neil Postman is a critic and communications theorist, and chair of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University. Among his seventeen books are Teaching as a Subversive Activity (with Charles Weing Artner), The Disappearance of Childhood, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Technopoly, and Conscientious Objections.

Friday, August 31st 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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