The Anthropological Perspective and Crap Detecting

…We must have instruments that telling us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by ‘crap detecting.’ It is also what John Gardener means by the ‘ever-renewing society,’ and what Kenneth Boulding means by ‘social self-consciousness.’ We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 3-4

Out of the culture and in the culture at the same time. This sounds oddly familiar.

John 17:15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

The problem comes when you don’t have the grounding that follows in John’s Gospel:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

I think the phrase ‘anthropological perspective’ is helpful. It’s a reminder that Christians are to serve, at least in some sense, as sociologists of the culture they find themselves in. Sociologists and tourists.



On Cultivating the Ability to Detect Crap

In the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required to be a ‘great writer’…

After several attempts to get a straightforward answer,

Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 2, 3

Jesus himself was quite the Crap Detector: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

He warns us,  “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues…” (Matt. 10:16-17).

In other words, always have your Crap Detector at hand. Have your eyes open to the schemes of man. Beware (be wary) of them. But, at the same time, don’t be the kind of person who makes other people’s Crap Detector go off. Be shrewd, but never look to harm anyone when you see their crap. Plus, the example of Christ means that sometimes you will have to give yourself over to be hurt by such people. And you’ll have to do it willingly. Plus plus, your detector won’t always go off. When it doesn’t, don’t assume the worst. Maybe you’ve met someone who isn’t full of it.


When you plug something into a wall, something is getting plugged into you

When you plug something into a wall, [something] is getting plugged into you.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 7

Postman was fond of saying, following McLuhan, that when you add new technology to an environment, you change the environment. Hence the big idea of media ecology. If you add an XBOX to your living room, you don’t just have your old living room plus an XBOX. You have a new living room – a new environment. Something fundamental in the environment has changed that will affect the total atmosphere/ecosystem.

The idea that when you plug something in, it gets plugged into you, is a helpful summary of this concept. When you plug your smartphone in – when you put it in your pocket – you don’t have you plus a smartphone in your pocket. You have new version of you.

This is not always bad (and Postman never claimed it was), but awareness is key. I often quote the GI Joe PSAs I grew up watching – Knowing is half the battle.

Have You No Shame?

…Without a well-developed idea of shame, childhood cannot exist.

-Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 9

I bought this book used. The person who owned it before me made a comment in the margin that the sentence I have quoted above is ‘disturbing.’ I don’t think they understood the point.

Throughout the book, Postman is making the argument that the concept of childhood is a relatively young one that began to develop in the 16th Century after the invention of the printing press. With mass amounts of printed material becoming available, Westerners decided that children needed boundaries to protect them from the flood. Before that time, he argues, children essentially lived in an adult world. They did not go to specialized schools; they didn’t live lives essentially distinct from their parents. By the age of seven, they were a part of the work-force – whatever that looked like at the time.

The sense of shame he writes of is the sense that some things are shameful, or inappropriate, for certain groups of people – children in this case. Over the centuries, it became agreed that some things simply weren’t suitable for children, and parents were entrusted with being gatekeepers of such things.

Now, especially with the internet, but even with television before it, this task is all the more difficult; and even beyond the difficulty, Postman is asserting, we are losing the sense that many things are inappropriate for children to begin with. We are losing that sense of shame – the sense that there are boundaries, the sense that parents are to discern the acceptability of content introduced to their children. That is what is disturbing.

Blogging through The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman

-Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982, 1994)

The publisher’s description:

From the vogue for nubile models to the explosion in the juvenile crime rate, this modern classic of social history and media traces the precipitous decline of childhood in America today ˆ’and the corresponding threat to the notion of adulthood.

Deftly marshaling a vast array of historical and demographic research, Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, suggests that childhood is a relatively recent invention, which came into being as the new medium of print imposed divisions between children and adults. But now these divisions are eroding under the barrage of television, which turns the adult secrets of sex and violence into popular entertainment and pitches both news and advertising at the intellectual level of ten-year-olds.

Informative, alarming, and aphorisitc, The Disappearance of Childhood is a triumph of history and prophecy.

I’ll be sharing quotes and thoughts for the next few weeks. Join me, won’t you?

The Sovereignty of Technology

The United States is the most radical society in the world. It is in the process of conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment which poses the question, Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues by submitting all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?

Neil Postman, The Conservative Outlook, from Conscientious Objections, p. 107

I don’t think Postman phrases his question perfectly. The question should probably more along the lines of ‘Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues as it submits all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?’

When posed that way, the question becomes a little more tricky. First, we have to ask the question of whether or not technology has truly become sovereign in our culture. Does technology have supreme and ultimate power? I answer yes and no.

Technology has become sovereign in the sense that we elevate its worth and often declare it to be infallible. Technology has not become sovereign in the sense that they are generally, as McLuhan said, ‘extensions of man.’ They are means through which we express our own self-conceived sovereignty, extend our reach, increase our comfortability, and impose our will and desires on others. In other words, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, they allow us to inflate ourselves and impose ourselves on others. In this sense, man is sovereign and technology is his scepter and herald.

But, again, Postman has a point. As has often been said, by Henry David Thoreau, McLuhan, and Postman himself, the danger is that we tend to become tools of our tools. And, as we do, to quote C.S. Lewis, when we turn something into a god, it will become a demon. When we make idols out of man-made things, God will give us over to our plunderers, and they will do what plunderers do: plunder (see Judges 2).

So the ultimate answer is, No, we can’t hold to traditional values as we submit our institutions to the sovereignty of technology. This has been demonstrated clearly in recent decades. But the problem is just as much with individuals as with institutions. And the problem isn’t really technology itself. Five hundred years ago all of the West’s institutions submitted to the sovereignty of the printed word on account of the newly invented technology of the printing press. Was that a bad thing? Did that ruin the culture? I guess it depends on who you ask. Haters of Martin Luther and Protestantism might think it ruined the culture. I do not count myself among them.

The problem is with our idolatrous desire to exalt gods that are no gods. Turn something into a god and it will become a demon. Technology under the lordship of Christ is technology kept in its place. But in order to keep technology under his lordship, we must be under it first.

I would also add that being a ‘conservative,’ in Postman’s thinking, means fighting to conserve tradition. That doesn’t equate to a lot of things modern ‘conservatives’ fight for. Anyhow, we must be careful that we don’t exalt ‘traditional values’ too highly either. Our culture’s traditional values are no god. They may be good or bad, and some are definitely good, but they are no god. Hence the need to constantly go back to the Word of God, which is always timely.


Serendipity is the word we use when someone who is looking for one thing discovers another, more valuable thing. It is odd that we have no word for serendipity’s close-by but troublesome cousin, especially because it is a more common variety of experience. I refer to a situation in which someone looks for one thing, discovers a more valuable thing, but doesn’t know it. I propose the word ‘columbusity,’ in honor of Christopher Columbus, who in looking for China discovered the New World but persisted in believing he hadn’t.

Neil Postman, Columbusity, from Conscientious Objections, pp. 129-130

I disagreed with this essay as much as I have ever disagreed with anything of Postman’s I’ve read. That’s fine. But the word ‘columbusity’ seems helpful to me. I am not really sure at this point why. Perhaps it simply reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s trek in Orthodoxy (and since it’s one of my favorite books…). Chesterton himself likened his pilgrimage to a boat-voyage:

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town? (from the Introduction to Orthodoxy).

Anyhow, Postman makes the point that we sometimes discover things we don’t expect, and then fail to realize that we’ve discovered them at all. It often takes me years to discover that I discovered something a few years ago.

The Commercial as Sermon within a Cultural Liturgy

Television commercials are a form of religious literature. To comment on them in a serious vein is to practice hermeneutics (p. 66).

…The majority of important television commercials take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, they put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven. They also suggest what are the roots of evil and what are the obligations of the holy (p. 67).

The sudden striking power of technological innocence is a particularly important feature of television-commercial theology, for it is a constant reminder of the congregation’s vulnerability. One must never be complacent or, worse, self-congratulatory. To attempt to live without technological sophistication is at all times dangerous, since the evidence of one’s naivete will always be painfully visible to the vigilant (p. 69).

-Neil Postman, The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar, from Conscientious Objections

Postman probably wrote this essay some time in the 80s; mass digital media wasn’t in view. Yet I think the principle he espouses still stands and could be helpful.

A while back, I read James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I didn’t blog about it at the time, because I fundamentally disagreed with one of the major premises of the book (not going there since it’s not the purpose of this blog). There were, however, things about the book that I found helpful; for instance, his parable of the shopping mall as liturgy. He premises that from an alien eye, without knowledge of American shopping rituals, the journey through the mall would appear as a religious, temple-like, experience. Much the same is the case for sporting events. I bring up this point of ‘cultural liturgies’ because it ties directly to what Postman was saying about television.

I think the idea of a commercial, whatever form it may take, as a sermon (a portion of our cultural liturgy), makes sense. Advertisements are meant to show a need, to evoke longing, and to point to where that need/longing can be met. It’s felt-need preaching. And if you don’t feel the need, you will by the end.

With that in mind, I think Postman’s paradigm is helpful. It would be an interesting study, I think, and an even better habit, to ask of commercials/advertisements the questions,

  • What concept of sin is being put forward (what am I lacking)?
  • What is the way to redemption being put forward (how can this product fill that lack)?
  • What is the vision of heaven (or the good life) being put forward (how will my life change by buying this product)?

In addition to that, Postman hints at the doctrine of sanctification – What are the obligations of the holy? How may you this product help you live a ‘set apart’ life? What does this consecrated life entail?

Two Kinds of Reading that May Keep You from Reading

Steiner believes we have now passed through the oasis and reentered the desert, with the result that we shall be left with three kinds of reading. The first is reading for distraction – which is what makes the airport book so popular. The second is reading for information…The third kind of reading is a residue of the great age of literacy, now receding rapidly under the compulsions of the Age of Information. It requires silence, patience, a ready capacity for reflection, the training to be challenged by complexity and, above all, a willingness to suspend the distractions of the world so that reader and text may become a unity of time, space, and imagination…

Against Zuckerman’s Hope, there is Steiner’s Prophecy, which he expressed with an ominous briskness: ‘What about reading in the old, archaic, private, silent sense? This may become as specialized a skill and avocation as it was in the scriptoria and libraries of the monasteries during the so-called Dark ages.’

-Neil Postman, A Muted Celebration, from Conscientious Objection, pp. 54-55

Postman’s line of thought here ties in nicely with C.S. Lewis’ conception of (what I call) literacy vs. aliteracy. The issue in our day, in modern America, is not literacy vs. illiteracy, but literacy vs. aliteracy.

Those who read for distraction and information are not necessarily fully literate. Ironically, it is those very sorts of reading (for distraction and information) that may keep us from really reading at all.

Who Provides the Metaphors? Natural Mythology

I think it justifiable to say that in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have largely come from the pens of social historians and researchers.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 15

In context, Postman is making the case that what has come to be known as ‘social science’ is really a narrative form of myth-building. This has continued on into the twenty-first century to be sure.

Where do you shelve Malcolm Gladwell? Is his work some form of ‘science?’ He deals with facts and statistics, right? Actually, he is a story teller. And he uses facts and statistics in order to support certain narratives. It’s not fiction, but it’s not really non-fiction either. Yet somehow it sells as a form of social science. What is Gladwell doing that fascinates us. I’ve read nearly half-a-dozen of his books, and I don’t think I’ve really learned anything from them. I’ve taken the narratives with me, but I don’t feel that I have a better grasp of real reality for having read him. If I want reality I’ll read Charles Dickens, or The Odyssey, or The Wind in the Willows.

This is not to say that the so-called social sciences have no value. They do. They can certainly have value. I started to say I had learned valuable things from my 15 college hours of psychology. But then I realized I actually haven’t. Bad example. It’s just bad stories for the most part. Especially Freud and Skinner. You remember the one about the kid who stopped breast feeding too early? Or about the mouse that learned to push a lever? Or about the Cat in the Hat with two Things? I’ll take Dr. Seuss. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is better than anything I got from my psychology classes. Anyhow.

Postman argues against the title ‘social science.’ He thinks it is misleading. I agree. But, of course, I think that science itself is pretty much always built on narrative. We won’t go there for the moment. The first important thing I want o note here is that he deems social science as ‘moral theology.’ I think natural mythology (or perhaps personal mythology) might be a better term.

The second important thing to note is that we have to figure out why it is that the symbols once supplied by fiction are now supplied by such down-to-earth mythologizing. We were not content that made up stories should serve as symbols of who we are; we now have to have real stories made up to form some sort of mythological narrative. Forgive the post-modernish me; I don’t have answers, just questions.

My hunch is that Postman was right in Technopoly in his point that Science speaks with the voice of a god in our culture. ‘Thus saith Science’ is the mark of infallibility. If one wants to speak authoritatively about anything, one must use the language of Science to do so. Therefore if one wants to create a convincing narrative, one must at least give the appearance that it is scientific.

Ironically, Amazon lists the Postman book I am quoting from under the categories of ‘Social Science’ and ‘Sociology’ – two of the very categories he is arguing against.