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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.