Neil Postman

Determined to deceive  -  Then and now

September  2010                                                                          31:15

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Neil Postman: The Humanism of Media Ecology  -  June 2000

    “In the early days of our department, we were subjected to a good deal of derision, some gentle and some nasty, about our use of the phrase “media ecology.”  I think the objection was that the term was too trendy, but more than that, the term was more comfortable in biology than in social studies and ought to remain there.  But from our point of view, we had chosen the right phrase, since we wanted to make people more conscious of the fact that human beings live in two different kinds of environments.  One is the natural environment and consists of things like air, trees, rivers, and caterpillars.  The other is the media environment, which consists of language, numbers, images, holograms, and all of the other symbols, techniques, and machinery that make us what we are.

    From the beginning, we were a group of moralists. It was our idea to have an academic department that would focus its attention on the media environment, with a particular interest in understanding how and if our media ecology was making us better or worse.  Not everyone thought that this was a good idea—Marshall McLuhan, for one.  Although McLuhan had suggested that we start such a department at NYU, he did not have in mind that we ought to interest ourselves in whether or not new media, especially electronic media, would make us better or worse.  He reminded me several times of the lines in Stephen Vincent Benét’s long poem John Brown’s Body.  At the end of the poem, Benét makes reference to the Industrial Revolution and finishes with these lines:

Say neither it is blessed nor cursed.

Say only ‘It is here.’”

“A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind.”

    If you look around Cultural Farming, names like Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht should almost fall off the screen and onto your lap for reasons clearly articulated throughout.  But many other “interlocutors” have deeply influenced my work as well.  These names run a gamut from Sontag and Denzin to Baudrillard and Gramsci.  In (visual) anthropology, it’s thinkers like: Jean Rouch, David MacDougall, George Marcus.  In TV/media: James Carey, John Fiske, Robert McChesney.  In (media/art/production) education: Paulo Freire, William James, Henry Giroux, John Dewey, Robert Stam, James Elkins.  In theatre: Robert Edmond Jones, Donald Oenslager, Bel Geddes, Craig and Appia continue to top my list. 


    But increasingly, a few longtime academy “whipping posts” like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman have also been influential.  Neil was very kind and encouraging to me in the 1990’s.  Back then I knew nothing about critical-anything.  His writings were extremely accessible, clear, noble, sharp-witted.  Today, much of academia sniffs at Postman’s body of work; too quick to compartmentalize his oeuvre into a kind of convenient foil of simplistic “determinism”.  Postman deserves to be re-read, historically, in light of the enormous changes within both media and education today.  He has a lot of good, controversial things to say and remains an excellent “entry point” for autodidacts like me.

    The video below is a quick-and-easy comparative remix to honor (and

extend) the work of Neil Postman who died  5 October 2003...

click image to view video

Mixed from RIchard D. Heffner’s  Open Mind: 14 December 1985




An American

resident if Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.


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