While I’m here at the in-laws’ house, I don’t have wireless. Thus my laptop connects to nothing in particular. Thus I write my posts, save them in Open Office format to a jump drive, carry them upstairs when the family is occupied and post.
Thus I post.
Having read Al Gore’s book and remembering the earlier books of Neil Postman, I figured that I should, as a newly free-from-comps man, try Postman’s last published book out. The book is a fitting finale to Postman’s career–it hits in review some of his better arguments, demonstrates fairly clearly the limits of his project but, displaying his customary humility, invites those who come after him to pick up where he left off and continue the project of bringing the best of the eighteenth century to bear on the twenty-first. (Perhaps this is where Al Gore got his idea.)
Having read this book now I can say that Gore stuck with the same list of intellectual influences, roughly, that Postman brings to bear on survival in the modern world. Postman remains interested throughout in the two sides of the Enlightenment, the rationalist and the Romantic, and he plays Locke and Kant against Rousseau and Shelley at every turn, finding their synthesis in the Americans Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Jefferson. Moving from questions of technology and knowledge through questions of epistemology and linguistics and finally to questions of education and childhood, Postman does not give full treatments of these facets of information-age social life (he’s already done so in Technopoly and his other books) but instead notes the seventeenth-, nineteenth-, and eighteenth-century antecedents to his own project. Succumbing, I realize fully, to the temptation to read this as a last book that knows it’s a last book, Postman’s tribute to Diderot, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes is a fitting conclusion to a conservative’s literary career.
Ultimately Postman fails to surmount certain philosophical problems, but he acknowledges his falling-short and invites his successors to continue the project, so the shortcomings are forgivable. He has a hunch that deconstructive philosophy cannot sustain thought life, but he acknowledges that he had to search far and wide and use a rather obscure social theorist to find anyone who actually writes that there is no reality beyond the linguistic. Most postmodern philosophers, he acknowledges, are just as nuanced as their Enlightenment counterparts, and although he has a hunch that they are going in directions inadequate to common life where their forebears were more adequate, he does not articulate precisely how. Likewise his distaste for certain kinds of feminism and educational practices seem to stem from a sense that something has gone awry, but he does not do much theorizing that might tell a reader the character of the error. However, as I have noted, he grants that his project is at most a starting point and a popularization for the sake of starting a conversation, and the final chapter’s invitation to continue is a humble move that I cannot help but respect.
Overall the book is a good introduction to Postman’s writing career, but his book-length treatments of education, childhood, and technology are better reads. I think that Postman would be surprised that Al Gore, sometimes a starry-eyed apostle of the digital age, would be one of those to carry on his project, but if the Enlightenment teaches us anything, it is that intellectual adulthood emerges from the strangest places.