Post(modern)man, or Neil Postman as a Postmodernist

By Strate, Lance | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Post(modern)man, or Neil Postman as a Postmodernist


Strate, Lance, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


As A FORMER student of Neil Postman's, I want to acknowledge the debt that I and many others owe to him as an educator. I would add that in the fourteen years that I have known him, very little of what I have heard him say might be categorized as crazy talk or stupid talk. A good portion of it, however, has been amusing. For even in the midst of the most conscientious of objections, Neil Postman never loses his sense of playfulness. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps it is because he is the youngest of four children. Perhaps it is because he is from Brooklyn. Or maybe it has something to do with his name. After all, how many people do you know whose first and last name constitute a complete grammatical sentence (Kneel, postman!). If "naming is destiny," then his surname also may account for his interest in communication, as "Postman" summons images of messengers, messages, and media, particularly of the pre-electronic variety. Moreover, given our current era of epilogues, this age of poststructuralism, postMarxism, postfeminism, and of course, postmodernism, the name Postman seems especially timely. But whatever the relationship between the word and the thing it represents, this much is clear: His is a name that is rich in meaning, a name that invites wordplay. And it is in this spirit that I have taken his name and conflated it with the term "postmodern" in order to arrive at the title of this paper, "Post(modern)man." In doing so, I wish to suggest that we can gain some insight into Postman's perspective on media and technology by flaming it as a theory of the post-modern. I also mean to imply that those who are interested in the concept of postmodernism would benefit from a review of Postman's scholarship.

I should make it clear at this point that Neil Postman has never claimed to be a postmodernist. Rather, he has referred to himself as an Educationist, his original area of expertise (see Postman, 1961, 1979, 1988; Postman & Weingartner, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973); as a general semanticist, having served as the editor of ETC. for many years (also see Postman, 1976, 1988; Postman & Weingartner, 1966; Postman, Weingartner, & Moran, 1969); and as a Media Ecologist (see Postman, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1992; Postman, Nystrom, Strate, & Weingartner, 1987; Postman & Powers, 1992, for his scholarship on media and technology). Media Ecology, a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, is the name Postman gave to the graduate program that he founded at New York University, and the term that he has used to refer to the general perspective of McLuhan (1962, 1964) and others such as Harold Innis (1977), Eric Havelock (1963, 1976, 1978, 1982), Walter Ong (1967, 1977, 1982), Lewis Mumford (1934), and Jacques Ellul (1964, 1973, 1985). I should also make it clear that these scholars, in turn, have never claimed to be Media Ecologists, the point being that self-identification is irrelevant. Still, it should be duly noted that not only has Neil Postman never referred to himself as a postmodernist, but he never, to my knowledge, uses the term "postmodern." Nor does he use the jargon associated with postmodernism, including such terms as "decentering," "hyperreality," or "pastiche." In short, Postman does not speak postmodern. He speaks English. I would argue, however, that it is not necessary to speak postmodern in order to speak of the postmodern, and Postman's clarity could serve as a welcome corrective to the excessive use of jargon and notoriously esoteric writing that is typical of postmodernists (see, for example, Baudrillard, 1981, 1983, 1988; Jameson, 1991; Lyotard, 1984).

The difference in linguistic style is, at least in part, symptomatic of differences in intellectual background. Postman is very much a part of the Anglo-American tradition of empiricism, utilitarianism, and especially, pragmatism, particularly as manifested in the fields of education and communication; among his chief influences are John Dewey, Karl Popper, George Herbert Mead, Alfred Korzybski, I. …

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