Monday, November 17, 2008

Remembering Neil Postman

Live FFoto © Robert Barry Francos
Other photos from the Internet


The weekend-long symposium Creating the Future: Conscious Time-Binding for a Better Tomorrow, run by the Institute of General Semantics (GS) and the Media Ecology Association (MEA) has just ended as I start to write this, on Sunday evening, November 16.

[Neil Postman at Sacks Lodge, 1991]

After Alfred Korzybski – father of GS – the most referenced name was that of the late social critic and, I’m proud to say my professor, Dr. Neil Postman. In fact, I heard Neil – the father Media Ecology (ME) – mentioned even more than Marshall McLuhan.

When I was about to start my post-graduate studies at New York University towards a Masters in ME, a friend who had graduated with a Communications BA warned me, “He’s more conservative than you may expect.” Actually, I had no expectations; in fact, at the time I had not read any of his works. But this blog is more about the man rather than the works. Anyone can (and should) have a relationship with his books; I’m lucky enough to have had one with the person.

My classes began in September of 1990, thanks to an earned scholarship benefit plan at my place of employment at the time. A month after starting, I attended the ME Department's 35th weekend conference, held at a rustic, cold water retreat called Sacks Lodge, in Saugerties, NY. It was for the department’s Masters and Ph.D. students, alumni, professors, and special guests and speakers only (and their spouses; children were also a common site).

It was there I was first introduced to Neil Postman. Before the opening session on Friday night, he sat of to the side of the small stage in the recreation building, where the lectures and events were held. In his hands were a yellow-page lined legal pad and pen, and a cigarette aflame. He smoked often, since childhood, and his gravely voice and cough confirmed that. He sat there, deep in thought, writing his conference introduction. He always wrote longhand, and always just before the opening remarks. Neil was not a man who spoke off the cuff in a formal public format (except for Q&As).

The talks were funny, sharp, and filled with “fun facts,” such as what countries were represented at the conference, and how many attendees were from each place on the globe. He was charming, with an easy smile and intelligence. Neil looked a bit like television host Gene Rayburn, something he pointed out once in one of these introductions. When in discussions, he was also ready to challenge your beliefs, whether he agreed with you or not. He lived his core belief, that the question was usually more important than the answer (a rabbinical philosophical tradition).

During that first conference, as I didn’t yet know any of the people who would become colleagues, I took (film) pictures of all the lectures, which annoyed many people. If I were to have a Native American name, it would probably be He Who Blinds (though I try to take the pictures during the first minute only, which tends to be introductory comments). After we returned to the city and I had them developed, I turned the photos in to the Department, as I would continue to do each year. They were put on a board and posted in the Department’s office by my advisor / professor / and friend, Janet Sternberg (who was also Postman’s assistant for a while). The second year, I received an “Oh, THAT guy again” look from some. A couple of years later, Neil started introducing me to people by saying, “This is Robert; he’s the Department’s official photographer.” As Neil accepted me, so I was received by the Department. I continued to take the photos at every year's conference until they stopped holding them well after the Millennium. When the Media Ecology Association (MEA) was formed, I continued my duties with them (and still do).

On Saturday nights at these conferences, we had a "Jeopardy"-like game called the Media Ecology Bowl. There were three tables with a buzzer on each, and three chairs at each table. The right hand table was for the Masters students, the middle one for the Ph.D.s, and the left one for the alumni. He would not allow the faculty to play because he did not want to take the chance of the Department embarrassing itself, he would half joke. There were a series of questions which were both academic and common culture-based, and after every few, the participants would change. In theory, the alumni should win, the Ph.D.s come in second, and the Masters last.

One year that I was participating, the Masters students were just on fire. We were way ahead of everyone. One of the questions (which were read by Neil but never written by him) was “Which film had the line, ‘Go ahead, make my day’?” The alums buzzed before us, and said, Dirty Harry. Neil said, “Right.” I immediately said out loud, “Wrong. It was the CHARACTER Dirty Harry who said it, but it wasn’t said in the FILM Dirty Harry; it was in a sequel, Sudden Impact. I argued about it for a while, but I didn’t win, of course. He gave it to them because they were behind. A few questions later, we had to name the location which a certain person was born. We won the buzz. The second of the three names was Mel Gibson, so of course I said New York State (Peekskill). And of course, his card had Australia as the wrong answer. I argued about it, and again, I didn’t win. Either way, we wiped up both the Ph.D.s and the alumni by a large score. Postman was not pleased and it was one of the few times I saw him angry, but kept his humor. The next year, as he read the rules, he looked at me and with a big smile, said, “Anyone who argues with the judges ruling will have his team automatically disqualified.” I didn’t participate anymore, but it actually made it easier for me because not only was the pressure off, but also I could concentrate on taking the photos.

I rarely saw what my friend called Neil’s “conservative” side, but it does occasionally pop up. Once was at the conference that was held the October after 9/11. One of the speakers gave a presentation that asked for patience and negotiation, rather than responding with troop action. When she was finished, Neil, who had served in Korea, stood up and asked her, seriously this time, “How many people have to die before it’s okay to respond with troops?” The lunch that followed was definitely filled with conversations about that exchange.

Meanwhile, back in 1990, before our Bowl exchange, the first class I had was the intro class, What is Media Ecology? About mid-way through the year, Postman substituted for the class’s professor, Terence Moran (whose specialties include propaganda and Egyptology) who had to go to a black-tie dinner (Moran came to explain this to us dressed in his tux). The timing was perfect because we had just finished reading Neil’s arguably most popular work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). This gave the class the opportunity to ask the author questions directly, and we jumped at the chance. My classmates did not all agree with what he was positing in the book, but he graciously and humorously fielded our multitude of questions, and even doubts. Sometimes he would start his response with “You know, you’re crazy,” while he had a big smile on his face. No one took it personally, because it wasn’t threatening, even though we were beginning students and he was the Department Head.

Years later I was having lunch with Neil, and reminded him of that day. I told him how I was nervous about saying something stupid/crazy, and that I thought he had handled the occasional derision well. Also, I congratulated him on the publication of a recent book. He told me something that surprised me: as much as he loved getting published, it had its downside (what he might have called a "Faustian Bargain") in that once in the public eye, the author was locked into that idea. Even as the years change and ideas change – perhaps to the point of being in contrast with what was in the book – these old ideas are still ascribed. Neil said, despite the growth of ideas, it was still, "'Postman says that...' rather than 'said'" Because he had written them, he felt duty bound to defend his statements years later.

The summer of 1991, before Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) book came out, I took a weeklong summer class abroad in Israel, studying the modern communications systems there (newspapers, radio, television, etc.). It was based in Tel Aviv, and they let me bring my partner, who is also an academic. Postman was leading the class, so we both to know him a bit better. It was an amazing experience, and it was the first time either my partner or I had ever been to Israel. I would have liked to see more of the countryside, especially since with the exception of a one-day excursion to the Knesset and to the old city of Jerusalem, we were Tel Aviv locked. For those who don’t know, Tel Aviv is very similar to Miami Beach, except many adult men walk around with loaded rifles slung over their shoulders…just in case. My partner and I walked along the beach that had recently been shelled by Iraqi scud missiles, rowed on a Mediterranean tributary, and saw the market in Yaffa (once its own city, now basically an older suburb of Tel Aviv).

The place the class stayed (and held many of the lectures) was a hostel, where every breakfast consisted of a hard-boiled egg and potato, or oatmeal. The professors stayed downtown at a major hotel. Once the day got started, it was always interesting. Thanks to Postman’s visibility, we talked to many influential people, such as editors of the two major newspapers (Maariv and the Yedioth Ahronoth), radio news show producers and hosts, and even a high-ranking Minister in the parliament.

The winter term after we came back from Israel, I took a class on the newly published Technopoly, led by Postman, and ably assisted by Sternberg. I remember that the class actually didn’t impress me much at the time, but through the years, things that Neil was talking about came back, and I have had so many a-ha moments because of it.

On the last day of class, Postman gave a lecture called “How to Live Your Life,” which was both hysterically funny, and extremely pithy. These ways incorporated such things from the wise (e.g., “never work past 8 pm,” “avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life”) to the bizarre (e.g., “do not become a jogger,” “if you are a man, get married as soon as possible; if you are a woman, you need not be in a hurry,” “Do not go to live in California” – note that Neil, a world traveler, remained New York biased). At the comment to “avoid whenever possible reading anything written after 1900” (actually based on a “nugget” by scholar Christine Nystrom), a woman in the room said, “If you do that, you will discount 90 percent of the printed words of women.” Without missing a beat, Neil said, “Okay, 1920.” Remember, his last book was Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999).

When I heard that Neil was ill in 2002, like many of his other students, collegues and fans, I was concerned. The last time I saw him was at the Media Ecology Association's 5th Anniversary celebration. He was extremely frail, with an oxygen tube attached to his nose. He was kind and gracious as always, accompanied by his wife, Shelley (who has appeared at many functions since his passing, including this weekend’s symposium). He was genuinely moved by the love in that room for him. A special video that was created for Neil for this occasion is below.

When Neil Postman passed away, I took the day off from work to go to his funeral, on Wednesday, October 8, 2003, held at Parkside Chapel, Forest Hills, Queens, where he lived (he was, however, born and raised in Brooklyn). Many tears and even some sobbing went on that day. But there were also some great stories told, which brought smiles. A highlight was Postman’s son, Andrew, who read an amazing eulogy for him.

While Amusing Ourselves is Neil’s most popular, my favorite is The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), which has the oft-quoted opening line, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” For a Postman “reader” there is a collection of his articles and pieces of his longer works, Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education (1992). Unfortunately, his later works are not included here (hopefully there will be an updated reissue). There is also a good source of some of Postman's writings HERE.

Not only will Neil’s legacy live on in his works, but in the hearts of those who knew him. I am grateful to be considered in that extremely long list.

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This is a video that was produced for the Media Ecology Association's 5th Anniversary, which includes footage of Neil Postman.
Yes, that is me at 2:15

4 comments:

  1. Great post (which I found via Lance Strate's blog). Thanks for sharing. Of particular interest to me was your aside early on about Postman smoking. I didn't know he was a smoker until recently, but from what I've heard, he wasn't just someone who smoked; rather, he was a legendary smoker, cool and elegant, the sort that no longer exists anywhere anymore but in fantasies of people who subscribe to Cigar Aficionado. This has changed my mental image of him. Now, when I imagine him talking, I also imagine him gesticulating with a cigarette in his hand.

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  2. Yes, while he was a "legendary smoker" I would not want to present an image of that aspect as positive. Neil died a lingering and hard death due to emphasyma because of those long years of smoking. The last time I saw him alive, at a Media Ecology Association function, he was strapped to an oxygen tank and was extremely weak. It was not glamorous, and hardly an end I would wish on anyone. Looking elegant with a cigarette in one's hand is just not worth it. If Neil had not had such an athletic youth as a basketball player, he may not have lived as long as he had. There are too many of us who miss him to promote that kind of experience.

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  3. Just to be clear, in no way was I trying to glamorize Professor Postman's smoking, which, if you're right about it contributing to his death, is definitely not something that should be glamorized. Nor was I suggesting you were glamorizing it. It's just that, having never met Professor Postman, the sober image I have of him from his wonderful books seems at odds in some ways with the smoker par excellence he apparently was in real life. Equally interesting to me is that fact he played basketball in his youth. I actually think these seemingly insignificant facts are quite revealing.

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  4. I apologize if I made it sound like you were glamorizing it. It's just that we all miss Neil, and there is part of me that is resentful that it was something like smoking (which I've never done) took him away, as it were.

    Yes, Basketball was a huge part of Neil's life. He was on a school baseketball team in his early days (there are pictures of him playing if you look for it). In fact, as late as the '90s, during those NYU year departmental conferences, invariably Neil would be on the baseketball court "owning" much younger students with his mad skills.

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