Postman & Collins, an Academic Study: Progress in the New Millennium
By Christopher Mark Vanderwall-Brown
December 9, 2009
“Western Progress” is a misconstrued mirage, propagated by the altruistic actions of sentient beings, desiring for a superior world; without active participation by individual citizens within their respective civilizations, this “Social Progress” will falter, failing miserably in its perceived objective to better social welfare and the human condition, pushing human civilization back into the cradles of time, as it has done so often throughout history; the themes of Postman’s epic work are played out within the poem of Collins, which illustrates a future crammed, not with luminous perfections, higher ideals and a generally better life for the individual, but, instead, familiar human qualities, clothed in simply tailored human faults and draped in the illusive perception of “dependence upon the society to solve the individual crisis”.
To this end, I endeavor within this placid prose, punctuated for conciseness, to illuminate the dark recesses of the conjoined works of Neil Postman, his magnum opus, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve our Future and former United States Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, who specific work “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now” acts as a sarcastic parody and illuminating beacon into the tarnished hearts of American and Global Culture, a warning to us all that putting too much faith in “Progress” will lead to our eventual downfall, or at least, getting us hit with a good chunk of wet egg.
Neil Postman, a late professor, Paulette Goddard Chair of Media Ecology, and Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, was an inspiring American author, a media theorist and a well regarded, and might I add, amusing, critic of modern western culture. The body of Postman’s work can be found slanting a vast range of topics, including: technology, the “post-modern, epistemic relativist”, education, the media, modern political activity and arguing for a return to the ideals of 18th century Europe, to which his final work so eloquently decrees.
The purpose of his last work, seem clearly his last and best attempt at teaching citizens of America his theories on how to better society, how it actually works and what is necessary to take with us into the new millennium. How we may create a transcendental narrative for a future beyond our imagination.
“What are we to make of this? There are many possibilities. Among them are the strange and fanciful dreams that seem always to accompany the onset of a new millennium. Some believe a new age signals the Second Coming of Christ, some believe it signals the end of everything, and in between the varieties of delusion are legion. The possibility that strikes me as most plausible is more mundane. And it has happened before, with or without the coming of a new millennium. I refer to the confusion that accompanies the absence of a narrative to give organization and meaning to our world—a story of transcendence and mythic power. Nothing can be clearer than that we require a story to explain to ourselves why we are here and what our future is to be, and many other things, including where authority resides. I am not writing this book to document the loss of narrative. I have done that already, as have others in books better than mine. Besides, I have no intention of writing still another depressing book about the breakdown of the human spirit. But it may be said here that when people do not have a satisfactory narrative to generate a sense of purpose and continuity, a kind of psychic disorientation takes hold, followed by a frantic search for something to believe in or, probably worse, a resigned conclusion that there is nothing to find. The devil-believers reclaim a fragment of the great narrative of Genesis. The alien-believers ask for deliverance from green-gray creatures whose physics has overcome the speed of light. The deconstructionists keep confusion at bay by writing books in which they tell us that there is nothing to write books about. There is even one group who seeks meaning in the ingenuity of technological innovation. I refer to those who, looking ahead, see a field of wonders encapsulated in the phrase “the information superhighway.” They are information junkies, have no interest in narratives of the past, give little thought to the question of purpose. To the poet who asks, “Where is the loom to weave it all into fabric?,” they reply that none is needed. To the poet who asks, “What gods do you serve?,” they reply, “Those which make information accessible in great volume, at instantaneous speed, and in diverse forms.” Such people have no hesitation in speaking of building a bridge to the new century. But to the question “What will we carry across the bridge?” they answer, “What else but high-definition TV, virtual reality, e-mail, the Internet, cellular phones, and all the rest that digital technology has produced?”
These, then, are the hollow men Eliot spoke of. They are, in a sense, no different from the alien-and devil-believers in that they have found a story that will keep them going for a while, but not for long. And, in a way, they are no different from those academics who find temporary amusement and professional advancement in having no story at all. I am not writing my book for these people. I write for those who are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose. I include myself among such people.” (Postman 9-10)
Postman’s theory is simple; that human dependence on “progress” to solve its problems is flawed reasoning and that “progress” only occurs because of human involvement. When the “human factor” is removed, society returns once again to the past where it comes from, as it did after Rome, and likely so will again, at least as long as human beings lose their narratives and neglect the importance of being human. He calls the dependence on future generations to save the present.
The justification for this is that “Progress” is an illusion, created by a series of historical events; formed first by a perception society came to during the Enlightenment, which was a great time of social and scientific achievement. The “progress” witnessed by society, began, starting in the late 18th century, to convince society that it was on a never-ending road to improvement. By 1900, men and women spoke of a future limited only by limits of our imagination. “By the eighteenth century, the idea that history itself was moving inexorably toward a more peaceful, intelligent, and commodious life for mankind was widely held. Both David Hume and Adam Smith argued that there existed a self-generating impulse of rising expectations that must lead to a society of continuous improvement. Bernard Mandeville argued that the ‘private vices’ of envy and pride are, in fact, ‘public virtues’ in that they stimulate industry and invention, and Hume wrote that the ‘pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce roused men from their indolence,’ leading them to advances in their various enterprises.” (Postman, 28) He then continues by illustrating that while these ideas may be valid in a society of active involvement, the events of modern society are reversing the trend, and the dependence upon others to solve personal crises will eventually lead to another dark age in civilization, if not a complete reboot of the system.
Collins on the other hand is writing a poem as a letter to the future, he writes it also to his present. The persona is Collins himself, although sarcastically noted. The poem is a retort to critics who say he is like Mary Oliver, who he quotes as “I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now.” This seeming censure of his critics at first seems like a merry stroll through the park, but after further contemplation serious questions begin to arise. While it may be true that Collins does not write to the future, it is apparent that he is writing to his present and to the future in what becomes as deeply philosophic as Eliot or Frost. When he uses the metaphor to ask the future if they, “O stranger of the future!/O inconceivable being!/whatever the shape of your house,/however you scoot from place to place,/ no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear/ I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either./I bet everybody in your pub,/even the children, pushes her away.” (Collins, 89)
The discussion Collins has about this “wet dog”, is interesting as it appears to be a metaphor for the problems in society. The dog typifies the human suffering and the plagues of human experience as society futilely looks to the future for salvation. We are flawed and no matter how great we perceive ourselves, according to Collins, we possess faults. However, when Collins looks to the future he seems to do so in a warm and perky tone. Illustrating to me, that, even if the future is flawed, this is not a bad thing, as when people look back, it will be as we do into the past, some things we don’t like, but overall, we see ourselves in them. To this Collins speaks.
But how may you ask does the fallacy noted by Postman and the “wet dog” of Collins relate? If you think of some of the most popular science fiction movies of the past 40 years I think you will see the correlation. Postman warns us that our personal involvement is necessary to make change; we need a real narrative and the active involvement in government and society to bring about a better future. Collins argues that with the current attitudes, the “future will save us” mentality, society will end up in the same place it always does, brushing out wet dogs under the blanket, ignoring they are there, our problems, and when the problem comes to pet us, ask for assistance in the cold and rain, we push them away, as easy as it is, we detest wet dogs (problems). And to that Collins looks on with some sense of relish, as he knows that the arrogant ones will not make a better tomorrow, simply a different one, and even then, those of the future will look back and see our world no different than theirs, the flaws making us human.
Interestingly, the two authors give us some good advice. Specifically, when we look to the future we have two outcomes: Sameness or Improvement. Society like those dystopian futures can be terrible and different. Everyone, as it does today, will have the haves and the have nots, society will be clambered by restrictive governments, bloody wars and utter destruction. Our other possibility is the improved idea, the getting off your butt and doing something future, the Star Wars and Star Trek ideal. It may not be a perfect world, but it looks better. Postman and Collins give us this twofold theme in one, that if we propagate our future with effort, education and knowledge, a narrative for the future built upon our past and present, we can have a future, not too different from our present, but better, otherwise we may yet cast ourselves into the eternal fires of humanity’s darker side, and leave an encrusted, fiery chard hole where civilization once stood.
Collins, Billy. "To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now." Sailing alone around the room new and selected poems. New York: Random House, 2001. 89-89. Print.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.