December 2010

The Coen brothers make movie making look so effortless.
Their last films, No Country, A Serious Man and now True Grit are so strong that one wonders what other American classics might come out of their creative powers.

The film works because of its strong characters. Everyone has been directed in a way to create full, dynamic, and conflicted characters. In a year of some fine acting from young actresses (Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Carey Mulligan in An Education) I believe that Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross will likely garner an Oscar nom and could take it home. But everyone in this film is well cast and work so well in an ensemble. Jeff Daniels creates another amazingly memorable character yet again. There are few people who could create such a morally ambiguous character that is lovable, comedic, deadly, sinister, and damnable.

The film works because the story feels organic. The twists and turns feel natural and emanate from the characters and not tacked on to serve as plot devices. The little vignettes in the beginning of Mattie horse-trading and sleeping in an undertaker’s as well as the trial where we first meet Rooster all are lovely character building scenes that don’t feel like we are just ‘wasting time’ before the ‘real adventure’ starts. This is a key element of movie making: that we are given reasons to believe in and care about the characters without the movie feeling slogged down.

I laughed and cried and did both at the same time. The movie house I saw True Grit in was well packed and everyone was on the edge of their seats. It seems to me that everyone was thoroughly pleased and riveted.

One story telling device that I wondered about at first but now appreciate was the use of Mattie’s narration in the beginning. I liked it because it allowed us as an audience to know that she (if no one else) would survive. We were let off the hook of worrying about her survival to then be better freed up to enjoy “how” she got through her adventure–not “if”.

I love the moral ambiguity of much of the film.
There are plenty of examples of it in True Grit but there is an interesting sense of justice that occurs. In the first narration Mattie says in essence “justice will find you. You can’t get away with anything in this life.” and she experiences that herself: her vengeance costs her an arm and perhaps plays a part in her life of isolation and loss (never seeing Rooster again either).

Mattie herself is brought into the ambiguity in her desire for revenge and is heightened when we find that Tom Chaney is indeed ‘simple’.

What also works is that True Grit inhabits an American West that is closer to reality than many ‘Westerns’ of late that are really action films set in a fantasy West (think 3:10 to Yuma). In this way, I feel True Grit is not just a great film but reveals that the genre is definitely not dead.
(I place it among recent ‘Westerns’ The Proposition and Appaloosa and less recently Unforgiven)

Oh, and the action sequences are tense, well shot, and don’t pull you out of the experience. Note well, future directors! You don’t need shaky cam! Strong characters, situations that matter, and smart use of sound will carry you through. See also ‘No Country for Old Men’.


Its not unlike me to stare Death in the face, but usually its
in the guise of a busted condom, not a rainstorm!!

I know that God has been angry with southern California for a while now, and I definitely know that I’ve personally been tempting His wrath, but I just can’t believe the incessant raining He’s pounded down at us.

Of course, I’m no stranger to danger. I’ve been fighting off Death since the day I was born.
My doctor says I’m a “Statistical Anomaly”.

The last time I was at the doctor’s, getting some regular maintenence done,
you know: lancing, lasering, shaving, and freezing things off
when Dr. Hendt says, “Ryan, you’ve got one foot in the grave.”
And I says:
“Yeah? That’s what they said about Frankenstein and Jesus too!”
“Ryan, listen to me…”
“No, YOU listen to ME! You can’t tame a lion.”
“Sure you can. Liontamers?….At the circus?”
“……Whattabout Biggie Smalls?”
“He’s dead. What about him.”
“Right…Which is the one that’s coming back from the dead? Left Eye?”
“Right! I’m like Tupac, Dr. Hendt.”
“He died from being shot a bunch of times. Not from having the heart and colon of a 70 year old.”
“Touche, Dr. Hendt. Touche.”

But in the end, whether by earthquake or by not…I’m not scared of dying.
I’m no stranger to death.
I’ve eroticly asphyxiated myself to death 14 times,
but the light at the end of the tunnel keeps sending me back.
No prison can hold me!
Heaven won’t take me!
Hell is full!

i apologize for putting these feelings, these experiences into words
this silly thing i call Tao has swept me up and my heart whispered childish poetry
whatever it is i am trying to say is not enough

if i were to write for the rest of my life
i could not summarize
it would fall short

i am but one voice, a single finger
pointing at Luna
Io, Triton, Proteus

your heart knows much 
about Tao without any words
Tao is as natural to you as sneezing

you, the perfect expression of Tao,
are the living scripture, the embodied hymn singing
deep cries out to deep

a mother stoops to help her child loosen a knot in her sneaker
she uses a fork tine
this will take a while
she is in no rush
the child is watching and learning

not about knots but about choices of patience

love is sometimes illustrative of Tao
the more it is celebrated and chosen
the more it spills over
love is not exhausted
Tao can never cease

a child wipes the food from her aged mother’s chin

you need not make war, Arjuna
you may rest your sword, Absalom

you champions of the battlefield have not won
you victims slain and buried in unmarked graves have not lost

you need not take sides in the debate
you need only listen well and act in truth

you see the banners, they wave futilely
you hear drum and fife they play a crooked tune

you need learn war no longer
you may make salt and weave instead

you see you have been ill served by hatred and bitterness
you work from fear towards release

you find stillness
you have always been the perfect expression of Tao

planted by streams of righteousness
raising eyes and voices in joy
rooted in patience and transparency
they have no ego to protect

empty of illusions they see past categories
celebrating all living beings
drinking from the common cup
they reside in community

bearing fruit of kindness
reveling in the freedom of non-want
sharing in the song of change
they join in the dance of creation

For those who feel something is amiss with American culture or the world ‘nowadays’ there is and will remain an easy target to blame–technology.
And why not? There’s always ‘a new kid on the block’. Maybe its comic books, Nickelodeans, radio…something’s rotten in the state of Denmark and hey! what’s different around here? That new fangled beeping thing!

(My grandmother would have been mortified to know that my dad snuck his family’s radio under the covers to listen to Sky King.)

Of course technology is more than just gadgets, but there is a perennial fear that knowledge (think apple and naked people) or new technique (we’ve always prepared Thanksgiving this way. No Tofurky!) will upset the gods or cultural norms (idols in their own right).

So the late Neil Postman (1931-2003) entered the fray with Technopoly to diagnose “what’s wrong with America”.
Its too bad that he offers no sense of cure or treatment…but that’s alright in the end since the diagnosis was wrong to begin with.

After all is said and done, Technopoly represents a bogeyman created by Postman himself, and while presumably technology has evolved into a monster, his portrayal still comes out as underwhelming and certainly not convincing.

I wish I could say that Postman’s thesis was ill argued but his thesis wasn’t argued at all. It is a screed, a rant written for uncritical minds who may have enjoyed his previous work so much that they were willing to take any bait.

So what is a “technopoly”? 
Postman achieved something that every author wishes for: an awesome title that becomes catchy jargon in college sociology and media clases. Beyond that, what a technopoly is and how America is that…well is not much to write home about let alone a book. He creates a triad (what social theory would be complete without one?) of cultures in the world: tool-using, technocracy, and technopoly. 
A tool using culture is comprised of cultures whose tools “were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion…With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization (23).”
I’ll get back to that in a minute.
A technocracy is: “a society only loosely controlled by social custom and religious tradition and driven by the impulse to invent (41).”
And lastly, a technopoly (America) is a rampant hyper aggressive form of technocracy. It is a culture defined by “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology (52).”

Okay. Firstly, in tool using cultures Postman writes that the tools are just to solve urgent needs or else ‘serve’ their politics and art. As though the rest of a culture is in a vacuum aside from their artifacts, know-how, and formed by the very needs that their tools are employed to solve. Right off the bat, Postman reveals a vital flaw in his thinking. That a culture is somehow able to compartmentalize its technology to leave its religion, art, governance free and unhindered. This ‘unblemished’ culture apart from the dirty machinations of technology is opaquely referred to as ‘tradition’ and for the most part really means ‘orthodox oldtime religion’.

The religious traditions of a tool using culture as protective–saving the people from the oppression of technology. Their theology and worldview “provides order and meaning to existence, making it almost impossible for technics to subordinate people to its own needs (26).”
Yes, they’re free to worry about cholera instead.

So what were Postman’s other failings, aside from a thin and vacuous premise? Let me point out some broad problems before focusing on more specific instances of bombastic rhetoric. (All page numbers cited are from the edition in the endnote.)

Postman takes for granted that his audience will accept that America stands as the sole expression of a ‘technopoly’ in the world yet  never compares or contrasts America with any other nation. How much does Postman write on Germany? India? China? Japan? Not at all. That’s right. Perhaps Postman was thinking that his audience does not travel, does not read about other countries, does not listen to the news. It seems this could be entirely possible that he was hoping for this since he does not give his readers much credit throughout the work. What I feel Postman wanted to do was write about education policies–and that is what he should have done, for it seems his strength–and given concrete evidence as to how the U.S. education policies and structures are insufficiently preparing our youth. But, he does not do that.

Postman seems to really be giving a long and convoluted answer to why U.S. students fare so poorly when compared to other country’s youth. “We are testing them wrong!” Postman would seem to say. If one would like to critique in a thorough manner the way our youth are taught and then compared to children around the world, that would be an interesting essay indeed. Rather, Postman seems to be clinging entirely to an American exceptionalism that is mythic in scope: not only is the U.S. much more challenged than any other as a ‘technopoly’ but whose ‘story’ is a “moral light unto the world (173).” Postman provides not solid argumentation for why our youth are failing in the competitive global marketplace of ideas and knowledge, but rather provides the myth of technology as he sees it.

How did the U.S. become entrenched in this situation of ‘technopoly’? Postman gives the sense that it is a deviation from and a low esteem for tradition. Postman is nothing if not a traditionalist though throughout this book, he never states what traditions of which people groups he means. It appears from reading Postman that the U.S. has but one tradition, and may one assume that Postman means ‘white, anglo, European?” perhaps. He writes about his concern for traditions that may be lost (122) but never specifies any marginalized, colonized, or oppressed people groups that stand as examples of Technopoly’s, that is to say the U.S., destruction of cultures.  

Whatever tradition Postman is thinking of, he assumes that the majority of the U.S. television viewing audience doesn’t care for it. He writes that writers of television shows need not “consult tradition, aesthetic standards, thematic plausibility, refinements of taste, or even plain comprehensibility (136)” because TV shows are only beholden to ratings. Is Postman saying that TV viewers don’t care about tradition, beauty, themes, taste, or comprehensibility? Yes. That is what he is saying.

I wonder how Postman felt about Murphy Brown having a child without being married. Gulp!  

Postman has an interesting view on history that only charts the bogeyman of technology–it is without nuance, or qualification and plainly misses events and trends of the past for the sake of fitting his paradigm.

He writes, “[t]he thrust of a century of scholarship had the effect of making us lose confidence in our belief systems and therefore in ourselves (55).”

If Postman is trying to say that the enlightenment demystification of the world knocked Western Christendom from its ‘center of the universe’ worldview, yes, that has been a theme of the past 600 years or so. Point fingers at Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Curie, Mendel, Darwin, et al. But you’ve got nine other fingers to point with if you’re looking for causes behind humanity’s ‘questioning itself’ of late: two world wars, nuclear threat, environmental degradation and climate change…

And hey! aren’t humanism and its supposed hubris also features of the last century?

Postman failed to pay attention in his high school rhetoric class when Ms. Atherton peered over her cat’s eyes classes and intoned: “beware the nebulus we.” Postman regularly writes about ‘we’ and ‘they’ as though folks where blue shirts around town with a yellow “We” printed on the front in vinyl lettering. “Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what (58).”

Really? That’s why the Republican party almost as a matter of policy denies human caused climate change? Or evolution? That’s why many Americans currently believe the Earth is 6,000 years old? Right.

Much of his ire about technology in America is how much ‘information’ is out there. He writes (quite crudely I must add), “Technopoly is a form of cultural AIDS, which I here use as an acronym for Anti-Information Deficiency Syndrome (63).” What a useful and tasteful acronym! Then, writing as though loaded with amphetamines and disregarding a moment’s pause of consideration he writes “[t]he fact is, the are very few political, social,, and especially personal problems that arise because of insuffient information (60).”

As someone who has a loved one going through cancer right now I’ll tell you: information is pretty good. Knowing where the cancer is, the best treatment, and how much of a pain in the ass Chemo is going to be is at least some consolation. Having a liver in death’s grip is made a bit better by fewer surprises. 

How about energy crises? Creating scenarios for economic and job growth? ‘We’ get the sense that Postman begrudges expertise, professionalism, knowledge and mastery–partly because he spends nearly a whole book saying just that.

Postman writes as though from a great distance not only from technologies but from those who use them. From this distance he tries to imagine what computer-users think and sets up staw-men arguments about them. For example, he writes “writing lucid, economical, stylish prose…has nothing to do with wordprocessors. Although my students don’t believe it, it is actually possible to write well without a processor and, I should say, to write porrly with one (120).”
Whoever Postman’s students were, I think they would grimace at this belittling and obviously incorrect portrayal.

Most maddingly perhaps is that Postman writes as though he is living in a world without Feminist critiques of science and technology, notably Donna Haraway, and without Postmodernity at all. Whatever valid points Postman stumbles upon, have been made a hundred times before. Postman makes no reference to Feminist theories and major thinkers outside of Feminism who critique technology get little or no acknowledgment. Jaques Ellul appears only in the foreward and Martin Heidegger is not included at all though much of Postman could be said to be deriviative of Heidegger’s more nuanced work.

Kinsey, Freud, Milgram, and just about every scientist and social theorist have been well critiqued and raked over the coals. That is the nature of science as a process of peer review, competitive thinking and fact checking. Postman writes as though this process does not occur, but if it did, it would be a bad thing because reliance on reason and fact is dangerously idolizing technology. Hmmm.

Since the U.S. as a Technopoly is a farce, it makes sense that Postman’s weak solutions are also bereft of sense and power. He hopes that his readers will become “loving resistance fighters (182)” which turns out being described as meaningless and sad.
He writes, “By ‘loving’, I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world…(182).”
Loving means ‘remaining nationalistic’? Is a drooling sofa jockey who believes in U.S. Exceptionalism and the banner of ‘peace via militarism’ loving?

The resistance fighter is then described as basically anyone who ‘thinks critically’ and ‘takes religion and tradition seriously’. His banal and milquetoast expectations of a ‘resistance fighter’ reveal the little respect he has for people and the low bar he sets for them. 

Perhaps Postman was not only Technophobic but a misanthrope also. 

The bottom line is that Technopoly  is a wasted effort and a mishmash of ill-reasoned ranting.

Neil Postman. Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books. 1993)

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