“Then Joshua said to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.'”
God does a wonder every day, for if you’re reading this that means you woke up this morning, your heart and lungs still function, your vision is clear, and your mind can process my words. All these and more are miracles of God’s grace to us daily.
I earlier mentioned Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. This is an extract from Chapter 5, the chapter with which I shall be concerned for the most part (if this interests you, an excerpt from the foreword is also available as a link at the bottom). First, however, I would like to address briefly an issue which struck me as I read quite early on. On page 9, Postman discusses briefly the Ten Commandments and specifically the 2nd Commandment. He quotes it as “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water beneath the earth.” Fine; slightly different wording from the NASB, which is what I prefer, but he goes on to state that “Iconography thus became blasphemy…” As far as I know, God was not prohibiting the Jews from making images of natural phenomena; in the New American Standard this commandment reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above…” The problem, then, is that Postman says that God’s injunction was against making images of God Himself because the Jews were unfit to do so. Their culture, Postman says, was unfit to display in images this God, so their God had to exist through words alone. I have to disagree; though nobody could make an image of God the Father, the Second Commandment’s injunction was specifically pointed towards preventing the Jews from worshipping other gods (especially, at that time Baal), not from making inadequate images of God.
Postman generally seems against visual communication. He describes the invention of photography with dismay, particularly criticizing the suggestion of the “language of photography.” Pictures, he says, cannot speak a language. They tell a truth, capturing a moment and removing it from its context; for “…photography does not present to us an idea or concept about the world…it cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract.” (pg. 72) He says that images cannot answer the question “is it true” because “Is it true? means only, Is it a reproduction of a slice of real space-time?” (pg. 73) I have to disagree with Postman for several reasons. First, I must grant that most photos do not make statements. They are of a beautiful landscape, a pet, a friend; these images mean nothing more than pleasant memories to the photographer. However, when he suggests that an image cannot communicate an idea, what of images such as the haunting National Geographic photo taken in 1984 of Sherbat Gula? According to the National Geographic, “her face alone inspired them to aid refugees.” Can this image be so empty of context, so unrelated and remote? Or again, the images of child-slaves? Or even an image as these two zebras or this South Pacific reef? Such images speak volumes, in sentences, paragraphs and books. Postman claims that language is used to “challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view.” (pg. 73), and I say that is exactly what these photos I linked to do. More than words a photograph can inspire action, stir the intellect – especially if the validity of the photo is in question – and in fact answer such questions as “Should we work to preserve coral reefs?” Photographs make commentary strongly insofar as they provide the stimulus for discussion, the spark that ignites a person to taking action; a photograph of injustices can be more eloquent than any words. Second, Postman criticizes the way photographs “isolate images from context.” He speaks of words in phrases, claiming that an image can stand alone. I ask this: can a picture stand alone, really? Look at this cross on the Falkland Islands: its context is implicit, not explicit as a phrase’s context is. The photo could not be taken were the cross not there, had Shakleton not made his epic journey, had a glacier not carved the valley. I say that context is there, a whisper of the wind through the grass pictured, a thought brought to the image by the viewer. I cannot agree with Postman that images do not have a language. And, in the end, if an image has no context what is the harm in it?
Finally, this is not so much a disagreement as a speculation. Postman speaks out against television, not as a form of mindless entertainment, but when television presents itself as a legitimate source of information. He says that the news is sensationalism (my word), that beautiful newscasters play to their audiences, that news is “a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis” (pg 87-88). Because it doesn’t immediately effect our daily actions – he sites the uselessness of having an opinion on the Middle East conflicts – television as an information carrier harms us with trivia overload. Frankly, I have to agree. Television’s newscasters have to be slick and witty, constantly talking and amusing us. There is little time for thoughtfulness on the part of anchorpersons or viewers; we move from a war to a disaster to J Lo and Ben’s latest status at a pace that astounds me.
What I am most interested in, however, is the fact that Postman wrote this book in 1985, when television had only come into its own within the last 30 years and computer systems were in their youth. Since then computers have advanced terrifically to become a medium of even more instant news. Now I am not dependent on what the news media says is important here in the US; I can search the news in other nations, see their views, and look at more angles of an issue. Additionally, such things as our blog have come into being: public places of expression (to pick a random one). What would Postman say to this? A dynamic integration of typography and teleography, which gives a person the opportunity to interact with ideas more fully than even printed text. This is, of course, a personal choice and many people choose not to exercise this opportunity, but at least unlike with TV, you have the chance to slow down and think clearly. The only downside is that after writing a blog for an hour, your eyes start to bug out.
– KF –
28 days to my Ian