Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Since I read Neil Postman's work when I was in college, I've found his arguments largely compelling. One of those arguments is about the way that the form of media shapes the content and, likewise, the form of the media shapes us as well.

From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning.

Among these other things, literate culture engenders patience and the ability to delay gratification. While I do believe that there's something to the idea that these traits have been eroded in our culture by the shift to television and later computers for our modes of meaning-making, that's not all there is to it.

Over the past several months, I've been exploring Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions cookbook with its traditional ways of preparing food. We love the oatmeal that's soaked overnight in water and whey (actually, we use yogurt--you know: whey plus). We love the brown rice, also soaked for hours. The point here is that a lot of these traditional methods of preparing food take a lot of time: hours or days. Making bread, of course, is like that too.

Recently, our power company cut down a bunch of trees and left the cut wood laying around. I collected it and stacked it to let it dry. Firewood, of course, should generally be dried at least a year before burning it. I've heard it said that how dry the wood is even more important than the type of wood. It's said that you need to plan at least a year in advance to make sure you have the firewood you need ready when you need it.

It occurred to me that traditional ways of living, in general, force people to plan ahead and delay gratification. Our ancestors a mere 100 years ago often couldn't decide what they wanted to eat for dinner at 6 o'clock at night, because their meals took longer to prepare--no microwaves, no electric stoves, not much going out for dinner on a whim either. And it wasn't just a matter of convenience: making a living was intimately connected to the ability to plan months and years in advance. Many, many people were essentially businessmen,

Compare that to today: planning ahead is more or less optional. We go to work and make the money we need to make a living, to buy food, and for years credit has been easy to come by, so we could routinely overspend without thinking about where the shortfall would come from. We don't have to plan much at all if we don't want to, so many, many people don't. It's understandable, but aren't we diminished as a result?

I'm not saying that we're incapable of planning ahead or delaying gratification. Many of us have jobs that require us to do so to one extent or another, but when you compare the extent to which we have to exercise these faculties compared to what many of our ancestors would have had to have done, it's striking how much more exercise those faculties must have gotten in them.

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