Book Club: AOD – Ch.4 “The Typographic Mind”

Featured image credit: Photo by Miguel Henriques 

The last chapter argued that print was the main metaphor of communication for almost two hundred years. From the beginning of America, truth wore the clothing of print. Now in chapter 4 Postman seeks to describe how this metaphor of print affected our discourse.

For two centuries, America declared its intentions, expressed its ideology, designed its laws, sold its products, created its literature and addressed its deities with black squiggles on white paper. It did its talking with typography, and with that as the main feature of its symbolic environment rose to prominence in world civilization.

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Postman argues that having print as our dominant communication media had important effect:

Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strong bias toward exposition: A sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.

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Remember that Postman is arguing that how we communicate affects what we communicate. The clothes truth wears affects the places truth can go. Postman is saying that literacy and print caused the larger public to think carefully. This allowed for helpful debate and discussion over serious issues. He brings out four examples:

Example 1: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

In what was considered a shorter debate Lincoln and Douglas debated for seven hours! The language they used was complex and philosophical. It required the audience to be up to date on past and present political debates. The audience was not a bunch of stuffy academics. Men, women and children attended these events. This wasn’t a presidential debate. Lincoln and Douglas weren’t even running for the Senate at this point!
Postman cites this example because it illustrates how print influenced political discourse. The men wrote their speeches and rebuttals. These speeches were often surrounded by games and drinking, but the audience was able to process it. There was a shared metaphor of organized, logical content.

Example 2: Religious arguments

The debates over deism within the church along with the controversies of the great awakenings were argued out on paper. The sermons were written beforehand. It was the churches who established the esteemed universities of today: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Tennessee, Washington and Jefferson, Colgate, George Washington, Furman, Denison, Wake Forest, Hobart, Trinity, Kenyon, Weslyan, Emory, Depauw, Williams, Middlebury, Amherst, Oberlin and others. In other words, a preoccupation with “literacy and learning” was the foundation for religious conversation. This conversation occurred on the printed page and engaged the intellect.

Example 3: Legal arguments

The great men of law had a great concern for “undisciplined individualism.” The remedy they prescribed was a liberal education. That’s not a political philosophy. It is a reference to the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Lawyers needed to be well versed in areas outside the law because this would make them better people (and better lawyers!). While we prize expertise today, earlier Americans were familiar the legal issues and the legal language of their day. This was due to the shared metaphor of print in America.

Example 4: Advertising

Before 1900 advertising “assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical” (58). After 1900 advertising became about psychology and aesthetics. Photographs and slogans, not rational appeals, carried the day. Before advertising sought to convince, now advertising seeks to stir our feelings.

The Typographic Mind

Americans once had shared assumptions about “intelligence, truth and the nature of discourse” (60). These assumptions were formed through the shared metaphor of print. It was a “word-centered culture” as opposed to an “image-centered” one. The average citizen would not have recognized the president, but they would recognize what he wrote. There was not a lot of time for casual reading. People read with purpose with a sense of the sacred.

How people communicated affected what they communicated. The domination of print in earlier America produced a society that was literate and a conversation that was rational. This was how they communicated (and debated) truth.

Reflections

I see what Postman is talking about. In Seminary we learn the Greek and Hebrew, how to study, explain, and preach the scriptures. Theology is still argued out in academic journals and books. There is a noticeable separation between the academy and the pew. As a pastor I occupy space in both worlds. Part of my work is to keep up with the theological debates of our time. But the debates in Academic Journals are not the same ones on Facebook. Yet the theology of the seminary will make its way to the pew through the pastor. Eventually it will end up on Twitter.

As I read this chapter I thought of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. He argues that people make moral judgements based on their passions first and intellect second. Haidt is right. Today our metaphors of communication encourage us to feel more than think. For proof we only need to look at our politics, religion, law, and advertisements. What is the discourse like in these areas? Some might criticize Postman for longing for the days of yore. But Haidt himself argues that we need to train our passions and our intellects. Postman would tell us to look at the metaphors we are using. This chapter is a commentary on how print enabled us to have a shared conversation as a society. What kind of conversations are we having now?

We are left with three questions:
1) What kind of conversation do TV, Smartphones, and Social Media allow us to have?
2) Is this the conversation we need?
3) If not, how can we use our communication metaphors to have the conversation we need?

What do you think? Are we where we need to be in how we communicate? What can we do to make it better? Contact me here. Thanks for reading!