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In the Beginning, the Word. In the End, the Image? The Cultural and Political Consequences of the Visual Mentality

In The Beginning, The Word. In The End, The Image?  The Cultural And Political Consequences Of The Visual Mentality

Historian Jean Yarbrough is hardly alone in remembering Thomas Jefferson for “his greatest rhetorical triumph,” namely, the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence,”[i] paragraphs that announced to an astonished world that the United States were ending that “subordination in which they ha[d] hitherto remained” and were “assum[ing] among the powers of the earth the equal & independent status to which the laws of Nature & of Nature’s God entitle[d] them.”[ii]  Journalist David Thomson likewise speaks for a sizable group when he suggests that Bill Clinton may well be remembered as our “most photogenic president,” a politician so photogenic that even when barraged with accusations about his personal misconduct and about his lies covering up that misconduct, he could forever “rehabilitate himself” so long as “his smile play[ed and] the camera repa[id] his love.”[iii]

In the contrast between Jefferson’s powerful language and Clinton’s charismatic smile, Americans may discern something much more than the difference between two particular politicians. We may detect a profound shift in our entire political culture, a shift away from a republican culture based on language as developed through the arts of language and rhetoric and toward a new demotic culture based on skillful manipulation of the visual image. Instances illustrating this shift abound. Consider, for example, the way political analysts praise the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850’s for “the mastery that they reflect of the strategy and tactics of argumentation.”[iv]  But when historians look at the Kennedy-Nixon debates held on television a century later, they emphasize “the difference a good make-up man would have had on the election outcome.”[v]  The rhetoric of the later debate mattered so little that only a few political scholars then or since have shared with Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin an understanding of how during the debate “Nixon stuck close to the issues raised by his opponent, rebutting them one by one.” The visual reality that impressed itself on the minds of both contemporary viewers and later historians was — as Boorstin has commented — that Nixon “suffered [from] a handicap that was serious only on television”: namely, that his inferior make-up left him “look[ing] haggard and heavy-bearded in contrast by Kennedy, who looked pert and clean-cut.”[vi]

The Republican orator Theodore Roosevelt still commands deep respect as “an effective public speaker,” one who could win public assent for his own “deeply held convictions about such things as the duties of citizenship, the role of government in a democratic society, and America’s place in the world” because he “understood the power of rhetoric” and because he deployed “rhetorical strategies . . . superbly, [drawing on] historical examples and powerful language.”[vii] But the late 20th-century Republican George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, will go down in history as a President who — despite “fractured syntax, nonsequiturs and mixed metaphors in his speech”[viii] — was politically shrewd enough to compensate for his rhetorical ineptitude by bombarding the electorate with televised images of a political opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis, riding about in an Abrams tank wearing a “too-big helmet atop his head” and looking like an “awkward . . . underage driver who c[ould] barely see over the top of the steering wheel.”[ix] Ours is truly, as political-affairs journalist Robin Givnan puts it, “the age of image.”[x]

What is perhaps even more troubling, however, is that in displacing language — the much-needed language of serious political discourse — the images that dominate our age are effecting what French philosopher Jacques Ellul has called “The Humiliation of the Word.”[xi]  Far more than a mere change in electioneering style, the replacement of substantive political rhetoric by deftly managed images—the humiliation of the word in our political life — profoundly threatens the health and well-being of our democratic culture.

A democratic regime necessarily depends on discourse, on language, to maintain its liberty. The way in which language informs and sustains liberty is masterfully explained by Ellul:

“Language is an extraordinary occurrence in which each person’s liberty is respected. I can oppose my word to the other person’s. Or I can turn a deaf ear. I remain free as I face someone who tries to define me, encircle me, or convince me . . . By its very ambiguity, which is a fundamental and essential part of it, language leaves the listener with a whole margin of freedom. As the speaker, I actually invite my listener to exercise his liberty . . . [E]very act of speech supposes either assent or rejection. In other words, of necessity, I give my listener a choice to make. A situation where there is choice is a situation where there is freedomI [also] invite [my listener] to use the gift of liberty inherent in language, just as I have . . . I invite him to start down the difficult road of self-knowledge and self-expression, of choice, self-exposure, and unveiling. Language [thus] always involves the exercise of freedom. It is never mechanical, just as it is not an object.”[xii]

In contrast, in modern manipulation of imagery, Ellul detects a profound threat to human liberty. “Sight,” Ellul insists, “locks us up . . . and obliges us to look . . . There is no way out — except by controlling and mastering the reality.”[xiii]  Unlike the liberating world of language and discourse, the world of visual images traps and ensnares its auditors. “The visual image,” Ellul remarks, “is always rigorous, imperative, and irreversible.”[xiv]  For unlike words in discourse, images do not invite viewers to make the choices of a free agent. The image reduces its viewer to a kind of cognitive bondage. The tyrannous image, Ellul complains, entraps him:  “I can never,” he says, “take my distance [from the image], act as if I were not present, or even begin to think independently of what I see.”[xv]  As an auditor of an image, Ellul finds that he has lost his autonomy. For, as he explains, “the image not only is offered to me — it assails me.”[xvi]  Because “you cannot dispute with an image,” Ellul further reasons, a person who has been “subdued by images . . . is situated in a necessary world filled with necessities. He sees what he must, learn, do, and decide. He accepts necessity at the very time he accepts images.”[xvii] It therefore follows that “the image-oriented person has lost his deep freedom.”[xviii]

But democracy loses more than freedom when image displaces word: it also loses truth. “The unique value of language,” Ellul avers, “is truth…The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.”[xix] In contrast, images deliver not conceptual assertions about what is true, but instead sensory impressions of what is real. “My sight,” Ellul remarks, “constructs a universe for me. It reveals to me a directly perceivable reality composed of colorful, harmonious images.”[xx] The visual image, Ellul elaborates, “bears witness to something ‘already there’: the object I see was there before I opened my eyes.” The reason that a reality-disclosing image enslaves the auditor becomes apparent when we realize that “the image immediately conveys to us a totality” and that we “cannot change the reality which is conveyed…except through [our] action.”[xxi]  “By virtue of the image,” Ellul remarks, “I am situated in this reality which is neither polyvalent nor polynuclear. It is ordered in such a way that it is irreversible and invariable . . . I belong, inseparably, to this observed setting. I am continually involved in it.”[xxii]

Ellul, of course, acknowledges that language can also “refer to reality,” so long as our words are merely “pragmatic, used to command an action or to describe a factual situation” or are simply informative, describing “the world of concrete objects and refers to experiences of reality.”[xxiii] On the other hand, Ellul stresses the practical value of the visual image, recognized by him as “an admirable tool for understanding reality.” The image becomes dangerous, however, when we fail “to specify its domain and understand its limits.”[xxiv] Because, as Ellul reminds us, “no image is able to convey any truth at all,” any image “becomes falsehood and illusion as soon as a person tries to see truth in it.”[xxv] And “the confusion of truth with reality” begins as soon as we forget that although the reality conveyed by an image may in a particular instance be “coherent, reliable, and inclusive,” that reality remains “insignificant” until assigned one of any of the “innumerable meanings” that language can assign, “depending on culture, learning, or the intervention of some other dimension.” Nor should it be forgotten that even when a visual image is clear, “this clarity does not imply certainty or comprehension.”[xxvi]

The limits of visual imagery have also attracted comment from cultural critic Neil Postman, who stresses the conceptual vacuity of “the vocabulary of images.”  “Unlike words and sentences, Postman remarks, “the photograph cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract . . . You can only photograph a particular fragment of the here-and-now . . . [S]uch larger abstractions as truth honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lexicon of pictures.”  Because “the words ‘true’ and ‘false’ come from the universe of language, and no other,” to ask the question “Is it true?” about a photograph is merely to inquire as to whether it is an authentic “reproduction of a real slice of space-time.”  Since a visual image by itself “makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary” it offers “no grounds for argument” and is “not refutable.”[xxvii]

As the conduit of truth, it is language — and language alone — which delivers meaning and comprehension. Language can carry us toward these desiderata because, as Ellul indicates, “language is endowed with rationality…[T]here is rationality in the very structure of what [a speaker] says.” It is the intrinsic rationality of language that “leads [us] not only to new knowledge but to a broadened and developed consciousness.”[xxviii] The road by which language leads us to new knowledge, however, is not short, straight, or easy to travel. “Discourse,” Ellul acknowledges, “implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations.” What is more, the “winding movement” of language will bring us to veritas only if “the rigors of spoken thought…find[s] its counterpart in a similar rigor in the listener. In order for the word to become truly demonstrative, a kind of asceticism and interior discipline are required. These cannot be acquired all at once.”[xxix]

Predictably enough, Ellul holds that those who would acquire the “interior discipline” necessary to follow the “winding movement” of language toward truth are better served by the spoken word than by its written counterpart. “Once it is written,” Ellul reasons, “[the word] no longer has the sting of truth it had when said by another person.” Compared to living speech, printed words are “just diluted, weaker, and no longer backed up by a person’s whole being.” Once committed to paper and ink, language thus “ceases being multicentered and flowing, evocative and mythological.”[xxx]

In arguing for the primacy of the spoken form of language, Ellul is — as he acknowledges — following a path already marked out by Socrates, who in Phaedrus criticizes written language as merely the “image” of “the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows.” As a petrified image of the real, living language of speech, writing — Socrates warns — betrays a number of serious weaknesses. For instance, written words —unlike the living speaker — cannot respond to interrogation. “If you question anything that has been [written],” Socrates explains, “it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” Thus, written words may seem “as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” Because a written text lacks a living speaker’s power to engage an interlocutor, when it is “attacked unfairly . . . it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”[xxxi]

A perhaps even more serious defect of writing emerges when Socrates recounts the story of how the mythological Egyptian monarch Thamus responded to the invention of writing. Rejecting the claim advanced by Theuth that writing would make his people “wiser” and would “improve their memory,” Thamus declares that writing will actually “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside.” The consequence, Thamus fears, is that writing will cause people to “imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.”[xxxii]

Yet another peril of writing comes to light in the analogy Socrates develops of how a careful farmer plants valuable seeds. Surely, Socrates reasons, a “sensible farmer” would never plant “seeds he cared for” in “the middle of the summer” or merely “as an amusement”; rather he would plant them at a time and in a place “when it was appropriate.”  Even so, Socrates argues, “writing [ideas] in ink, sowing them through a pen,” too often means “sow[ing] gardens of letters for the sake of amusing [one]self, storing up reminders” likely to be ignored when “others turn to different amusements, watering themselves with drinking parties and everything else that goes along with them.” Unlike the foolish writer, the wise oral “dialectician” will plant his words of wisdom only after he “chooses a proper soul” in favorable circumstances. It is only then that the oral dialectician “plants and sows within [the deliberately chosen soul] discourse accompanied by knowledge — discourse . . . which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others.” Prudent oral discourse consequently serves as the safeguard of “the seed forever immortal [that] renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be.”[xxxiii]

Modern American readers may smile at Socrates’ protest against the very form of language that allows us to know of his objections to writing. Reading psychologist Maryanne Wolf does seem justified in faulting Socrates for not seeing “the full capacities of written language,”[xxxiv] just as Postman appears to have reason to complain that Socrates is too one-sided in his analysis of writing and so “fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which . .  have been considerable.”[xxxv] Certainly, when someone like Ellul — who passionately shares Socrates’ belief in the primacy of the spoken word — chooses to publish his views in print, the reader may conclude that even he recognizes the real value of the written form of the language.

Nonetheless, Wolf insists that “it is [still] important to consider Socrates’ protests [against writing] as we grapple with the brain and its dynamic relationship to reading.” Indeed, it disturbs Wolf that while a decade ago her students typically had between five and ten poems committed to memory, today’s students know “between one and three.”  Socrates’ “seemingly archaic choices” to reject the written form of language and then to attack it for its memory-killing effects consequently inform her thoughts about a future in which students “commit even less to memory.” “What happens,” Wolf pointedly asks, “when the electricity goes out, the computer breaks, or the rocket’s systems malfunction? What is the difference in the brain’s pathways connecting language and long-term memory for our children and the children of ancient Greece?”[xxxvi] Postman, too, mollifies his criticism of Socrates by conceding that in his response to writing, Socrates offers “several sound principles from which we may learn to think with wise circumscription about a technological society.”[xxxvii]

In any case, the gap that should perhaps most concern Americans is not the one separating the tens of thousands who flocked to hear Lincoln and Douglas debate in person from those who now read political speeches in written form. No, the gap of greatest concern in our current cultural circumstances is now the gap separating those who connect themselves to current public issues through meaningful language in either the spoken or written form from those who monitor public issues almost entirely through the incessant stream of visual images in our “magic-lantern universe.” It is thus imperative that Americans ask hard questions about the displacement of all public discourse (oral and written) by images accompanied by no more words than it takes to fill a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Socrates’ fears about the loss of cultural memory and the impossibility of interrogating a written text are, in fact, even more relevant in a culture dominated not by written words but by visual imagery. Cultural amnesia and rhetorical passivity can indeed only grow more pronounced among Americans who regard visual learning as a faster and less taxing way to assess public issues. After all, as Ellul points out, “visual representation” offers the kind of “easy, efficient, quick path” to learning certain to appeal to “lazy modern people.”[xxxviii]   “Visual representation” offers the apparent possibility of “grasp[ing] a totality in a single glance, without any need to break [anything] up . . . and analyze it. Explanation and precise formulation are no longer necessary when a person has been able to grasp all at once what the issue is. It is much easier to let oneself be captivated or impressed by an image than to follow an oral demonstration.”[xxxix]  Images thus become “the royal path to modern knowledge.”[xl]

But that “royal path” may well prove a dangerous dead end for democracy. Precisely because it is slower, the circuitous path of discourse gives democracy the time essential for prudent deliberations. Political theorist Sylvaine Agacinski remarks “Any public debate . . . implies waiting periods, time lags, delays between speeches and responses. A discussion with many involves procedures, mediation, protocol, and even hierarchies.”  Agacinski’s fear is that much of the time needed for such democratic deliberation has been lost in “the rushing or the compression of time” now evident in “news broadcasts” in which “televisual representation” is governed by a relentless “economizing of time.”[xli] In the same vein, Ellul questions whether citizens can retain “an ethic that teaches us to wait and move patiently” while immersed in a “rapid flow of images,” each of which fosters a viewer demand for “Everything, right now.”  In such a media environment, Ellul asserts, “a government that says it needs two years to resolve a crisis is a doomed government.”[xlii]

Citizens who establish their orientation on public issues by viewing images rather than by studying words have lost not only their patience but also their historical heritage. Media critic Terrance Moran rightly concludes that “with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective.”[xliii] Viewing the same cultural problem, Ellul deplores the way “the present image erases the past.”[xliv] He therefore finds it entirely predictable that, as inhabitants of an image-dominated society, “we draw back and refuse to study history,” so making it impossible to develop any sense of “historical continuity and [of] significance derived from the past.”[xlv]

As it cuts us off from our historical heritage, the humiliation of the word by images also renders us vulnerable to the wiles of image technicians. For while virtually all citizens can themselves use and respond to words, images are the special property of a relatively small cadre of specialists armed with the expertise needed to manipulate and disseminate them. With good reason, Ellul warns against the encroachment of experts who have mastered the “technique [that] makes possible the explosion of images, their infinite multiplication…and the construction of a universe of images.”[xlvi] These masters of image-manipulating techniques do not offer their auditors a simple window on reality. As they orchestrate the placement of images in a newspaper, magazine, television broadcast, or internet site, these technicians select and choreograph the images the auditors will see.

In technologically mediated images, then, Ellul discerns a process of “fragmentation” and then a thoroughly artificial “recomposition,” by “some ‘magic lantern operator’ who chooses, then colors, the images [we see] in variable fashion,” so shaping “our mental panorama.”  It is this technically skilled operator who “chooses for you [what you will see]; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us.”[xlvii] It is the dubious wizardry of the magic-lantern operator that Postman similarly challenges when he blames television for delivering to its viewers a “peek-a-boo world” that is fast reducing our “culture into one vast arena for show business,” show business remarkable for its spell-binding imagery but also for its “incoherence and triviality.”[xlviii]  Such incoherence and triviality naturally envelop viewers entranced by the “ensemble of electronic techniques” continually creating an entertaining visual pastiche in which “now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again.”[xlix] Ellul indeed warns us that long exposure to the trivial and incoherent “universe of artificial images in which we are immersed” turns us into “consumers of images,” such avid consumers that we have developed “an unquenchable thirst for more and more of the images that are so dear to [us].”[l]

The pathetic intellectual state of the visual addict thirsting for more and more magic-lantern images is well described by drama critic John Simon, who writes:

“I have an image of today’s citizen trapped between a television screen and a computer screen. He or she is sitting on a revolving stool, and can only move from facing one to facing the other. The screens are really reflecting mirrors in which the luckless citizen can watch himself or herself recede and diminish into infinity. The infinity of stupidity, of course.[li]

Sadly, after we lapse into intellectual stupefication in front of image-filled electronic screens, “we need the stimulus of an image” to rouse us again, as Ellul points out. “Bare information or an article or book no longer have any effect on us.”[lii] In Ellul’s analysis, “visual reproduction’s triumph over all else” has filled us with images; thus, “[w]e are inhabited by photographs, so that our subconscious supplies us with them whenever it is stimulated.”[liii] Under the constant bombardment of technically manipulated images within our “magic lantern universe,” Western men and women have — in Ellul’s view — undergone “the greatest mutation known to humankind since the Stone Age.” “The delicate balance between seeing and hearing, word and gesture, [has been] broken,” Ellul avers, “in favor of signals and sight.” Consequently, in the Western world “people no longer hear…[and] they no longer speak; they show.”[liv]

Dominated by magic-lantern imagery, our sight-oriented culture has shown itself particularly inhospitable to the richest and most nuanced form of language: namely, poetry. Literary critics now speak frankly of poetry as an art form that is “dying, dead, or in decay.” Even those who protest that the literary obituaries are premature concede “a decline in poetry’s readership” so pronounced as to relegate poetry to a “marginal stature” with only “slender cultural relevance.”[lv]

Even the non-poetic, workaday language that remains in our universe of electronically-manipulated imagery is fast being reduced to mere captions. Ellul is not alone in seeing “the text . . . progressively retreating everywhere,” as readers increasingly turn the pages of a textbook or magazine or — more likely — scroll down a computer screen in order to “follow a sequence of images.” “The text,” Ellul laments, “is only there to fill in empty spaces and gaps, and also, to explain, if necessary what might not be clear in the images.” Consequently, whereas “images once were illustrations of a text,” now the text has been reduced to “the explanation of the images.”[lvi] It is this kind of humiliation of the word that Gilbert Sewall, head of the American Textbook Council, has in view when complaining that a typical high school text book is “dumbed down and jazzed up with lots of pictures.”[lvii] University of Chicago mathematician Paul J. Sally, Jr. complains that even in his discipline — generally regarded as one of the more intellectually rigorous — high school students are now using books that belong “on the coffee table, not in the classroom.” That is, these math students are using textbooks filled with “beautiful pictures and imprecise ideas.”[lviii] Such attractive but conceptually weak textbooks fully justify Ellul’s complaint that we have entered a cultural realm in which “the image is king” and “the word . . . is a serf, not an equal.”[lix]

Of course, textbooks — even lavishly illustrated coffee-table-book-style textbooks — are a very small part of the educational experience for many students. For today’s students increasingly rely not on books but rather on computer websites to understand their school subjects. Such websites typically do convey at least some information through written words. But Wolf nonetheless worries about the pedagogical consequences of “the Google universe of [her] children.” She fears that perhaps “the constructive component at the heart of reading [may] begin to change and potentially atrophy” as students come to depend upon “seemingly complete visual information [that] is given simultaneously, as it is in many digital presentations.” Wolf expresses concern that a surfeit of such visual information may actually weaken the “motivation to process…information . . . inferentially, analytically, and critically.” An overload of visual computer-transmitted material, she suggests, may mean that “the more time-demanding, probative, analytical, and creative aspects of comprehension [are] foreshortened.”[lx] Wolf may actually have understated the reasons for concern: investigators who have scrutinized the performance of typical public-school students speak of a “rising tide of ignorance” and of “dwindling supplies of verbal aptitude.”[lxi] Reading specialist Vic Menard goes so far as to assert that “we face a growing crisis in literacy.”[lxii]

And if the humiliation of the word in textbooks and on websites portends a crisis in education, it threatens to erode our most cherished traditions in politics as well. As extreme modern examples of the way political imagery can humiliate the word, Ellul points to the overwhelming visual power of Nazi and Communist rallies and parades. In such events, Ellul argues, “people are taken up with a purely visual spectacle in which the word has no meaning and no weight. The word only provides opportunity for another visual expression. Fists are raised, hands applaud. The spectacle is sufficient unto itself.”[lxiii]

While Americans may be grateful that we have so far been spared the worst visual excesses of the Nuremburg Rallies and the May Day Parades through Red Square, American journalists have frequently described our own Democratic and Republican National Conventions as “huge media spectacles,”[lxiv] events suitable for visual consumption, not intellectual analysis. One observer described the 2004 Democratic Convention in these words: “Flashy clothing, gaudy hats, colorful signs and rabid enthusiasm are all part of … [the] spectacle. Hats topped with Democratic donkeys; state symbols; red, white and blue confetti; vests adorned with political pins and stickers . . . Some people . . . have their shoes wrapped in red, white and blue. [One] California delegate [even] came as the Statue of Liberty.”[lxv] Nor did the 2004 Republican National Convention lack for visual excess. Producer David Nash aptly compared the event to a huge “variety show.” The Republican convention was, after all, set in colors calculated to “pop off the TV screen” and featured its own huge Jumbotron video screens programmed to “pump out 430 different images, from American flags to racing-car graphics.” Tellingly, Nash wanted to conclude the Republicans’ media spectacle by setting off fireworks during the inevitable balloon drop and was disappointed when security vetoed the idea.[lxvi]

But the visual imagery of the convention spectacle actually poses less of a threat to the political health of the American democracy than do the pseudo-events of televised news and the slick visual imagery of political advertisements. At a time when newspaper readership is falling and when the average age of remaining newspaper readers is 55 years and climbing,[lxvii] television news is ill serving the younger viewers who depend on its often-misleading visual offerings. The danger of relying on television for news about public issues is a consequence of the fact that television offers so little of the explanation, meaning, or truth that only language can deliver. As media critics Neil Postman and Steve Powers comment, “The whole problem with news on television comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of news coverage could be printed on one page of newspaper. And the world cannot be understood in one page.”[lxviii] Commentator Paul Vitello similarly regards it as a serious political problem that the American public now relies heavily on televised images for information. “When the television habit replaced the reading habit,” Vitello writes, “the civic loss was immeasurable. People who have casual regard for the importance of words are easy targets for liars.”[lxix]

Even when the politicians that television covers are not deliberate liars, the highly visual medium through which they work often renders their relationship with the electorate very superficial. Because surface appearances are, after all, the commodity that television markets, it is a medium that almost immediately disqualifies any political candidate whose visage does not offer the viewer an attractive image. Noting that we have “no photographs of Lincoln smiling,” Postman plausibly opines that the Great Emancipator “would hardly have been well suited for image politics” of the sort television fosters.[lxx] Those who have been well-suited for this kind of politics have typically been politicians heavily reliant on “the services of an image manager [able] to design the kinds of pictures that will lodge in the public’s collective head.”[lxxi]

Having secured such a manager, politicians increasingly shape their message in carefully massaged television commercials and other imagery appealing to the public visual and not verbal terms. As the scholar of rhetoric Kathleen Hall Jamieson observes, “Television has changed public discourse dramatically. Increasingly, eloquence is visual, not verbal.”[lxxii]  And visual eloquence can prove remarkably deceptive. For as Jamieson explains, because they “recogniz[e] the power of the visual image, politicians have become preoccupied with providing the lens with irresistible pictures,” often by staging the “pseudo-events [that now] abound.”[lxxiii]

The pseudo-events to which Jamieson refers are, of course, events that serve chiefly to advance the short-term interests of both a politician seeking a favorable public image and a television producer trying to fill broadcast time with a steady stream of interesting pictures. Postman understands why television producer largely ignore extended political rhetoric while seeking out countless images of politicians “visiting a hospital, welcoming a visitor from another country, [or] observing the aftermath of a train wreck.” “There is,” Postman remarks, “not much television news to be made of a congressman’s twenty-two-page position paper on the decline of education in a city. But a photo op of the congressman inspecting a decaying building is useful.”[lxxiv] In the cultural dynamics of pseudo-events, some observers limn a troubling transformation of the politician into the celebrity, that prototypically modern figure identified by Boorstin as “the human pseudo-event.”[lxxv]

The gravitational pull of celebrityhood in our image-obsessed culture is evident in the manifest willingness of 21st-century politicians to appear (note the visually-oriented verb) on entertainment-oriented television shows—and even movies![lxxvi] Perhaps it is precisely because the cultural distinction between a statesman and a celebrity has eroded in our visually-oriented culture that movie stars have enjoyed remarkable success in parlaying an acting career into electoral success. Entertainment celebrityhood has thus opened the doors to political office for a impressive list of television and movie actors — including Ben Jones, Sheila Kuehl, Fred Grandy, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and — of course — Ronald Reagan. “What was novel,” commentator Chuch Raasch remarks, “with Ronald Reagan a generation ago — a movie star as president — now not only seems ordinary, but expected.”[lxxvii]

Even political debates — public confrontations that historically have helped voters much more than staged pseudo-events to evaluate politicians’ grasp on important issues—now focus largely on the visual imagery of celebrityhood, not the rhetoric of statesmanship. As Postman has pointed out, commentators assessing a typical recent presidential debate “largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate” and instead compared “the ‘style’ of the men—how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners.”[lxxviii]

Busy polishing the visual style they will project via the electronic media and plotting out their next photo-ops, politicians devote less and less time to crafting memorable political rhetoric. Available evidence suggests that they are not even spending much time scrutinizing the texts their ghost writers hand them. Surveying representative political speeches of the late 20th century, critic Diana Schaub confronts depressing evidence that “oratory and Congress have declined in tandem” in recent decades. “The richness of earlier rhetoric,” which once made our public forums resound with speeches delivered by “men steeped in literature and history,” has disappeared, she asserts, adding wryly that “the only compensation for the decline is that as the speeches get worse, they mostly get shorter.”[lxxix] Twenty-first-century Americans can only marvel at the rhetorical powers deployed by Senator Henry Clay in the early 19th century when he took to the floor of the Senate to deliver a six-hour, 67-page speech—all tightly reasoned—on what powers the Constitution gives to the Federal government.[lxxx]

Even when the stakes are high, television has largely reduced political rhetoric to mere sound bites—whether in televised commercials or in regular television news programs. And even the sound bites have grown shorter. As broadcast journalist Andrea Mitchell acknowledges, sound bites shrunk in the late 20th century, contracting from an average length of forty-five seconds in the late Seventies to just nine seconds by the late Eighties. “It makes you wonder,” Mitchell remarks, “just what a candidate can tell a voter in nine seconds.”[lxxxi] Not much of real substance is getting through to the electorate in these very short sound bites, in the judgment of political scientist Daniel Hallin, who has asserted that “one gains a broader understanding of a candidate’s character and the logic of his or her argument in a [written] paragraph than in a ten-second paragraph.”[lxxxii]

But why would politicians — or their speech writers — write full paragraphs if they can no longer engage listeners’ sustained attention through language? Jamieson convincingly argues that Reagan’s remarkable success as the Great Communicator derived not from mastery of traditional rhetorical skills but rather from his finely honed skill in “translating words into televisual pictures.” Reagan, Jamieson concludes, won widespread public support through his “talent for synopsizing ideas in memorable pictures,” a talent manifest in his effective “selection of props to illustrate his speeches” and in his “creativity in commandeering visual experiences we share.”[lxxxiii]

Sustained and rigorous rhetoric of the traditional sort now gives a political figure little or no advantage in the fierce competition for television coverage. In that competition, what usually works best are a few “snappy one-liners,” a short list of executive “bullet points.”[lxxxiv] But as Schaub observes, “When all you have are bullet points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent.”[lxxxv] It is no wonder that, with regard to a number of important public issues, fiscal-policy analyst David Dyssegaard Kallick believes that “in the world of soundbite politics, it is all but impossible to pry open the space to have a conversation.”[lxxxvi] For those who join René Descartes in recognizing language as perhaps the most important manifestation of the powers that elevate humans above animals,[lxxxvii] Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has good reason to complain about how short, confrontational, and linguistically deficient “sound bites” are degenerating into “sound barks.”[lxxxviii]

Tragically, the humiliation of the word that has reduced political discourse to almost non-human sound bites has also eroded the far more personal and intimate conversations of home life. For while television may bring married couples or families together in a shared viewing experience, Ellul fears that those sharing this experience are so “centered on the television set .  . . [that] they are unaware of one another.” The incessant intrusion of televised imagery means, in Ellul’s opinion, that “it is no longer necessary for the members of a family to have anything at all to do with one another or even to be conscious of the fact that family relations are [now] impossible.” “It is possible,” he however adds, “for a married couple [now] to live together a long time without ever meeting each other in the resonant emptiness of television.”[lxxxix]

It is precisely the way in which television prevents family members from speaking to one another that worries author and translator Marie Winn, who regards it as deeply:

“damaging to family relationships” that television “eliminate[es] . . . opportunities to talk and converse, or to argue, to air grievances between parents and children and brothers and sisters.” Particularly at a time when Americans are witnessing “the splintering of the multiple-set family,” Winn identifies television as one of a number of potent cultural influences responsible for “the decline of family life in America,” a decline causing “family ties [to] grow weaker and vaguer.”[xc]

As a force weakening family ties, the ubiquitous electronic images of television are thus implicated in the numerous divorces and out-of-wedlock births that have separated husband from wife, parent from child. Nor has television imagery damaged family just by preventing much-needed conversations between family members. The imagery of television has also undermined the family through the loss in recent decades of the moral ideals that traditionally sustained marriage and family life. As media critic Peter Suderman avers, long gone are the days when the intact families depicted on television reminded viewers of the virtues of “clean living and hard work.” What viewers now see on television are fictive households reflecting “the vulgarity of suburbia… amidst the ruins of the American family.”[xci]

Thus television has stopped delivering intact and largely harmonious families — such as the Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver and the Andersons of Father Knows Best — and instead has begun bombarding viewers with images of contentious households, such as the Bundys of Married With Children or images of incomplete families, such as Murphy Brown, the deliberately single mother and career woman at center stage in the television show named for her. In this transition — accompanied by the multiplication of television shows focusing on singles freed from all family ties (e.g., Sex in the City and Friends) — critic Armstrong Williams discerns the end of “the innocent, genial reflections of family life that defined television’s infancy” and the consequent rise of “increasing cynicism toward the family unit,” a cynicism evident in three trends: “the glorification of promiscuity, negative portrayals of marriage, and promot[ion] of child bearing outside marriage.”  Williams interprets this generally “dark depiction of family” as “just another attempt [by television producers] to find material that is so appalling that it can still shock an audience into watching.”[xcii]

Appalling but irresistible televised images of family disintegration and dysfunction may indeed be taken as a special case of the broader cultural phenomenon Boorstin diagnoses as a rise of “image-thinking” as a replacement for “thinking in ideals.” Because “images now displace ideals,” Boorstin believes that Americans have come “to distrust the very concept of an ideal” and have therefore grown increasingly suspicious of “any standard of perfection toward which all people could strive.”[xciii] Observers familiar with the work of Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin may see in the way all moral ideals have leached out of television depictions of family life a complete turn away from Sorokin calls “the Ideational mentality” and toward the “Sensate mentality,” which Sorokin also revealingly refers to as the “Visual mentality.”

Sorokin attributes to the Ideational mentality the capacity to for “contemplation of the superempirical,” the power to approach “the world of Being[, which] is unchangeable . . . like Plato’s Idea or the believer’s God, or the philosopher’s Ultimate Reality.” In contrast, Sorokin regards the Visual or Sensate mentality as a perspective given over to “the sensory-perceptual, or empirical aspect of reality,” capturing “incessantly changing, oscillating, vibrating, flowing” phenomena in such a way that “everything must look in the picture . . . as it appears to our eyes.” Those working from the Visual or Sensate perspective, Sorokin reasons, do “not need any mind, intellect, [or] thought.” All they need is “a sharp eye (or other organ of sense) and a good co-ordination of the ‘receptors’ of the nervous system . . . so that the visual impression may be fixed as accurately as possible.”[xciv]

The aptness of taking 21st-century television images of family life as a reflection of what Sorokin termed “the Sensate or Visual mentality” becomes particularly evident when Sorokin explicitly implicates Sensate values in the erosion of “the family as a sacred union of husband and wife, of parents and children.” Writing in the mid-20th century, Sorokin presciently anticipates a future of social dissolution in which “divorces and separations . . . increase until any profound difference between socially sanctioned marriages and illicit sex relationships disappears” and in which “the main sociocultural functions of the family . . . decrease until the family becomes a mere incidental cohabitation of male and female while the home . . . become[s] a mere overnight parking place mainly for sex-relationship.”[xcv]

Commentators such as sociologist Judith Stacey see little reason for public concern in the changes in family life outlined by Sorokin, changes linked to the “Visual mentality” insistently manifest in television and other forms of electronic entertainment. Sharply rejecting Sorokin’s view of the family, Stacey bids “good riddance to the family,” hailing its demise as emancipatory for individual Americans, especially women.[xcvi]  Princeton legal scholar Robert P. George sees more clearly. “Governments,” George argues, “rely on families to produce something that governments need — but, on their own, they could not possibly produce: upright, decent people who make honest, law-abiding, public-spirited citizens. And marriage is the indispensable foundation of the family.”[xcvii] Because only the family can serve as what Cicero called “the seedbed of the state,” family disintegration inevitably translates into epidemic lawlessness and atrophied civic impulses. Thus while public officials struggle with juvenile delinquency, gang violence, illicit drug use, and tax fraud, they must do so in a society in which ever fewer citizens volunteer for service in the Red Cross, PTA, and other public organizations and ever fewer even attend public meetings or vote.[xcviii]

As he surveys the baleful cultural consequences of a disintegrating “Visual mentality,” Sorokin discerns a strong linkage between family failure and political disorder. He consequently warns that the same crackup of the Visual mentality responsible for family fission will, over time, cause “governments [to] become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical” and to grow “increasingly shortlived, unstable and subject to overthrow.” Sorokin envisions a brutally ugly final dissolution of the Visual mentality: “Bellum omnium contra omnes — man against man, class, nation, creed and race against class, nation, creed and race — will raise its head.”[xcix]

A threat to both family life and political health, one particularly pathological form of language-impoverished visual mentality — namely, the production and consumption of pornography—is now ravaging our national culture. With a gross annual income estimated at between $10 and $20 billion, the pornography industry is pumping an alarming number of sensational images into our national culture.[c] That the language-displacing imagery of pornography destroys family life by weakening and corroding husband-wife intimacy and communication is widely recognized.[ci]  Less understood are the deleterious effects of pornography in displacing the political discourse essential to the well-being of the broader community. Some measure of that destructive displacement may be inferred from reports from labor organizers that “the most difficult part” of their job is now “getting the workers off Web porn and into the union.”[cii]

The astonishing economic and cultural power of pornographers makes it all the harder to heal our visually-dominated and rhetorically-deprived society. Prominent commentator Lewis Lapham rightly identifies “the sellers of sexual fantasy” as natural allies of the “ringmasters of the national media circus” in opposing any cultural reform that would rouse the general public out of an intellectual lassitude in which it “asks for little else except the comfort of being constantly amused.”[ciii] The nearly hegemonic power of these merchants of Visual images therefore probably foredoomed the attempt in 2001 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to wean the younger generation away from its excessive consumption of electronic amusements.

Alarmed that the average American child was watching nearly three hours of television day and was spending a total of six hours and thirty-two minutes per day with various electronic media, the AAP judged it part of its professional responsibility to caution parents against letting children under the age of two to watch any television and against letting older children watch more than “one or two hours of quality programming.” The AAP further urged parents of young children to engage their offspring in “interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” Parents of older children, the AAP explained, should replace excessive television with “alternative entertainment…including reading.”[civ]

Predictably enough, however, the AAP’s cultural prescription received relatively little attention outside the print media. Sheer self-interest — as Vitello has remarked — makes television producers extremely loathe to give much attention to any group trying to teach Americans how to turn off their sets.[cv] Consequently, the AAP’s salutary message went mostly to those who least needed it — that is, to those who could read it. Two years after the AAP issued its recommendation that parents reduce children’s exposure to television and other electronic media, print journalists could adduce little evidence that that recommendation had had any measureable effect.[cvi]

But the difficulty confronting the AAP and other foes of Visual mentality is not simply that the masters of the magic-lantern universe will not give them any attention. That difficulty is also that those who have publicly humiliated the word in American cultural life have also damaged the institution essential to restoring dignity to the word by overthrowing the tyranny of the image. That institution is the family. Manard underscores the virtual impossibility of overthrowing the tyranny of electronic imagery when he points to changes in “our American family culture” that have ruptured old patterns in which “parents or older siblings took time to teach pre-school children their ABC’s . . . [so that at] early age, children were taught the value of books and reading.”  Instead, what Americans now see is “more single and two-parent working families with an apparently higher reliance on media for pre-school literacy conditioning.”[cvii]

A home in which parents and older siblings no longer read to and with younger members of the family is a home that looks suspiciously like the “mere overnight parking place” of Sorokin’s fears. Sorokin indeed voices very dark fears about the fate of a world in which the family life fades as the Visual mentality triumphs. “A fiery ordeal of catastrophe” seems likely to Sorokin, as he ponders the “tragedy, suffering, and crucifixion” that will probably attend the collapse of Sensate or Visual values.[cviii] But if Sorokin’s fears for the future are dark, still his hopes for that future are luminous. For he anticipates the appearance of “new Saint Pauls, Saint Augustines, and great religious and ethical leaders,” new cultural leaders able to lead society beyond the ruins of the failed Sensate or Visual mentality toward “the magnificent peaks of the new Ideational or idealistic culture.”[cix] The great religious and ethical leaders for whom Sorokin is waiting can only be far-sighted individuals who understand, with Ellul, that “anyone wishing to save humanity . . . must first of all save the word.”[cx] They must therefore be individuals willing to accept Ellul’s summons to “the adventure of freedom that begins with the freedom of the word, which requires a great effort and an enormous commitment,” an adventure that promises to create “an opening for the word that is decisive for individuals and society.”[cxi]

When new Saint Pauls and Saint Augustines finally do create a decisive opening for the word, they must teach society lessons that Ellul identifies as critical to cultural health. That is, they will need to teach society how “to criticize the image” and how to effect “the difficult eviction of images from the domain of truth.”[cxii] More importantly, these cultural leaders will need to “give poetry back its authenticity” as they again make language an awe-inspiring gift that turns us “inevitably back to mystery.”[cxiii] Such cultural leaders face unprecedented challenges in healing a society sickened by a surfeit of electronically mediated images. But to surmount these challenges, the new Saint Pauls and Saint Augustines of the 21st century must resemble their ancient forerunners in some ways.

In the first place, they must — as Sorokin apparently realizes — draw upon and inspire religious faith. Some Americans regard “the rule of secular law” as an essential safeguard of democracy, and they therefore worry about “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”[cxiv] However, our democracy’s best hopes for resolving the political and cultural pathologies caused by a triumphant Visual mentality would appear to depend upon religious leaders. As worshippers of “an invisible God” (Col. 1:15), such leaders can, after all, recognize and combat an obsession with images that verges upon idolatry, even if the idols are now graven electronically (cf. Exod. 20:4).[cxv]

Even more important, because religious leaders reverence language as a divine gift, they share with critic George Steiner the conviction that “any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.”[cxvi] They understand their own religious calling “to preach the word . . . in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) as a ministry requiring the cultivation of language. Unlike mere ad-writers or journalists, who grind out their words merely to serve commercial and pragmatic purposes, religious leaders regard it as a sacred duty to make their “speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4: 6). Unlike post-modern secular elites who cannot see language as superior to images in its power to convey truth because they regard truth itself as something “relative, vacuous or not worth pursuing,”[cxvii] religious leaders speak with voices of conviction, determined to “speak the truth” (I Tim. 2:7). Though much of our visually-glutted democratic culture now appears effete and decadent,[cxviii] religious leaders appear especially capable of using language to cultural renewal. For they know — and can remind all of us — that “in the beginning was the Word . . .”  (John 1:1).



[i] Jean M. Yarbrough, review of Thomas Jefferson and the Rhetoric of Virtue by James L. Golden and Alan L. Golden Journal of American History 90(2003): 624.

[ii] Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), The National Archives Experience 27 Sep. 2007 <>.

[iii] David Thomson, “Film Studies: Say Cheese, Bill!  You’re the Most Photogenic President Yet,” The Independent 24 Jan. 1999: 4.

[iv] David Zarefsky qtd. in Wayne C. Temple,  review of Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate, by David Zarefsky, The Journal of American History 78(1992): 1453.

[v] Richard Maidment,  review of The Past and Future of Presidential Debate,  by Austin Ranney,  International Affairs 56(1980): 760.

[vi] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage, 1992), 42-43.

[vii] Fred Smoller, review of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of Militant Decency,  by Robert V. Friedenberg, and Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance,  by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 521(1992): 203-204.

[viii] David Kaplan, “The Speech Thing,” Houston Post 89 Jun. 1992: D1.

[ix] Robin Givnan, “Candidates Should Be Wary of Being Photographed in Unmanly Attire,” Tulsa World 1 Aug. 2004: D4.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, trans. Joyce Main Hanks (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1985), 155.

[xii] Ibid., 23-24.

[xiii] Ibid., 12.

[xiv] Ibid., 8-9.

[xv] Ibid., 10.

[xvi] Ibid., 121.

[xvii] Ibid., 213, 220.

[xviii] Ibid., 221.

[xix] Ibid., 22-23.

[xx] Ibid., 6.

[xxi] Ibid., 36, 9.

[xxii] Ibid., 9-10.

[xxiii] Ibid., 27-28.

[xxiv]  Ibid., 31.

[xxv] Ibid., 30-31.

[xxvi] Ibid., 8.

[xxvii] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Baltimore: Penguin, 2005), 72-73.

[xxviii] Ellul, Humiliation, 36.

[xxix] Ibid., 133.

[xxx] Ibid., 45, 46.

[xxxi] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 275e-276a.

[xxxii] Ibid., 275a-b.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 276b-277a.

[xxxiv] Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harpercollins, 2007), 78.

[xxxv] Neil Postman, Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 4-5.

[xxxvi] Wolf, Proust and the Squid, 75, 78.

[xxxvii] Postman, Technopoly, 4.

[xxxviii] Ellul, Humiliation, 133.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid., 134.

[xli] Sylvaine Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, trans. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 168-170.

[xlii] Ellul, Humiliation , 206-208.

[xliii] Moran cited in Postman, Amusing, op. cit., 137.

[xliv] Ellul, Humiliation, 208.

[xlv] Ibid., 159.

[xlvi] Ibid., 148.

[xlvii] Ibid., 116, 141.

[xlviii] Postman, Amusing, 79-80.

[xlix] Ibid., 77.

[l] Ellul, Humiliation, 144, 206-208.

[li] John Simon, Introd., Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996),  54.

[lii] Ellul, Humiliation, 211, emphasis added.

[liii] Ibid., 210, emphasis added.

[liv] Ibid., 204, 221.

[lv] Blake, David. “Who Done It?”  Rev. of After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America by Vernon Shirley. Kenyon Review 18.2 (1996): 170-175.

[lvi] Ibid., 116-117.

[lvii] Gilbert cited in John Leo, “History as Seen Through the Eyes of the Balkanizer,” Seattle Times 22 Mar. 1994: B4.

[lviii] Sally quoted in George Archibald, “Educators Say Harder Math Classes Are Needed,” Washington Times 19 Jan. 2003: A4.

[lix] Ellul, Humiliation, 218.

[lx] Wolf, Proust and the Squid, 16.

[lxi] Lewis Lapham, “Notebook: School Bells,” Harper’s Aug. 2000: 7-10.

[lxii] Vic Menard, “We Face a Growing Crisis in Literacy,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times 5 Dec. 2007: A15.

[lxiii] Ellul, Humiliation, 126.

[lxiv] Cf. Elisabeth Hickey, “Media Flock to Part as TV Cuts Back Time,” Washington Times 12 Jul. 1992: A20.

[lxv] Paul Leavitt, “The Faithful Contribute to the Spectacle; The Democratic National Convention,” USA Today 29 Jul. 2004: A8.

[lxvi] Paul Farhi, “Whether It’s Rockettes or Republicans, Producer Stays One Step Ahead,” The Washington Post 31 Aug. 2004: A7.

[lxvii] Cf. Dale McFeatters, “Extra! Extra! Papers Are Doomed!” Daily Breeze  15 Oct. 2005: A19.

[lxviii] Neil Postman and Steve Powers, How to Watch the News (Baltimore: Penguin, 1992), 104.

[lxix] Paul Vitello, “It’s An Idiot Box After All,” Newsday 22 Apr. 2004: A8.

[lxx] Postman, Amusing, 135-136.

[lxxi] Ibid., 130.

[lxxii] Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 44.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 60.

[lxxiv] Postman and Powers, How to Watch, 81.

[lxxv] Boorstin, The Image, 57; cf. Postman, Amusing, 132-133.

[lxxvi] Cf. Susan Milligan, “TV Show Puts Lawmakers on Comedic Hot Seat,” Boston Globe 27 Mar. 2006: A2; Sean P. Means, “Hatch Jams Himself in His U-Turn on ‘Traffic,’” Salt Lake Tribune 4 Feb. 2001: D3.

[lxxvii] Chuck Raasch, “Entertainers Blur Line Between Celebrity, Politics,” USA Today 30 Aug. 2004. 5 Dec. 2007 <–08-30-celebrity-politics_x.htm>.

[lxxviii] Postman, Amusing, 97.

[lxxix] Diana Schaub, “The Greatness and Decline of American Oratory,” reviewed of American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War, ed. Ted Widmer, and American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, ed. Ted Widmer, Claremont Review of Books Summer 2007: 27.

[lxxx] Ibid.

[lxxxi] Mitchell qtd. in Postman and Powers, How to Watch, 82.

[lxxxii] Hallin cited in Postman and Powers, How to Watch, 83.

[lxxxiii] Jamieson, Eloquence in an Electronic Age, 119.

[lxxxiv] Cf. Postman and Powers, How to Watch, 82; Schaub, op. cit., 27.

[lxxxv] Schaub, The Greatness, 27.

[lxxxvi] David Dyssegaard Kallick, “A Post-liberal Approach to Welfare,” Social Policy 25.3(1995): 2-3.

[lxxxvii] Cf. Bryce Christensen, “Noam Chomsky vs. B.F. Skinner: Cartesians in Collision.” Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Symposium of the Deseret Language and Linguistic Society. 27-28 March 1980. Provo: Brigham Young University, 1980. 40-49.

[lxxxviii] Nader qtd. in Beth White, “Nader Drops One-Liners on Gore, Bush Camps,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 Jul. 2000: A8.

[lxxxix] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage, 1967), 378, emphasis added.

[xc] Marie Winn, “Television: The Plug-In Drug,” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, ed. Samuel Cohen, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 457-466.

[xci] Peter Suderman, “Family Ties,” National Review 25 June 2007: 49-50.

[xcii] Armstrong Williams, “The Media’s Depiction of Family,” New York Amsterdam News 11 Feb. 1999: 8.

[xciii] Boorstin, The Image, 197-201.

[xciv] Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937; rpt. New York: Bedminster, 1962), I: 247-249.

[xcv] Ibid., 4: 776.

[xcvi] Cf., e.g., Judith Stacey, “Good Riddance to the Family: A Response to David Popenoe,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 (1993): 545-546.

[xcvii] Robert P. George, “Law and Moral Purpose,” First Things Jan. 2008: 25.

[xcviii] Cf. Bryce Christensen, Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006), 112-122.

[xcix] Sorokin, Social, 776.

[c] Jason Byassee, “Not Your Father’s Pornography,” First Things January 2008: 15.

[ci] Cf. Jennifer P. Schneider, “Effects of Cybersex Addiction on the Family: Results of a Survey,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 7(2000): 31-58.

[cii] Byassee, Not Your Father’s, 16.

[ciii] Lapham, Notebook, 8-9.

[civ] American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education, “Children, Adolescents, and Television,” Pediatrics 107(2001): 423-426.

[cv] Vitello, It’s an Idiot Box.

[cvi] “Toddler TV; There’s Little Proof that TV, Computers Help Babies Learn,” The Press Democrat 2 Nov. 2003: G2.

[cvii] Menard, We Face.

[cviii] Sorokin, Social, 4: 778.

[cix] Ibid., 4: 778-779.

[cx] Ellul, Humiliation, 254.

[cxi] Ibid., 266.

[cxii] Ibid., 34, 256.

[cxiii] Ibid., 197, 25.

[cxiv] Cf. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 337-338, 361.

[cxv] Cf. Ellul, Humiliation, 86-92.

[cxvi] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 3.

[cxvii] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Truth: A History (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 7.

[cxviii] Cf. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 780-781.


This excerpt is from Technology, Science, and Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Southern Utah University Press, 2008).

Bryce ChristensenBryce Christensen

Bryce Christensen

Bryce Christensen is a Professor of English at Southern Utah University. He is the author of the non-fiction books Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius, 1990) and Divided We Fall (Transaction, 2006); the novel Winning (Whiskey Creek, 2007); and The Portals of Sheol’ and Other Poems (White Violet, 2012).

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