By Sven Birkerts
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Additional info for The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry
There was perhaps a moment, I said, when the word-sound "tree" first fused meaningfully with our perception of the branched and bark-covered entity in front of us. At this point I noticed that a number of hands had gone up. One after the next they nodded and confirmed me: Yes, they knew what I was getting at. They could remember Big Bird on Sesame Street bringing them the images and names of the things in their world. Further questioning seemed to confirm it: A substantial portion of their language acquisition had been by way of television.
And the audience members, by all accounts, were delighted, not just by the spectacle, but by the lin guistic to-and-fro. They followed as the fine points were teased out, and rated perfonnances with applause and foot stomping. They were able to do this because they were trained in the written word, and were fully capable of following a sequential argumentation, however stylized. Literacy rates in colonial and postcolonial America were esti mated to be among the highest in the world. Postman contrasts this with the inanities of political debate in our time-which is no longer aimed at an actual audience, but at a video camera and recorder, and an invisible, restless consumer.
Postman makes a case for print as a superior paradigm for public discourse. He cites, for instance, the tremendous popular interest in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the late 1850's. Auditors, he relates, were required to sit still for hours at a stretch. A ninety-minute tum at the podium was common, and lengthy rebuttals were expected. What's more, the oratory itself was ornate and intricate. Sentences of Jamesian periodicity, packed with clauses and subtle reverses, combined verbal ambitiousness with a spirit of play.